Occupy SF spirit will outlive encampment

Mike Koozmin/The SF ExaminerOccupy SF protesters march down Market Street on Wednesday after their movement was broken up at Justin Herman Plaza.

San Francisco officials showed great restraint in dealing with the local Occupy movement, something you might expect when about half of its elected leaders spent quality time squatting in the Embarcadero camp.

Yet now that the mayor and police have finally acted on their threat to remove the tent city for a host of legal, health and safety violations, the general reaction isn’t outrage, but one of widespread relief.

And that would probably extend to the campers themselves, who must be tired of the daily battles with officials over the proper guidelines for their continued existence. A public city park is not a home, not even for those burning with a resonant protest message.

Polls show that a high percentage of people support the Occupy movement’s goal of pointing out the great economic divide that separates the very rich from the rest of us during a deep and lingering recession. We understand the real anger over bank foreclosures and dubious loans, and the angst over unemployment. In short, we get the message, and we feel the pain.

But we also see the need to end the high-profile encampment in a central part of The City’s financial community that has festered into a raucous and unsanitary circus. Mayor Ed Lee showed considerable patience in dealing with the movement’s demands, continuously reminding Occupy San Francisco demonstrators that an extended overnight camp “is not a sustainable or safe environment for protesters or the general public.”

Yet the campers refused to budge. They’re protesting, they don’t want to listen to government orders — we get that. Of course, Wednesday’s early-morning raid ended in arrests — the occupants wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Recently, Lee went so far as to offer them another home at an unoccupied school site in the Mission district, which the protesters naturally refused. That was probably a tactical mistake on the part of both parties — the mayor shouldn’t have offered them what could have resulted in a more permanent home and the demonstrators should probably have jumped at the chance.

But now it’s a tent city in spirit only, the inevitable conclusion finally reached. And though the movement’s true believers will no doubt try to retake some public space, the mayor cannot let that happen. Oakland serves as a constant and uneasy reminder.

San Francisco officials have granted considerable license to the protest movement from the start, discussing free speech and the right to assemble. No one is trying to stop the occupiers from trying to march, yell from the treetops or otherwise share their views. This city is a place of a thousand protests. Demonstrations take place almost every day on the steps of City Hall. This week, showing just how in touch they are, supervisors passed a resolution calling for the end of two U.S. wars.

But the protest party had to end at some point, and Occupy SF had no one to blame but itself. Its so-called leaders stopped communicating with the mayor and police about conditions at the camp, apparently because its leaders had already departed. Not even protests are permanent.

San Francisco was possibly the last big city in America to move in and end the civic blockade. New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and others swept into their Occupy camps long ago and with considerably more force than that shown by San Francisco’s police officers. There were no injuries.

But the tolerance time clock had expired. San Francisco can ill afford to allow permanent camps in its public spaces, whether it’s Golden Gate Park, Civic Center or Justin Herman Plaza. The City’s homeless problem is widespread enough to avoid encouragement.

Besides, the Occupy movement can claim victory, even if it has lost one of its last surviving outposts. It gained national momentum, stirred debate from coast to coast and captured the attention of citizens from the 1 to the 99 percent. It garnered media coverage on an almost incomparable scale. It got people talking.

Yet the camps couldn’t continue forever, no matter how sympathetic people are to the occupants’ goals. There are other outlets for the movement that are a lot safer and healthier.

You can remove the tents, but you can’t block the message. We get that, too.

Bay Area NewsColumnistsken garciaLocalNews Columnists

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