Mayor On Shutting Down 'Occupy Atlanta'

Oct 27, 2011
Originally published on October 27, 2011 11:19 am

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

A little later in the program, we'll speak with the founder of Outdoor Afro. That's a website dedicated to trying to persuade more people of color to add hiking and other outdoor adventures as vacation destinations.

But first we want to talk about that Occupy Wall Street movement that spread far beyond Wall Street to cities across the country. But as the movement has grown so have the tensions as protestors continue to occupy public spaces like parks.

In Chicago, Oakland, and Atlanta, city officials have made the decision to use mass arrests and even tear gas to break up these encampments. In Atlanta, protestors were evicted from Woodruff Park where they had been gathering for weeks. Several of the protestors were arrested, but organizers said they will continue. Here's Occupy Atlanta organizer Tim Franzen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TIM FRANZEN: We see the arrests as an outreach tool. It's something that we've wanted for a while. And you know, now we have more support coming out of the woodwork and we're excited to continue.

MARTIN: The irony of all this, of course, is that these increasingly tough tactics are often taking place in cities led by people who say they sympathize with the protestors' concerns. We wanted to talk more about this so, we reached out to Atlanta's Mayor Kasim Reed. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for joining us once again.

Mayor KASIM REED: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Mayor, you originally authorized - I don't know if that's the right word. I don't know if you can authorize a protest, but that you authorized...

REED: Other than two consecutive orders to allow the protestors to remain in the park so they would be there legally.

MARTIN: And your authorization lasted until early November. Do I have that right?

REED: No, there were two executive orders. The second would have lasted until November 2nd. But in each executive order I made it clear that if I felt that public safety was at risk, then I could revoke that. And I came to the place after seeing a number of things, including a gentleman walking through the park with an AK-47 assault rifle, that public safety was at risk and I revoked the order.

MARTIN: Could you not have just ordered the arrest of individuals who seemed to be posing a specific threat?

REED: Actually, I could not. I could not have done that in a fashion that was consistent with Georgia state law. In Georgia, it is not illegal to carry an unconcealed weapon, including an assault rifle.

But the fact of the matter is, is the arrests in Atlanta were contrasted with other arrests across the country. We were nothing like Oakland. Our officers were very respectful and disciplined. We arrested 53 people. No one was injured. No tasers, no tear gas was used. But we did need to clear the park because they were engaging in behavior that was more and more aggressive.

They had an unsanctioned rap concert, where they were plugging in generators using methods that were clearly fire hazards. And the entire spirit had changed. The language that was being directed towards members of my staff was hostile and violent. They refused to meet with a group of clergy leaders that I sent to meet with them to discuss what their issues were. They refused to allow Congressman John Lewis to speak.

When Ambassador Andrew Young went to the park to speak to their leadership, they had a gentleman stand about three feet away from him with an AK-47 assault rifle. So, this kind of behavior isn't consistent with my understanding and Atlanta's understanding of traditional civil disobedience. It's gone much farther than that. And I was not going to allow that to happen under my mandate.

MARTIN: Well, you've given us a lot to talk about here. So, let's just try to unpack a little bit at a time. Just so that people understand what you're talking about when you refer to Oakland. Oakland Police used tear gas to break up the encampment, and there were reports that a former Marine - it's reported to be an Iraq War veteran was injured in the city's investigating that. I'll just play a short clip from a protestor in Oakland. The gentleman who's speaking here is Max (unintelligible). Here it is.

MAX: It's not right what's happening. And the same actions by the police are similar to all actions by the corporations in this country, which is just hurting our communities. And it's about time that the greed of the 1 percent stops and that we recognize that we got to treat the 99 percent the way that we should.

MARTIN: You know, he seems to be saying here that the decision by civil authorities by mayors who are asking the police to then clear these encampments is somehow then placing that in sympathy or in opposition to the goals of this movement. And I'd just like to ask to reflect on that for a minute.

REED: I don't agree with that at all. I mean, I certainly understand the deep frustration that they feel. But what numbers of Occupy Atlanta have not done is to provide any list of demands that has anything to do with American cities. So, for example, they presented a list of demands that are including lowering the fare for trains in Atlanta, I do not control that. They were protesting Troy Davis' - the fact that he had been put to death. That is a state law. I have nothing to do with the death penalty in Georgia.

They asked me to commit not to arrest them. I mean, these were the list of the demands and those aren't serious demands that I can respond to as mayor of the city of Atlanta. I think we went out of our way to be respectful to them and to allow their voices to be heard. But what they wanted was to escalate events so that they could get attention.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

I'm speaking with the mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed. We are talking about the decision by him which is one that other mayors are making to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampments. There was an encampment in Woodruff Park in his city and there were arrests made.

Atlanta, as I think most people know, is kind of the center of the civil rights movement, maybe where you could say that kind of the home base of the intellectual brain trust of the civil rights movement so...

REED: It is the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, yeah.

MARTIN: And so many leaders of the movement live there now and you obviously have the benefit of their advice and guidance. And I'd like to ask, you know, when you say that they wanted to get arrested to get attention, well of course they did. And that was also a tactic used by earlier demonstrators. And I'd just like to ask, you know, how you weigh...

REED: Yes. But, you know, their behavior was not consistent in any way with King values or the tactics that were used by Dr. King. They weren't consistent in anyway. They were threatening. They had people with weapons. And I talked to Ambassador Young through this entire process. This was a group of people that would not allow Congressman John Lewis to speak.

So, I mean, I'm going to push back a bit on the notion that they're behaving in a manner that's consistent with the civil rights movement. They are absolutely are not. And I happen to be in Atlanta, where the number of people who were a part of it. And while they certainly wanted them to be free to protest, they have commented on the fact that these people were not behaving in a manner that was consistent with the values of the civil rights movement.

MARTIN: I understand - are you saying - well, I understand the decision around Congressman Lewis who is, of course, you know, a hero of the civil rights movement (unintelligible).

REED: (Unintelligible) freedom.

MARTIN: But that the argument that the reason why they didn't allow him to speak, as I understand it, is that they didn't have - they didn't want to create a hierarchy of if they had their own system for deciding who would speak and when they would speak, and they didn't want to interrupt their process. That's my understanding of that, vis-a-vis the treatment of the other clergy members, the clergy members who attempted to speak with them. Are you saying that they were rude? They were hostile? They were...

REED: Absolutely. They were rude. They were hostile. They were meeting with clergy members with a gentleman who had an AK-47 standing right next to him.

And while I certainly understand that protesting and having the right to express your opinion is very important, the risk that I can't take as mayor, so we did the best job that we could, really, to navigate this. But they clearly want it to escalate. You know, and you can say, well, of course, they wanted to be arrested. Well, we effectuated those arrests in a calm, respectful manner.

MARTIN: Is the key issue here, though, that you see an asymmetry between their desire to protest and whatever their goals are, you don't see an ability to actually effectuate it by the tactics they're using? For example, the people who were marching during the civil rights era were making claims upon entities that actually could agree to fulfill their objectives. And you're saying that there is just no connection here between their protests and your ability to actually meet their needs.

REED: Yes, Michel. None of the demands that they put forth had anything to do with me as a leader of the city of Atlanta or the city of Atlanta. And the demands that they put forth had to do with entities that I have absolutely no control over. That is not what happened during the civil rights movement at all.

MARTIN: At the end of the day, though, I'm interested in how you - now, you obviously can't take a step back from your responsibilities as mayor. But, as a citizen, I'm interested in your perspective on whether - if you weren't mayor, do you think that they have a point or do you just think that they're just wasting everybody's time?

REED: I don't think that they're wasting everybody's time. I think they're expressing their genuine frustration in the country. That's real. But what I know after having dealt with them for three weeks is that they do not have a leadership structure that would allow this to work. So, a mayor has to have someone that you can work with, some cadre of people that you can have a conversation with. They don't have that in place in a manner that's consistent.

I mean, it was pretty striking that, yesterday, they went to a Centennial Olympic Park in Georgia, which happens to be a state park and they left at 10:30. That park closes at 11:00. My point is that they probably understand that there will be very little tolerance in a state park. They haven't gone to a federal building and protested. I believe that that's because they know that if they go on federal property and protest, that they would be arrested summarily. So they are actually directing their anger towards a city that is doing everything that it can to be respectful of their protest.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, before you became mayor, you also had a background as a campaign manager. You have a deep background in organizing and in political strategy. And you don't have to answer this, but I am curious, though, given your background, if you were on the other side and if you were part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and you weren't the mayor, what would you advise them to do at this point?

REED: Well, I would advise them to have a leadership that can speak for them. And I would advise them to have the capacity to recognize when they're dealing with an entity that is sympathetic to their cause and not to treat every single individual organization the same because if you are in that position, then you won't get help from anyone. If you paint everyone with the same brush, if you don't have specific demands that can be acted upon and if you don't have leaders, your organization can't be responded to or dealt with in a serious way.

MARTIN: Kasim Reed is the mayor of Atlanta. He was kind enough to join us from his office in Atlanta. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REED: No. Thank you for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.