Dear Mayor Callahan:
I understand why some City officials felt a need to act when Occupy Bethlehem had not yet obtained a permit for its encampment, and reports do seem to indicate that the physical eviction was handled in a professional manner. However, I have a hard time understanding why things were allowed to deteriorate to this point or why the occupiers were evicted in the middle of the night after they started the process of applying for a permit.
If the recent violation notice was correct in its allegations about complaints from the public, it was appropriate to notify Occupy Bethlehem that certain behaviors are unacceptable and if continued would result in police action. It should be noted, though, that a great many visitors to the city center complex—probably a large majority—have expressed strong support for the occupiers.
Based on my observations and discussions with the occupiers, most of the cited problems were caused by a relatively small number of visitors who saw the encampment as a place to hang out or indulge themselves without regard for the effect on the others. I think it’s important to recognize that this results at least in part from Occupy Bethlehem’s willingness and sincere efforts to include the homeless and people suffering from PTSD and other behavioral problems rather than excluding or ignoring them as do so many businesses, organizations, and government agencies.
The majority of people engaged in Occupy Bethlehem seem to me to be responsible people trying hard to work out better ways of doing things while continuing in their jobs or education. Although it may have simplified things from a tactical perspective, staging an unannounced eviction at midnight was unnecessary and inappropriate—Remember, this is the group that moved voluntarily to the space next to the Tondabayashi Garden to avoid conflict with the City’s holiday events, and even took down & reassembled their camp to accommodate a private wedding event.
When it was decided to evict the occupiers unless they had obtained a permit by a certain date, the responsible officials [not the police], should have contacted the occupiers directly. They should have been given at least 24 hours notice, since many of the occupiers are students or work full time—and at least one person wound up in emergency shelter as a result of the decision to do an unannounced eviction. The way this was handled also indicated to some of the protesters that the City can’t be trusted—especially since it came several days after a major cleanup and reorganization of the encampment and on the very day when they hoped to submit the actual permit application.
The timing was doubly unfortunate, because the eviction came when the occupiers were developing more organizational skills and considering serious issues such as those that led to the violation notice. The general assembly had decided to apply for a permit, and that process was underway; I believe the general assembly also decided that occupiers had an obligation to ask any person who is behaving inappropriately to stop or to leave—and even to ask for police assistance if the inappropriate behavior continued. There were plans to explore whether to shift towards more activism and education, and possibly discontinuing the encampment itself.
It is unfortunate that the eviction came just the occupiers were making real progress, but you seem to have energized some of the core group to move more quickly towards the goals of higher and more visible levels of outreach and activism. At the same time, the surprise eviction fueled the arguments of those who insist that the City can’t be trusted and that cooperation is a waste of time.
One real loss is the level of trust between the police and the protesters, something that made Bethlehem’s response truly unique and a model for how government can respond to unconventional protests.
I urge you to set an example for your department heads by taking the lead to develop more effective communications—although I’m sure you can understand that it may take time for those involved with Occupy Bethlehem to accept such efforts as sincere.
NOTE: I have enjoyed spending considerable time exploring goals and possibilities with people in the Occupy movement and appreciate their success in raising awareness of how dysfunctional certain aspects of our society have become, but this message was written without their knowledge and expresses only my personal views.