SAN FRANCISCO -- Displaced Occupy protesters from Oakland and Berkeley funneled into San Francisco on Wednesday, clashing with police as they stormed a downtown bank and upsetting a fragile deal brokered by Mayor Ed Lee to allow the encampment along The Embarcadero to remain in place.
As the protesters marched into the heart of San Francisco's financial district, managers of several banks quickly locked their doors and posted security guards out front. But protesters were able to rush into the Bank of America branch as panicked employees ran to the back office and shut the bank safe.
Police in riot gear demanded the roughly 100 protesters leave the lobby of Bank of America on California Street or be arrested.
The confrontation at the bank came just a few hours after Lee met with a handful of Occupy S.F. protesters in an attempt to resolve the health and safety concerns at the growing encampment at Justin Herman Plaza, which faces The Embarcadero across the street from the Ferry Building, a popular tourist destination.
Lee demanded the demonstrators ban alcohol and drugs, increase the space between tents and clean portable toilets more often, among other reforms. But after a divided general assembly of the protesters Wednesday night, it remained unclear whether the campers would actually enact any of the changes before a city inspection set for early Thursday evening.
Like mayors across the country, Lee has been walking a fine line between tolerance and enforcement. Lee leads a city steeped in a tradition of peaceful protest, and many of the supervisors support the Occupy S.F. movement. Some supervisors even stayed many hours at the encampment when it was rumored the police were going to raid the camp three weeks ago. While Oakland has shut its camp down and Berkeley is attempting to do so, San Francisco still is working with protesters to allow a camp to remain -- begging the question of whether San Francisco will become the de facto epicenter of the Bay Area Occupy movement.
After Lee's meeting with protesters, the mayor told reporters that the city had been patient in working with the demonstrators to improve health and safety conditions at the camp. Lee said he expected to see "immediate compliance" with guidelines distributed by the city, which previously included restricting the encampment to 100 tents -- half the number now in the plaza.
Lee would not say whether the number of tents in the camp needed to be winnowed down, or what would happen if the number was not reduced.
"I have expressed very strongly that I need dramatic changes in the occupiers' presence and their willingness to cooperate with conditions we've set up," Lee said. "We're giving them an immediate opportunity to demonstrate" compliance.
One protester after the meeting said she was heading back to the camp to clean up with brooms and mops, but it remained unclear whether any evictions would occur if tents weren't removed.
"We are definitely willing to work with the city to find new space," said protester Meagan Moroney, 24. "But we are not OK with the city deciding who gets to be part of this movement. The only way this movement gets stronger is by the number of people that are growing within it. So we are not OK with cutting down people and telling them they can't be part of the civil rights movement."
Lee was clearly not happy with the encampment overnight. Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, San Francisco police cleared about 15 tents that recently had been pitched near the plaza, on a Market Street sidewalk, something the mayor and department heads have said could not be done because it blocks pedestrian access. Three people were cited or detained for illegal camping and blocking the sidewalk, and three more were booked for having no identification.
After the storming of the Bank of America, several thousand protesters continued to march Wednesday afternoon through the financial district to the State Building on Golden Gate Avenue. Several unions representing higher education employees chartered more than a dozen buses that picked up student protesters from UC Berkeley, Davis and Merced. They marched with the rest of the Occupy movement through San Francisco, expressing solidarity in their frustrations with economic inequalities. Specifically, students were protesting UC fee hikes that they say are pricing many of them out of an education.
Across the bay on Wednesday, about a dozen tents remained in Sproul Plaza at UC Berkeley in defiance of Chancellor Robert Birgeneau's order to leave.
"We will not allow encampments equivalent to what has occurred in Oakland and San Francisco," Birgeneau said, although by nightfall Wednesday, no action had been taken against them.
As night fell in San Francisco, protesters stood their ground at Justin Herman Plaza, uncertain whether their efforts to clean up would be enough to keep police at bay.
"They can raid us as much as they want, but we're always going to come back because we're not thinking of this short term, day by day," Moroney said. "We're trying to save the United States and save the world."