SFPD allows OccupySF to grow into a tent city

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Photos by Steven T. Jones, who also contributed to this report.

It seems the San Francisco Police Department is laying off the OccupySF encampment, at least for now. After top city officials sent mixed messages to the occupiers during a pair of high-profile hearings in City Hall this week, a full-blown tent city with working kitchen and medical tent has now been erected in Justin Herman Plaza.

During the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Ed Lee voiced support for the movement’s message, but said that tents, tarps, and cooking in the plaza or in OccupySF’s presence on the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve wouldn’t be tolerated.

A string of protesters testified against the policy and the two recent police crackdowns, which was also criticized by John Avalos and other progressive supervisors who are working on a legislative solution to the standoff. But at the Police Commission hearing the next night, Police Chief Greg Suhr seemed to announce that police would stand  down and allow the encampment to continue.

Protesters packed the meeting and disrupted the proceedings with chants of “SFPD where is your humanity” and accusations of police brutality at several recent raids of their camp. Many representatives made public comments condemning police brutality and repression of the protests, and many speakers also connected it with a broader problem of police harassment, notably in Bayview-Hunters Point.

Said OccupySF protester Christopher Ray: “Obama himself does not have the right to come tell us to stop, to tell us to take down our tarps, to tell us we can’t eat, to cook food, to sleep there. Period. You would have change the Constitution of the United States in order to do that. We’re not leaving.”

By the end of the long meeting, Suhr expressed support in what seemed like a promise to OccupySF: “We have no future plans to go into the demonstration. We know that it’s for the long haul. We did work, or, I’m told that we were trying to work all day Sunday to take down the tarps and the structures. We did meet last week and I did provide a written notice that’s been provided wholesale since down there. We realize that this movement could go on indefinitely, and as such, I’m actually working with the Mayor’s Office personally to put the port-o-potties and the handwashing stations down there to provide sanitation. I don’t know that anybody’s doing that. And in other towns where this movement has grown and is very large, they’re already experiencing things like dogs that have bitten people, rats, sanitation issues, the lack of running water so I can assure you that our efforts are to keep it safe and to facilitate the First Amendment demonstration.”

His statement was meant with a cry of “Now that’s what I’m talking about!” and thunderous applause from the chamber, and the OccupySF movement has interpreted the remarks as permission for the encampment to continue without further police harassment. Guardian calls to the SFPD Public Affairs Office to clarify the policy have not yet been returned.

By last night, the encampment’s numbers and infrastructure had grown -- with a kitchen producing group dinners and new tents being added throughout the evening -- and there seemed to be only a cursory police presence. Many protesters were essentially declaring victory, telling the Guardian that the numbers only grew after each police raid, expressing hope that the city has now had a change of heart. 

This comes after a rocky history of SFPD relations with the protest. On October 5, police issued a notice requiring all tents at the encampment to be removed. Protesters complied, but police still moved in, confiscated all the protest’s materials, and ended up making one arrest in the ensuing altercation. Since, OccupySF has mostly refrained from erecting any structures; instead, the growing numbers, now an average of 200 per night, sleep on the sidewalk. When they put up two tarps when weather turned rainy on Sunday the 16th, the result was another nighttime police raid, this time with five arrests and several injuries to demonstrators.

Yet the next morning, protesters had strung up more tarps.  And in the past few days, many have pitched tents. Now, tents number over 40, and the police are yet to raid.

On Thursday, California Nurses Association and the National Nurses Association worked with OccupySF’s medic team to set up a medical tent. The tent has been sorely needed for a while, but it is only recently that supporters of the protest felt safe creating it.

When the tent was put up, police came and circulated a notice that had been issued on Oct. 1 stating, “Tents, overhead tarps, and/or wooden pallets are not to be within the demonstration area unless appropriate permits are obtained because of the potential hazard they present.” But police exited without attempting to enforce this notice, and as of now the medical tent, complete with a cot and a growing stock of supplies, is still in place.

Said Pilar Schiavo, an organizer with CNA who has been working with OccupySF: “We were able to provide treatment to a bunch of occupiers today.” She says there are many at OccupySF with no other access to health care besides the new tent. “It’s just basic first aid so far, but a little goes a long way here. One had a broken finger from Sunday’s raid.”

Schiavo says when they set up the tent early Thursday morning, protesters Tweeted, Facebooked, and otherwise put out calls for needed medical supplies. Shiavo was proud to report that “supplies started showing up an hour later.”

Just a short BART ride away, city officials in Oakland have accommodated Occupy Oakland and it has grown into a large tent city with ever-improving infrastructure and organization. Perhaps OccupySF is now headed down the same path.

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