WASHINGTON -- Occupy Dallas protesters have been camping on a swath of downtown land since Oct. 7. The spot, known as Pioneer Park, has come to resemble a mini-city with tents, food service, a "fire watch team" and a fully stocked medical unit. The protesters also boast a library, a music tent, an arts area and, for a few hours a day, childcare services. They have almost everything a large group needs.
Everything except toilets.
Late at night, Occupy members have to walk as much as a half-mile to find the nearest public restroom that's open. Dallas activists thought the problem needed immediate redress. So they applied for a permit for the occupation, which, the thinking went, would allow them to set up portable toilets.
These quickly became very, very expensive toilets. Dallas city officials argued that the permit requires $1 million in commercial general liability insurance coverage. City spokesman Frank Librio released a statement saying the city would not back down from its demand: "The City had an agreement with Occupy Dallas to remain on the public property provided standard insurance coverage was obtained. The group did not meet the insurance requirements per the agreement. Therefore, the agreement is no longer applicable. The City will begin enforcing local laws (for example: park curfews and sleeping in public)." The mayor's office refused comment to HuffPost.
Michael Prestonise, a 26-year-old freelance web designer and protester, said that the argument still comes down to toilets. "This is all about sanitation and health and safety of our members," he said. "I think the more real threat is our people having to walk through the streets at 3, 4 a.m. just to find a public restroom."
Other occupation sites have faced similar scrutiny from civic minders. The activists at New York's Zuccotti Park are facing possible eviction over cleaning.
The fight over the Dallas permit has led to the threat of eviction, arrests, and a court case. On Wednesday, lawyers for Occupy Dallas filed a civil complaint and a motion for a temporary restraining order and/or preliminary injunction in federal court in an effort to stave off eviction. The complaint states:
Plaintiffs' actions involve a matter of political, social, or other concern and are constitutionally protected under the First Amendment. Furthermore, plaintiffs' interest in their actions outweighs any interest of the City of Dallas in promoting the efficient operation and administration of government services.
The lawyers argued in the complaint that the insurance requirement applies only to "special events" that could bring 5,000 or more participants. Occupy Dallas has about 130 people camping out. The complaint goes to say that organizers contacted the city's recommended insurance agent, who turned them away.
Occupy Dallas adds that the land on which protesters are camping is not city property. "There should be no permit," Cameron Gray, an Occupy lawyer, told HuffPost. "They should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights."
Negotiations with the city have stalled, Gray said. "We're in a holding pattern."
Both parties will be making their case before a judge on Friday.
Gray said that if Occupy Dallas loses in court, it won't make a difference to the protest plans. Activists have vowed to remain on site with or without toilets. All this fighting, though, may be unnecessary.
An insurance company has come forward with an offer to help, Gray explained. "It appears that we will be able to post that insurance if that becomes a condition of the court's ruling," he said.
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