Lee held a closed-door meeting at City Hall with representatives of Occupy SF, which is part of a nationwide protest movement against wealth inequality in America. Lee signaled that The City will work with the demonstrators to facilitate their First Amendment rights while collaborating with them to maintain sanitation and public safety.
Lee stopped short of making any specific agreement with the group, but the mayor has recently backed off statements that he would “draw the line” at overnight camping. City codes prevent camping on public sidewalks and in parks, and the gathering was raided twice by police last month. There are currently about 200 to 300 people regularly camping at the plaza site.
“I can’t predict [the codes] won’t be enforced in the future,” Lee said after the meeting. “But we don’t want to have a confrontation right now.”
Last week, San Francisco police Chief Greg Suhr issued a notice to campers warning them they are subject to arrest. Shortly thereafter, the Department of Public Health declared the camp an imminent health hazard due to human excrement found by inspectors.
Police equipped with riot gear and being loaded on Muni buses on Treasure Island and in Potrero Hill were ready to storm the camp last Wednesday night, but five members of the Board of Supervisors and mayoral candidates showed up, which appears to have prevented the raid.
According to members of Occupy SF, Lee’s comments on Tuesday have put demonstrators at ease for the time being. But some wonder what will happen to the camp when the election ends Tuesday and Lee is in a less vulnerable political situation. A violent raid on Occupy Oakland protesters Oct. 25 prompted harsh criticism against Mayor Jean Quan after police used tear-gas canisters to dispel demonstrators and an Iraq War veteran suffered a fractured skull, apparently caused by a flash-bang grenade fired by police.
No mayor — especially one in the last throes of election season — wants those headlines, said political consultant Jim Ross.
“Breaking up this camp is going to be a political problem,” Ross said. “I think there is an inherent conflict in Ed Lee. He started by going with his administrative role of wanting to maintain order and sanitation, and then the politician role pulled him back.”
Occupy SF camper Sean Semans said even though demonstrators were heartened by the meeting with Lee and enjoyed hearing a “more cooperative tone,” the recent wrangling with City Hall and police has been “a distraction.”
“I respect that the mayor is in a sticky situation at this point,” Semans said. “He drew the line at tents and overnight camping ... but this is a natural progression of him distancing himself from that earlier comment.”
Also on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors voted 8-3 to pass a nonbinding resolution recognizing the First Amendment rights of Occupy SF members, discouraging forceful police action and imploring The City to be flexible with the camp.