OAKLAND -- City officials said Tuesday they may have to shut down the Occupy Oakland tent city in coming days because it is attracting rats, alcohol and illegal drug use.
A pre-existing rat problem around Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, which public works employees are normally able to keep under control, has been exacerbated by the demonstrators' presence, said city administrator spokeswoman Karen Boyd.
The problem "has gotten worse with all the food and people and couches," Boyd said. Because the protest has people cycling in and out, she added, the city is having to repeat the message about how to store food and keep the area safe.
Boyd said she wasn't sure how to describe the extent of the growing rat problem, but that it's been reported in complaints by local businesses, workers and even the demonstrators themselves.
This comes on the heels of increasing reports of illegal drug and alcohol abuse, fighting, and sexual harassment in and around the camp of about 100 tents, Boyd said. The protest has destroyed the grass lawn and it's not clear yet how much the overall expense to the city will be.
Meanwhile, concerns about the city's legal liability should anyone get seriously hurt on city property are being evaluated by the city attorney, Boyd said.
"Basically, it's not legal for them to camp; we're accommodating it. And we've been telling them, we reserve the right to change our minds at any time," Boyd said. "Certainly, that kind of behavior makes it more difficult to continue."
Other problems reported at the camp have included:
The protest, now in its ninth day, still has no clear demands, much like the national movement of which it is a part. Participants have named numerous complaints, most of them having to do with economic disparities harming the poor and with corporate influence over government.
The local cause drew support Monday night from three UC Berkeley graduates -- Shane Bauer, Josh Fattal and Sarah Shourd -- who were arrested and held by Iranian authorities in 2009 while hiking near the Iran-Iraq border. On Monday night at the tent city, the three made their first West Coast public appearance since being freed.
Councilmember Desley Brooks (Eastmont-Seminary) camped out with the demonstrators for the first two days, saying she believed the cause of bringing jobs to poor communities is a vital one. She distanced herself from the camp after that, leaving before most of the behavior concerns arose and declining to comment for this story.
"We'll continue to allow them to peacefully express their First Amendment rights, and will balance that with the need to maintain public health, public safety and crowd control," Boyd said. In an effort to communicate with a group that has no clear leaders, she added, city staffers began passing out fliers around the camp asking for the group for help with several safety issues.
"They've been largely compliant," Boyd added. For now, the plan is to let them stay, "As long as they are peaceful and respectful of the rights of all the users of the plaza."
It's not clear how much longer the protest will go on, but City Hall is asking the protesters to respect three events planned this week at Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, including a private wedding Friday.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.