(de)Occupy Honolulu had its day in court, and it looks like it will get another.
On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge J. Michael Seabright decided not to dismiss (de)Occupy’s federal lawsuit against the city of Honolulu, which claims the city’s stored property ordinance is unconstitutional.
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges city officials have violated protesters’ free speech rights and other constitutional guarantees during organized raids on (de)Occupy’s encampment at Thomas Square in downtown Honolulu.
During these raids, tents and other items belonging to the protesters were cleared from the park and sidewalks. On occasion, protesters said some of these items were destroyed despite provisions in the stored property ordinance that allow for retrieval.
Seabright also said Friday that the city must provide a means for (de)Occupy protesters to collect their belongings after seizure. This is the continuation of an agreement both sides came to in January as a result of the lawsuit.
“It’s requiring them to follow the law as we see it,” said Richard Holcomb, the attorney representing (de)Occupy Honolulu. “That’s what we’ve wanted the whole time.”
The city released a statement from Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell late Friday saying he’s cautiously optimistic the court will uphold the stored property law.
“We are pleased that the court ruled that the City & County of Honolulu can continue Stored Property ordinance enforcement,” he said.
(de)Occupy Honolulu began protesting 18 months ago in conjunction with the national Occupy Wall Street movement that aimed to balance the inequities between the U.S.’s richest elite and the rest of the country, particularly the middle class and poor.
(de)Occupy Honolulu echoed many of these concerns, and have also focused their attention on homelessness on the islands. It is considered the longest running Occupy protest in the country.
But some have complained that the protest attracted homeless people to live at the park.
City officials have been working to displace (de)Occupy Honolulu for more than a year, mainly using its stored property ordinance, the current iteration of which comes from a bill introduced by former Honolulu councilwoman and current U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
The ordinance allows the city seize property 24 hours after it has been tagged with a notice of violation. If the property hasn’t been claimed within 30 days then it can either be sold, donated or destroyed.
But the lawsuit alleges the city hasn’t been following its own rules, citing some examples in which property that wasn’t tagged was confiscated and others where it was disposed of before the 30-day window was up.
On Friday, Seabright said he planned to issue an order that would dismiss some of (de)Occupy’s claims in the lawsuit, meaning others will survive. One his biggest concerns before Friday’s hearing, he said, was that the city was charging protesters to retrieve their belongings without any due process, such as a hearing.
But those concerns were set aside once the city informed Seabright that it has in fact never charged for anyone to claim their property. The reason for this is the city council hasn’t created the fee structure to do so yet.
In some ways the lawsuit has already paid dividends to the protesters. The agreement between the city and (de)Occupy Honolulu means protesters now have a defined process for retrieving their belongings after seizure. That will remain as a part of an agreement between the two parties that is expected to be filed in court next week.
There’s also a new sidewalk nuisance law to consider that allows the city to remove belongings without providing 24 hours notice. While this is a similar issue that’s being grappled with in the federal lawsuit, Holcomb said it’s not a part of the current litigation.
“We believe a separate case will be appropriate once they start enforcing it,” Holcomb said. “Right now it’s all speculation as to what they’re going to do, if anything.”
The city is still in the process of developing rules for how to administer the new law, something that’s expected to be completed this summer. Mayor Kirk Caldwell wholeheartedly supports the ordinance, and even held a press conference when signing it into law.
While Caldwell has described the stored property and sidewalk clearing ordinances as “compassionate displacement,” (de)Occupy Honolulu has criticized the laws as a way of criminalizing homelessness.
“For us this has never been about money, it’s really been about the houseless population,” said Cathy “Sugar” Russell, one of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit. “If there is money that will be donated to an organization that is effective with helping the houseless population. We have no interest in the money, not even for the movement. We’re really wanting to ensure the health and safety of the houseless population.”
Caldwell has had a combative relationship with (de)Occupy Honolulu ever since taking office. Most recently he came under fire for chasing the protesters off the sidewalks around Thomas Square using planter boxes filled with pink hibiscus, something that was seen by some as being a tone deaf solution to dealing with Honolulu’s homeless.
This puts the mayor in an uncomfortable position, especially considering he has made combating homelessness one of his administration’s top priorities, even releasing a two year action plan last week that details how he plans to get some of the most at-risk populations into shelters.
Russell said after Friday’s hearing that she hopes the struggles of (de)Occupy Honolulu can further illuminate the issues Caldwell and the rest of the state will have to deal with as they attempt to find a workable solution to homelessness in Hawaii.
“Our free speech rights are exactly what has brought this houseless crisis to light,” Russell said. “So now it’s something that media is talking about, it’s something our officials are talking about and hopefully there will be some sustainable solutions coming out of it.”
Meantime, Russell has left Oahu and moved to the Big Island where another “Occupy” movement has started in Hilo. She said it’s a “very strong” group that’s focused on many of the same topics (de)Occupy Honolulu targeted.
“These issues are not just islandwide,” Russell said. “The issues that Occupy addresses are global.”