America, Occupied: A nation-wide look at the Occupy camps and cities’ reactions
on November 11, 2011
There’s an Occupy Atlanta now. There’s an Occupy Lincoln, Nebraska. There are Occupy camps in Toledo, Baltimore, Tampa, Dallas, Boston, Ann Arbor, Memphis, Salt Lake City, Honolulu, Anchorage and even Brattleboro, Vermont. Over the past month, since Occupy Wall Street supporters first began demonstrating in New York City, protesters in hundreds of camps around the country have rolled out sleeping bags, set up food tents and trucked portable toilets into public spaces that include downtown plazas, city parks and college campuses.
Across the country, the reactions of city officials dealing with Occupy camps have ranged from supportive to baffled to downright angry. Here in Oakland, Mayor Jean Quan’s handling of the encampment in front of City Hall has been criticized on local and national levels following a messy eviction, subsequent protests, two nighttime clashes between police officers and demonstrators, and most recently, the fatal shooting Thursday night at the outskirts of the camp.
As Occupy demonstrations continue to grow and multiply, complex challenges of safety, sanitation, cold weather, extra costs and property laws are perplexing city leaders everywhere. The exact number of Occupy sites is difficult to confirm right now; Mother Jones magazine has mapped more than 200 such sites in the United States and more than 462 worldwide, while the Guardian reported “951 cities in 82 countries,” listing 349 of them on their own interactive map. The Occupy Wall Street site states there are occupations in 1,500 cities globally.
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles, who is also president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, led a conference call with seven mayors from across the country last month to discuss the ongoing Occupy camps. According to the conference’s newsletter, the group discussed the cost cities are incurring, the impact on other city services and differing policies relating to the overnight use of public space, among other issues.
Protesters supported, within limits
In Los Angeles, roughly 350 people have been camping on the lawn in front of city hall since the beginning of October, despite a law prohibiting camping in city parks after 10:30 pm. Police have not been enforcing that law, following orders from Villaraigosa, who gave Occupy LA permission to camp there. But the mayor’s support has waned as other city officials have questioned his decision to allow the encampment to remain.
“City officials have been in a continuous and open dialogue with the organizers of Occupy LA,” Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Times. “However, the protesters must respect city laws and regulations, and while they have been allowed to camp on City Hall lawns, that cannot continue indefinitely.”
Carmen Trutanich, the Los Angeles City Attorney, said two weeks ago that the law governing city park usage and curfew should be enforced by the police department to “protect the public health and safety of all residents.”
The situation in Los Angeles parallels the experience of many other cities in which officials continue to allow overnight camping in public space—sometimes supplying police security, portable toilets and electricity—provided campers stay within acceptable boundaries.
For example, Occupy Boston, which started September 30, has been allowed to remain in downtown Dewey Square, with more than 200 campers. The city has even provided services to the campers, including 24-hour police security and twice-a-day garbage removal and recycling collection. But on October 10, after the campers tried to expand out to nearby parks, 141 demonstrators were arrested.
“Once we expanded across the street, that’s when they raided us,” Acacia Brewer, an Occupy Boston participant and media committee member, said in a phone interview this week. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino has made several visits to Occupy Boston, Brewer said, and has held cooperative discussions with the camp in hopes of “trying to stay on the same page as us.” But during one of his recent visits, she said, Menino told the camp they “can’t stay here forever, but [the city] doesn’t have a plan yet.”
In Philadelphia, Occupy Philly protesters obtained a permit to camp overnight, said Mark McDonald, press secretary for Mayor Michael Nutter. The camp is set up in Dilworth Plaza, on the west side of Philadelphia’s city hall. People have been camping for a little over a month now, McDonald said; the city provides services like trash pickup, portable toilets and an electrical hookup from City Hall. But the camp is going to be billed for these services, he said, and Occupy Philly leaders have agreed to pay.
“It is a movement that, here in Philly, has proven costly,” McDonald said in an interview Tuesday. “Police overtime expenditures are at just under half a million. The city budget has been strained severely in the last couple years because of the recession. We hope the Occupy Philly group understands the impact they are having on the taxpayers of this city.”
One major concern for Philadelphia city officials, McDonald said, is the scheduled $50 million renovation—planned before the encampment began—of the occupied plaza. He said the city plans to secure the site soon and demolition work could possibly begin this month, and that officials are working with Occupy Philly to relocate the camp.
Philadelphia city officials have also expressed concerns about sanitation in the Occupy Philly camp. “It has been a bit of a challenge to clean up the camp,” McDonald said. “On the plaza, there is a certain ripeness to the air.”
Health, safety and sanitation concerns
Rising costs, sanitation and security issues have strained relationships between government leaders and Occupy protesters across the nation.
Occupy Detroit has also been set up in tents for about a month, with protesters camping overnight in Grand Circus park. “To camp for such a long period of time in a city area—that is an unprecedented request for us,” said Dan Lijana, spokesman for Mayor Dave Bing. “There are some unique challenges, and a number of public health concerns, related to an occupation of that duration.” The city has not provided trash pickup or other services to the camp, as some other local governments have, because the city “is not in the kind of fiscal position to spend resources on that,” Lijana said.
In Minneapolis, Kirk Simmons, security manager for the property services department of Hennepin County, said the county board had until this week supported open access to the Government Center plaza for Occupy Minnesota protesters. But now officials are coming to feel that the Occupy protest is “not quite the same,” Simmons said, because so much excess stuff—donated tents, sleeping bags, kitchen supplies—is accumulating on the plaza.
“Normally if backpacks were left unattended, we would clear the plaza,” Simmons said. But at the Occupy camp, there is so much stuff that anything could be hidden, he said, which is “a public safety concern.”
The county board has begun receiving complaints of assaults and public intoxication at the Occupy Minnesota camp in the plaza, Simmons said, as well as calls from people who felt the overnight camping was keeping them from using the space. “A public space needs to be accessible to all people,” he said. “I think the board is fair in coming up with a policy that allows them to exercise their free speech while allowing others to use the plaza.”
The Hennepin County Board voted this week to change policies regarding the plaza. Beginning on Monday, November 14, demonstrators will no longer be allowed to sleep on the plaza. The county news release cited health and safety concerns, cost, and an existing ban on overnight camping, as well as the coming winter weather.
“Minnesota being what it is, with the cold weather, we didn’t feel good about letting people sleep here, in the below zero weather,” Simmons said. “The reality is, you can freeze in minutes.”
Harsh winter conditions are approaching on the East Coast as well. “It is getting really cold—it’s usually been in the teens and 20s at night,” said Occupy Boston member Acacia Brewer, in a cellphone interview from within the camp. “It snowed for two days last week, and a couple of tents fell down because the tents we have are for summer camping.”
Brewer said a winterization committee has been formed to prepare the camp for the New England winter. At a recent Occupy Boston General Assembly—that is the term being used nationally for regular meetings in which campers discuss and vote on ideas—there was a proposal to remove many of the two-person summer tents from the camp, in favor of larger 15-person army tents that can withstand snow and take advantage of body heat.
The Occupy Boston campers have also discussed moving the camp indoors, or instituting rotating shifts so people don’t have to sleep outside for too long, Brewer said. “There has not been a lot of debate,” Brewer said. “A lot of people want to stay.”
In the Northwestern states, cold, rainy weather also poses a challenge to campers. But in Seattle, where protesters have been occupying three sites over the past month, campers are determined to stick out the winter, said Ellen, a volunteer on the Occupy Seattle media team who declined to give her last name. “People in Seattle love to hike and climb, we have four season tents, high tech sleeping bags,” she said. “We will make sure we have enough gloves, hats, fleece, tents and sleeping bags to support our movement.”
Waning support from government officials
As health, safety and cost concerns crop up in cities with long term Occupy camps, support for the campsites from government leaders has waned—as it did here in Oakland, when on October 20 city officials first issued an eviction notice they said had been forced by health conditions at the downtown plaza. That eviction was not successful, as nationally-watched news accounts over subsequent days made clear; after a night of tear gas and hostilities between protestors and police, the Oakland campers moved their tents right back to Frank Ogawa Plaza. Now the fatal shooting just outside the camp Thursday night is again causing city officials to question the wisdom of letting the camping continue, even though it remains unclear whether the victim or his assailants were directly related to Occupy Oakland.
In Washington, D.C., local government and police officials’ support was tried last weekend when hundreds of Occupy D.C. protesters blocked intersections near the city’s downtown convention center in order to protest a conservative activists’ meeting inside. Ben Droz, an Occupy D.C. participant, said there had been no problems up until last Friday, when during the demonstration, four protesters were struck by a vehicle and others clashed with police officers.
In a statement, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray urged protesters to show restraint and keep protests peaceful. “The report of aggressive action by some protesters last Friday evening was not indicative of what we have come to expect from Occupy D.C. demonstrators,” Gray declared, adding that city officials “will not tolerate behavior that jeopardizes public safety.”
In Portland, several incidents have also deteriorated relations between Occupy Portland and the city and police. The city’s mayor, Sam Adams, has let demonstrators camp in two downtown parks next to City Hall since October 6. As in many other cities, numerous arrests were made when demonstrators camped outside their designated area. The weeks that followed have included an unplanned march of hundreds of people that shut down several busy streets; allegations that one protestor pushed a police officer into a moving city bus; and this week, the use of a Molotov cocktail at a downtown Federal building several blocks from the camp.
“Everybody is getting weary and wary,” Mayor Adams said in a prepared statement on November 3rd. “But there’s no excuse for violence. It’s unacceptable. We have been working hard to keep the peace, and I expect that of the Occupy Portland encampment as well.”
On Thursday, Mayor Adams held a press conference to issue an eviction notice to the Occupy Portland camp for 12:01 am this Sunday. “Occupy has had a considerable time to share its movement’s message,” Mayor Adams said, “But [they have] lost control of the camps it has created.”
In his statement, Adams said the camp’s homeless population had increased substantially, fueling health and security concerns after reports of heavy drug use within the camp. Mike Withey, an Occupy Portland volunteer, told a reporter for the Oregonian, “This is pretty much a homeless camp.” Working with City Commissioner Nick Fish, Mayor Adams said the city is working with homeless shelters to ensure that all evicted campers have a place to stay after Sunday’s deadline to clear the park.
Many of the country’s Occupy camps, from Portland to New York to Atlanta, have become refuges for the homeless and hungry. They provide free food and shelter, and a sense of community often not available living on the street. In Nashville, after the city’s initial Occupy camp was set up, it grew to become “about 50 percent homeless,” according to Robert Titley, a member of the camp. With the large homeless population came concerns of real violence. Titley said some appeared to be at the camp only to cause problems and “to use drink and drugs.”
According to Titley, some members felt unsafe in the camp after several fights broke out between homeless campers. Occupy Nashville worked closely with the Metropolitan Nashville Police to eliminate drug use and security concerns stemming from the homeless population within the camp, Titley said. “Some did become productive members of the camp,” Titley was quick to add.
In D.C., Occupy participant Ben Droz said the city’s mayor and city council generally support the protesters. But Occupy D.C. is occupying another jurisdiction at the same time—land supervised by the National Park Police. The two Occupy D.C. camps, which have been set up for the past month, are in federal parks: one in downtown McPherson Square, and another at the concrete-covered Freedom Plaza. The National Park Service, which oversees McPherson Square, has so far made no move to evict the Occupy D.C. protesters.
All over the country, the question of who exactly is in charge of the areas being occupied—and then which laws apply to these spaces—has made for a complex array of scenarios. The initial protest camp, Occupy Wall Street, is situated in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park, which is privately owned but accessible to the public. Demonstrators have exploited this situation to their advantage: because it is not owned by the city, it is not subject to the city park curfew, allowing people to remain in the park 24 hours a day.
In Seattle, by contrast, protestors have occupied three locations over the past month, with varying responses from the respective officials in charge. In an interview this week, Ellen said that when officers seized tents and arrested occupants of Seattle’s Westlake Park in early October, officials cited a city law banning camping in public city parks. Protesters still meet there during the day, but retire to two other camps to sleep overnight.
One of those sites is the grassy area in front of City Hall, where campers are allowed to stay—even though it also falls under city law—because Mayor Mike McGinn offered the space. “We are making City Hall Plaza available for those that wish to stay overnight, with reasonable restrictions,” declared a release from the mayor’s office. Seattle’s Occupy protesters also camp in a plaza at the city’s Central Community College, which is under Washington state jurisdiction. State law is ambiguous about whether or not camping is allowed there, Ellen said; the faculty at the college have embraced the movement and allowed campers to remain, even teaching nighttime classes on videography and the art of protesting.
Thirty miles south of Seattle, Occupy Tacoma campers sleep in Pugnetti Park, which is also under state jurisdiction, said Rob McNair Huff, community relations manager for the city. Occupy protesters in Tacoma have not seemed worried about being evicted by state or local officials, said David Bacon, a freelance photojournalist who recently visited the Occupy camps in the northwest. The Tacoma protesters have held a number of marches around town, but Huff said city officials and Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland have not dealt much with the group, aside from working with some of the protesters’ leaders to address noise complaints from people who live near the state-run park.
While protesters are occupying federal land in D.C., state land in Tacoma and city land in Seattle, the Occupy Las Vegas camp, dubbed “Area 99,” is on county land: a fenced and paved three-acre lot owned by Clark County. The demonstrators have signed an agreement with the county, allowing them to camp on the space as long as they abide by all of the points of the contract—including purchasing insurance that completely indemnifies the county, renting and maintaining a certain numbers of portable toilets, providing trash cans and dumpsters, and prohibiting open fires. The camp is a mile and a half off the Vegas strip, and almost 5 miles from City Hall, and does not interfere with residents or businesses.
“This group reached out to us and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department prior to their protest,” Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said this week. “They wanted to hold their protest in a responsible and peaceful manner…So I, along with another commissioner, agreed it would be best to work with this group to accommodate their request in a way that minimized the impact on the public.”
Occupy Minnesota demonstrators are also camping on county property; the Minneapolis Occupy camp is set up on the concrete plaza of the county Government Center, putting the response under the jurisdiction of Hennepin County. The camp has been in place since October 7, but now, following a policy change, Kirk Simmons from the county board said campers will need to pack up and leave the public plaza by Monday.
“We don’t want confrontation,” Simmons said. “We don’t want to arrest.” But he also said he does not know what will happen if the protesters try to stay despite the order to disassemble the camp.
“This was a new and unexpected use of the plazas, which are not designed for camping or long-term occupation,” declared a news release from the Hennepin County office. “Individuals can demonstrate, assemble, or otherwise use the plazas at any time.”
In response to other Occupy encampments, similar bans on overnight camping have been enforced in other cities. In Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock evicted Occupy Denver campers from Veterans’ Park last month, declaring that they were not allowed to camp overnight. After a round of arrests in mid-October for violation of the ban, police violently clashed with demonstrators unwilling to comply with the mayor’s orders. Pepper spray and rubber bullets were used, and 15 people were arrested. In a statement, Hancock said, “We simply don’t want to set a precedent where…everyone who asks us can be in our parks after 11 pm or pitch a tent in the park.”
Jeannie Hartley, a media committee member of Occupy Denver, said in a phone interview that several dozen demonstrators are still sleeping in the park every night, but that they are not permitted to have tents. “People are trying to make do with cardboard structures, but the police come at night and harass them and make them take those down too,” Hartley said.
In Phoenix, the city is not allowing protesters to camp overnight either, said Diane D’Angelo, a media volunteer for Occupy Phoenix, which stages its events during the day in Cesar Chavez Plaza in front of City Hall. After protesters first gathered in Phoenix, D’Angelo said, there were a couple of arrests each week of people who were sleeping on the plaza. A few weeks ago, Phoenix police officers arrested 45 people in a park for being there past the 10:30 pm closing time—an “overreaction,” D’Angelo said.
City officials are in a period of “watchful waiting,” she said in a phone interview. Although City Manager David Cavazos handles most of the administrative duties, D’Angelo said she is interested to see how Mayor-elect Greg Stanton, voted into office Tuesday, will handle the situation.
Legal battles are being waged in several occupied cities where demonstrators were arrested after government officials altered rules regulating assembly in public parks. Occupy Nashville, which is camped at a downtown public square in front of the State Legislature, began on October 8 with about 10 to 20 campers. Those numbers quickly swelled as the camp attracted a large homeless population. Security and sanitation concerns followed, leading Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam on October 27 to issue a new set of rules governing assembling in the plaza. The new rules eliminated demonstrators’ rights to assemble after 4 pm or be in the plaza after 10 pm without permission from the state. On the mornings of October 28 and 29, nearly 50 demonstrators were arrested for violating these new rules.
In response to the arrests, Occupy Nashville filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against the governor and other officials, claiming that the rule changes violated their rights of free speech and assembly. The restraining order, backed by the ACLU, was granted by US district judge Aleta Trauger and will remain in effect until November 21. Until then, Occupy Nashville campers are allowed to remain in Legislative Plaza. The ruling is seen across the country as a watershed case in Occupy camp cases.
“It is our attorney’s opinion that it will take six months for the state legislature to change the rules in order to meet constitutional requirements,” said Robert Titley, an Occupy Nashville participant and member of the media committee. “So we’re good through the winter.”
A similar situation arose in Austin, when on October 28 city officials approved new restrictions to the Austin City Hall mezzanine, where Occupy Austin was camping. These new rules prohibit overnight sleeping, unattended signs and the operation of food tables. Close to 40 people were arrested on October 30 for violating these new regulations.
“The police chief had come to several GA meetings and had the opportunity to address things that were coming down,” Occupy Austin member Anthony Floriani said in an interview this week. “He congratulated us for being good citizens, and then proceeded to arrest 40 of us.” Floriani said that, until that point, “City Hall had not made any effort to communicate with us about the new rules.”
Many Occupy protesters don’t view their camps as a temporary situation. Occupy Nashville members, for example, recently sent the governor a letter saying, “We plan on being here for a while, and we would like to be good neighbors.” City officials in multiple jurisdictions are now scrambling to figure out how to proceed, as many camps enter their second month and more complex problems are starting to arise.
After Oakland’s Thursday night shooting in the area of the Occupy camp—a young man was killed by at least one assailant, in circumstances not yet fully clear—Mayor Jean Quan has urged the campers to leave the plaza. Even though there has so far been no formal connection between the fatal shooting and the Occupy protestors, the shooting “underscores the reason why the encampment must end,” said Quan’s press release. “The risks are too great.”
Also on Thursday, one member of Occupy Vermont in Burlington apparently committed suicide inside a tent at the City Hall Park encampment. Preliminary reports indicate that the man was a 35-year-old military veteran.
There was also a death last Saturday at a camp in Canada—23-year-old Ashlie Gough died in the Occupy Vancouver campsite. The city took quick action to try to end the camping, and after a clash between police and protesters over a barrel fire, a British Columbia Supreme Court justice granted the city of Vancouver an interim injunction on Wednesday that orders the camp to comply with the city’s fire codes, requiring campers to remove “all flammable materials and propane tanks.”
There are Occupy campsites in at least 16 Occupy demonstration sites across Canada, reported CBC news earlier this week, including Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Calgary.
The Vancouver Sun reported that Lawyer Jason Gratl asked the judge not to give police the authority to enforce the order, saying it would be “a recipe for a repetition of Oakland…a recipe for confrontation,” referring to the attempts by Oakland police officers to clear the Occupy camp here that resulted in violent clashes and arrests.
Other cities are in similarly difficult situations: “What sort of criteria have to be achieved is hard to know,” McDonald said about satisfying the demands of Occupy Philly. “Some want to continue as long as they can until their message is out there.”
One Seattle city councilmember, Nick Licata, recently introduced a resolution to support the city’s occupation, which includes, among other things, a proposed review of banking and investment practices “to ensure that public funds are invested in responsible financial institutions that support our community.”
“I believe Occupy Portland can lead the nation in this next phase of the Occupy Movement,” Portland Mayor Sam Adams said, in a statement issuing in eviction notice to Occupy Portland campers. “A phase where we can focus all of our energies on economic and social justice—not on port-a-potties and tents.”
Text and reporting by Brittany Schell and Adam Grossberg.
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