Tensions escalate in Occupy Wall Street protests

Brighton Wallace takes part in an “Occupy Austin” protest at Austin City Hall on Thursday in Austin. Demonstrations across the U.S. protested the state of Wall Street and the growing financial crisis.Associated Press

By Terry Collins and Mark Wohlsen
Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — The display of police force in Oakland, Calif., and Atlanta has unnerved some anti-Wall Street protesters crusading against corporate greed.

While demonstrators in other cities have built a working relationship with police and city leaders, they wondered on Wednesday how long the good spirit would last and whether they could be next.

Will they have to face the riot gear-clad officers and tear gas their counterparts in Oakland faced? Or will they be handcuffed and hauled away in the middle of the night like protesters in Atlanta?

The message, meanwhile, from officials in cities where other encampments have sprung up was simple: We’ll keep working with you. Just respect your neighbors and keep the camps clean and safe.

Business owners and residents have complained in recent weeks about assaults, drunken fights and sanitation problems.

Officials are trying to balance their rights and uphold the law while honoring protesters’ free speech rights.

In Oakland, officials initially supported the protests, with Mayor Jean Quan saying that sometimes “democracy is messy.” Mayor Kasim Reed of Atlanta had also been supportive of protesters until he saw a man walking with an AK-47 in Woodruff Park, where protesters gathered. Then the round up began. Fifty-three were arrested.

Tensions reached the boiling point in Oakland after a sexual assault, a severe beating and a fire were reported and paramedics were denied access to the camp, according to city officials.

They also cited concerns about rats, fire hazards and public urination.

Demonstrators disputed the city’s claims, saying that volunteers collect garbage and recycling every six hours, that water is boiled before being used to wash dishes and that rats have long infested the park.

When riot gear-clad police moved in early Tuesday, they were pelted with rocks, bottles and utensils from people in the camp’s kitchen area. They emptied the camp near city hall of people, and barricaded the plaza.

Protesters were taken away in plastic handcuffs, most of them arrested on suspicion of illegal lodging.

Demonstrators returned later in the day to march and retake the plaza. They were met by police officers in riot gear. Several small skirmishes broke out and officers cleared the area by firing tear gas.

The scene repeated itself several times just a few blocks away in front of the plaza.

Tensions would build as protesters edged ever closer to the police line, prompting police to respond with another round of gas.

The number of protesters diminished with each round of tear gas. Police estimated that there were roughly 1,000 demonstrators at the first clash following the march.

Nearly 100 were arrested.

Among demonstrators injured was Scott Olsen, a 24-year-old Marine veteran who served two tours in Iraq. Olsen was hit by a projectile while marching toward city hall and suffered a fractured skull. A hospital spokesman said Olsen was in critical condition.

Demonstrators planned to try again on Wednesday night to march and could potentially clash again with police.

In Portland, Ore., the protest seems to be at a crossroads. Organizers have been dealing with public drunkenness, fighting and drug abuse for weeks, especially among the homeless who are also in the camp.

Some are floating the idea of relocating it, possibly indoors. Others see that as capitulation.

“I don’t know if it would be a good idea. Part of the effectiveness of what’s going on here is visibility,” protester Justin Neff said. “Though I’d do it if there’s a possibility that we’d get seen and noticed. I don’t know how that would work indoors.”

City officials haven’t said what would cause them to forcibly evict the protesters. They said they evaluate the camp daily.