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Billionaire NY mayor grapples with Wall St protest

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SAMANTHA GROSS
November 6, 2011
— It would seem that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be a natural foe for protesters now in their seventh week on Wall Street's footstep.

He is not only the 1 percent, he was named the 30th richest person on the planet, according to Forbes magazine. He is a man who has used his fortune to achieve vast political influence. A former trader and CEO who ardently defends the big banks against those who would blame the institutions for the nation's economic woes.


But the billionaire mayor has thus far avoided taking decisive action against the encampment in a privately owned park protesting economic inequality and corporate greed.


Bloomberg may not be able to keep that distance for long, however. Local officials displeased with noise and sanitation complaints at the site have been notching up the pressure on City Hall. And the park's owners may yet choose to clear out the group on trespassing charges, causing a potential showdown with police.


The mayor has said the situation is the city's responsibility but has yet to explain how his administration might step in.


"It is the city's problem and we'll make a decision," he said recently. "But, you know, it's just not so easy. You can't just walk in and say, 'Hey, you're out of here.'"


As the protests have grown to include encampments around the country, some mayors are taking that exact approach, while others are publicly pondering similar action. Results have been mixed.


In Oakland, California, police in riot gear fired tear gas and bean bags to disperse protesters who had been camping in front of City Hall a move followed by confrontations that have led local business leaders and residents to question Mayor Jean Quan's leadership. In Atlanta and in San Diego, police arrested dozens of people to clear out park encampments. The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, has threatened to ask a court to evict protesters, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has said an encampment outside City Hall "cannot continue indefinitely."


But in New York, a decision to forcibly evict the protesters could prove unpopular for a mayor already coping with a third-term decline in public approval. Two-thirds of New York City voters polled recently by Quinnipiac University say they agree with the protesters' views, and 82 percent believe the group should be allowed to continue the protest, which is costing the city millions of dollars in ramped up security.


"Bloomberg is in a bad spot," said 61-year-old protester Aron Kay, standing with the help of a cane amid the tents at Zuccotti Park. "He knows he's damned if you do, damned if you don't. ... They will look very bad if they come in here like gangbusters."


Still, patience with the movement is wearing thin with some. The New York Post emblazoned the word "ENOUGH!" on its front page Thursday and accused the mayor of refusing to take action on what the newspaper said was a public nuisance. Politicians representing Wall Street-area residents have asked the city to crack down on protesters' loud drumming and public urination, even while saying they value the protesters' message.


So far, Bloomberg's dealings with the protesters have been a balancing act.


He has expounded at length about the group's free-speech rights repeatedly saying that he has been their biggest defender. But he has also openly mocked Occupy Wall Street and his statements have harshened in recent days.


"Increasingly you're seeing that communities, businesses and residents in Lower Manhattan feel that they are the ones that are being occupied ... and it's really hurting small businesses and families," he said Wednesday. "No one should think that we won't take actions that we think are appropriate when we think they are appropriate."


A day later, he said he was concerned about crime at the camp and unwillingness among some protesters to report crimes to the police, but declined to say whether that could be reason to evict the group. He later said the city wouldn't tolerate "some of the things that have gone on," and vowed to do something, but said it was also important to understand laws and implications.


Bloomberg, who gets daily updates on the protest in a meeting with senior aides and agency heads, has said the police department won't move to evict the protesters unless there's a threat to public health or safety or unless Brookfield Office Properties, which owns the park, asks the city for help removing trespassers.


The administration remains in constant contact with Brookfield. But the mayor has said repeatedly his administration has tried to identify representatives among the protesters with whom it could negotiate but the leaderless nature of the protesters' organization has made it impossible.


The city called progressive politicians, political organizations and labor groups some of which have worked with the group at Zuccotti Park in an attempt to identify protesters who would talk to city officials, said Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna. But no names have surfaced, he said.


Some protesters say the mayor or one of his representatives could simply walk a few blocks from City Hall and get on the "stack," the list of speakers for the nightly general assembly, the open meeting at which the protesters make decisions through a consensus voting process. The city could ask the group to empower a representative with limited authority to speak with them.


United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew recommended that the mayor's administration send someone to the General Assembly, although other leaders who contacted the city were less encouraging.


Mulgrew's recommendation gained no traction.


It's not reasonable to expect the city to attempt to deal with the group without the option of hashing things out with a few representatives at a negotiating table, La Vorgna said.


On Bloomberg's only visit to the site, to tell the protesters about the park owner's later-abandoned plan to clean the plaza, the reception he received was mixed. In video of the unannounced visit later posted online, some protesters chanted "billionaire Bloomberg go to hell" and "you are the 1 percent," while others offered him food and even a security detail.


The mayor has made clear he fears that anger driven by economic dissatisfaction can breed chaos. He has declared the violence that befell California will not happen in New York. There, protesters said it was a small group that wreaked havoc despite the peaceful desires of the movement as a whole.


That's part of the reason the mayor won't step in to evict, said one of the protesters, Justin Stone-Diaz.


"He may try, but he also knows that if something goes wrong we can't control what happens," he said.



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