Protesters arrested as KDPS clears Bronson Park encampment

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Several people were taken into custody as police worked to clear Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park where protesters have been camped.

Nearly two dozen police officers started clearing the encampment shortly before 7 a.m. Wednesday.  A City of Kalamazoo release said 14 people were taken into custody: 10 for breaking a police line, one for attempted resisting and obstruction and three for various outstanding warrants. Eight citations were also issued for illegal camping.

As of 11 a.m., only one of the people arrested was officially booked at the jail.The release says officers provided protesters with an opportunity to leave voluntarily before issuing citations and provided plastic totes to help people move their belongings.

Police gave people additional time to pack and move their belongings after issuing a citation.

The park has been closed while city staff cleans the area, removes any remaining debris and starts to repair sections of the lawn. Bronson Park is expected to reopen Thursday.

Commissioner Shannon Sykes-Nehring was among the protesters and said arresting everyone but her criminalizes homelessness. After refusing to leave the park, she was also taken into custody. 

“It’s an obvious strategy to try and break up my support in solidarity with these folks, but I made a promise they don’t go without me,” Sykes-Nehring said.  

HOW IT GOT TO THIS

The move comes after city leaders said anyone camping in the park after 7 p.m. Tuesday would be subject to arrest. Some people left but many others remained after the deadline.

Tensions between city leaders and the protesters at the camp have been simmering for weeks. The protesters, many of them homeless or advocates for the homeless, are demanding more housing options and social services.

City Manager Jim Ritsema released the following statement regarding the encampment Tuesday: 

“Under City of Kalamazoo ordinances, camping in any park is prohibited without the written permission of the City. Fires in a grill or otherwise, are prohibited in Bronson Park. And persons violating city park rules may be required to leave the park for the balance of the day. Persons refusing to leave are subject to arrest for trespassing.

“The City of Kalamazoo has not granted specific permission for the encampment that presently occupies Bronson Park. The City, through the office of the City Manager, has repeatedly met with representatives of the encampment and although much work remains to be done, the City has endeavored to address the concerns which the homeless population has laid before the City Commission. The City remains committed to an ongoing process to convene the community to seek solutions to these larger problems.

“However, the growing encampment in Bronson Park is not a solution to the issues surrounding homelessness. It is a violation of City ordinances and must end. Beginning tomorrow, Tuesday, September 18, individuals at the encampment will be advised to gather their belongings and remove themselves by 7:00 PM. Persons who continue to maintain tents or other indications of camping will be subject to possible arrest and prosecution. Further, persons with warrants will be subject to arrest. Bronson Park is not intended to be, nor is it equipped to be, a camp ground. The limited source of potable water and the absence of sanitary and safe food preparation facilities raise legitimate public health and welfare concerns, requiring the City to request voluntary compliance with its ordinances.

“In taking this action the City remains committed to making Bronson Park welcoming to citizens and visitors alike – whether to find a quiet space in the middle of a busy city, spreading a blanket to enjoy a picnic or to gather peacefully to protest. Bronson Park is the front yard of the City and is available to all, and should not be possessed by any single group.”

IS REMOVAL LEGAL?

Bronson Park protesters have consistently said their constitutional rights will be violated if they’re arrested for trespassing. Now that has happened, is their argument legitimate?

“There is a credible claim for a constitutional violation based on whether or not there is adequate housing for the needy in Kalamazoo,” Kalamazoo attorney Anastase Markou told 24 Hour News 8.

Markou says some courts have upheld legal challenges where those faced with homelessness were arrested for sleeping in public places when there wasn’t any other available housing.

“The courts eventually found that it’s unconstitutional to criminalize the basic human act of sleeping, because sleeping has to occur somewhere, and it has to occur sometime,” he said.

To further complicate the case, homeless advocates claim they’re protesting.

“And because it’s a protest, you’re drawing in issues like the right to assemble under the First Amendment, the right to free speech under the First Amendment,” explained Markou.

But where does that leave the city?  

“Even on free speech, the police and the government has a right to regulate when, where and how speech is being made to a certain extent,” explained Markou. “You can’t just do it anytime, anyplace anywhere you want to.”

Markou says city officials also have the right to regulate their own public spaces. 

“They have a right to keep it clean, orderly, to make sure the rest of the public can enjoy it,” he said. “(It) Doesn’t seem very fair to the rest of us who are citizens that we cannot use a park because certain people are protesting.”

Markou says the issues involved are very complex; he thinks they will eventually need to be resolved in court. 
 

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