AUGUSTA — After nearly two months, Capitol Park is now unoccupied.

Occupy Augusta activists, some of whom had been staying in the park since Oct. 15 as part of the national Occupy movement, started packing up their encampment Thursday after a federal court ruling gave authorities the backing to evict them if they didn’t apply for a permit and stop staying overnight.

Authorities told the activists to remove any trace of their presence from the park by noon today.

Federal District Court Judge Nancy Torresen ruled Wednesday night that while the Occupy Augusta “tent city” was protected by the First Amendment, the state was acting within its rights to place reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of the protest by requiring the occupiers to get a permit, and banning camping in the park, which is owned and managed by the state.

Occupy Augusta participants said Thursday they would not apply for a permit and would instead break down the camp and leave.

Despite their failed bid to halt the state’s eviction efforts, the movement participants said they felt Occupy Augusta accomplished a lot.

“It was hugely successful,” said Jim Freeman, of Verona Island, one of the original participants in Occupy Augusta and one of the plaintiffs in the federal court case. “The reason they’re shutting down the camps nationally is we made the banks, the 1 percent, very nervous. The public support has been tremendous.”

Week of setbacks

Even so, it’s been a week of setbacks for the Occupy movement. Torresen’s ruling followed one in Massachusetts, where a judge rejected a request by Occupy Boston protesters for an injunction barring the city from removing them from their encampment. On Wednesday night, the Portland City Council rejected a request for a permit that would have allowed an Occupy Maine encampment to legally stay in the city’s Lincoln Park.

Attorney Lynne Williams, who filed the injunction attempting to prevent the state from evicting Occupy Augusta, said she would talk with Occupy participants to consider whether to appeal the federal court decision. Williams said she would also talk with the lawyer who worked on behalf of the Occupy Boston encampment.

“In many ways it was a long shot,” Williams said of her motion for an injunction against the state. “On the bright side, there does seem to be almost universal recognition that things like tent cities are expressive thought. Once that is agreed upon, the issue becomes whether it is a valid time, place and manner restriction.”

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said Thursday that state officials were pleased with Torresen’s decision.

He said occupiers were asked to make significant progress in dismantling their campsite, which Torresen described as comprising 0.75 acres of the approximately 20-acre Capitol Park. McCausland said the activists were asked to be completely gone by noon today, “and to hopefully return Capitol Park to the way it was prior to their encampment starting.”

“We expect and hope they will comply with the federal judge’s ruling,” McCausland said.

Packing up

Occupiers were doing just that on Thursday as they loaded up pallets they’d used for flooring and other materials into trucks.

A message written in large letters on one of the remaining tents in the park — “Don’t you care about freedom?” — appeared to express dissatisfaction with the court decision.

Moss Stancampiano, who has occupied the park for about a month and was helping break the camp down Thursday, confirmed that the group would not seek a permit.

“Getting a permit would label us an event,” he said. “We’re not an event. We’re not a rock show — that’s now what we’re doing. This is a movement. This is a protest. You don’t get a permit for civil disobedience.”

Gauvin, in an affidavit filed as part of the federal court case, said it would cost thousands of dollars to repair the turf in the section of the park where the occupiers camped. McCausland said the state, while asking the occupiers to leave the park in the condition it was in before their encampment, understood there is not much that can be done in December to restore grass.

In the court case, Williams argued that the physical occupation of public spaces was a core element of the occupy message, symbolizing an occupation that “challenges corporations’ permanent occupation of the government,” and the tent city represented an expression of hope for a more just society.

Torresen agreed the tent city could be considered expressive conduct and thus subject to First Amendment protections. However, she said the state’s permit requirements and ban on overnight camping were reasonable restrictions on the time, place and manner of speech.

She said Gauvin properly applied those requirements without regard to the content of the protest. And she said the state had a significant interest in preserving the park, preventing dangerous use and coordinating multiple uses of the park.

“Allowing the plaintiffs to continue indefinitely to occupy the park would ultimately tend to suppress, rather than promote, the free exchange of ideas,” Torresen wrote in her decision. “As a traditional public forum, Capitol Park should be available to all comers to communicate their ideas, not just Occupy Augusta.”

Williams said the Occupy movement has changed the national conversation from focusing on the federal deficit to also include discussion of issues such as student loan burdens, foreclosures, the economy and other important issues working people are facing.

He said participants in the movement would continue to be active, demonstrating at events, educating young people and being active when the state legislative session starts Jan. 4.

Lew Kingsbury, of Pittston, a supporter of Occupy Augusta, said as he loaded pallets into his truck that the Occupy movement has had a positive impact, prompting increased discussion across the country about the disproportionate political influence of the country’s wealthiest 1 percent.

Kingsbury, who said he is a farmer and not a professional protester, said President Barack Obama seems to now be echoing some messages similar to those advocated by Occupiers.

“We’ll see if he means it,” Kingsbury said.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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