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Occupy D.C. clash may alter tone of police relations

WASHINGTON — A weekend standoff between Occupy DC protesters and police that prompted 31 arrests marred weeks of largely peaceful co-existence and led to a court fight, but it was unclear Monday whether the flareup would quickly pass or lead to a wider confrontation between the sides.

Police began making arrests Sunday after Occupy protesters refused to disassemble and get down from an unfinished wooden building they had erected for winter. U.S. Park Police ordered deemed the structure a safety hazard before using a cherry picker to remove the last few protesters who refused to leave the roof.

The dispute continued in court Monday when a lawyer for one of the protesters sought a court order barring the Park Police from closing any section of McPherson Square to protesters. The request came after a Park Police sergeant apparently told one of the protesters that Park Police planned to clear a portion of the park and remove tents and property.

The daylong standoff was the testiest altercation since the encampment began in October, though without the violence seen in other cities. The structure was ultimately dismantled despite protesters’ assertions that it was safe and up to code.

On Monday, protesters milling about now peaceful McPherson Square were unsure what lasting effect Sunday’s conflict might have on their relationship with police. They also differed over whether the police had been overly aggressive and whether some of their members should have made an issue over the building.

“I think they overreacted,” one protester, Earl Cody Parsons, 21, said of the police. “I think they were trying to use that as kind of a message to us … that, ‘You can’t do whatever you want.’ ”

Others disagreed.

Raymond Voide, a 51-year-old artist, said he wanted no part in Sunday’s dispute and praised the police for keeping the gathering safe. He said the conflict over the wooden structure amounted to a “slap in the face to the police” and added “I really don’t want to slap the police in the face.”

He said he didn’t expect any immediate fallout but warned Sunday’s events could harm the relationship.

“Eventually, they’ll get tired of us and throw us the hell out,” he said.

Mere blocks from the White House, the protest camp has been largely spared the more aggressive police responses in other cities to Occupy. Police have arrested hundreds of protesters in New York and Los Angeles and disbanded encampments in cities including Philadelphia and Portland, Ore., and campus police at the University of California, Davis, used pepper spray on demonstrators.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said each city had a different relationship with the protesters, making it difficult to predict whether the dialogue would be reshaped in the nation’s capital.

“Today is another day. You just have to maintain that communication and patience and recognize that if people are exercising their First Amendment rights, that’s what they’re doing. These things are dynamic. You have to weight each day independently of the next,” Wexler said.

Still, there have been occasional signs of unease.

District Police Chief Cathy Lanier warned last month that police would adjust tactics after a demonstration outside the city’s convention center in which she said protesters became aggressive and blocked people from leaving. Several protesters were injured that night in what police labeled a hit-and-run. And on Nov. 19, about a dozen protesters from a group inspired by Occupy DC were arrested after occupying an abandoned city-owned building in downtown D.C.

Fifteen of the arrests Sunday were for crossing a police line and 16 others were for disobeying a lawful order, Sgt. David Schlosser said. One of the 31 was charged with resisting arrest, indecent exposure and urinating in public.

Schlosser would not say whether police were eventually planning to break up the camp, or whether Sunday’s conflict made that more likely. He said the Park Police supported First Amendment rights, but that “it must be done safely.”

He said police were just concerned about the building’s safety.

“It’s a pretty big structure and we didn’t know if it was sufficiently sturdy to withstand winds, snow loads” and things like that, Schlosser said.

Protester Tizzy Giordano, 23, criticized police for what she called unnecessary force. She said even though the movement was not intended to be anti-police, conflicts have crept up as on Sunday, when she said officers didn’t give them enough time to resolve internal debate about the structure before clamping down.

“I feel like one of the things that this movement has been trying to do is explain that we understand that the police officers are the 99 percent,” Giordano said. But when police show up in riot gear and flex muscle, she added, they become “faceless” and “henchmen of the military-industrial complex.”

“It becomes scary,” she said.

She later added: “Why spend hours and countless taxpayer dollars and such an excessive display of force over a bunch of wood and bolts?”