Many cities leaving Wall Street protesters alone

October 28, 2011 - 4:15 PM
Wall Street Protests San Diego

Josh Funn confronts San Diego Police officer B.A. Jackson outside police headquarters following the arrest of 51 Occupy San Diego protesters Friday, Oct. 28, 2011 in San Diego.   Dozens of police officers and San Diego County sheriff's deputies descended on the encampment around 2:30 a.m. Friday, declared an unlawful assembly and removed tents, canopies, tables and other furniture. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

NEW YORK (AP) — While more U.S. cities are resorting to force to break up the Wall Street protests, many others — Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis and Portland, Ore., among them — are content to let the demonstrations go on for now.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, said Friday that the several hundred protesters sleeping in Zuccotti Park, the unofficial headquarters of the movement that began in mid-September, can stay as long as they obey the law.

"I can't talk about other cities," he said. "Our responsibilities are protect your rights and your safety. And I think we're trying to do that. We're trying to act responsibly and safely."

Still, the city made life a lot harder for the demonstrators: Fire authorities seized a dozen cans of gasoline and six generators that powered lights, cooking equipment and computers, saying they were safety hazards.

In the span of three days this week, police broke up protest encampments in Oakland, Calif., Atlanta and, early Friday, San Diego and Nashville, Tenn.

Nashville police cracked down after authorities imposed a curfew on the protest. Twenty-nine people were arrested and later released after a judge said the demonstrators were not given enough time to comply with the brand-new rule. They received citations for trespassing instead.

Fifty-one people were arrested in San Diego, where authorities descended on a three-week-old encampment at the Civic Center Plaza and Children's Park and removed tents, canopies, tables and other furniture.

Officials there cited numerous complaints about human and animal feces, urination, drug use and littering, as well as damage to city property — the same problems reported in many other cities. Police said the San Diego demonstrators can return without their tents and other belongings after the park is cleaned up.

Earlier this week, in the most serious clashes of the movement so far, more than 100 people were arrested and a 24-year-old Iraq War veteran suffered a skull fracture after Oakland police armed with tear gas and bean bag rounds broke up a 15-day encampment and repulsed an effort by demonstrators to retake the site.

But other cities have rejected aggressive tactics, at least so far, some of them because they want to avoid the violence seen in Oakland or, as some have speculated, because they are expecting the protests to wither anyway with the onset of cold weather.

Officials are watching the encampments for health and safety problems but say that protesters exercising their rights to free speech and assembly will be allowed to stay as long as they are peaceful and law-abiding.

"We're accommodating a free speech event as part of normal business and we're going to continue to enforce city rules," said Aaron Pickus, a spokesman for the mayor of Seattle, where about 40 protesters are camping at City Hall. "They have the right to peacefully assemble. Ultimately what the mayor is doing is strike a balance."

Authorities have similarly taken a largely hands-off approach in Portland, Ore., where about 300 demonstrators are occupying two parks downtown; Memphis, Tenn., where the number of protesters near City Hall has ranged from about a dozen to about 100; and in Salt Lake City, where activists actually held a vigil outside police headquarters this week to thank the department for not using force against them.

In the nation's capital, U.S. Park Police distributed fliers this week at two encampments totaling more than 150 tents near the White House. And while the fliers listed the park service regulations that protesters were violating, including a ban on camping, a park police spokesman said the notices should not be considered warnings.

In Providence, R.I., Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the protesters will not be forcibly removed even after the Sunday afternoon deadline he set for them. He said he intends to seek their ouster by way of court action, something that could take several weeks.

"When you see police having to quell disturbances with tear gas or other means, it's not what the police want and it's not what we want to see in our society," Pare said.

Similarly, in London, church and local government authorities are going to court to evict protesters camped outside St. Paul's Cathedral — though officials acknowledged Friday it could take weeks or months to get an order to remove the tent city.

Several hundred protesters against economic inequality and corporate excesses have been camped outside the building since Oct. 15. On Oct. 21 cathedral officials shut the building, saying the campsite represented a health and safety hazard.

It was the first time the 300-year-old church, one of London's best-known buildings, had closed since German planes bombed the city during World War II.

In Minneapolis, where dozens have been sleeping overnight on a government plaza between a county building and City Hall, the three-week-old occupation has been far tamer than those in other cities, with only a few arrests.

Sheriff Rich Stanek has made it a practice to meet with protesters daily to talk about their issues and the day ahead, and he has refused to engage what he called "the 1 percent" who want to cause trouble.

"We decided that's not the tactic we want to take. Doing that sometimes requires biting your tongue," he said. He added: "Some people have said that's 'Minnesota nice.' It's a balance."

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Niedowski reported from Providence, R.I.

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Associated Press Writers Doug Glass in Minneapolis; Lucas L. Johnson II in Nashville, Tenn.; Samantha Gross in New York; Terry Collins in Oakland, Calif.; Jonathan J. Cooper in Portland, Ore.; Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City; Julie Watson in San Diego; Chris Grygiel in Seattle; Ben Nuckols in Washington; and Laura Crimaldi in Providence, R.I., contributed to this story.

Niedowski can be reached at http://twitter.com/eniedowski