HOUSTON – Houston police surrounded Tranquility Park Monday night after the Occupy Houston protesters were ordered to pack up their tents and leave Tranquility Park by dusk.
The protesters had been camping out in the park for about four months.
With the downtown spring festival season just around the corner, the City of Houston reinstituted the dawn to dusk limits on activities in Tranquility Park.
“I told Occupy Houston leaders in January they need to decide the next phase for their effort,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “I support their right to free speech and I’m sympathetic to their call for reform of the financial system, but they can’t simply continue to occupy a space indefinitely. We have to get the area ready for the spring festivals and that necessitates their leaving.”
Jay Roche, a leader of the group, said he plans to cooperate and understands the city’s position. Roche admitted the encampment is unsanitary.
But others vowed to stay and fight, saying they will go to jail if necessary.
Shortly after dusk, and with no explanation whatsoever, most of them began to march around the block. By the time they returned, Houston police were the ones occupying Tranquility Park.
“This is crazy,” shouted one protestor who asked not to be identified. “I wonder why police have to use military tactics to evict a group of homeless people.”
Mayor Parker noted that there is nothing that will prevent the group from continuing to exercise its right to free speech by organizing peaceful protests during daylight hours.
Providing a police presence at the park for the last four months has cost the Houston Police Department a total of $54,917.68 and $287,268.00 in overtime and regular salaries, respectively. The end to the encampment will free those officers for assignment elsewhere.
The Houston Parks Department estimates it will cost more than $13,000 to clean up and lay new sod in the park.
The mayor expressed appreciation for the peaceful interaction the city has had with the Occupy Houston group, noting that Houston has avoided the sometimes violent confrontations that have marked the protest movements in other cities.
The Houston Police Department’s Homeless Outreach Team will be on hand to provide transportation to shelters for the protesters, if needed.