PHILADELPHIA — Relations between the city and Occupy Philadelphia appear to be getting more tense, as the protesters said Monday they believe officials are trying to "divide and discredit" their movement.
The protesters, who have been camped outside City Hall for more than a month, held a news conference to condemn Mayor Michael Nutter's statement Sunday that he was beefing up the police presence at the encampment because health and safety conditions there had become "intolerable."
After initially cordial interactions, the relationship between the protesters and city officials has begun to deteriorate in recent days. The city has asked Occupy Philadelphia to move to a different site across the street to make way for a $50 million renovation project scheduled to begin later this month, but the group voted on Friday night to stay. Philadelphia Managing Director Richard Negrin, however, said the city has not even discussed the idea of removing the protesters from the site.
Citing Nutter's weekend criticism, Gwen Snyder, one of the protest organizers, said she thinks the city is waging "an intentional effort to divide and discredit" the movement. Many of the problems Nutter cited in a public statement Sunday — including thefts, assaults, public urination and an alleged sexual assault, as well as fire risks and other issues — are caused by broader social ills, not Occupy Philadelphia, Snyder said.
"We stand in solidarity with each other," she said. "We haven't changed. The mayor has."
Organizers say the protest, whose several hundred tents have become a fixture at City Hall since the beginning of October, is meant to decry the influence of big corporations on government, among other issues, in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
Negrin, however, said the city has made every effort possible to accommodate and communicate with Occupy Philadelphia, arguing that the protest has changed in recent weeks and now seems intent on being adversarial.
"They don't want to be seen working well together with us," Negrin said. "They are playing games."
Protesters said they have reached out to the city with questions about the alternative site where the city wants them to move but have not gotten answers to all their questions. Negrin said that's not true and it's the city that hasn't heard back from the protesters on many issues.
Asked about Nutter's change in tone, Negrin said: "His stance changed on Sunday when there was an allegation of a rape and a vote not to move on Friday."
Jody Dodd, a member of Occupy Philadelphia's legal collective, said the group wants to put the problems with the city behind them so members can get back to talking about real issues, not logistics.
"We'd like to go back to talking about economic injustice," Dodd said.
So far, the protests have been peaceful, with relatively few arrests. Earlier this month, nine demonstrators were arrested at the headquarters of cable TV giant Comcast Corp. after they linked arms in a glass-walled lobby and refused police warnings to leave. Last month, 15 people were arrested for blocking a road outside police headquarters.