Occupy St. Louis to meet with city's leaders

November 8, 2011

The Associated Press

(Flickr/Frank Peters)

ST. LOUIS — City leaders will meet Tuesday with protesters involved in the Occupy St. Louis movement to try to resolve a dispute over the occupation of a downtown park. The mayor's chief of staff, meanwhile, said the city will do everything it can to avoid a violent confrontation if occupiers refuse to leave.

Jeff Rainford, chief of staff for Mayor Francis Slay, and city Parks Commissioner Dan Skillman were scheduled to meet at 3 p.m. with protesters at the Edward Jones Dome. Slay is not scheduled to attend the meeting.

Slay, Rainford and other city leaders are calling for an end to the occupation of Kiener Plaza. A few dozen protesters have been camping in tents at the park, a few blocks from Busch Stadium and the Gateway Arch, for the past several weeks as part of the nationwide Occupy movement.

"We've given them a wide berth because of their First Amendment rights," Rainford said. "But now we're getting complaints."

He said the complaints are varied: The area smells bad and the tents are unsightly; the occupiers are taking up park space that should be open to everyone. Some complain simply because they don't like their politics, Rainford said.

"We're caught in the middle," Rainford said.

City Hall leaders, police and others have developed a plan for what to do if the protesters refuse to end the encampment "that seeks to minimize the possibility of violence," Rainford said. He did not offer details of the plan.

Calls to a spokeswoman for Occupy St. Louis, Chrissie Brooks, were not immediately returned.

In a blog last week, Slay cited the approaching cold weather and the need to clear space for other events. Kiener Plaza is typically decorated for Christmas and is often the location for downtown events ranging from charitable gatherings to pep rallies to performances by school bands or choirs.

"I know, and the Occupy participants know, that they cannot stay there forever," Slay wrote.

Rainford said that by camping at the park, occupiers are violating at least two city laws: The 10 p.m. park curfew, and a law prohibiting the placement of structures — in this case, tents — in public parks.

Occupy St. Louis on Monday responded on its website, accusing the city of caving to "Big Business" and saying the Occupy movement has generated "vast support across the country and around the world."

"How ironic, then, that Mayor Slay has decided to stop listening to the complaints of the people and instead heed the complaints of the corporate groups that control the city," the statement read.

The statement also cited what it called false accusations against the protesters. Rainford has said Kiener Plaza "reeks of urine," which the statement called false.

"The occupiers have done a remarkable job of maintaining a clean and orderly place," the statement said, citing the group's safe space policy that calls for the area to be free of alcohol, drugs, weapons, hate speech and violence.

A police spokeswoman said there have been no reports of violence at the encampment. The only arrests came in early October, when 10 protesters were cited for curfew violations.

The statement also discounted Slay's claim that the area needs to be cleared for other events, saying the group has already shared the space with many others. And the group sought to turn the tables on Slay, citing a list of problems during his 11 years in office, ranging from failed or delayed development projects to high infant mortality rates.