Police clear Occupy Lexington encampment after it's found unoccupied

Cleanup begins when protest site found unoccupied

jkegley@herald-leader.comJanuary 25, 2012 

The corner that has been home to Lexington's Occupy Wall Street protest will be a bit less occupied from now on.

On Tuesday, after finding the site unoccupied, police began removing tents, chairs, tables and awnings on the sidewalk at East Main Street and Esplanade. At least one Occupy Lexington protester had been staying there at any given time for more than 100 days.

"Whoever was supposed to be here left their post, to everyone else's disappointment," occupier Laura Guthrie, 27, said as protesters and police dismantled tents and awnings about 1 p.m.

It wasn't immediately clear where the occupier who was supposed to have been at the site had gone, but several occupiers gathered in Frankfort to protest the recent redistricting bill that bumped Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein's district from downtown Lexington to northeastern Kentucky.

Protesters said they were given no warning about the cleanup. Initially, police said they were helping clean up the site, which contained boxes, empty food containers, pallets and rain-soaked cardboard signs.

"We're going to help them get that stuff out of here and clean up the site so they can be a good neighbor" to businesses on the block, police Commander Doug Pape said earlier Tuesday. Within an hour, the site was bare.

Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Gray, said the mayor did not know of the cleanup beforehand. She said the city supports the right to protest.

"But they cannot block the sidewalk, which has been a problem from time to time," Straub said.

Pape said it was not against any law to sleep in a public place, but a local ordinance prohibits blocking the sidewalk.

The protesters said they would continue the Occupy Lexington movement, although it was unclear what form the protest would take. On Tuesday night, 17 protesters gathered at the site for their regular "General Assembly," where issues are discussed and plans are made.

Austin Parker, communications coordinator for the group, said Occupy Lexington would host events, and it has committees that would continue to work on publicizing the movement's message.

"There's no more tents, but a tent can't hold an idea," Parker said.

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York, then spread to major cities across the country. Lexington occupiers said theirs was the longest-running physical protest in the country. Many sites have been forced to close by larger cities' governments, leading to periodic arrests and skirmishes between protesters and officers.

In Louisville, officials told Occupy protesters that they no longer would be allowed to camp overnight in the city and that their tents must be taken down in January. The protesters filed a lawsuit in federal court, and the city has not evicted them pending the outcome of the case, city spokesman Chris Poynter said.

The Louisville occupiers are still camping out in Founder's Square, a small green space downtown.

There was no sign of confrontation during the cleanup in Lexington.

Pape said police have checked on the occupiers daily. When an officer went to the site late Tuesday morning, no one was there.

"Like we would with other abandoned property, we started picking it up," he said.

Guthrie, an occupier who works across the street at Natasha's Bistro & Bar, saw police officers at the site and walked over to see what was happening. She called several other occupiers, who came to the site to help.

What protesters didn't want or couldn't find room for, police hauled away in a trailer. Pape said police would hold the property for several days to see whether anyone claimed it.

Pape said police had talked with the occupiers several times during the past couple months about keeping the site clean. He said the occupiers would clean it up, but trash and tents would be blocking the sidewalk days later.

About 70 people had gathered regularly at the site since the protest started in Lexington on Sept. 29. Those numbers had dwindled somewhat as it got colder.

Occupier Kate Folsom said the protest would continue for one reason: The problems the movement set out to bring attention to have not been solved.

"We will continue to protest until the problems in this community and this country have some resolutions," she said.

Herald-Leader staff writer Karla Ward contributed to this report.

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