The Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to the west coast with protests all across California, and caught in the middle of these demonstrations are the cities where these events take place, as local officials are the ones who have been left to deal with maintaining a tricky balance between free speech rights and safety and health concerns (not to mention the costs involved with clean-up once people decamp). As protestors besiege City Halls and public parks for hours each day, encampments have grown, which has led cities to be concerned about fire code violations, drug use, noise levels, and health issues, among other problems. For instance, take the problems that Oakland officials are having with the tent city created by protestors around Frank H. Ogawa Plaza. Due to the presence of the demonstrators, rats have become attracted to the area (as there was already an underlying rat problem) and complaints have surged from local businesses and workers about the use of alcohol and drugs. Mercury News reports:
“Meanwhile, concerns about the city's legal liability should anyone get seriously hurt on city property are being evaluated by the city attorney, city administrator spokeswoman Karen Boyd said. ‘Basically, it's not legal for them to camp; we're accommodating it. And we've been telling them, we reserve the right to change our minds at any time,’ Boyd said. ‘Certainly, that kind of behavior makes it more difficult to continue.’”
As for a sample of the costs that the protests are leaving with cities, San Francisco’s mayor has pointed out that his city has spent about $100,000 "accommodating" the protests. It is believed that money has gone toward police, porta potties, clean-up, and public health and public works costs. Mayor Ed Lee stated the following about the position the city finds itself in: “We are working with you to help raise your voice peacefully and we will protect and defend your right to speech. [But that’s not the same as] pitching tents and lighting fires in public spaces and parks that are meant for use by everyone in our city.”
And then there are the demands that protesters are making upon city councils. In Orange County, demonstrators have been pressuring the Irvine and Santa Ana Councils to allow occupations in public parks to continue through the night by letting protesters sleep at their camp sites in front of public buildings. So far both cities have been unwilling to allow protestors to sleep where they set up camp. And in Los Angeles, while some council members have expressed support for the movement, the protesters have demanded that the city sever ties with major lenders and financial institutions. According to Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the city could lose at least $58 million if it were to meet the demonstrators’ demand, which isn’t exactly chump change. The LA Times reports that some protesters said they would support millions of dollars in cuts to services if it meant the city sent a message to banks, but taxpayers overall may not be too pleased with such an idea. See more here.
Protesters in Santa Rosa made similar demands, calling on the council to withdraw funds from the nation’s major banks. The Press Democrat reports that “They also brought a list of more mundane requests including an amendment of an ordinance that prohibits camping at City Hall and a plea for permission to install a portable toilet.” The demonstrators have at least offered to pay for a porta pottie and have informed the council they want to cooperate on cleanup and camping rules.
It doesn’t look like the protests are showing any signs of dying down for the time being, so cities will have to continue doing their best to accommodate the free speech rights of protesters and the public safety and health concerns of the entire community they serve.