Protesters "occupy" vacant building

A slogan from the May 1968 student/labor revolts in Paris scrawled on a wall inside the former Cathedral Hill Hotel

After a long day of protest that began at 6 a.m., 1200 joined a march affiliatiated with Occupy SF  last night. The march aimed to “liberate the commons”; organizers said they succeeded when they were able to enter a vacant building, the former Cathedral Hill Hotel at 1101 Van Ness.

The march left from Justin Herman Plaza just after 5 p.m. and arrived at the former hotel around 7 p.m. after rallying at several sites along the way.

There, protesters were greeted by a police line and barricades protecting the buildings.

SFPD Officer Carlos Manfredi reports that protesters tried to remove barricades with the hooks of their umbrellas, and then threw “rocks, bottle and bricks” at police. Police responded by pepper spraying a dozen protesters.

Many eyewitness reports confirm manipulation of barricades, but deny that anything was thrown at police, instead attributing the pepper spray usage to anti-police slogans chanted by the crowd.

After the confrontation, the march turned down Van Ness. Some protesters broke windows at a Bentley dealership at 999 Van Ness.

The march soon turned back around, and protesters regrouped near the building’s back entrance on Franklin between Geary and Post.

There, the crowd looked up to see figures on the roof unfurl a banner reading “Liberate the Commons.” The back door was then opened from the inside by activists, largely from Homes Not Jails, who had broken into the building.

Soon after, demonstrators began streaming into the building.

Police arrived around 8 p.m. and redirected traffic, blocking Geary between Van Ness and Franklin, while a mass of several hundred protesters continued to block Franklin street between Post and Geary.

At 8:30, Manfredi said that police had no plans to rush into the “occupied” building.

“RIght now officer safety is our number one priority so we’re not going to go in there and rush into this event. Obviously Van Ness and Geary is a very busy street...We’re monitoring the situation, we’re talking with the owner, and we’re going to come up with a game plan...We’re going to see if we can open up some line of communication and speak to them, and see if we can come to some form of resolution,” Said Manfredi.

Manfredi also discussed the difficulties police find in communicating with Occupy SF protesters, noting that “a lot of times with these protesters, there’s not one single person responsible for leading the pack. So it’s very difficult, when you talk to one person they may not agree with the other ten. So that’s where the problem comes in.”

This “leaderless” quality, as well as privileging immediate human needs like shelter and food over some aspects of capitalism such as property rights, has been a running theme in the Occupy movement. Homeless advocacy was a large part of the Occupy SF focus in past months, as the encampment at Justin Herman Plaza created a community of homeless and housed activists.

Homes Not Jails, an organization that has been working with Occupy SF, was crucial in planning the “liberate the commons” protest. The group insists that the 30,000 vacant housing units in San Francisco should be used to shelter the city’s homeless, which they estimate at 10,000. San Francisco’s Human Services Agency reports the number of homeless at 6,455.

The cold rain pouring down throughout the night’s events increased the urgency many felt to find shelter for homeless colleagues. Said one demonstrator, “if we can prevent just one homeless person from dying of exposure in the rain tonight, the building takeover was worth it.”

The former Cathedral Hill Hotel, which has been vacant since it closed in 2009, is now owned by Sutter Health and California Pacific Medical Center, with plans to open a hospital at the site in 2015.

The project has been a target of several protests campaigns, including opposition from SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, UNITE HERE Local 2, and the California Nurses Association (CNA). They also say the hospital will not cater to patients with medicare and medicaid.

At a press conferenece Jan. 18, CNA member Pilar Schiavo announced a protest at the site for the afternoon of Jan. 20.

Said Schiavo, “A huge hospital is being planned which is being likened by Sutter to a five-star hotel. At the same time, Sutter is gutting St. Lukes Hospital, which is essential to providing health care for residents in the Mission, the Excelsior and Bayview-Hunter’s Point. We know that the five-star hospital's not aimed at serving the 99 percent, and we must hold Sutter accountable to all communities, not just those fortunate enough to have private insurance.”

Police cleared the street of protesters and entered the building around 9:30. Those who wished to were allowed to leave; several did, while about 15 remained. Protesters discussed plans to continue the building occupation through the night.

But most protesters providing support from the outsid had left by midnight, and those inside decided to leave voluntarily, according to organizer Craig Rouskey.

This post has been updated.

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