Officials took a victory lap after peacefully uprooting New England’s longest-running “Occupy” encampment Wednesday—then reflected on the cost, as well as the importance, of free speech.
Those lessons and figures were offered at City Hall press conference Wednesday following a smooth, peaceful eviction of the anti-corporate “Occupy New Haven” mini-tent city that has dominated the upper Green for six months.
The city will have spent an estimated $145,000 in legal fees, policing and now re-seeding and cleaning up the Green over the course of the protest, said Mayor John DeStefano (pictured). That figure includes about $25,000 for the clean-up; the encampment left a scorched-earth patch of dead grass and damaged trees.
Ninety-six city workers—cops, public works crews, parks employees—participated in Wednesday morning’s two-hour operation to clear the Green. (Read about the eventful morning here.)
Asked if it was worth spending the money, the mayor called the Occupy encampment an important expression of concern over the country’s economic troubles. At least until the protest movement went off the rails the past few months. (Read about some of that here and here.)
“We didn’t expect to spend $145,000,” DeStefano said. “Occupy had a place on the Green. Then it didn’t. The city acted in a way that was consistent with its values.”
The press conference—like the eviction itself—presented a marked contrast to similar events last week. The city botched that day’s planned eviction. First its lawyers—including outside counsel—were outmaneuvered in federal appeals court by Occupy’s lawyer, Norm Pattis, who won a last-minute stay. And officials—in what now is generally acknowledged as a tactical blunder—sent both cops and public works crews and heavy equipment to the scene at once. By the time it ended messily, with Occupiers jumping on public works trucks and then proclaiming victory, the mayor and other embarrassed officials lashed out at the protesters and at the judge while offering incomplete, contradictory, defensive accounts of how they screwed it up.
This Wednesday they basked in what seemed like widespread public appreciation for the fact that they had finally removed a public nuisance from the Green—and this time did it carefully, methodically. The orderly, peaceful removal presented a stark contrast to violent, controversial confrontations between cops and Occupiers in places like Oakland and New York City.
Outside of a few harsh taunts of police from some Occupiers at the scene (including one who called the son of a Holocaust survivor a “Nazi”), cops received praise from people viewing the scene. Police gave ample notice of the operation to protesters. They cleared the area before the arrival of payloaders and bulldozers. They avoided any roughness.
The cops didn’t wear helmets. They took the protesters away one at a time instead of as a group. And the SWAT team was nowhere in sight.
“We’re happy to teach other cities how New Haven did it,” Police Chief Dean Esserman proclaimed at the press conference.
The lessons, he said:
• “We were straightforward,” letting protesters know the plan and schedule for the eviction, beginning Monday night.
• “We followed through” on that plan. No secrets. No surprises.
• “Keep the dialogue going ... Lt. [Rebecca] Sweeney [downtown’s top cop] knew everybody on that Green by name.” Throughout the six-month occupation, Sweeney made friends with protesters, stayed in continual touch, often receiving hugs.
DeStefano offered two other lessons from the episode: Government needs to handle protests with respect for people; and the country needs an ongoing “civil” dialogue on income inequality and the struggles of working families.
“It’s a real issue in America and here in New Haven,” DeStefano said of the movement’s focus on income inequality and policies that protect the wealthiest “1 percent” versus the interests of the “99 percent.”
“We shouldn’t lose sight of that. It’s real. It affects families.” He said he hopes “civil” public discussion continues on those issues. Across the country. And here at home. Even if that doesn’t involve indefinite encampments on the Upper Green.