When protesters inspired by the Occupy Wall Street Movement first set up camp outside Oakland City Hall on Frank Ogawa Plaza, the city's elected officials rolled out the welcome mat.

On the first night, Oct. 10, Councilwoman Desley Brooks pitched a tent among the protesters to show her support.

Meanwhile, the city bent over backward to accommodate the protesters who had transformed the plaza into an elaborate tent city.

Though residents of the encampment were disobeying various city codes, no one tried to remove them. Instead, Oakland officials issued directives in a wishful effort to enforce order upon chaos.

They asked protesters -- who number several hundred people -- to remove certain structures. They enjoined them to stay on the grassy areas and to install fire extinguishers outside the cooking tent.

Mayor Jean Quan asked them to kindly not pee on the plaza's old oak tree because it has shallow roots.

Yet some people went on living with dogs in tents and partaking in the open air from their marijuana stashes -- steps from the administrative offices of city government.

Even in a city as liberal as Oakland professes to be, patience has its limits.

On Thursday, it finally wore out.

City Administrator Deanna Santana's office issued the tent city a "Notice to Vacate Frank Ogawa Plaza." It said that Oakland is committed to free speech. However, the city also has a responsibility to ensure public safety.


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"In recent days, camp conditions and occupants' behavior have significantly deteriorated and it is no longer manageable to maintain a public health and safety plan," the notice said.

Those conditions include a growing rat problem and fire and safety hazards.

There have also been increasing reports of violence. Reporters and others have been threatened. Protesters have blocked the police from entering the camp to respond to crimes -- insisting that they will dispense justice themselves.

According to one report, no one contacted the police when a mentally ill homeless man assaulted several protesters. Instead, they pepper-sprayed the man and beat him unconscious.

What concerns me most are reports of young children sleeping in tents with adults and hanging out all hours of the night in an area that has drawn all kinds of unsavory characters. People who are drunk, violent and mentally ill.

The city's order says protesters are still free to assemble peacefully between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., but overnight camping will no longer be allowed.

The immediate response from more hard-core protesters was a call to resist removal by "any means necessary."

As of this writing, the protesters had not budged. The police had received no instructions from City Hall to send officers to enforce the eviction, which made it likely the encampment would remain at least through the weekend.

That set the stage for a potentially ugly showdown between some of the more radical elements and the police.

It is sad that a movement that started out as such a worthy cause -- opposing economic injustice and social inequality -- has deteriorated into a public hazard and nuisance.

Oakland officials now find themselves in a pickle -- due in part to their softball handling of the protesters.

Officials should have been more forceful about enforcing code violations at the camp rather than waiting until the situation got totally out of hand.

Secondly, it was a mistake in my humble opinion to issue an eviction notice without a deadline. How could City Hall have expected protesters to take such a vague warning seriously?

So now, we have a volatile standoff.

City officials will have to attempt to negotiate with the movement leaders for a peaceful evacuation. But there's one little problem.

There are no leaders. No official spokesperson.

There are factions.

Some of the protesters are sane, law-abiding people who want the camp to remain. They argue that if the group addresses the serious safety problems, the city will have less grounds to remove them.

Then, there are those bad apples looking for any excuse to clash with the police. They are of the same ilk as the anarchists and criminals who hijacked the peaceful protests after Oscar Grant III's killing by a BART police officer -- using the event as an excuse to loot and burn downtown.

The question is, which group will prevail? The reasonable folks or the nuts?

The problem, I'm afraid, is there are enough unstable elements to create a very dangerous situation.

Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Reach her at tdrummond@bayareanewsgroup.com or follow her at Twitter.com/Tammerlin