Idaho’s anti-Occupy bill threatens local camps

2 Feb

John Bischoff hunkers down to man the Occupy Pocatello camp, who could be evicted soon if the state legislature passes a controversial bill banning camping on state land. (Jamie Hale/The Bannock Alternative)

by Jamie Hale

The state’s so-called anti-Occupy bill, which aims to kick Occupy Boise protesters off the front lawn of the old Ada County Courthouse, is currently held up briefly in the state Senate, but if it passes, it will affect not just Boise protesters, but those in smaller cities as well.

In Pocatello, the threat moved from a fear to a reality yesterday when an Idaho State Police officer handed the group a notice warning them of their possible eviction from their occupied spot on the corner of Yellowstone Avenue and Oak Street, where they have about five tents and at least one person on hand at all times. The notice isn’t telling them to go, but it warns that if the bill, HB404, passes, they will be forced to leave immediately.

But John Bischoff, the man who pretty much runs the small Pocatello camp, said the group isn’t going away. “We’re still going to be occupying, no matter what,” he said. Despite his confidence, he admitted the group isn’t entirely sure where they’ll move if the bill becomes law. “We don’t have that—we haven’t decided that,” he said. “We’d have to play that by complete ear.”

For Bischoff and all Idaho Occupiers, there could still be hope. The controversial bill passed the state House easily, with a 54-16 vote, and was expected to do the same in the Senate. But after two and a half hours of testimony, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said he was actually open to letting the protesters stay until July 1, saying he believes the tents pose no imminent threat. Idaho Falls Republican Sen. Bart Davis also took issue with the current draft of the bill, which would evict protesters immediately, treating anything they leave behind as “litter” (adding insult to injury). According to The Idaho Statesman, Davis went so far as to question to constitutional legality of the current bill:

Davis brandished a draft amendment designed to give protesters at least seven days to reclaim belongings before they’re discarded.

“What I do feel uncomfortable with is the seizure and littering component,” he said, adding that he feared it would run afoul of protections of due process for private property in the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth and 14th amendments.

Now, the Senate will schedule a session to consider changes to the bill. That doesn’t mean the Senate won’t eventually pass HB404, but it could mean that once passed, it won’t be quite as harsh on the protesters as it could have been. So while it’s hard to consider this a victory for the Occupy movement, it can be considered a small, potential concession by Idaho lawmakers.

For the protesters in Pocatello, it could buy them time to figure out what to do, or would at very least let them pack up all their belongings (a few of which are actually pretty valuable) in a reasonable amount of time. Although Bischoff still holds hope that the bill could stall in the Senate until the end of the session this summer, the fact of the matter is that Occupy Pocatello will most likely have to find somewhere else to go.

With state land flat-out banned, and city and county land likely a non-starter, he said the group will probably have to find a patch of private land that is somewhat well-traveled, to continue to get their message out. Regardless of their future moving plans, Bischoff said he plans on staying put until the bitter end: “When they make it a law, I’m certainly going to be collecting a ticket.”

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