Cities fret over democracy's costs as 'Occupy Wall Street' stretches on
Cities see costs mount as they supply security and other services at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. What are cities' First Amendment obligations to the protesters?
Almost a month into the "Occupy Wall Street" protests, mutterings and murmurings are being heard among officials in US cities that are playing host. Their beef: The cost of ensuring public safety and providing sanitation is rising into the millions.Skip to next paragraph
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Police overtime alone amounted to $1.9 million during three weeks of anti-Wall Street demonstrations in New York, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said last week. In Boston, the tab for police overtime is estimated to reach $2 million if the protest continues through the end of October, said the city council president this week. And that doesn't include other costs, such as extra trash pickup, portable toilets, and even electricity being supplied to the protesters' tent cities.
Yes, free expression can whack a big dent in the ol' city budget. But cities have little recourse other than to absorb the hit, as "the cost of democracy," says Mary-Rose Papandrea, an associate professor at Boston College Law School, in a phone interview.
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“Cities find these kinds of protests really disruptive," she says, "so it’s natural for them to put a dollar sign on what it’s costing in order to raise opposition to the protesters.” Of course, no one complains about the added city costs of providing security during other kinds of mass public gatherings, she notes. “Had the Red Sox gone to the World Series this year, the cost to the police department could have been way more than these protests.”
But as the Occupy protests continue with no end in sight, the worry lines are deepening on the faces of some city officials.
“I don’t think it’s the activists’ intention to break the public treasury here, but that’s what’s happening,” says Stephen Murphy, Boston City Council president, in a phone interview. “We’re concerned about making the city’s streets, playgrounds, and parks clean and safe, but each of those may wind up taking less because of these protests.”
Boston has budgeted $30 million for police overtime for the fiscal year, he says, but a monthly tab of $2 million from Occupy Boston protests over and above usual crowd-control costs will send the city straight into the red.
Boston Police Department spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll says no official cost figures are available, but citywide concern for the budget is clear and growing. “Naturally, safety is a top priority, but so is being fiscally responsible,” Ms. Driscoll says. “It’s a delicate balance.”
To protesters and their supporters, the whole issue of city cost is specious and wrong-headed.
“If we achieve any of the reforms we’re currently discussing, that amount of money would be massive in comparison to the costs of the protests,” says protester Stephen Squibb, a graduate student at Harvard. “To dwell only on the costs, which have not been verified, would mean there is no hope for this protest to make an impact.”
At an Occupy Boston rally Thursday afternoon, Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo, speaking in solidarity with the protesters, said the cost of not supporting Occupy Boston could be greater than the cost of policing it.