Mayor Lee still moving toward showdown with OccupySF

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Protesters are beginning to understand that Mayor Ed Lee is pushing the city's crackdown on them.
Steven T. Jones

Mayor Ed Lee continues to insist that OccupySF break down its encampment in Justin Herman Plaza and threaten to send in riot police if that doesn't happen, even as this week's violent police raid on Occupy Oakland has sparked international outrage, condemnation, and solidarity with other occupations.

Reporters packed into the Mayor's Office for a photo op with a good samaritan who recently helped rescue an injured truck driver, clearly waiting for the chance to interview Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr about last night's aborted police raid on the OccupySF encampment, asking repeated questions seeking to clarify Lee's confusing political doublespeak before his communication staff shuffled him out of he room after about 10 minutes.

“I, like all of you, were watching in somewhat of very big deep concern as I saw things unveiled in Oakland, certainly in constant communication with not only our chief of police, Chief Suhr, but also all of our departments to say that's not what we want to happen in San Francisco,” Lee began. “We're trying to enforce all the laws here, and of course it's public health stuff that we're emphasizing. We need to make sure our public spaces are clean and healthy, and to protect their First Amendment rights. But we didn't want to get into a situation where we're just busting heads because then it's all lost.”

Yet neither Lee nor Suhr could articulate why they think Oakland's raid turned so violent or how to guard against a similar fate here in San Francisco, particularly because they reiterated their position that the encampment must go and held open the possibility that another police raid – there have been two so far, the second more violent than the first, and the camp has only grown in size since then – could come at any moment.

They also offered shifting explanations for last night's massing of SFPD troops in riot gear in buses on Treasure Island, which protesters believe was turned back only because of the huge presence in the camp, which included five members of the Board of Supervisors and various labor leaders, a group that Lee says he would be meeting with shortly after the event (“We're seeing if they'd like to propose some additional solutions,” Lee said).

When asked about plans for yesterday's raid, Suhr initially said it was simply a normal Wednesday evening training exercise. “There were that many police amassed last Wednesday, there will be that many police amassed next Wednesday. Wednesday is a standard training day for the Police Department,” Suhr said.

But when reporters expressed skepticism – many aware of the busloads of police in riot gear massing on Treasure Island, the last minute changes in police staffing schedules, and the notices of possible police activity sent to businesses around Justin Herman Plaza – Suhr said police were preparing to either assist in Oakland or deal with trouble from OccupySF.

“Out of deference for what was going on in Oakland, we felt that the more pressing need was whether we needed to assist Oakland and/or whether that situation was going to come to us,” Suhr said. “I didn't say it was a training exercise, we took advantage of the presence on what was training day and to train to what we may have to do down the line.”

Lee also raised the concern that violent agitators might come to San Francisco: “They had to get ready for what they saw in downtown Oakland. They had to get ready for hundreds of people coming to San Francisco, either walking over the bridge or coming through the BART system. So they were trying to get ready for that particular activity because we didn't know what was going to happen. We saw a lot of anger and a lot of frustration by people who wanted to come over to San Francisco and we didn't know what their intention was.”

But reporters noted that Lee ordered OccupySF to take down its encampment two weeks ago, that he told reporters this week that they must do so “within days,” and that Suhr circulated a memo in the camp yesterday entitled “You are Subject to Arrest” if they didn't heed city codes regarding overnight camping. Given all that, we again asked if there was any intention to go into the camp last night?

“That was not our intention, but I've always asked the chief to be ready. I've been insistent that we have to be ready to enforce our laws so he's been under that instruction for quite some time. But the tactical decisions are the chief's responsibilities,” Lee said.

Yet later in the press conference, after Lee had left the room, Suhr made it clear that the decision about if and when to stage another raid on OccupySF is the mayor's. “Make no mistake about it, Mayor Lee is in charge of this situation,” Suhr said.

In fact, when we asked Suhr about this constant threat of a violent police raid in the middle of the night hanging over the protesters – which is a wearying distraction from the main economic justice purpose at best, and at worst what some protesters told us was akin to psychological warfare – Suhr said that even he didn't know when a raid might come.

“There's nobody more anxious that I am because I don't know when the raid is coming either, so I can attest to the fact that it makes me anxious. We are working painstakingly and patiently to make sure that area is safe and sanitary,” Suhr said.

But while Lee insists that dialogue and compromise could still avert another crackdown, he refuses to accept that occupation is a tactic that protesters aren't likely to abandon anytime soon. So Lee's insistence that the camp be broken down seems to be putting the city and OccupySF on a collision course that most members of the Board of Supervisors – including those sponsoring resolution urging the city to allow overnight camping – fear could be a disastrous stain on the city.

“Our message to OccupySF is we're still wanting you to comply,” Lee said. “That's been the consistent message we've been sending clearly these last couple weeks...We're trying to ensure that [the ban on] overnight camping is still enforced, but also respecting their rights to protest.”

I and other reporters tried to push Lee on the potentially harmful standoff he was creating, and he tried to make it sound as if the OccupySF movement could avoid another police crackdown, something he said depends on protesters submitting to his demands.

“It's optimistic on our part that we would get some sensible minds who want to help us find a way to clean up the area, because that ultimately what we want to do,” he said.

But for all his statements of support for the Occupy Wall Street movement and stated desire to avoid the violent confrontation in Oakland, he refuses to allow tents on the site.

“There's a fine line between occupying public space within your First Amendment rights and sleeping overnight and causing health conditions that we've been very concerned about. So we're going to take it step by step,” Lee said. When asked about whether tents would still be allowed if the camp was clean and otherwise compliant, he said, “We're still saying no tents.”

So then when and how will you be enforcing that, reporters kept asking.

“Let's see what can voluntarily be done through the dialogue that trying to establish. We've given them a lot of notices. I want to be sure that if we have to do things to enforce our laws, that we're quite justified and that everybody knows,” Lee said.

Yet that was the same stance that Oakland Mayor Jean Quan took, and it's one that she is reportedly backtracking on in the wake of the violence and international condemnation. And Lee couldn't explain how a crackdown might go differently in San Francisco, particularly none that OccupySF has grown larger and more empowered by defying Lee's edict for so long.

“Everyone agrees that we don't want to Oakland situation to happen here,” Lee said, at which point Press Secretary Christine Falvey said he would take only two more questions.

“We're putting a responsible burden on the occupiers to work with us so we can avoid situations like Oakland,” Lee said. “They have to take responsibilities for what they've done.”

“Frankly, it sounds like you've said nothing, and I think some other reporters are feeling the same way,” KCBS reporter Barbara Taylor, the senior journalist stationed at City Hall, said with a tone of exasperation. “So can you just outline, when you say to do the right thing, what is the right thing? Do you expect them to voluntarily take down the tents, clean up the camp, only be there within certain hours?”

“Yes. The right thing for them to begin showing responsibility,” Lee responded.

“But what does that mean?” Taylor persisted.

Lee said they need to clean up the camp, saying that “cleanliness has been our number one concern....They have to show signs that they're willing to work with us.” But the protesters have been diligent about regularly cleaning the camp, and they have complied with other city requests such as no open flames. And when the city refused to make porta-potties available at night, supporters of the camp rented four of their own after the city and its daily newspapers complained about public urination and defecation.

“I've said all along that public safety is our number one concern,” Lee said.

Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White reinforced Lee's point, complaining about open flames, car batteries, and generally “unhealthy and unsafe conditions.” When we noted that the protesters have already addressed and abated many of these issues in recent days, she admitted that she hasn't been to the site recently, but said, “The tarps and the tents are not something we're going to tolerate.”

Suhr made it clear that police action would be done in support of other city departments who ordered hazards to be abated. As for when and how officers would do so: “If we believe we could go into the camp safely, if we think we can go in and support the agencies that will be doing the cleanup, without having to go past a measured response, we would do that,” Suhr said. “That opportunity did not present itself last night.”

And so the standoff continues.