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Originally published October 12, 2011 at 8:57 PM | Page modified October 13, 2011 at 2:42 PM

Occupy Seattle protest makes mayor perform balancing act

Mayor Mike McGinn has worked to show support for Occupy Seattle. But as the mayor, he must keep order, ensure public safety and fairly enforce parks rules.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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After Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn spoke to demonstrators at Westlake Park on Monday, Alicia Frenter waited patiently to have her picture taken with him.

"He hugged me, like he did everybody," she said. "I'm all with him, because he's all with us, too. He's doing his job and I'm proud of him."

McGinn has worked to show support for Occupy Seattle. He says he agrees with the group's message about income equality — even as he tells police to haul away its tents.

Wednesday night, after several days warning protesters who remained in the park after 10 p.m. that they were in the park illegally, police made some arrests, something McGinn had indicated would happen in a news release earlier in the day.

With the arrests came chants from the crowd, among them: "Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Mike McGinn has got to go."

The balance McGinn and other liberal officials are attempting to strike illustrates the challenge of policing a movement with which they agree. After all, income disparity was part of the mayor's stump speech in 2009, when he ran for office. And the former Sierra Club organizer is comfortable with protests. But as mayor, he has to keep order, ensure public safety and fairly enforce parks rules.

"The issue of people expressing what they feel, you have to respect that in a democracy," McGinn said, adding, "Government doesn't get to pick and choose which types of free speech it likes or it doesn't."

City Attorney Pete Holmes is in a similar spot. He spent Saturday at Westlake with an Occupy Seattle button pinned to his shirt. Back on the job as the city's top prosecutor, he filed charges against a dozen protesters.

The mayor talks twice a day with a team of advisers monitoring hundreds of daily demonstrators and a few dozen who have been spending the night downtown.

The mayor spent much of this week patiently coaxing protesters to pitch their tents at City Hall instead of the park, which closes at 10 p.m.

This is the second week the Occupy Seattle protest has been at Westlake. Similar demonstrations have taken hold in cities around the country as part of a national movement some are comparing to the tea party.

As in Seattle, police in many cities have been reluctant to make arrests, offering lots of warnings. But arrests are increasing across the country this week as protesters continue to refuse to leave public spaces.

Democrats, including President Obama, have struck a tone similar to Seattle officials', saying they feel the protesters' pain.

"I think your typical, municipal, liberal, progressive politician supports the message," said City Councilmember Nick Licata. "What we're trying to figure out is how do you support that message without creating hostility to that message because of the behavior of the protesters."

If you crack down, he said, you could invoke a backlash. But conflict with city officials keeps the protest in the news.

Licata is rooting for the movement, and said he will propose a council resolution supporting it. Over the weekend, at least one City Council candidate, Brad Meacham, attended the protest. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles stopped by to donate dried fruit as a snack.

McGinn said he was deliberate in his decision last week to have police take down protesters' tents. He invited them to camp at City Hall and thought that would be the end of the conflict. But some protesters used umbrellas and tarps to build makeshift shelters at the park, so he cracked down on those, as well.

"Tensions were starting to rise," McGinn said, so he delivered coffee on Sunday to smooth things over.

That didn't work for everyone. Police arrested protesters Wednesday at City Hall, and some demonstrators tweeted that they planned to occupy the mayor's office Thursday. Criticism of the mayor drew loud applause at a Wednesday rally at the park.

McGinn said he had seen himself described in national press reports as a "liberal mayor." That's true, he said, but "in the philosophy of dealing with this, 'mayor' trumps 'liberal.' "

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com

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