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?

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    Demonstrators walk through the make-shift tent city as part of the Occupy D.C. demonstration at Freedom Plaza, in Washington on Tuesday. Many municipalities are complaining that the costs of police overtime, trash pickup, and portable toilets associated with the protest movement are straining their budgets.
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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.

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.

“The question is, though, what the cost is to the city if we don’t change our economic practices now?” he said. “What is the cost to all of us if we continue on this track where 99 percent of the population is essentially struggling and 1 percent has all our wealth.”

So far, Boston has gone above and beyond its First Amendment obligation to the Occupy protesters, notes Richard Fallon, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School.

“Cities have an obligation to make a space available to engage in speech and protest activities, but nothing more,” Mr. Fallon says.

The city has provided other amenities – free electricity and trash removal, for instance – to the thousands of protesters who have camped out in the small tent city at the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy at Dewey Square. Such services may help a city to deflect criticism that it is antiprotest, and many demonstrators have now come to expect such treatment from cities.

“These decisions are political and are formed by the constitutional sensibilities of the American population, even though no constitutional requirement exists,” says Fallon.

What the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations show most clearly, perhaps, is that protesting is no cheap gig. This movement has already cost millions of dollars in what is likely its infancy. But recent history is rife with other mass gatherings that were more expensive than the Occupy protests.

• In May, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to end most collective bargaining by public employees triggered massive statehouse demonstrations. Taxpayers shelled out at least $7.8 million to cover the security costs from agencies around the state.

• Last December, the Oakland (Calif.) Police Department spent about $7.5 million on overtime to control Bay Area residents who protested what they saw as a lenient sentence for a BART police officer who fatally shot a man on New Year’s Day in 2009.

• During a wild week between November and December 1999, protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle cost the city $9.3 million in property damages, loss of sales, and police manpower.

Even the 2007 Red Sox World Series run cost Boston about $1.5 million (though $680,000 were eventually covered by the Red Sox and private businesses).

Those costs are usually seen as a positive impact on the city, observes Mr. Squibb, the Occupy Boston protester.

“If we were another group with any number of local citizens or another local event, there would be a lot of press about how much tourist dollars we’re generating," he says in a phone interview.

Squibb hopes the city ultimately will see the bigger picture.

“We can find hundreds of millions of dollars to supply financiers and fund wars of volition abroad, but we can’t take care of our own, and that’s why we’re trying to take our government back,” he says. “Our protests are really a minor expenditure to preserve democracy in our country.”

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