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Should They Stay or Should They Go: Officials Threaten to Shut-Down Florida Occupation

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Gainesville, Florida.

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As the nascent Occupy movement spreads from Wall Street across America citizens preparing to occupy their local Main Street are being forced to grapple with a fundamental question of political rights.

The First Amendment recognized and attempted to protect citizens' rights to participate in the democratic process; but what does this actually guarantee and does it still apply in actual practice? 

This issue is being confronted today in Gainesville, Florida -- a city of approximately 125,000 that is the home of the University of Florida, one of the nation's largest public universities. 

After two weeks of preparation the official occupation began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, October by Pete Self

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After two weeks of preparation the official occupation began at 8 a.m. Wednesday, October 12th, with a dilemma.  The City of Gainesville would allow them to hold a one-day permitted 24-hour event and nothing more.  Any further activities, whether of the group of even an individual person acting on their own, would be deemed unlawful and subject to citation and/or arrest.  Given this ultimatum the question was put before an Ad Hoc General Assembly around noon: should they stay or should they go?

This ultimatum comes as the determination and unwavering persistence of those occupying the nation's business and government centers seems to have paid off.  Authorities, originally reluctant if not hostile to the idea, have been conceding to the rights of the people to remain in their activities without permit into the future.

In New York City, after the initial chaos and confrontation that led to the infamous Anthony Bologna pepper-spray incidents and the mass arrests of nearly 700 protesters entrapped on the Brooklyn Bridge, Mayor Michael Bloomberg this past week announced that the occupiers will be allowed to continue their protests indefinitely.   "The bottom line," he said on Monday, is that "people want to express themselves. " And as long as they obey the laws, we'll allow them to."

Meanwhile in Washington D.C., where police have generally been cooperative and there have been no major incidents with the exception of the use of pepper-spray at an anti-war protest on Saturday now known to have been provoked in part by the actions of an agent provocateur from the Conservative American Spectator, a confrontation seemed to be inevitable as Sunday approached and the permits were set to expire.  But no eviction was attempted or arrests made and on Monday the Capital police officially announced that those occupying Freedom Plaza would be allowed to stay beyond the expiration date.

In fact across the nation this week signs that officials in many cities were prepared to tolerate the protests, often even showing signs of understanding the cause, seemed to signal a growing recognition of these fundamental rights.  In a memorandum to the occupiers the City Administrator of Oakland, California, openly stated that "The City of Oakland respects your First Amendment right to free speech" as it set out the City's rules that the occupiers would need to respect in order to continue without issue.  The City pledged its cooperation to protect those rights and serve the needs of those who chose to express themselves in the protest: "Please abide by these requirements and we will do our best to work with you to make sure that you are afforded every opportunity to continue your safe and respectful action," continued the memorandum.

Despite this encouraging trend there were notable exceptions.  In Boston, the home of the nation's founding in acts of significant civil disobedience in the opening stages of the American Revolution, Mayor Thomas Menino stated that acts of civil disobedience would not be tolerated as an aggressive crackdown saw the occupiers' property destroyed and disposed into awaiting garbage trucks moments before riot-gear-clad police stormed the second overflow encampment arresting nearly 150 by force.  "Civil disobedience doesn't work for Boston," he said.  "It doesn't work for anyone."

Between these two extremes Gainesville finds itself poised to determine the extent to which these fundamental democratic rights of citizenship still apply to Main Street America.  Not being a major metropolitan center, outside of the largest media markets, Gainesville's struggle is unlikely to become front-page news.  But it is the heart of the struggle for democracy that is central to this growing movement.

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The organizers in Gainesville set out early on to reach out to local authorities to fully inform them of their plans and to seek a cooperative environment.  By and large the police presence at the Community Plaza, recently renamed for long-time resident and musician Bo Diddley, has been cordial and respectful.  But things may have taken a turn in another direction from the responses of the unelected administration of the City that have been more dismissive and derogatory and suggest an intent to force a showdown if citizens do not bow down to their unilateral terms and conditions.

This has forced the occupiers to ask themselves whether they should risk arrest to exercise their rights or concede to the official restrictions.  This has now been the subject of two General Assemblies held on location and will be an essential question to answer as the protest grapples with the decision before the official closing hours of the Plaza tonight at 11:30.

This flash video was removed for security reasons

Bo Diddley Plaza, still officially recognized in City law as "The Community Plaza," lies between the County Courthouse and the City and County government buildings in the center of downtown Gainesville.  Although the area was once also the economic center of the community this changed dramatically between the 1960s and 1980s as development tended to sprawl outward in multiple directions leaving the community without a vital center of commerce.  Despite these hardships the Plaza remained active as a locus of communion among citizens and those seeking to express their voices in political discourse and in recent years there has been some revitalization of the downtown area.

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