MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Sheriff Rich Stanek has met early each morning with anti-Wall Street demonstrators occupying a government plaza in Minneapolis as part of a policy of engagement that has helped head off major disruptions as the protest enters its second week.
But the calm that has prevailed so far could be tested Saturday, when protesters have said they aim to begin setting up tents in defiance of a ban on structures in the plaza between the Hennepin County Government Center and Minneapolis City Hall.
“We’ve given them quite a bit of leeway and latitude to be able to do this. We understand what it is that they want to do,” Stanek said Friday. But, he said, officials are standing firm on the tent ban.
Instead, the county is allowing a temporary, 20-by-30-foot structure with a roof and no sides for people to take shelter in bad weather.
“This is a public place, but it is not a campground,” County Administrator Richard Johnson said. “We have permitted people to stay overnight, but this isn’t a place where you pitch tents.”
Demonstrators said about 100 people have been sleeping at the protest site, and they need warmth and shelter as the weather turns colder. Organizer Sara Wilcox, a 28-year-old unemployed journalist from Minneapolis, said they’re not trying to pick fights with the police but believe erecting tents isn’t illegal.
“I think we’ve proved that we’re a peaceful, law-abiding bunch,” said Wilcox, who slept on the plaza four of the last seven nights. “We think this can be resolved.”
Similar Occupy Wall Street protests have popped up nationwide as participants spread a message of discontent over government policies they say favors corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the poor and working class. In several locations, it’s been not the content of the message but disagreements over sleeping arrangements that have sparked confrontations between police and demonstrators.
In Denver early Friday, police in riot gear herded hundreds of protesters away from the state Capitol as they dismantled a camp and arrested about two dozen people. In Trenton, N.J., protesters were ordered to remove tents set up near a war memorial.
But in New York, where the movement started, the owners of a plaza where protesters have camped out for more than a month decided Friday to put off cleaning it — a move protesters claimed as a victory after fears they were about to be evicted.
Other cities have made accommodations. In Wisconsin, Madison police and city officials have reported no problems since protests began Oct. 7, and Mayor Paul Soglin — who was beaten by police when he was a student protester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1960s — worked closely with organizers and residents living near the park where the protesters were based.
That communication helped make the marches go smoothly, said Katie Crawley, the mayor’s spokeswoman.
“Mutual respect for individuals is not a bad thing,” she said.
The city waived the normal closing time of the park, allowing people to spend the night over the weekend. However, Madison also barred the pitching of tents as well as food vending and cooking. Police and other city officials had a constant presence.
All of the protesters left the park without incident Monday, although some have moved to a new location near the state Capitol.
In Milwaukee, a police spokeswoman said officials have been meeting with demonstrators. Peter Rickman, an organizer, said there were plans Saturday to wrap yellow crime-scene tape across the entrances of three downtown banks.
“We anticipate some kind of conflict with law enforcement,” said Rickman, but added that protesters planned a strictly nonviolent approach.
Many protesters in Minneapolis have taken classes in nonviolent civil disobedience. Few admitted Friday to wanting a confrontation with police, but at the same time sentiment was strong that they should be able to sleep in tents.
“It’s Minnesota. People need to stay warm,” said Tony Boicourt, a 22-year-old college student from Forest Lake who’d slept on the plaza four of the seven nights. LaDonna Redmond, another protest organizer, said she and fellow demonstrators appreciated the canopy that the county set up but most wanted the greater protection offered by a tent.
While Stanek said setting up a tent would not be automatic grounds for arrest, he said deputies would take them down. A county spokeswoman said they would be confiscated and returned to the owners later. Redmond said she didn’t know how demonstrators would react to that.
“Tomorrow will be the day where the envelope will be pushed,” she said.