DENVER — Denver officials on Tuesday banned any structures from going up on sidewalks next to a park used by Occupy Wall Street protesters after police cleared demonstrators' downtown encampment, structures went up in flames and two people were arrested on suspicion of arson the night before.
Mayor Michael Hancock and police Chief Robert White announced the zero tolerance policy, with the mayor saying the encampment had posed safety issues and that a city ordinance forbids "encumbrances" on public rights of way. The mayor also said police tried to convince protesters to take down the structures Monday night before other officers in riot gear moved in.
White added that he met with protesters last week and again on Monday to ask that the structures be removed.
"Had they not lit the structures on fire we would have been able to have more of a conversation," Hancock said of the arrests while the city began removing the structures.
In addition to the arson arrests, two other people were arrested on suspicion of failing to obey a lawful order. No injuries were immediately reported.
Crews early Tuesday removed items like tarps and sleeping bags as well as a banner and some makeshift shelters that had been erected on the sidewalk near the Capitol that had served as the hub of Occupy Denver.
The growing encampment sprung up earlier this month on the sidewalk across the street from a park where police and the Colorado State Patrol first took down an encampment Oct. 14 and arrested about 20 people.
About 40 people were on the sidewalk next to Civic Center Park when police moved in and ordered people to leave shortly before midnight, witnesses said.
Thomas Stover, 60, was sleeping on the sidewalk and said he left when police moved in. He said some protesters had lit a fire in a trash can to warm up as temperatures dipped below freezing and he saw someone take a piece of wood from the trash can and throw it into a makeshift tent, setting it on fire.
"It wasn't right that he set that fire," said Stover, who is homeless and said he slept at the encampment because he felt safe because of the police presence.
He said he wasn't a protester, but added: "They'll be back. This won't stop them."
Twelve hours after police moved in, a city worker was at the park picking up trash next to the sidewalk, where large trash bin had replaced the makeshift camp. There were no protesters.
"If (structures) go up today, they'll come down today," White said of what the city's response will be if protesters try erecting tents.
Leon Clough, a homeless man who said he had been released Tuesday after more than a month in jail, was at the site looking for his backpack that contained his ID and other important documents. He said he was arrested Oct. 30 during another confrontation between protesters and police, although he doesn't consider himself a protester.
"I was mouthing off and next thing I know I'm in jail," he said.
A handful of people walking past the site supported the city's move.
"It's a shame that Occupy Denver doesn't have anything better to do than trash a $15 million renovation," said Martin Gash of the recent renovations to the park.
"Move it or lose it. You're not going to play games with this mess," he said, adding that he was glad he didn't have to deal with walking past the protest while on his way to his job as a cook.