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Mayors of liberal cities face protest quandary

By Marcus Wohlsen

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Oct. 30 2011 12:10 p.m. MDT

During a news conference, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan fields questions about her handling of Occupy Oakland demonstrators on Friday, Oct. 28, 2011, in Oakland, Calif. During a protest Tuesday night, police fired tear gas and rubber bullets injuring Iraq veteran Scott Olsen.

Noah Berger, Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — On both sides of San Francisco Bay, the liberal mayors of two famously liberal cities have found themselves struggling to balance their avowed support for the Occupy Wall Street movement with the need to preserve public safety.

The spirit of the movement has strong allies in Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, both of whom have ties to social activism in the area. Quan, a former student activist at University of California, Berkeley, during the 1960s, had stood one year ago between police and police-shooting demonstrators in an unsuccessful attempt to calm the situation. Lee was hand-picked to lead San Francisco by then-mayor Gavin Newsom, a national figure in the gay marriage fight.

But now they're forced to crack down on a movement they say they support as they struggle to keep safe their cities — and their jobs.

The challenge so far has led to much greater fallout for Quan, especially after the tear gas-clouded skirmishes between police and demonstrators in Oakland this week. She has been in office for less than a year and now faces a recall petition amid claims that she has not done enough to fight the city's crime.

She came under fire from critics for the massive police crackdown Tuesday on the Occupy Oakland encampment and for allowing protesters to reoccupy the plaza near city hall the next day. Those same downtown blocks have an extensive history of tension between police and political activists as the site of chaotic protests last year and in 2009 over the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white transit agency police officer.

During demonstrations over the 2009 killing of Oscar Grant and what those protesters saw as the lenient treatment of the officer responsible, businesses were ransacked, fires set and windows smashed. Some residents and business owners criticized police then for not reacting swiftly enough to prevent damage. Some protesters who were arrested sued the police, claiming civil rights violations.

Civil liberties groups say the clash between Occupy protesters and police was reminiscent of past use of force here.

"We have grave concerns about the Oakland police department's reaction, in particular that it may be repeating, rather than learning from, past mistakes," said Linda Lye, a staff attorney with the Northern California Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Officials say the force used Tuesday by Oakland police and outside agencies was being investigated. In the meantime, the decorated Iraq war veteran who suffered a serious head injury in the clash has become a rallying point of Occupy protests nationwide. Quan visited San Francisco network engineer Scott Olsen in the hospital, but the gesture did not placate protesters, whose heckling Thursday sent her retreating into city hall when she tried to speak to them.

Anger in the Oakland community has led to a recall petition filed Oct. 24 that claimed Quan hasn't done enough to deal with crime. Quan faces a rising murder rate in the city, a shrinking police force and the sudden departure this month of the city's police chief, with whom she was at odds. And since the clashes between protesters and police, liberal commentators have thrashed Quan for first signing off on the Occupy raid then a day later bowing to protesters' demands to reopen the site.

In a video posted to Facebook on Thursday night as tents reappeared outside city hall, Quan apologized for the violence.

"It's not what anyone hoped for," she said. "I understand it's my responsibility and I want to apologize to everyone about what happened."

Across the bay in San Francisco, Lee and police there have taken a less confrontational approach to the encampment after a few early dustups with tent dwellers. The city has warned protesters that they were breaking the law and could be arrested any time, but no raids ever took place and police have tried to get demonstrators to leave voluntarily.

"He's trying to deal with this situation as he's dealt with other situations as mayor, which is cautious consensus, measured responses," University of San Francisco political scientist Corey Cook said of Lee. "He's wise to take a lesson from across the bay."

Still, Lee drew criticism from his opponents in the upcoming mayoral election, some of whom are taking him to task for seeking to evict Occupy protesters, while others say he's not following through with decisive action to remove the tent city near the historic ferry terminal, an area frequented by commuters and tourists.

"Ed Lee needs to stop wasting tax dollars threatening San Franciscans with a police raid," said former state senate president Leland Yee.

Lee has countered that such politicians were grandstanding.

But the presence of the protest in a major tourist area has put pressure on the mayor to clear the camp, which has become more entrenched with time.

Lee wants to avoid the type of police confrontation that happened in Oakland and has been meeting with members of the San Francisco camp to address concerns about public health and safety, his spokeswoman Christine Falvey said late Friday.

"He's looking at this in a San Francisco way, by finding a path forward through open communication," she said.

Still, she added, "we can't have the camp for too many more days because it's not healthy."

Marcus Wohlsen can be reached on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MarcusWohlsen

Associated Press writer Terence Chea contributed to this report.

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