Occupy San Francisco: eyewitness account

Photo: Quinn Norton

At noon on Wednesday, October 5, 2011, #occupysf protestors staged a march starting at their tent city in front of the San Francisco Federal Reserve down Market Street street, to City Hall, and back towards the Financial District by way of the Tenderloin. It was a peaceful and upbeat march with a cordial police presence, but larger than many, myself included, had expected. Stretching more than a block, I and other online commenters estimated it to be between 800-1000 people, from all walks of life. It was comparatively well received by drivers and other passersby.

After a peaceful day, it was in the late evening that trouble began. I received a call from someone on site at 10:09pm saying the protest was surrounded by 50 or more police with riot gear and vans, and that a notice of a police action had been delivered to the frightened protestors, who were working out how to respond.

The group chose a spokesperson to represent them to the police, Alexandra List (@sundeux on Twitter), who had been camped with #occupysf from the beginning. She liaised through the night with the officer in charge of the scene, Captain Orkes of the SFPD, both in person and over the phone. The police presented her and others with a flyer detailing the police demands, and told her that the tent city would have to be removed. #occupysf was not being asked to disperse, but all their materials would have to be removed. She took the demands back to the occupiers, who started a consensus process to discuss it. Consensus was first reached to remove the tent city around 11pm, a little over an hour after the group had received the flyer from police. By that time, tents were already being taken down on the side of the SF Federal Reserve building. According to List, she asked several times for a time requirement, but Orkes told her he just wanted to see progress. At 11:23pm, he called List and said he wanted to see more trucks coming in to remove material, and the police would move in on the camp at midnight.

Around 11:30pm I crossed Market and sought out the officer in charge, Captain Orkes, trying to get more details on what had prompted their arrival. The SFPD officers seemed unsure as to whether there was other supporting documentation for this particular action on their part, and pointed out that they were enforcing existing statue by removing the material from the sidewalks. When I asked if anyone in particular had requested this action, Captain Orkes and the two officers with him weren't willing to answer either way, and pointed out again that the materials on the sidewalk were a violation of the law.

"They can stay here all night long, all year long... but there must be free passage for pedestrians," said Orkes.

He went on to explain that the tent city represented a safety hazard, painting a scenario where a pedestrian might step out the way of the camper's materials and into Market street and be hit by a car. When I asked him why it had taken them two days to address this public safety issue, and why they'd taken it up at 10pm at night, he referred my further questions to SFPD's media relations.

Midnight came and went, while List and others arranged for trucks to remove people's personal possessions. Notably, while the SFPD had vans available for arrests, there were no trucks on sight by midnight capable of carrying away the materials of #occupysf's tent city.

A group of protestors began a new discussion about wanting to resist the police actively. As one person announced, "Some people are willing to get arrested tonight, and we should support them in that."

This began a discussion of the merits of seeking arrest, while in the background tents, bags, books, and food continued to be removed, though at a halting pace because of troubles getting cars and trucks down to the the building on short notice.

Around 1:15am DPW trucks showed up and police moved in, creating a line between the protestors and the remaining tent city. Yellow reflective coated DPW workers moved the chairs, books, sleeping bags, tents, signs, flags, actual trash, and so on that the protestors had accumulated over the course of their time in front of the San Francisco Fed into two large trucks and four smaller ones. Many protestors became distraught and confrontational, building barricades across Market and screaming obscenities at the police line between them and their possessions. Soon the occupiers had built a barricade entirely around the police and DPW trucks, but the police were able to physically break it at the western end and force protestors back with batons and a skirmish line, allowing the trucks to slowly back onto Beale Street, take a left on Market, and disappear into the city.

"(Orkes) told me there's no time limit," said List, after the removal was well underway. "They, to a point, respect our right to assemble... (but) it's my opinion that they did this because we mobilized a large group today," she said, referring to the midday march. The unavailability of the DPW trucks for Orkes' midnight deadline seems to support List's point, but it's always important to bear in mind that what seems like malice can be municipal incompetence.

Tempers ran high for the next few hours, and protestors grabbed trashcans and street furniture to stack in front of police lines, attempting to (possibly symbolically) barricade them in. Several protestors were arrested, but others with sleeping bags and backpacks simply moved back to the area where the tent city had been and went to sleep wearing backpacks. These people were undisturbed by the police.

As of 7pm Thursday night, police had barricaded the courtyard to the Federal Reserve, and it was guarded by Fed Police on the inside, and SFPD on the outside. While some people manned the occupied area in front of the barricades, guarding new bits of protestor infrastructure (though no new tents) the majority of the occupiers were two blocks away at the San Francisco General Assembly.

#occupysf is staying put.

The DPW is allowing people to reclaim their possessions. See occupysf.com for details, and follow #occupysf on twitter for livetweeting.

Video of a violent encounter with police, and Flickr set of the tent city being removed by the city.