One of the few occupiers left on the plaza south of the Old State Capitol made the warning in a loud whisper as a pair of lieutenants got out of their car. It was nearly 11:45 p.m. on Tuesday. Less than two hours earlier, an officer had warned that anyone remaining on the plaza would be cited at 11:30 p.m. After that, he said, the consequences would rise.
“If you’re here at midnight, you’re going to go to jail,” the officer had warned the group of two dozen. “I’m just telling you what my supervisor told me.”
The admonition had mostly worked, with almost everyone moving to sidewalks around the plaza, leaving Jason Maggard nearly alone in the Occupy Springfield protest zone that has a 10 p.m. closing time, according to a two-week permit issued by the city. Maggard said that he would leave only if removed by police.
“I believe in defending this spot,” Maggard had said after colleagues left the plaza that had been occupied 24/7 for four days. “It should remain open and public for people to stay and protest, if that’s what they choose to do.”
Now, police were back.
The lieutenants walked across the plaza and past Maggard to meet up with protesters on a nearby sidewalk. Before long, occasional laughs broke out on both sides.
“You’ve got our card – call if you have any problems,” one of the lieutenants told the protesters before leaving with no arrests or citations, despite the warning issued earlier in the evening. “Hopefully, it’s a nice quiet night for all of us.”
“Good cop, bad cop,” quipped a protester who calls himself Benny Ha Ha as the group headed back toward the plaza.
Although the permit that expires on Nov. 15 calls for protests to wrap up by 10 p.m. each day, police have agreed to let occupiers remain if they violate no city ordinances, don’t block pedestrians and don’t set up camping gear – they can stay all night long, so long as they’re willing to stand or sit on benches, according to deputy chief Cliff Buscher and protester Kyle Liesenfelt of Springfield, who praised police.
“They don’t have any issues as long as we don’t have any issues,” Liesenfelt said.
Chris Trudeau, another protester, was also impressed by police.
“They feel as long as we’re not creating a problem, there is no problem,” Trudeau said. “Really great officers – great people.”
Buscher wasn’t certain why protesters were initially told that they would be cited or taken to jail if they didn’t leave the plaza.
“There must have been a misunderstanding,” Buscher said. “That’s why the lieutenants went down there, to verify what’s going on.”
And so Occupy Springfield has an apparent toehold.
Protesters said they hope to have their permit extended beyond Nov. 15, and they said they’re prepared to stay regardless of cold weather. Benny Ha Ha suggested printing up informational fliers to hand out to passersby. He also proposed occupying the plaza in four-hour shifts.
“We have to realize that today is the beginning of winter,” he told his fellow protesters.
Two weekend protests last month each drew estimated crowds of around 300 to the Capitol, but protesters on Tuesday night said they haven’t yet settled on a plan for another big event.
“I think people will be out here,” Benny Ha Ha said. “I just don’t know in what form or where.”
Protesters say they hope to convince the city to allow sleeping bags, but they said they are flexible.
“We will adapt,” Liesenfelt said. “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Maggard, who lives in Near North Village just a few blocks away from the Old State Capitol, said that he had been at the plaza almost continuously since the occupation began last Saturday. But he disappeared within 20 minutes of his colleagues resuming their posts on the plaza. Someone said he had gone home to fetch cigarettes.
“He’ll be back,” Liesenfelt said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.