BOSTON — Boston's fire marshal told a judge Thursday that there are an "almost uncountable" number of fire hazards at the Occupy Boston encampment, while the protesters argued that the city should be barred from removing them from their tent city in Boston's financial district.
Judge Frances McIntyre did not immediately rule on a request by the protesters to make permanent a temporary order that bars police from removing them without prior court approval. The judge said she expects to rule by Dec. 15, and extended her temporary order until then.
Kristopher Eric Martin, one of the protesters, testified that he believes it's essential to allow the demonstrators to live in Dewey Square because it is in the heart of the city's financial district and adjacent to the Federal Reserve Bank, symbols of the economic inequality the Occupy movement is seeking to change.
"Without having that physical occupation ... that message would be impossible," said Martin, who is now on medical leave from his studies at Harvard University for a Ph.D. in applied physics.
"We do want to connect with the top 1 percent," he said, referring to the wealthiest in American society, a group the protesters believe has disproportionate political and economic influence.
City officials have said they have no immediate plans to remove the protesters as some other cities have done, but lawyers for the city argued that police need the authority to evict them if a health or safety issue arises.
Boston Fire Marshal Bart Shea said he has found numerous fire hazards during visits to the camp, including tents that are too close together and do not leave enough room for people to get out in case of a fire, flammable blue tarps protesters have placed on the top of their tents, protesters smoking cigarettes inside tents and combustible materials inside tents.
"I was appalled by what I saw," Shea said, referring to his first visit to the encampment on Nov. 14.
"I fear for the life and safety of every person on that property," he added.
Lawyers for Occupy Boston argued that city fire officials have not notified them in writing, as required by law, about serious fire code violations. They said the protesters have complied with suggestions given to them verbally, including agreeing not to bring in any wood-burning stoves or propane heaters, and removing hay from the site.
Martin said the group's legislative body recently voted to bring in winterized tents, but police told protesters they were "contraband" and they did not want them in the encampment.
Attorney Howard Cooper argued that the encampment is protected by the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
"In the ranking of values, free speech is at the top," he said.
Cooper said the protesters should be given a chance to correct the problems cited by the fire marshal.
The city's lawyers also argued that the group has essentially taken over a section of the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway to the point that the public land is no longer accessible to other people who might want to use it.
Attorney Michael Ricciuti said the First Amendment right to free speech and expression has limitations.
"''They have failed to demonstrate that sleeping outside is part of that expression," Ricciuti said.
"The reality is ... that no protest can last forever," he said.
Martin, however, said there is no end date for the demonstration.
"The message still needs to be delivered," he said.