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'Occupied' Cities Becoming A Big Problem For Mayors

Amy Barnes protests as police move in to clear a downtown street during an Occupy Atlanta demonstration the first weekend in November.
David Goldman
Amy Barnes protests as police move in to clear a downtown street during an Occupy Atlanta demonstration the first weekend in November.

The nationwide Occupy movement might be targeting Wall Street, but it's arguably municipal governments that have felt the biggest impact so far.

Protesters have staged weeks-long sit-ins at public spaces in cities from New York to Atlanta to Pittsburgh to Oakland, Calif. Although the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, hundreds of protesters have been arrested and there have been a handful of violent clashes with law enforcement.

Occupy has put mayors of these cities in a delicate situation: balancing respect for civil liberties with the need to maintain law and order and limit the protests' physical toll. The cost of policing the demonstrations has skyrocketed, and there is increasing concern over public sanitation in occupied parks and about keeping protesters safe, especially as winter nears.

There are political questions to be answered here about how municipalities and their police forces weigh not only the interests in public safety but also their interests in maintaining public order and access to public spaces.

And so far, there's no sign that cold weather will put an end to the demonstrations.

"I'm planning to be the last one left in the park," says 18-year-old Ethan Johnson, a North Carolinian at the Occupy D.C. encampment in the city's McPherson Square. "And that's at least until New Year's."

A Unique Challenge

David Sklansky, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, says the protests present a unique challenge for city officials and law enforcement.

"There are political questions to be answered here about how municipalities and their police forces weigh not only the interests in public safety but also their interests in maintaining public order and access to public spaces," Sklansky says. "How do they do that in the context of a movement that has many members of the public as well as elected representatives sympathetic to it?"

A national poll published this week by the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and The Boston Herald suggests that Americans have a better impression of Occupy than of Wall Street. Of the 1,005 adults surveyed, 35 percent had a favorable impression of the Occupy movement, while 16 percent said the same for Wall Street and big business.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, has said he supports protesters' right to assemble but that they can't camp outside City Hall indefinitely. He led a recent conference call with seven other mayors to discuss how to handle the Occupy movement and, among other things, the impact on transportation, city services and costs.

Officials in Atlanta said late last month that the Occupy movement could cost the city $300,000. And in New York — where Occupy Wall Street began — police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has put the costs of extra security due to the protests at $2 million.

In Oakland — where protests shut down the city's port last week and police fired tear gas during violent clashes with some demonstrators — Mayor Jean Quan told The San Jose Mercury News that the overtime bill for law enforcement would "bite heavily" into the city's budget.

She put the cost at $700,000 and said the outlay meant that fewer community services would be available.

Tolerance For How Long?

Quan is among several mayors who have expressed both sympathy and concern over the protests. Despite the Oct. 25 police crackdown in Oakland that left several people injured, the mayor has taken pains to declare that her city is "progressive and tolerant of many opinions."

"We support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We have high levels of unemployment and we have high levels of foreclosure that makes Oakland part of the 99 percent, too," Quan said days after the incident. "We may not always agree, but we all have a right to be heard."

George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, says he thinks officials have shown a fair amount of tolerance toward protesters.

"When you had the civil rights movement, one of the things they wanted to do was precipitate violence. Not that they wanted to get their heads bashed in, but that they wanted to show the rest of the country the nature of the opposition," Edwards says. "I don't think, as far as I know, that this is a major goal of the occupiers — to precipitate violence against them. In that case, it's easier to be more tolerant of them."

Perhaps no one exemplifies the difficult situation that officials find themselves in better than New York City's Michael Bloomberg.

On Thursday, Bloomberg seemed conciliatory toward the demonstrators who have stood their ground in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park since mid-September. Speaking with reporters, he conceded that "there is no easy answer ... but the right answer is to allow people to protest."

But the next day, he lashed out at protesters during his weekly radio address.

"What they are trying to do is take away the jobs of people working in the city, take away the tax base that we have," the mayor said. "We're not going to have money to pay our municipal employees or anything else."

The Gamble Of Winter

As cold weather approaches, a whole new set of concerns will arise, said Sklansky, the Berkeley law professor.

The storm that hit the Northeast, including New York, the last weekend in October did little to dissuade demonstrators — and it gave officials a glimpse of the problems that winter might bring. Protesters in Zuccotti Park were using gas-powered generators to stay warm, but fire officials were forced to remove the six generators, along with 13 cans of gasoline, as illegal safety hazards.

Sklansky says city officials can't afford to gamble that freezing temperatures will send the protesters home.

"I don't think that any mayor should just cross his arms and say, 'This will take care of itself,' " he says. "I do think that the weather can sometimes help make the situation less volatile. It's no accident that lots of urban disturbances happen in the summer."

If the Occupy camps don't break up on their own, city officials and protesters will eventually have to come to some sort of an agreement. Otherwise, the situation could devolve into further violence, says Francesca Polletta, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Either way, she notes, the loose structure of the Occupy movement could complicate a solution.

"There is no single leader for police and officials to negotiate with," Polletta says.

"On the other hand," she says, "the movement's insistence on people's autonomy makes it harder to keep everyone nonviolent — and if some in the movement destroy property or threaten people's safety, the police will have justification for cracking down even if most in the movement remain nonviolent."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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