Local Governments React To Spreading Protests

Guests

Margot Adler, NPR correspondent

In cities from Atlanta to Oakland, residents and business owners have complained about clogged sidewalks, filthy parks and loud protests. Occupy Wall Street demonstrators continue to assert their right to gather, and have sparked demonstrations all over the world.

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NEAL CONAN, host: After starting in New York, Occupy Wall Street protests spread to almost every major city across the country and to dozens of smaller places too. Polls show many Americans support the protesters, but in many places, local government, the police, neighbors and business owners are losing patience. While the great majority of occupy - occupations are entirely peaceful, violence erupted early this week when police evicted demonstrators in Oakland, and there were arrests in Atlanta and Chicago as well.

If you live in a city that's being occupied, what's the response there? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And you could join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR correspondent Margot Adler joins us now from our bureau in New York. You may have heard her piece about reactions to the protesters today on MORNING EDITION. Margot, nice to have you back.

MARGOT ADLER: It's great to be with you, Neal. I also want to live forever.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Don't we all? Occupy Oakland got a lot of coverage this week after violence there. That's been the most violent of the Occupy places. And I think it's important to point out there's some history there.

ADLER: Well, yes, of course, there's been all kinds of history as far as, you know, police and citizens, going back years and years. But one of the things I want to talk about is how the mayors in all of these cities, including Oakland, are extremely conflicted. And they're conflicted because, on the face of it, most big city mayors might support many of the ideas behind the Occupy movement. But, of course, they're also under incredible pressures by police, the overtime cost, business pressures, et cetera. So here we have a situation in Oakland, for example, where you have this huge show of force. You have five volleys of teargas. You have all kinds of stuff happening, some police injured, lots of arrests, et cetera. And...

CONAN: One of the protesters still in critical condition.

ADLER: Right, right. A veteran, apparently. And then, today, Oakland Mayor Quan releases a statement completely back - you know, backtracking. He says we support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement. We have high levels of unemployment. We have high levels of foreclosure that makes Oakland part of the 99 percent. He goes on for paragraphs. You know, most of us are part of the 99. We are committed to honoring free speech.

So, you know, you have this situation where, clearly, there is, on the one hand, local pressures on these mayors, and, on the other hand, what they might, as sort of liberals in these big cities, come forth with. You have, you know, Rahm Emanuel, same thing. You know, he came out early, supporting Occupy Chicago. And then, of course, we have all these arrests, and he said we also have to deal with the rule of law. Bloomberg has been extremely - actually, he's been very measured about the whole thing.

CONAN: That's Mayor Bloomberg in New York.

ADLER: Yeah, exactly. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, yes. And he's been very, very - Kasim Reed in Atlanta, you know, came out. I think - you know, he's been sort of, well, you know, I was very supportive. But, you know, this guy came in to Atlanta with an - into the park with an AK-47. I got really - a little freaked, you know? So I think that you're having all these mayors being pressured, and it's very interesting to watch the different stuff.

Meanwhile, there's all kinds of interesting tensions and stuff happening within all the Occupy movements that are fascinating. For example, I just read now in the New York Post, admittedly not always the best place...

CONAN: Most reliable, no.

ADLER: ...but - not the most reliable, but, apparently, there's been this rebellion in the kitchen at Occupy Wall Street because a lot of homeless hangers-on have been coming in and raiding the food. And they have wonderful food there, actually. One day I had, like, cornbread and guacamole. It was great. And, you know, they have great food that they give out, but they're tired of working around the clock and having these kind of hangers-on. So, suddenly, they said, we're going to have three days of just giving rice and beans, you know, nothing else until we get these hanger-ons away, you know? So fascinating little things.

I went out with a business team, a team at Occupy Wall Street that was basically meeting with - going into each store and saying, what are your concerns? What are you doing? So it's fascinating to sort of see the kind of complicated growing pains, is what I would say, that's going on, both as far as the reaction by local governments and the people themselves who are involved in it.

CONAN: One of the difficulties with leaderless demonstrations is you can form sanitations commissions, committees, you can arrange to have people pickup the garbage and arrange for places for people to go to the bathroom, but not everybody is going to do it.

ADLER: Exactly. For example, here's the most wonderful example. The community board in New York, the local community board down near there, supports - passed a resolution saying we support the Occupy Wall Street movement, but the one thing we want is we'd like the drumming to stop, you know. So there's all this drumming, and drumming can be wonderful but it can also really be nerve-wracking. So the general assembly, which meets every night and has all these meetings and it's all by consensus, they finally came up with a proposal to basically limit the drumming to four hours a day.

Now, the community board wants two. But the real problem was that the drummers, they're drumming. They weren't even at the general assembly. So they feel that they've been left out of the decision.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: No. Their voices weren't heard.

That's right. Just the drumming. Right. Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLER: So this is a kind of really interesting, complex stuff that happens when you try to do the - probably the most difficult thing in the world, consensus decision-making.

CONAN: We talked about, earlier today, about Europe, a piece of cake compared to Zuccotti Park. But there's a fundamental difference between where these protests are on public land and where these protests are on private land. Zuccotti Park in New York, for example, people don't - a lot of people don't know this, but it's private.

ADLER: Exactly. It was one of those places, of which there are many, that was created so that a building project could get around zoning regulations and be higher. And so they made - they have this contract with the city that they have this park and according to the contract, they're open 24/7, whereas all public parks have curfews.

CONAN: And so if you're in a public park, for example, in Atlanta or Baltimore, the city is going to say you're not allowed to stay there all night, and you know, we're going to have to work out something - some agreement here.

ADLER: Right, right. But on the other hand, you know, you get Oakland, and now, apparently, they're back in the park.

CONAN: And we've been flooded - you just misspoke a moment ago. Mayor Quan of Oakland is a she not a he, so...

ADLER: I'm sorry.

CONAN: ...that's probably my mistake. Anyway, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. And we want to hear, if your city is occupied, how is the reaction there? Join us. And we'll begin with Jesse(ph). And Jesse is with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.

JESSE: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Thanks.

JESSE: Basically, I've been helping to organize ours down here, and we have commissions on sanitation and kitchen. And we have designated police peacekeepers, and we have police liaisons as well. And so far, it's been very peaceful. And we talk with the police chief very often, and they've given us little reason - they don't think there's any reason to worry about us, and it's a pretty mutual understanding of what's going on. However, in the first four days that we had stayed out, I guess they incurred about $10,000 in overtime fees, which was, you know, a bit irritating to them.

But, as I said before, they don't see any reason why they need to stay there. They're just following orders from higher-ups in the county that are saying that this needs to be something that needs to be done. So there's this pressure that's coming down on us to move out. They really want this to end. They don't want it to keep going, although they don't see any problem with it. So it's just kind of a mixed symbol(ph) on this so far. It's a very small town here. And because of that, it's hard to base it on the rest of the movement. It's very different.

CONAN: I'm sure...

JESSE: I just wonder if you had any comments on any of the smaller occupations, how those were going in terms of...

ADLER: I bet that's true. And then, on the other hand, at a place like New York City where I am, it's so big that, in a way, a demonstration kind of can get lost, you know? So it doesn't take up the whole city's occupation, so to speak, or preoccupation, rather.

CONAN: Jesse, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Mark in Phoenix. Occupy Phoenix is in its second week. All going well. They're allowed to stay for now. They have not made them leave. I drove by yesterday. I saw about 20 tents up in the park in downtown Phoenix. And - well, we're talking just a couple of weeks ago about the pressures of the continued recession on cities, on their budgets. Police overtime is no joke.

ADLER: No. I mean, I hear that New York City hit $5 million. But, you know, you could also argue that there are too many police there.

CONAN: And...

ADLER: That they've taken decisions, they feel they have to have so much of a presence, and they probably don't need as much of a presence as they have.

CONAN: And again, in Oakland, some of the tension - again, going back for historical reasons, between the organized - the Occupy Oakland people and the police there was refusal to allow police access into the Occupy area. So...

ADLER: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: So...

ADLER: I mean, another place that's historic where this was, of course, happening was Grant Park...

CONAN: In Chicago.

ADLER: ...in Chicago, which, of course, if you think back - most of you listening weren't born then, but some of us were there in 1968 when there were incredible encounters between the police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

CONAN: And just a few years ago, after the election, when Barack Obama celebrated with hundreds of thousands of people in Grant Park. So...

ADLER: Exactly.

CONAN: ...it's a place with considerable history. Let's see if we could go next to - this is James. James with us from Charlotte.

JAMES: Hi. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and we have had for about three weeks now a bunch of people camping out at the federal court house, doing this, you know, all these protests. And you know, granted, these protests aren't nearly as mass quantity in numbers as the people in like, you know, Pennsylvania or New York or California, but my whole thing is, is that these people are so aggravated that the police are stepping in and arresting them and breaking this up. Well, all these people are doing is creating civil disobedience and disorder.

I mean, you've got people chanting, ranting and raving over megaphones for hours of the night. You've got people beating on drums. And what does this create? It creates nothing but disorder. If these people want to make a change, join Congress. Or take all these people and pull your money out of these banks and keep them stored in a fireproof safe at your house. I mean, I just don't understand why all these people think that gathering mass numbers is going to create change for America.

ADLER: I'm interested in one thing that you just said. They're actually using megaphones? That's very rare. The entire Occupy movement has been basically doing this human microphone idea, and they have not been using loudspeakers. I'm very intrigued that you actually have sound systems being used in these.

JAMES: Well, that's, I mean, okay, maybe that was - maybe wasn't the correct term that I should have used. But my point is, is that by having hundreds of people ranting and raving, you know, a phrase over and over and over, how does that create order in this world? I mean, and it's very unfortunate that veteran got injured the way that he did. But the point is, is that nobody put a gun to his head and said you have to come to this protest. He did it voluntarily.

And I'm sorry to say, and I'm very thankful for all people who serve our country, but if you choose to go overseas to fight in a war and you choose to bleed in a foreign land, then you come over to America and you choose to go on a protest like this, I'm sorry to say that you can bleed on American soil for all I care. I'm well below the poverty level. In fact, I've been denied help from the government for feeding myself through EBT. I make maybe 11 thousand, 12 thousand dollars a year, and I'm a cook. And I've been denied EBT assistance, but that doesn't mean that I'm going to complain about not being able to eat some days. I find a way to eat. And in fact, I....

CONAN: James?

JAMES: Yes.

CONAN: James, I think we're going to give somebody else a chance, OK?

JAMES: OK. My last point is this. I have multiple pending felony charges that I'm battling in a court right now. I can still find a job, and all these other people can find jobs. Go deliver papers. Go split firewood. It's the winter. Deliver mail. There's thousands and thousands of options that these people have. They've got to get out there and find it. Living in a park is not the way to do it.

ADLER: Thank you very much for calling, James.

CONAN: James, good luck - and good luck with the felony charges. We're talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement and whether they've worn out their welcome in some places. Our guest is Margot Adler. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

ADLER: I have one question, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ADLER: And that is, the most interesting thing that I heard about the Occupy movement this whole past week was - and on several shows, Lawrence Lessig was being interviewed, and he said what really happened is that there are certain parts of the Tea Party and certain parts of the Occupy movement that really have similar goals, like corruption in government. And wouldn't it be interesting - and it's not so far fetched, considering all the Ron Paul people that are down, you know, down at the Occupy...

CONAN: The libertarians, yeah.

ADLER: Yeah, the libertarians, exactly. I wonder if that is actually in the cards.

CONAN: On another cultural level, though, this is chalk and cheese.

ADLER: Mm-hmm. Chalk and cheese?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Oil and water. They don't mix.

ADLER: Oh, oil and water. They don't - yeah. On some level, yes.

CONAN: So there has been considerable resentment from people in the Tea Party. How dare you, these dirty - some people have said - unruly mobs. You're nothing like us at all.

ADLER: Or even hippies. They've used that word.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLER: John Stewart was very funny about that. He said hippies, there haven't been hippies in 40 years.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get - this is Patrick. Patrick on the line with us from Buffalo.

PATRICK: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Patrick. Go ahead, please. You're on the air.

PATRICK: Sure. First of all, the Occupy Buffalo movement has been going on for about, I think, three weeks now. And there is a small but solid group of diehards that have been down there day in and day out, and the protest seems to swell a bit on the weekends. But one thing that I've noticed is that the local news media, while it does sort of, every couple of days, just kind of comment and maybe bring the cameras down for a quick snapshot, it seems like the movement itself has been largely ignored by the larger media outlets.

CONAN: Well, you raise a couple of interesting points, James, and one of them is, Margot, after a while it's not news. It's not novel. It's been going on, and that raises a problem for the Occupy movement as well.

ADLER: Exactly. And at the beginning there was very little coverage, and they were totally right. The media ignored them. Then the media came in like gangbusters for a little while. And actually, I've been surprised at how much coverage there still is. I've been saying, wow, it's still going on. That's interesting. Yeah.

CONAN: The other part, Buffalo - I assume it's getting a little chilly in Buffalo already.

PATRICK: Yeah. It certainly is. The weather has been pretty wild for the last couple of weeks, and so that doesn't help things. I'm a teacher and a member of, you know, our local teachers union. And there's been a, you know, a movement afoot to try and get teachers to come down and support the movement because a lot of the, you know, the base objectives of the movement really fall in line exactly with what we've been trying to, you know, accomplish for our students and for education in general, especially in New York State, in light of, you know, the severe budget cuts we've been faced with.

CONAN: Budget cuts all over the country, not just in New York. But Margot, I doubt you've ever had more mayors rooting for really cold weather.

ADLER: Yeah. Although I think at least here in New York, there has been so much, so many sleeping bags. I don't think it's going to end.

CONAN: Margot, thanks very much.

ADLER: Thank you.

CONAN: Margot Adler, NPR correspondent in New York, joined us from our bureau there. We'll be back on Monday. You can also find us, if you'd like, at facebook.com/nprtalk - all one word - and on Twitter, @totn. Have a great weekend, everybody. Talk to you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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