Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino today defended the arrests of scores of Occupy Boston protesters in a section of the city’s Greenway park, saying he agrees with them on the issues but they couldn’t be allowed to “tie up the city.”
“I understand they have freedom of speech and freedom of expression, but we have a city to manage,” he said in a telephone interview. “I’m open to suggestions, but civil disobedience will not be tolerated.”
The early morning arrests of the protesters, who have gathered downtown in recent days to criticize the financial industry and social inequality, began at about 1:20 a.m. Police said late this afternoon that 141 people had been arrested.
“The message they are saying ... is the middle class of America is having a difficult time. That’s the issue they are trying to get across,” Menino said.
“I agree with them on the issues. Foreclosure. Corporate greed. These are issues I’ve been working on my entire career. But you can’t tie up a city,” he said.
He said protesters had crossed two lines, first, by marching on the North Washington Street Bridge and threatening to tie up traffic and, second, by expanding their campground to a newly renovated area of the Greenway that the city had asked them to stay off.
Occupy Boston said today in a statement that police had “brutally attacked” protesters.
“Today’s reprehensible attack by the Boston Police Department represents a sad and disturbing shift away from dialogue and towards violent repression,” the group said on its website.
“Members of Veterans for Peace [a peace group that has joined the loosely organized protest] carrying American flags were pushed to the ground and their flags trampled as the police hauled them away,” the group said in a statement.
Boston police spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said officers “have a right to protect themselves,” and acted with restraint.
“We believe all our officers were respectful and proportional,” she said.
She said police felt compelled to break up the demonstration when it expanded beyond Dewey Square, where protesters have been camped for nearly two weeks, to the adjacent section of the Greenway.
“We have been very accommodating to everyone’s right to demonstrate peaceably,” she said. “But when unpredictability starts to enter the scenario, we are obligated to maintain public order and protect public safety.”
She said camping overnight on the Greenway, a public park, is generally not allowed. Police can also arrest groups of people for “unlawful assembly” if they do not disperse when ordered.
The first wave of those arrested made their appearances in Boston Municipal Court this afternoon.
By mid-afternoon, nine men who were still in custody, and 10 more men who had been released by police were notified that Suffolk prosecutors wanted their cases converted into civil infractions from criminal violations.
Municipal Court Judge Raymond Dougan agreed to the request by prosecutors from Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley’s office. All 19 had originally faced two criminal charges. One, unlawful assembly, carries a maximum sentence of a year in the county jail or a $500 fine. The second, violation of a municipal bylaw, carries a $300 fine. The protesters were ordered to pay a $50 assessment fee to the courts.
The arrests began around 1:20 a.m. when police lined up on Atlantic Avenue. Minutes later, dozens of sheriff vans and police wagons arrived, and more than 200 officers, both in uniforms and riot gear, surrounded the section of the Greenway -- bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Congress, Purchase, and Pearl streets -- occupied by the protesters.
Police Superintendent William Evans and Commissioner Edward F. Davis watched from across the street. Evans gave the crowd two minutes to disperse, warning that they would be locked up if they did not comply.
The crowd, energized by the sudden appearance of the Boston and transit police officers, chanted, ‘‘The people united will never be defeated,’’ “This is a peaceful protest,” and “The whole world is watching.’’
About 10 minutes later, the first officers entered the park and surrounded the group. Evans, using a loudspeaker, gave one more warning and then each protester was individually put on his or her stomach, cable-tied, and dragged off as other officers tore down tents and arrested and detained people on the fringe of the park.
One police officer was hit in the face. According to police, no protesters or police were seriously injured.
A number of protesters retreated from the Greenway to Dewey Square when police arrived.
Urszula Masny-Latos, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild’s Northeast regional office, said she was on the scene as a legal observer. The Guild is a national non-profit that often represents people engaged in civil disobedience.
Masny-Latos said no protesters fought with police. She said police could have employed a technique routinely used at other protests – police approach a protester, tell them they are violating the law, and the protester then submits to being taken into custody – and still achieved their goal of clearing the area.
“They really attacked,’’ Masny-Latos said of police. “They used force that was completely unnecessary. … It was just brutal. I have no idea why they arrested us with such force.’’
To her shock, Masny-Latos herself was among those arrested. She said Boston police usually respect the legal observers the guild routinely dispatches to public protests.
However, even though she was wearing a green hat with the words, “legal observer’’ clearly visible, Masny-Latos said, she was the second person arrested by police.
“It was very surprising,’’ she said of being arrested. “Boston police usually respect our legal observers. And they usually leave us alone. … I was legal observing. I wasn’t even chanting anything.’’
“Four officers grabbed me and dragged me,’’ she said. “I begged them to stop, [told them that that] they were hurting me. I have no idea why they arrested us with such force.’’
Police had earlier warned the approximately 1,000 protesters to leave the Greenway area and relocate to either Dewey Square or a small, adjacent strip of the Greenway.
John Nilles, 74, a former Marine from Medford who served in Vietnam and is a member of Veterans for Peace, said he was knocked down during the arrests.
He believes he did not get arrested in the chaos because he got knocked down and banged up his knee.
“I have absolutely no use for police anymore,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
He talked about how it reminded him of the 1960s. “This is not the world I intended to come back to,” he said in reference to Vietnam.
James Woods, 52, of Roxbury, a protester who was not arrested, said this morning that police had not used their batons but he had seen them “aggressively manhandling women.” He also said police had used pepper spray on some people. The site was cleared, he said, and protesters’ cameras, tents, and clothes were thrown into a dumpster.
The section of the Greenway once occupied by the protesters remained closed off this morning, surrounded by groups of police officers and steel barricades.
The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway is a strip of green that winds through downtown Boston, named in honor of the matriarch of the legendary Kennedy political family. The park was created when an unsightly elevated highway through the center of the city was placed in a tunnel as part of the mammoth Big Dig project.
The Occupy Boston protest is one of the offshoots of the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in September in New York City. The loosely organized movement has recently begun drawing attention from Democrats and unions. Earlier Monday, hundreds of college students had marched through the city’s streets in a show of support.
Occupy Boston describes itself as the “beginning of an ongoing discussion about reforming Wall Street and removing special interests from government” and it says it is just one of more than 120 encampments nationwide.