A backlash from local businesses and commerce groups against sprawling Occupy Wall Street encampments played a key role in influencing municipal leaders to raid and clear camps in New York and Oakland this week.
Authorities have not been keen to present their decisions as based on the economic impact of a protest focused on economic inequality, instead defending their actions by couching the raids in terms of safety and sanitation issues.
“There have been reports of businesses being threatened and complaints about noise and unsanitary conditions that have seriously impacted the quality of life for residents and businesses in this now-thriving neighborhood,” said Michael Bloomberg, New York mayor in a statement following the raid of Zuccotti Park.
Jean Quan, mayor of Oakland, implied this message was co-ordinated, saying she joined a conference call before the raids of 18 cities across the US that were dealing with similar situations.
Both mayors said their respective cities had spent millions of dollars monitoring and clearing the camps, while many small businesses complained of losing money.
“We encourage the community to make a special effort to support our downtown and Chinatown businesses that have been greatly impacted by the last few weeks of the encampment,” Ms Quan said.
In Oakland, where officials and business owners have spent years attempting to revitalise the dilapidated downtown district, still marred by empty storefronts, economic development groups began expressing frustration over the Occupy Oakland demonstration and the city’s response weeks before Monday’s raid.
“Our mayor and city council do not seem to grasp that our businesses and economy are based on the so-called ’99 per cent,’” said the board of directors of the downtown and uptown benefit districts in a letter Ms Quan.
“The lack of an on-point ‘Oakland is business friendly’ message is nationally embarrassing and counterproductive,” they said.
Business owners near the Occupy sites in Oakland and New York have been divided in their reactions to the protests.
“As it’s gotten bigger, people that live in New York are completely avoiding the area,” said Melissa Andreev, manager of La Maison du Chocolat on Wall Street and head of the FiDi Association, a local business group.
She said foot traffic at her shop, just down the street from the New York Stock Exchange, had been cut down by the police barricades that had become a fixture on Wall Street.
“I have nothing against the protesters, it’s just really no one wants to come to the area,” she said.
Many in Oakland said they feel aligned with the ideals of the Occupy movement, but became frustrated with vandalism, police raids, and Ms Quan’s indecisive handling of the camp– first ordering its eviction, then allowing it back, and then evicting it again.
Shari Rivers, manager of the Tully’s Coffee, which rents a building from the city of Oakland on the plaza where Occupy Oakland was camped out, said she wants the city to pro-rate her rent payment for the four days the store was forced to close around the first Oct 25 police raid and the Nov 2 general strike, which ended with her store getting “totally trashed,” with windows broken and supplies looted and scattered.
“It looked like something out of a horror film,” she said. “I actually cried.”
Ms Rivers and other shop owners reported receiving friendly visits from Occupy Oakland protesters after the strike who apologised for the violence of select protestors and seemed genuinely interested in helping and protecting their business. But others said they received a more coercive “we’ll help you, as long as you support us” message.
The owner of an African clothing shop on the plaza did not want to be named after she told another reporter that the camp was hurting her business. The day the article appeared, occupiers came to her store and told her to stop saying negative things to the press, she said, promising to send customers to her store if she changed her tone.
Organisers in New York worked to address the concerns of local residents and businesses, said Anup Desai, a member of Occupy Wall Street’s press outreach committee. He said several of the working groups, including his own, held regular meetings at nearby businesses including the Blarney Stone, a bar, and Pret a Manger, the sandwich shop.
“They love us at Pret,” he said.
Additional reporting by Johanna Kassel in New York