Oakland, California: After weeks of cautiously accepting the teeming, round-the-clock protests spawned by Occupy Wall Street, several stressed-out cities have come to the end of their patience, and others appear to be not far behind.
Here in Oakland, the police filled downtown streets with tear gas late on Tuesday to stop throngs of protesters from re-entering a City Hall plaza that had been cleared of their encampment earlier in the day. And those protests, which resulted in more than 100 arrests and at least one life-threatening injury, appeared ready to ignite again on Wednesday night as supporters of the Occupy movement promised to retake the square.
Moving the crowds: A union member in Oakland delivers a message of congratulations and support for the Occupy Oakland cause. Photo: Jim Wilson/The New York Times.
Early Wednesday evening, city officials were trying to defuse the situation, opening streets around City Hall, although the encampment site was still fenced off.
But after about an hour of speeches, the crowd removed the fences. The number of protesters swelled to about 3,000, but the demonstration remained peaceful. Leaders led a series of call-and-response chants. “Now the whole world is watching Oakland,” was one phrase that was repeated as passing cars honked in approval. The police had gone, compared with a heavy presence the night before.
The official protest broke up at about 10pm, peacefully, with protesters dancing, carrying US flags and generally celebrating what seemed to be a well-attended demonstration.
Shortly after the end of that protest, however, hundreds of demonstrators began to wander down Broadway, Oakland’s central thoroughfare, in an unplanned march. The Oakland police, which had been noticeably absent during the protests at City Hall, began donning protective riot gear as demonstrators raised their rhetoric and attempted to board San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit trains. Several entrances to the BART system were closed, agitating protesters and adding to an increasingly tense atmosphere in Oakland, which had exploded in violence a mere 24 hours before.
The impromptu march continued west toward Oakland’s waterfront as it became more apparent that there was little central organizing structure as the night grew later.
About 10.25 pm, a thousand protesters arrived at Oakland’s police headquarters and began milling about in front. Some attempted to put garbage cans in the street, while others beseeched the crowd to remain peaceful. The police manned the front door of their headquarters and maintained a loose perimeter.
At midnight, a much-diminished crowd of perhaps 500 marched back to Frank Igawa Plaza, where violence broke out on Tuesday night. Some people were sitting in an intersection but the police kept their distance.
Across the bay, meanwhile, in the usually liberal environs of San Francisco, city officials there had also seemingly hit their breaking point, warning several hundred protesters that they were in violation of the law by camping at a downtown site after voicing concerns about unhealthy and often squalid conditions in the camp, including garbage, vermin and human waste.
In Atlanta, mayor Kasim Reed ordered police to arrest more than 50 protesters early on Wednesday and remove their tents from a downtown park after deciding that the situation had become unsafe, despite originally issuing executive orders to let them camp there overnight.
And like many of his mayoral colleagues nationwide, Reed openly expressed frustration with the protesters’ methods.
“The attitude I have seen here is not consistent with any civil rights protests I have seen in Atlanta,” Reed said in an interview, “and certainly not consistent with the most respected forms of civil disobedience.”
Similar confrontations could soon come to pass in other cities, including Providence, Rhode Island, where mayor Angel Taveras has vowed to seek a court order to remove protesters from Burnside Park, which they have occupied since 15 October.
And while other bigger cities, including New York, Boston and Philadelphia, have taken a more tolerant view of the protests—for now—officials are still grappling with growing concerns about crime, sanitation and homelessness at the encampments. Even in Los Angeles, where the city council passed a resolution in support of the protesters, mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa warned on Wednesday that they would not be allowed to remain outside City Hall indefinitely.
Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, echoed that.
“It’s a daily assessment for us,” she said.
More and more, mayors say they have found themselves walking a complex and politically delicate line: simultaneously wanting to respect the right to free speech and assembly, but increasingly concerned the protests can’t stay orderly and safe.
The protests showed little sign of slacking. In Chicago, for example, demonstrators gathered on Wednesday outside the office of mayor Rahm Emanuel—President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff— requesting 24-hour access to Grant Park and demanding that charges be dropped against the more than 300 protesters who were arrested there in the past weeks.
“He’s denying us our constitutional right to not only free speech but peaceful continual assembly,” said Andy Manos, 32, one of the protesters.
In Oakland, where one protester—Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran—was in critical condition at a local hospital after being struck in the head with a projectile during the chaotic street battle on Tuesday, city officials defended their actions, saying the police were prompted to use tear gas after being pelted with rocks.
The police is investigating what happened to Olsen.
As the protests continued, worries about possible violence percolated.
In Atlanta, Reed said the last straw came on Tuesday, when he said a man with an AK-47 assault rifle joined the protesters in Woodruff Park.
On Wednesday, after all protesters who had been arrested were released on bond, some said the man with the assault rifle was not part of their group and should not have been a factor in shutting them down.
“We don’t even know that guy,” said Candi Cunard, 26.
Still, the scenes of tear gas in the streets and provocative graffiti—including one spray-painted message reading “Kill Pigs” in Oakland—has been seized on by some Republicans to try to make the protests a political liability for Democrats.
©2011/The New York Times
Malia Wollan from Oakland, Ian Lovett from Los Angeles, Jess Bidgood from Boston, Robbie Brown from Atlanta, Kate Zernike from New York and Steven Yaccino from Chicago contributed to this story.