Police clear Occupy encampment, 52 arrested
Originally published Nov. 30, 2011
Police swarmed around City Hall and rousted Occupy Philadelphia protesters from their encampment overnight, more than two days after a deadline passed for them to leave.
The occupiers responded by roaming around Center City, scattering and regrouping with police following their every move in a chaotic night of cat-and-mouse that ended before daylight.
"The Dilworth occupation is over," Mayor Nutter said at a news conference just before 7 a.m.
Crews were using bulldozers and other heavy equipment to clear up debris and fire hoses to wash down Dilworth Plaza as he spoke.
He called the police operation to clear the plaza "tremendously well planned and executed."
Officials said 52 people were arrested, 45 of them in a 5 a.m. face off on North 15th Street behind the Inquirer and School District buildings. all were charged with failure to disperse and obstruction.
"We followed them around Center City all night long and finally arrested some of them," Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey.
Nutter said three police officers suffered minor injuries, two while making arrests and one while taking down a tent on the plaza. He said a female protester was hurt when a police horse stomped on her foot.
The attempt to disperse the occupiers began about 1 a.m. - 56 hours after the city-imposed deadline form them to leave Dilworth Plaza came and went.
The District Attorneys Office said the first person arrested was Ryan Stroud, 22, who was taken into custody at 1:55 a.m. when he returned the plaza.
Tensions rose and ebbed throughout the night, beginning when police moved to evacuate the Occupy encampment. Police gave protesters at least three warnings that they had to leave the plaza.
After the third warning, 15 protesters locked arms and started walking south on 15th Street.
Thus began a four-hour trek from Dilworth Plaza to Rittenhouse Square and then snaking east of City Hall before turning north on Broad Street, and then left on Spring Garden and left again on 15th Street, where the arrests were made.
"Get up, get down, there's revolution in this town," the protesters shouted at 17th and Spruce Streets.
When the march started, police, many of them riding bicycles, were patient as protesters confronted them repeatedly, chanting "This is what a police state looks like" and "Shame, shame."
At two points, protesters crashed through metal barriers set up by police to prevent them from returning to City Hall, and police simply watched and resumed following the marchers.
But as the night wore one, tensions mounted.
Protesters repeatedly accused police of using their bikes to shove people, and at least twice, a protester ended up on the ground.
When this happened, the marchers began shouting "All eyes! All eyes," ensuring there would be witnesses to what was happening. Many protesters held up video cameras to document the skirmishes.
In one incident, one police officer scolded another for using his bike to shove a marcher.
On 15th Street just south of Market Street, protesters and police, including mounted officers, were practically nose to nose as Occupiers accused the force often brutalizing Philadelphians.
"They pretend they are your friends," one protester shouted, and the group repeated. Some protesters seemed uncomfortable with the accusations against the police. "Stop yelling at the police," one shouted when the brutality accusation came up. "Have a heart."
At one point, mounted units swept into the crowd, pressing it back and injuring one woman.
Protesters pressed forward with some shouting from crowd. Some horses appeared spooked, with one running off as the crowd grew rowdy.
The crowd roamed from street to street, once again crashing through metal barricades.
Police regrouped and blocked the protesters.
By 3:45 a.m., police had successfully cleared the area around the south side of 15th street, and blocked it with vehicles.
Workers tossed the remains of the encampment into garbage trucks and dragged away wooden pallets that had become part of the infrastructure.
Ramsey had said early on that police wanted to avoid making arrests, but that after four hours of following protesters around Center City that was not to be.
Addressing the timing of the eviction, he said: "We want to try to minimize any conflict. So it just made sense to do it early in the morning, when the businesses are closed."
The overnight drama marked the end of the first, and possibly final, phase of Occupy Philadelphia, a movement that spread here from Wall Street as thousands of people across the country pitched tents in public places to protest growing income inequality and a host of other problems.
Occupy Philly got its start Oct. 6, when about 700 people gathered, playing guitars, a trumpet, and drums and carrying signs such as "HUMAN NEED NOT CORPORATE GREED."
Mayor Nutter initially embraced the protest, arranged for his staff to meet with the movement's representatives, and even provided electricity for their computers. The group held near-daily press conferences and staged sit-ins at Comcast headquarters to protest corporate tax breaks and at a Center City Wells Fargo Bank branch to denounce home foreclosures. The city maintained a large police presence on Dilworth, assigning a regular contingent from the civil affairs unit. Overtime costs are estimated to have reached $641,000 as of Nov. 23.
At the nightly general assembly meetings that Occupy held on the plaza and in the nearby American Friends Service Committee, a consensus was reached among the majority, who agreed to move from the encampment when construction began on the $50 million renovation of Dilworth Plaza, a project that has been in the works for several years.
Unions, which supported the protesters message, had argued that the project would create jobs.
The plans call for overhauling the SEPTA station underneath Dilworth, improving handicapped access, and creating a green landscape on the plaza with grass and trees as well as a café and a winter ice rink.
As the weeks went on, scores of homeless people, drawn in part by the regular hot meals that Occupy provided, moved into the encampment. At its peak, city officials estimated there were 230 tents. Over the last few weeks, Nutter began losing patience with the protesters as problems mounted at the site, including public urination, other unsanitary conditions and one reported sexual assault.
Many protesters claimed the mayor's concerns were overblown. Some, disagreeing with the general assembly consensus, determined to stay after the eviction deadline, saying the money intended for the renovation project would be better spent on housing, particularly for the homeless.
On Nov. 16, Nutter ordered the protesters to leave immediately so that construction would begin. Most Occupiers stayed. But on Friday, after the mayor gave the protesters a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday to vacate the plaza, the exodus began. By Monday, only about 75 tents remained.
Nutter said this morning that since Sunday, outreach workers have helped 49 homeless from the encampment find placements, including 15 this morning.
"I want to thank the citizens of this great city for their patience," Nutter said. "We have worked hard to respect the free speech rights of those who need to protest while also balancing the needs of our city to continue operating."
The city issued a permit for Reasonable Solutions, a splinter group, to protest on Thomas Paine Plaza, across the street from Dilworth, but only between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. The permit also limited Reasonable Solutions to erect one tent, as long as it was taken down at the end of each day. As of Tuesday, the group had yet to set up there.
Earlier Tuesday, some Occupiers said they had heard rumors that the police would come during the night.
Elisabeth Levinson, 24, said she did not know where she would go if police kicked her off the plaza. The daughter of an addict and an absentee father, Levinson is homeless. Before joining Occupy, Levinson said, she lived in a women's shelter in West Philadelphia until it closed, then stayed with friends who let her sleep on the couch.
"Half of us don't have homes right now," she said, cradling a stray kitten about the size of a child's palm that she had found on the plaza, and wondering what to feed it. She said she had named him "99," a reference to the "We are the 99 percent" Occupy slogan about the growing income inequality between the top 1 percent of Americans and the rest of the country.
At least two Occupiers prepared for the expected confrontation night by fortifying their tents. Ahuyiva Harel surrounded his with jagged pieces of lumber arranged in a Tinker Toy-type grid.
"I'm opposed to public property being in private hands," he said, explaining his opposition to leaving. He was referring to the fact that the Center City District will lease Dilworth from the city for $1 a year for 30 years and operate the plaza. That arrangement was required so that the project would qualify for certain funds. Proceeds from the café will pay for the plaza's maintenance.
Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-5520 or firstname.lastname@example.org.