Inquirer Editorial: Plaza no longer occupied

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Occupy Philadelphia protesters are blocked by police officers from returning to Dilworth Plaza. (April Saul / Staff Photographer)

The overnight shutdown of the Occupy Philadelphia camp at City Hall had been in the planning stages for weeks, and it showed - to the city's benefit.

To clear Dilworth Plaza and make way for its $50 million renovation, aides to Mayor Nutter and Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey mounted a carefully choreographed operation early Wednesday that minimized confrontation and, for the most part, spared protesters and police from injury.

The more than 50 arrests occurred primarily because Occupy marchers refused to clear a downtown street before the morning rush, in what was a bid to demonstrate their commitment to the Occupy cause by going to jail.

Ramsey's officers deserve praise for emptying the plaza quickly, but then stepping back while arm-in-arm Occupy marchers walked around Center City. Cops shadowed the demonstrators and blocked any path of return to City Hall, but showed remarkable patience.

For a Police Department with a history of heavy-handed tactics and intolerance, Ramsey's approach to rousting the Occupy campers represents a welcome departure from past excesses. While police didn't face the larger number of protesters that led to more than 200 arrests in Los Angeles Wednesday, the standoff here ended as well as possible.

There was reasonable criticism that Nutter might have acted sooner, such as when the tents first went up. In the end, though, it was notably better for Philadelphia's image that the mayor was able to stand up and say that the city "acted with restraint, patience, and respect toward the First Amendment rights of those who wished to protest."

And protest they did, for nearly eight weeks, from the early-October start of the encampment to highlight economic injustice, corporate greed, and other issues.

As in other cities, many of the local Occupy participants were refreshingly idealistic, in a throwback to an earlier generation's campus antiwar protests. In its first few weeks, the movement that started with the takeover of a park near Wall Street captured the sympathies of Americans and people abroad understandably fed up with the financial collapse triggered by machinations of traders, lenders, and corporate execs.

Just as the Occupy members have been uprooted here, though, the movement nationally is in danger of losing its relevance unless it makes clear exactly what it wants with its confrontational tactics, which are being met largely by restrained police responses.

On a small scale, Philadelphians at least can be thankful that, finally, the transformation of a key Center City plaza into a beautiful park can move ahead.