For 2 1/2 months, the Occupy San Antonio protesters at HemisFair Park discussed the news — from the comfort of their sleeping bags and bedrolls — of police forcefully evicting and arresting occupiers in other major cities.
They prided themselves on being an exception. A sort of unwritten memo of understanding existed between them and police officials. They complied with traffic, noise and parade ordinances while demonstrating against inequality and corporate power.
Officers, for their part, tacitly allowed what San Antonio Park Police Commander Steven Baum called “temporary living quarters” for a group of permanent park occupiers whose numbers have dwindled to about a dozen.
Last week, however, city officials began preparing to remove them, citing a string of crime reports and complaints from neighbors. Baum and his officers handed out notices that they were in violation of a no-camping ordinance.
By Friday morning, the protesters had cleared out most of their stuff — tarps, bedding, food, a small library. Baum was satisfied. And once again, occupiers here had distinguished themselves from their counterparts nationally.
They had been in violation “probably since Oct. 6” when they began staying at the park, but back then “it was manageable, fresh and new,” Baum said. By December, officers were dealing with health and safety issues daily, and “it grew to a point where it had to come to an end,” he said.
The Police Department released 10 incident or arrest reports that it linked to Occupy S.A., among them theft, damage to restrooms, a break-in at an unoccupied building and a domestic assault.
“We discovered drug paraphernalia, syringes around the camp area, and that became a concern,” Police Chief William McManus said, although officers were careful to note those items could not be conclusively linked to protesters.
Occupiers, told to congregate away from the gazebo near the park entrance that had been their headquarters, will be allowed back after the Celebrate San Antonio event for New Year’s — as long as they don’t camp.
“We welcome them to be where they want to be, but they cannot break the law in their doing it,” McManus said.
He said complaints from businesses and the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau stepped up a few weeks ago as clutter grew around the area.
“It’s a handful of complaints, but I normally don’t get any,” Downtown Operations director Paula Stallcup said.
The Magik Theatre, a youth education outfit near the gazebo, complained about the protesters using its commercial garbage pickup service, but its executive director, Richard Rosen, said his main worry was his teachers’ concerns about students seeing the eccentrically dressed group.
“This has nothing to do with political views — I find some of them right — but it does impede some of the things we do as a business, so I’m kind of conflicted,” Rosen said. “They’ve all been very nice. One guy said, ‘I’ve been a mechanic for 18 years and can I help you get your car started?’ So that was great.”
Across the street, guests at the Fairmount Hotel and its restaurant also have complained, sales director Jessica Vargas said.
“It’s just been obnoxious more than anything,” she said. “I just feel like these people don’t know what they’re protesting, and people are walking up and down the street and they’re in their face causing all kinds of craziness.”
But the activity has drawn more business, she said, with people inquiring about what was going on and then staying for lunch.
Occupiers debated the post-encampment future of their movement and decided to work in shifts to keep a 24-hour presence at the park while a committee looks for office space to house their operational side.
“It is making my world difficult because I am homeless, but in a way, I’m glad it happened because it brings up the fake occupiers,” said a 34-year-old protester who goes by “Joker.”
The turn of events “is following somewhat of an expected trajectory” because it’s difficult for social movements to maintain aggressive protests over time, said Gabriel Acevedo, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“In six months, Occupy S.A. will be completely off the radar, or they could become well organized, well structured, and less of a protest movement and more of a political action group,” he said.
City Council member Diego Bernal said the city was forced to stop the camping because occupiers lost control of safety and sanitation at the park.
“They were unable to hold up their end,” he said, though he added that Occupy S.A.’s relationship with City Hall is “the best of any major city in the U.S.” where the movement has appeared.
Whether that continues “remains to be seen,” he said. Protesters, for their part, are wary of further city action.
Stopping by to watch them dismantle their camp at midweek, Baum, the police commander, said of the reported crimes: “Y’all are the ones who called in 99 percent of the incidents.”
“Sorry to make more work for you,” joked construction worker Joe Ballard, 27.
“If someone dozes off, will we be arrested?” asked Lewis Williams, 43, who is unemployed.
“We’ll probably do a welfare check,” Baum said, playfully shaking Joker’s shoulder to demonstrate. “And make sure you’re OK, not having a seizure or anything.”