Mixed messages

OccupySF erects a growing tent city — over the mayor's opposition

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Not going anywhere: The mayor wants to get rid of the tents, but OccupySF isn't moving
GUARDIAN PHOTO BY STEVEN T. JONES

steve@sfbg.com

In San Francisco — the first major city to launch a midnight police raid to break up an Occupy encampment, which it repeated Oct. 16 — city officials are struggling with contradictions between claims of supporting the movement but opposing its tactic of occupation. Protesters have reacted to those mixed messages by erecting a growing tent city in defiance of Mayor Ed Lee's public statements on the issue.

The situation remained fluid at Guardian press time, with OccupySF members unsure when and whether to expect another raid. That sort of standoff has repeated itself in cities around the country. But it seems particularly fraught here in the final weeks of a closely contested mayor's race as Lee's stated belief that "a balance is possible" is put to the test.

On Oct. 18, when hundreds of OccupySF protesters and their supporters entered City Hall to testify at the Board of Supervisors hearing — where Lee appeared for the monthly question time and was asked by Sup. Jane Kim to "describe the plan that our offices have been developing" to facilitate the OccupySF movement — it became clear there was no plan and that Lee was standing by the city's ban on overnight camping.

"From the very beginning, I have fully supported the spirit of the Occupy movement...To those who have come today and who come day after day as part of this movement, let me say now that we stand with you in expressing anger and frustration at the so-called too big to fail and the big financial institutions," Lee said at the hearing.

"Then don't send the police in to destroy it," yelled a woman from the crowd.

"Well, we are working with you," Lee responded as Board President David Chiu banged his gavel at the interruption and said, "excuse me, you are out of order" and the packed hearing room erupted in shouts and applause at calling out the contradiction in the mayor's position.

"Well, we are working with you. We are working with you to help raise your voice peacefully and will protect and defend your right to protest and your freedom of speech," Lee continued, eliciting scattered groans from the crowd. "But that's not the same thing as pitching tents and lighting fires in public places and parks that are meant for use by everyone in our city. But we can make accommodations and we have, and we can do this while not endangering public safety in any way."

Afterward, as Lee was surrounded by a scrum of journalists asking about the issue, he made his stand even more clear. "We're going to draw the line with overnight camping and especially structures," Lee told reporters. Asked why the police raids have taken place in the middle of the night and why San Francisco is banning practices being allowed in other occupied cities, such as tents and kitchens, he offered only nonresponsive answers before being whisked away by his security detail.

Back inside the hearing room, Sup. John Avalos — who has led efforts to mediate the conflict and prevent police raids — called Lee's comments "very frustrating. I'm alarmed that he is moving toward nightly standoffs with the Occupy movement." After watching video of the chaotic Oct. 16 raid, at which several protesters were injured by police officers, Avalos called the situation "unsafe for both sides."

Six of the 11 supervisors voiced support for OccupySF during the meeting, although Kim — who supports OccupySF and Lee's mayoral campaign and whose District 6 includes the two protest encampments, in Justin Herman Plaza and outside the Federal Reserve — said at the hearing, "We're all struggling to figure out the best way to accommodate it."

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