St. Louis leaders, Occupy protesters meet

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Occupy St. Louis encampments at a downtown park will have to end “sooner rather than later,” the top aide for Mayor Francis Slay told protesters in a meeting Tuesday.

Slay’s chief of staff, Jeff Rainford, and other city leaders met with about four dozen protesters ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s, some carrying flowers, some wearing dollar bills taped over their mouths. The mayor himself was not at the mostly cordial meeting at the Edward Jones Dome.

For the past several weeks, varying numbers of protesters have occupied Kiener Plaza, a small park in a highly visible area of downtown, just a few blocks from Busch Stadium. Fifty-two tents are crowded together there, with up to 100 people spending some nights. The movement is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street effort.

Rainford said a growing number of complaints are coming from people concerned about protesters monopolizing the park, from downtown businesses, and from others. And he said the overnight campers are violating at least two city laws — ordinances that set a 10 p.m. curfew and prohibit structures like tents in parks.

Rainford said the city has been patient and emphasized that the protests are welcome, just not the overnight camping. He said that unless an agreement is reached, the city will eventually give 24 hours’ notice to move out the tents.

Asked directly by a protester when they’d have to leave, Rainford said, “We’re trying to give this process a chance to work, but sooner rather than later.”

Protesters and police have clashed in some cities, notably Oakland, Calif. Chuck Witthaus, 39, an electrician and a protester, said he was concerned about comments in the media in which city officials expressed worry that the protesters here could become violent if forced to leave.

“The Occupy St. Louis movement has been peaceful and has never incited violence,” Witthaus said.

Just 10 arrests have been made since the protests began, all for curfew violations and all in one night in early October. No violence has been reported in the park during the protests.

City leaders offered some compromises such as 24-hour access to sidewalks for protests near the park. Mary Ellen Ponder, a special assistant to Slay, suggested development of a “speaker’s corner” that would be available constantly for anyone, including protesters.

“I thought that would be something really great for your movement and really cool for the city, something we could all be proud of together,” Ponder said.

But several protesters said the visibility of the encampments is important to the movement.

“We’re messy looking, and democracy is a messy process,” said Toni Liston, 67, a retired international studies adviser at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. “It’s a matter of maintaining a visual presence to get your message across.”

The protests in St. Louis have been mostly quiet compared to some cities. But last week, Slay, in his blog, said the time has come for the encampments to end.

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.

Protester Steven Trey Lott, a 28-year-old engineering student and restaurant worker, said he appreciated the meeting and hoped the occupiers and the city could set a precedent for working together that others in the movement could follow.

“What I would love to see is that this turns into the first Occupy where we all work together,” he said.


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