Halloween Crackdown on Occupy Austin
Total of 45 people arrested over weekend
The ongoing Occupy Austin protest at City Hall reached a new stage over Halloween weekend, as several dozen people were arrested late Saturday night and early Sunday morning. The arrests came after city management had issued several new rules for the use of the City Hall area late last week – primarily restricting overnight sleeping areas and the use of food tables after 10pm – and some of the occupiers chose to engage in civil disobedience rather than follow the new regulations. In all, some 45 people were arrested from midnight Saturday to late the next day, 37 in two groups during the night and a few the next afternoon.
On Sunday, the Occupy Austin media team released a statement saying in part, "The incident broke more than three weeks of peace and cooperation between protestors, police and city officials in Austin. This mutual respect had been seen as an alternative to the use of force and violence against non-violent protestors by police elsewhere," e.g., New York, Boston, and Oakland, Calif.
"These events seem incomprehensible after the positive relationships that had been in place," said Occupy Austin spokesperson Jonathan Cronin. "Deploying these valuable police assets during Halloween festivities with so many other public safety priorities seems astounding."
Most of those arrested were charged with criminal trespassing, having refused Austin Police Department orders to allow dismantling of the food tables (the first group of arrests, shortly after midnight Saturday) or refusing to move from the plaza to allow scheduled cleaning (about 2:30am). Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald and APD Chief Art Acevedo insisted they had acted to protect the facility as well as the people involved in the ongoing protest. "We understand and support their First Amendment rights to protest," McDonald told the Chronicle. "They don't have the right to destroy the facility. City Hall belongs to everybody." McDonald and Acevedo said they acted after receiving many complaints about "drug use, sex in public, public urination and defecation" (despite available bathrooms), and other incidents, including complaints from among the protesters themselves. "It was all pretty much reactionary [to the complaints]," McDonald claimed. "We support their rights, and anything we've done has been to help make it an environment that's good for the people that are participating in the process. We've been as flexible as possible."
City officials also expressed the difficulty of identifying "leaders" or representatives among the Occupiers, a resolutely consensus-based and leaderless group – meaning when officials believe they have an agreement on ground rules for the occupation, it doesn't necessarily reflect a consensus among all the people participating. On Monday morning, 10 occupiers met with officials to try to resolve the dispute, and Cronin said afterward that the group was "encouraged by the communications and attempt to move forward." He said the discussion would be taken back to Occupy's general assembly because "We don't do negotiations behind closed doors." He added that it was "safe to say" that the weekend's arrest operation had been "a bit much," and that it was "probably not the best use and deployment of public safety forces." Although some of the ongoing problems did involve transients or homeless people not directly involved in the protest, Cronin said, "Perhaps that also reflects the city's failure to adequately address the problems of the homeless. ... City government should honor its responsibility to protect and serve."
Jim Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who has been working with the protesters, issued a statement Sunday criticizing the city's "overreaction" in the arrests, suggesting mediation instead and calling it "an absurd waste of tax money to spend police time and energy to break up a pure First Amendment demonstration."
"APD has nothing to be proud of for the early morning arrests," he concluded. "In fact, they're shameful in a city that prides itself on diversity and free speech."
Following Monday's meeting, both city officials and Occupy members were trying to work out a continuing agreement that would allow greater flexibility on overnight stays – perhaps in a separate park area or some other nearby place – and avoid the kind of confrontations that occurred Sunday. "We're taking a look at some of the issues that they brought up," McDonald said Tuesday, "and we plan to get back with them as soon as we can. ... We're wanting this to be peaceful, we're wanting them to be successful, but City Hall belongs to everybody, not one particular group, and we still have to make it so it's accessible and nice for the other citizens."