CHARLOTTE, N.C. _ Charlotte-Mecklenburg police waded into the Occupy Charlotte protest site Monday afternoon, arresting at least seven people and dismantling the campground that the group had established last fall.
A group of about 30 police officers crossed the street into the protest site at about 2:45 p.m., moments after Capt. Jeff Estes had given Occupy Charlotte's members "one final warning" to take down their tents and comply with an order he had given for the first time almost eight hours earlier.
Police were acting to comply with a new city ordinance that went into effect at midnight, prohibiting groups from camping on city-owned property.
Amid shouts and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from Occupy Charlotte participants, police officers pulled down the tents and tossed them into nearby trash trucks. By 3:45 p.m., all of the 30 to 40 tents that had been erected on the lawn of the old City Hall were gone.
Estes said seven people had been arrested on charges of delaying and obstructing officers, a misdemeanor.
Occupy Charlotte made one last attempt to forestall the eviction, going to Mecklenburg Superior Court at 2 p.m. and asking Judge Jesse Caldwell to issue a restraining order against the city. Caldwell said the docket was full and told the protesters' attorney, Robert Davies, and City Attorney Robert Hagemann that they would have to wait.
Hagemann said the city would not wait. Davies then tried, unsuccessfully, to find another judge to issue the order.
"A bunch of people will get arrested," Davies said at the time. "We did everything we could."
His words were proven true just a few minutes later. With police Chief Rodney Monroe watching from the front steps of police headquarters _ across the street from the lawn of old City Hall, where Occupy Charlotte has taken up residence since last fall _ police massed on the far side of the street.
Meanwhile, Occupy Charlotte members weren't budging. About 30 tents remained on the lawn, and members of the group stayed inside a few of the tents.
With Occupy Charlotte participants shouting "Shame!" and "Arrest us! We'll multiply," police began taking down the tents. Police quickly arrested one person on the grounds _ a man who had refused to leave his tent. A second person could be seen taken away in handcuffs minutes later.
Six people, apparently Occupy Charlotte participants, locked legs on the ground and refused to move. Police separated the six and led at least some of the group away in handcuffs.
Some aspects of the event were bizarre, such as the protesters singing the "Hokey Pokey" as police advanced on the tents. One Occupy Charlotte participant ran back and forth across the lawn with an orange tent on his head and an insulting message for police written on the tent. Meanwhile, dozens, if not hundreds, of people in nearby buildings watched the proceedings through office windows and from rooftops.
Davies said later Monday that a hearing on the restraining order has been scheduled before Caldwell on Tuesday afternoon. The goal, he said, is to call for a delay to any further implementation of the demonstration ordinances.
A lawsuit that Davies filed Monday asks a judge to declare that the use of the lawn at Old City Hall is "protected as free speech, assembly, association and the right to petition the government" under the First Amendment and North Carolina Constitution. It further requests a judge to declare that applying the new city ordinances to Occupy Charlotte's demonstration on the law would violate their rights.
Later, the suit alleges the new ordinances have "already irreparably harmed" the movement. The suit was filed on behalf of Occupy Charlotte and five people who have participated in the movement.
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The drama began playing out shortly after 7 a.m. Monday, when Estes and several other officers arrived at the site and told Occupy Charlotte participants they would have to leave.
Estes told the group that "any temporary shelter on this property is in violation of this ordinance and will be removed immediately." He said only one canopy, which had been designated an information booth, would be allowed to stay.
"This is a first warning," Estes told the group, adding that campers would be given "ample time" to take down the tents, but that police would return.
The announcement that nearly all the 50 tents at the site violated the new city ordinance was a blow to Occupy Charlotte protesters, who had argued the new ordinance allows tents to remain on the lawn if they are used for shelter from the weather, rather than camping.
Protest participant Michael Zitkow, 25, of Charlotte argued the new ordinance did not apply, because protesters had cleaned out personal belongings and therefore were not camping.
"All tents we found to be in compliance," Zitkow told Estes.
Estes then repeated his instructions, saying, "Every temporary shelter on this property is in violation of the ordinance and must be removed immediately."
When asked to explain how police determined what is a campsite, which is banned, and what is an acceptable temporary structure, police Major Eddie Levins said, "You know it when you see it."
Estes said the department would not outline what was and what was not in violation of the ordinances as it applied to the Occupy site.
By mid-morning, a few tents were sporting signs saying nobody was sleeping there. And at least two tents had been converted to "informational tents."
But Estes said only the main grey informational tent will be permitted to stay.
William Albritton, 45, who is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Monday, said the tents are a way for the group to make a statement and actively protest, and isn't just a means for sleeping. Albritton has camped at the old City Hall since Oct. 20 and hopes to remain at the site for as long as possible.
Occupy Charlotte member Ron Meade of Rock Hill, S.C., responded to the police announcement by removing the sides from his tent. He said he was converting the structure to an information booth, to prevent it from being torn down.
"We tried talking to him (Estes) yesterday, to find out what tents were not in compliance," Meade said. "He wouldn't tell us."
Another camper, James Lee Walker, 31, took largely the same approach. Walker, who has been at the site since October, began removing personal belongings from his tent, which he said would put him in compliance with police orders.
"I refuse to be arrested, because that's ridiculous," he said. "I'll do what they want me to do."
Walker said the new ordinance seems to be interpreted by people differently, "depending on their needs."
But another protester, Bobby Lamonte, said he was packing up his tent and leaving _ but only for a new locale.
"I'm going to Miami," said Lamonte, adding that he will join the protest there. "I'm taking my stuff with me."
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Estes said any items of value confiscated from tents that are taken down would be kept by police for 60 days. Other items would be discarded, he said. He added that police "anticipate full compliance" from the Occupy protesters.
In preparation for the Democratic National Convention, the Charlotte City Council on Jan. 23 approved ordinances that give police more power to stop and search people during the convention and to arrest people living or sleeping on public property.
One Occupy Charlotte member said some protesters planned to remove all personal belongings from their tents so the police couldn't construe them as being used for "living accommodations."Comment on this story
On Sunday, police officers visited the encampment to read the ordinance and take questions from about 30 protestors. Many spent the day cleaning out tents of personal possessions to avoid having tents removed. Police brought trash bins for the cleanup.
Across the country, cities have been enforcing existing ordinances, or passing new anti-camping rules, to clear out Occupy protesters.
Charlotte has said its changes protect the First Amendment, though the American Civil Liberties Union has said some of the measures go too far, including giving the police power to arrest people carrying backpacks, satchels or coolers if they believe the items are being used to carry weapons.
Large protests _ and some violence _ have been common at political conventions, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say they are trying to ensure they have enough power to keep people and property safe.