A few days after seeming to accept the idea of Occupy Oakland protesters camping outside Oakland City Hall by saying "democracy is messy," Mayor Jean Quan ordered riot police Tuesday to move in and scatter two city protest camps in the pre-dawn hours.
In Atlanta, after originally giving protesters until Nov. 7 to clear out from a downtown park, Mayor Kasim Reed threatened to revoke that order on Monday. He said the relationship between the city and protesters had changed and campers are "on a clear path to escalation."
While the original Occupy Wall Street protesters have won standoffs with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, other city mayors are quickly losing patience with the protest movement, which drew inspiration from Middle East revolutions and anti-austerity protests in Europe as it spread to dozens of US cities in recent weeks.
The rising tensions are testing how far protesters are willing to go to draw attention to their cause – and how long local authorities are willing to let their parks and squares remain occupied.
"The Occupy strategy of [encampments] has been essential to its success in changing the national conversation about economic inequality, but it's a very difficult strategy to maintain over a long period of time," says T.V. Reed, an American studies professor and expert on social movements at Washington State University, in Pullman. "If the protests are seen as becoming routine, then they lose their ability to gain the attention of people."
And Reed continues, gaining the attention of people, many times means clashes with authorities.
For the most part Occupy gatherings have remained peaceful and protesters cite free speech rights as they vow to hold steadfast in their camps. But mayors like Mr. Reed in Atlanta say protesters are breaking city rules that would lead to arrests of other citizens, including a no-camping rule in city parks.
Showing his frustration this weekend, Reed personally addressed one of the de-facto leaders of the movement during a meeting in a police trailer after protesters in Atlanta's Woodruff Park held an unlicensed hip-hop concert.
“I believe they placed lives at risk this weekend,” said Reed, who has already pushed the eviction date back twice after meeting with protesters. “The nature of the relationship has changed.”
Framing the confrontation as police overreach, protesters charged Reed with "malfeasance." One protest supporter, former City Councilor Derrick Boazman, in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, called Atlanta police chief George Turner, who is black, a "Bull Connor" character in reference to the ignominious Birmingham police commissioner who cracked down on civil rights protesters.
“I’m just really appalled to see this massive police presence, so we’re calling on the people of Atlanta to recall Mayor Reed for malfeasance in office because he is abusing the taxpayers’ money by having this massive show of force when it’s not needed,” Joe Beasley, the southern coordinator for the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition said Tuesday.
The Occupy protests have laid down a mish-mash of complaints about government bailouts, corporate power, and income and wage inequalities that they claim have become inherent in the US economic and political system, violating the social contract to favor the rich.
Critics of the movement have said protesters would do better to vent their frustrations at Washington, which they say has been complicit with big business to create a system that squelches opportunity.
But even as the Occupy movement has sparked debate and even rejiggered political messages heading into the 2012 election, the practical realities of a long-term occupation of downtown parks is pushing the situation in many places to a head, as concern about sanitation and public safety grows.
Hundreds of arrests have already taken place, most of them coming in September when protesters blocked the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Police cleared smaller camps in San Francisco, San Diego, and Cincinnati this weekend. Chicago police arrested 130 people as they cleared Grant Park on Sunday, though protesters say they would not be deterred. "We're not going anywhere," Occupy spokesman Joshua Kaunert told the Associated Press.
The police action in Oakland began before 5 a.m. on Tuesday, as hundreds of officers in riot gear arrived at two occupied parks and shut down surrounding streets.
As protesters yelled "Cops, go home," several people upended trash cans and dumpsters and, briefly, threw bottles at the police. After dozens of arrests, one Oakland camp was essentially destroyed as clean up crews moved in. "The place is a complete mess with a couch on its side and carpet and tents strewn everywhere," write Scott Johnson and Kristin Bender in the Oakland Tribune.
Such scenes are likely to become more commonplace as mayors and police chiefs attempt to force protesters to go home while avoiding all-out violence.
"I think what we will see are a variety of different approaches in different cities to find a way to sustain the energy without confrontation," says Professor Reed of Washington University. "It's a difficult situation for both sides."