Time to Transform Occupy SF

Nationwide, Americans are angry about the economy, unemployment and economic inequality. The Occupy demonstrations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and many other cities have spotlighted these concerns and sparked heated dialogue about the many economic and social challenges facing our cities and our nation. Such discussion is warranted. But cities across the nation have all come to realize that permanent encampments are not sustainable.

Yesterday, the Chamber voiced our concerns about Occupy SF in the San Francisco Examiner. We support Mayor Ed Lee and Public Works Director Mohammed Nuru in their decision to reclaim the park at Justin Herman Plaza for the public. The once peaceful assembly of protesters has simply become a permanent encampment attracting the homeless, mentally ill, and even non-city residents looking for trouble.

Businesses immediately surrounding the plaza have been most affected by the chaos. Nearby hotels, restaurants and merchants have reported vandalism, shoplifting and even break-ins. Management at the Ferry Building has reported egregious public health abuses including human waste and public bathing in restroom toilets. This activity not only hurts local business, it dampens the city’s tourism industry, which generates more than $8.5 billion in spending each year.

Taxpayers have also been hurt by the prolonged encampment. To date, the city has spent more than $625,000 on Occupy SF, and it will spend much more to clear and clean Justin Herman Plaza. Just look at Los Angeles, where sanitation officials are now busy hauling away 30 tons of debris from the former Occupy L.A. encampment. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has warned that the total price tag for dealing with the Occupy movement in L.A. could exceed $1 million.

Occupy SF has a message, and it has the right to share it. The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech and peaceably assembly. However, it does not give individuals the right to live in public spaces. Nor does it trump the rights of private-property owners to peacefully operate their businesses. Taxpayers should also question whether spending public money to deal with the movement is more important than education and the many social services being cut due to the state’s ongoing budget crisis.

Occupy SF has morphed from a peaceful demonstration into a permanent encampment that infringes the rights of local residents, businesses and visitors. The Chamber applauds Mayor Lee’s decision to clear the camp, which has already done enough harm to the city’s pocketbook and our local economy. Now it’s time for Occupy SF to develop an alternative approach to have their voices and message heard.