Madison and Dane County elected officials, Dane County staff, neighbors and members and friends of Occupy Madison, a community of homeless people, came together to discuss the recent eviction of the Occupy encampment from Lake View Hill during a tense, three hour meeting at the Dane County Human Services building last night.
The meeting was called by Alder Anita Weir and Dane County Supervisor Melissa Sargent. The purpose of the meeting stated in Alder Weir’s invitation was to provide people with, “answers to questions and a chance to state opinions.”
Also present to field questions were Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, Madison Police North Precinct Captain Cam McLay, Dane County Human Services Director Lynn Green, Dane County Land and Water Resources Director Kevin Connors, and Jeff Kostelic, the assistant to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi. Parisi did not attend.
Forty to fifty people showed up to the meeting. About two thirds were people from the neighborhood while the others were concerned citizens and members and supporters of Occupy Madison.
Melissa Sargent opened the meeting asking for people to be respectful and refrain from personal attacks. “We hope we can heal and move forward. But the atmosphere feels thick in here.”
Although it was advertised as a listening session, the first half of the meeting was dominated by city and county representatives discussing the issue of homelessness and how each level of government was dealing with the ever-increasing national problem on tighter and tighter budgets. Some of the neighbors who sought answers to questions about how the encampment came to be located on Lake View Hill and why it was allowed to remain there illegally for over a week left the meeting early.
One of these people, Betty Thompson, wrote a letter to neighborhood e-mail lists and public officials last night about her dismay:
“Our questions as to how this situation came to be about in our neighborhood were not answered. Nor were the questions as to why a Fitchburg alder/supervisor was involved and our representatives were not informed… As a north sider I feel we have had to fight to keep our neighborhood a decent place to live. And YES we are earmarked for more than our share and more than other areas for problem housing.”
In response, Colleen Burke, the woman who was cited for disorderly conduct for parking on Northport Dr. and threatening the campers with sending a motorcycle gang after them wrote, “If we have to start our own group, ie PROUD NORTH SIDERS, lets do it. We were ambushed tonight. I am glad that the parks person enumerated how many times those people were told to leave. They did not protect us, if they did, the campers would have been gone the first day and we wouldn’t have this problem.”
During the meeting, Captain Cam McLay of the Madison Police Department said that his officers had been monitoring the encampment and were in constant communication with campers. Addressing the opinion of some neighbors that they needed protection from the campers, McLay said, “There’s more fear than there is crime. We do have problems on the north side – youth disorder and domestic violence are our biggest problems. But I’m not feeling the connection between this incident and any actual crime.”
Some questions were finally answered. Dane County Sheriff David Mahoney said that between 30 and 35 deputies were deployed to assist the Parks department evict and transport the campers and their belongings to Token Creek County Park.
Several neighbors commented about how chilling the scene was as deputies lined up around the perimeter of the park facing outward so as not to allow anyone to enter. Leslie Amsterdam also commented that members of the media were denied access to the scene.
“We brought in 30 – 35 deputies to assist Parks. On any given day there are 10 deputies on duty in a 1,200 square mile range,” said Mahoney. He went on to explain that the Sheriff’s department typically deploys 40 deputies to serve at public events like the Mifflin St. Block Party and Freakfest – events that draw tens of thousands of people. There were only about 20 people camping out at Lake View Hill County Park.
Kevin Connors, Director of Dane County Land and Water Resources Department also answered the question about why campers were relocated to a park outside of the city far away from public transportation rather than being allowed to camp at Lake Farms County Park which is closer to transportation and services. Some of the campers had spent the summer at that campground.
Connors told the group, “There are security issues with the Lussier Heritage Center being located near the campground. There are nighttime and weekend events taking place there.” He did not go on to explain why this would have precluded the use of the campground since these conditions pertained during the summer months as well.
Connors was asked why the campers were never given that information. “I don’t have a response to that,” he said. Dane County Executive assistant Jeff Kostelic also said, “I’m sorry I don’t have a response.”
People concerned about the lack of communication, the massive display of force and the violation of campers’ basic civil and human rights by county agencies during the eviction last week were also dissatisfied by the absence of answers to their questions.
Decrying the lack of two-way communication between county officials who were making decisions about the encampment and the campers, neighbor Maria Powell who lives on Lake View Hill just above where the encampment was located, said, “There were a lot of one-way communications by the county that came to the campers in the form of a memo. The group discussed and came up with a response to each memo. We never got a response back.” She added, “It was clear that communication came one way – down hill. There could have been leadership to set up a real dialogue on this.”
Powell asked county officials for answers to the following questions in writing:
What was the rationale for this heavy handed approach?
Who authorized this approach?
When and how was the decision made?
Who was involved with making this decision?
Exactly how much did the raids on Sunday evening and Tuesday cost the taxpayers?
Neighborhood resident Adam Chern worried about the social divide and criminalization of homeless people. He urged those who were vehemently opposed to the encampment to be more compassionate. “Some of us experienced outrage from the warmth and comfort of our homes. While we worried about our declining property values, we did so while going to get leftovers from our fridge.” He added, “I imagine the people who weren’t supportive of the encampment didn’t go actually talk with these people. We need to start supporting each other instead of looking down our nose at them.”
Chern ended by asking what was perhaps the toughest of the unanswered questions of the evening: “Why is it okay for them to be at Token Creek instead of Lake View Hill? Is it because we don’t have to look at them?”