Occupy Austin saw a series of run-ins with police this weekend, with a total of 42 protesters arrested over two days of peaceful demonstration, ending the once-calm relations between local law enforcement and the occupiers. While police claim demonstrators broke rules set forth by the city, protesters call the crackdown an overreaction and an infringement on First Amendment rights.
In the early hours of Sunday, 38 members of the movement were arrested in two waves.
The first came following a memorandum issued Friday from the city asking occupiers to remove food tables from City Hall Plaza from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., and other requests from the Austin Police Department, including that the demonstrators limit their personal belongings at the campsite.
Protesters viewed the proposals as a sign of APD’s “change of character,” as relations between the two groups have been largely amicablesince the protests began earlier this month. Describing the city’s requests as “inflammatory” and “unnecessary,” occupiers kept the food tables standing, surrounded them with linked arms and did not leave. About 20 people were arrested, reportedthe Austin American-Statesman.
The second string of arrests came at 2 a.m. when more than 50 APD officers sought to clear the plaza for scheduled power-washing, and arrested those who refused to step out of the way.
Another four people were arrested Sunday evening. Most of those were held for criminal trespassing charges — a violation of free speech rights, occupiers said, since the plaza is a public gathering space.
APD Sergeant David Socha told the Texas Independent police were simply enforcing rules that the demonstrators were aware of, and that the arrests were necessary to maintain order. Several police vehicles were stationed in the City Hall garage Saturday night and Sunday — a sign, some said, that the arrests were premeditated.
Roughly 20 minutes before the first arrests took place, Socha said the extra law enforcement presence at City Hall plaza was typical for Halloween weekend and did not anticipate any arrests to be made at Occupy Austin. The following day, Socha stood by his statements saying, “We did not think anything like this was going to happen. There were all kinds of things we wanted to keep our eyes on downtown.”
Occupy Austin spokesperson Jonathan Cronin says APD did not reply to their group after they reached out for clarification of the new rules. The arrests, he argues, are a breach of the protesters’ right to peacefully assemble. Echoing Cronin, Greg Foster of the Occupy Austin movement said the arrests were clearly “excessive” and conducted “purely to divide and dilute the movement.”
On Sunday, occupiers split between waiting outside for those arrested to be released from Travis County Jail, and conducting an impromptu emergency general assembly meeting to discuss a plan of action in response to the mass arrests.
Ideas included launching a class action lawsuit against officials for unlawful arrest, in coordination with protesters in other cities, and occupying the area surrounding the assistant city manager’s home.
Other proposals included flooding city officials with letters and phone calls complaining of the arrests, and arranging pre-bonds in an attempt to expedite the bail process should any further arrests occur.
On Oct. 13, four Occupy Austin were arrestedafter refusing to clear City Hall Plaza while cleaning crews wiped down the demonstration site. At the time, some occupiers considered the move an intimidation tactic, while law enforcement said it was necessary the protesters leave the area during cleanup.