The Right to Protest on Providence Sidewalks

I’m really psyched that Netroots Nation will be in town next week — it’ll make for an exciting time for Providence, and will yield a welcome economic boost — the estimates are on the order of $4 million in economic activity for Rhode Island, including a nice chunk of revenue for the city in hotel and meal and beverage taxes.  (And, shameless self promotion:  I’m happy to have played a key role in securing the conference for Providence.)

I also unequivocally support the right to protest, and believe that Occupy Providence has every justification in the world to make its presence known outside of the event and draw further attention to economic justice issues.

Most attendees of the conference absolutely support their cause, but far too much of the Democratic Party establishment is still complicit in Wall Street’s crimes, helped bring about the ruin of our economy, and is still contingent upon Big Finance for campaign contributions.  (Obama’s relatively new to sucking up to high finance, but our Vice President spent most of his 4-decade career in politics as a particularly notable shill for the industry.)

Which brings me to the point: In late 2006 janitors throughout Rhode Island were agitating for better wages.  This included a scheduled 5-day fast outside of City Hall, but circa day 3 thereof one janitor was roughed up by management of the custodial contractor at the Turks Head Building.  So we moved the protests to the sidewalk adjacent to that building, on Westminster street.  A dozen or so people brought lawn chairs — and blankets and sleeping bags (as per the photo from the Brown Daily Herald at right) — and set up shop flush with the wall of the building, leaving at least 8 or so feet of passable sidewalk width between themselves and the street.

The police — ostensibly under the direction of our illustrious “progressive” mayor at the time — tried to arrest the janitors and their supporters for blocking the sidewalk.  Working with attorney Marc Gursky, SEIU and the protesters secured a restraining order against the police department, affirming the right of the protesters to protest on the sidewalk.

So I wanted to bring to the attention of the powers-that-be the ordinance that the late Miguel Luna and I oversaw passage of thereafter to ensure that the right to protest on city sidewalks would not again be questioned.  The explicit legislative intent was to make it clear that protests that look the one above are legal in Providence, as long as enough room is left for pedestrians to use the sidewalk.  See (c) below:

Sec. 16-13. – Obstruction of public ways.(a)
No person shall stand on any footwalk, sidewalk, parking lot, doorstep or in any doorway in this city as to obstruct a free passage for foot passengers; nor place sports equipment or other obstructions within any street or sidewalk within the city so as to impede the flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic; or to hinder or delay passers-by or persons residing or doing business in the vicinity thereof.
Any person obstructing any footwalk, sidewalk, parking lot, step or doorway, or utilizing sports equipment or other obstructions within any street or sidewalk within the city, shall move, or remove the equipment or other obstruction, immediately when requested to do so by a police officer.
The preceding paragraphs shall not apply to individuals who are exercising a right to protest; however, in no event shall there be less than three (3) feet of unobstructed sidewalk access at all times.
The director of public works, or his designee, is hereby authorized to remove sports equipment or any other obstructions from any street or sidewalk within the city at the request of a police officer.
(Ord. No. 1914, ch. 30, § 11; Rev. Ords. 1946, ch. 23, § 8; Ord. No. 1969, ch. 69-1, 1-2-69; Ord. 1971, ch. 71-55, § 1, 10-21-71; Ord. 1971, ch. 71-56, § 1, 10-21-71; Ord. 1971, ch. 71-72, § 1, 11-19-71; Ord. 1973, ch. 73-13, § 1, 3-9-73; Ord. 2005, ch. 05-61, § 1, 12-15-05)
Sec. 16-13.1. – Resid

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