A cheer rang out at Burnside Park at 9 p.m. last night. As the clock ticked past the hour, protesters had officially begun to defy Providence Mayor Angel Taveras' order to leave, and there were no police in sight.
Though Taveras had promised he would not use force, a group defined by skepticism of politicians, police and established order could only expect the worst. A general sense of relief fell over the park as Occupiers realized the mayor would keep his word.
Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare presented the Occupiers with a 72-hour notice Friday to leave the park or face eviction.
In other cities, confrontations between Occupiers and police have resulted in mass arrests and violence. Taveras has taken a unique tack by indicating his intention to seek a court order against the Occupiers. "This will allow the protesters to have their day in court and for a full public, legal vetting of the issues," he said in a statement.
In the statement, Taveras cited concern about the onset of cold weather as one reason for the decision to crack down on the Occupation.
Earlier Sunday afternoon, two lawyers supportive of Occupy Providence instructed protesters on what to do in the case of arrest. They reminded the Occupiers they were part of a non-violent protest and said nobody should resist arrest. The lawyers told the crowd of 30 or so people that under the offenses listed by the police commissioner in his Friday letter, it was possible they could spend up to 30 days in jail if arrested. The police might go into the tents, and protesters could be held responsible for any illegal material found inside, they said.
In the statement, Taveras said he understands Occupiers' frustration with the recession and appreciates their use of non-violence but cannot allow a continued Occupation in the park. He encouraged them to return to the park between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., when it is open to the public.
The statement cited an opinion issued this weekend by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that U.S. Supreme Court precedent favors the city's case. The ACLU noted its disagreement with the Supreme Court precedent and stated that other forms of speech remain protected.
If protesters lose the court battle, they fear the mayor will resort to forceful eviction. Protesters expect the city to file its lawsuit today.
Many Occupiers doubt Taveras' sincerity in associating himself with the movement. Mark, one of the original organizers of Occupy Providence, said he believes Taveras did not mobilize to forcefully evict the Occupiers because the cold weather would soon drive them out anyway. Mark declined to provide his last name.
This weekend's snow has demonstrated the difficulties of a sustained occupation. But a sign reading "Valley Forge Ahead!" on the park's statue of Ambrose Burnside indicates at least some protesters want to stay the winter. An organizer said Sunday was their "busiest day yet."
Even after Saturday's snowstorm, which destroyed four or five tents in the camp, morale remained high. Protesters declared Sunday "Solidarity Sunday" and held events throughout the day, including a rally, a general assembly and an Interfaith Vigil for Peace and Justice. Sunday was also the final day of Occustock, a three-day series of concerts organized by Brown students to help generate support for the movement (see full coverage of Occustock on page 2).
The non-denominational vigil seemed to echo the encampment's mood. In one refrain of the classic protest song "This Little Light of Mine," protesters sang "Even in Burnside Park, I'm gonna let it shine."
"It reminds us we all have our own part to play," said the leader of the song.
By all reports, Taveras' order to abandon camp seems to have had the opposite effect, deepening the protesters' resolve. The camp remained at full capacity Sunday night. A number of newcomers from as far away as Boston made a noticeable addition to the now 17-day-old Occupation. As soon as Occupiers establish the legality of their camp in Burnside, they can turn to changing Wall Street, Mark said. The Occupy protesters want to hold Wall Street accountable and "do to the bank CEOs what Bernie Madoff did to the American people," he said.
Rumors of a City Council attempt to prevent the police from removing the protesters bolstered morale as the temperature hit freezing Sunday night. Increased interest in Occupation has protesters hoping their elected officials will be less likely to risk a negative public reaction to any eviction.