As winter set in on the Occupy SF encampments, so did police. And ever since the dramatic dismantling of the tent cities, the movement has been in search of a central gathering place.
On Sunday, occupiers briefly found a new home on Turk Street in a dormant building owned by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Despite their official police escort, demonstrators gained access to the building, put up banners and scrawled anti-corporate and anti-police slogans on walls.
They dubbed it the San Francisco Commune, but they were evicted the next day by police, who arrested 75 demonstrators.
City codes prevent occupiers from camping overnight in public space, and private space is off limits without permission from the property owner. But none of that keeps occupiers from trying to establish ground.
“Either we quit, or we go to private property,” said Robb Benson, a longtime movement member who said demonstrators should have sought permission before entering the building. “They’re not letting us gather in public property. And we need to assemble, because it’s obvious when we’re split up and going to different meetings all over The City, we really don’t have a voice at all.”
When camps were set up last fall outside the Federal Reserve Bank on Market Street and in Justin Herman Plaza on The Embarcadero, occupiers had a visible base of operations near the target of their anger — the Financial District.
The leaderless group’s core issues have included income disparity, foreclosures and homelessness, which is what created the basis for recent squatting. An activist group called Homes Not Jails has previously used the tactic to highlight vacant buildings that they believe should be used to shelter the homeless.
A large Jan. 20 action by Occupy SF had demonstrators taking over an empty Cathedral Hill hotel. About 20 people were arrested following the takeover, which was preceded by vandalism of a Lamborghini dealership.
Although occupiers announced last weekend that they would take over a building, no officers stopped the demonstrators from entering the shuttered school on Sunday. Police Sgt. Mike Andraychak said the archdiocese needed to first authorize a citizen’s arrest because the protestors could not be arrested or prosecuted without support of the property owner.
Such squatting, if it persists, will present a new enforcement challenge for police. They let the tent cities slide for a few months before raiding them, but when some tentless demonstrators lingered, police first evoked The City’s controversial sit-lie ordinance — designed to prevent chronic vagrancy — and then ultimately used an “illegal lodging” ordinance to prevent mass sidewalk sleeping.
Andraychak said thousands of dollars in damage was done to the archdiocese building, and a cost of the police raid has not been determined. According to the Sheriff’s Department, 74 of the 75 arrested demonstrators were charged with misdemeanor trespassing and released following the raid.
He said it’s not up to police whether occupiers should face harsher punishment for squatting in the future.
“We don’t interpret the law, we only enforce it,” he said.