Mayor faces tide of anger over Occupy Atlanta

Quite a few people are upset over Occupy Atlanta, but David Howell has actually gone down and confronted the protesters in Woodruff Park.

“People have handed me materials that were downright communist,” said Howell, 29, who lives in Midtown and works for a wireless communications firm. His next step: Going directly to Mayor Kasim Reed to air his grievances.

While national polls show a deep schism in public opinion about the anti-Wall Street movement, with more in sympathy than not, the voices of opposition are gathering force, especially in cyberspace. And the rising chorus of local criticism can't be lost on the mayor, who has grown increasingly stern with the protesters in recent days, said Bob Grafstein, a University of Georgia political science professor.

“The mayor is feeling pressure,” he said. “It [Occupy Atlanta] detracts from the image of Atlanta as a place to do business, as well as its hospitality and image as a tourist attraction.”

Rumors of impending arrests have swirled through the park ever since a toe-to-toe standoff Saturday between the mayor and Occupy Atlanta organizers over an unauthorized music show. Reed has asserted that he will revoke permission for the encampment and have protesters removed "at a time of my choosing."

Reed's spokeswoman, Sonji Jacobs, said she "vigorously" objects to the suggestion that Reed's words were prompted by any criticism. She said he was moved solely by "concern about public safety and escalating tension at Woodruff Park."

Tuesday afternoon, protest organizers met with local clergy whom Reed had asked to try to broker an end to the occupation. But both sides said little was accomplished, and protesters remained braced for an effort to evict them.

Police were very much in evidence around the barricaded park, with police helicopters circling overhead and officers stationed at every opening.

Meanwhile, the list of Occupy critics is growing, and some of that criticism is beginning to spill over onto the city government in general and Reed in particular.

Atlanta business leaders want the protest to go away. Many area residents object to the ruckus in the park. Local elected officials say they're receiving complaints. The Internet is abuzz with those who oppose not only the gathering's politics, but its very style of expression, with critics casting the movement as anti-American, disorganized and bereft of message.

"I don't think all of them are derelicts or hippies, but I think a lot of them are," said Drew Costanza, 29, a sales worker in Buckhead. He said the group seems opposed to capitalism itself, something he sees as "fundamental to America."

In addition, local tea party leaders, who've seen this movement compared to their own, are ripping it. Beyond the political differences, tea party leaders assert that the Occupy movement is receiving special treatment from the mayor.

Debbie Dooley, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots, said her group ran up against fees, red tape and restrictions when it inquired about using Woodruff Park and Centennial Olympic Park. It decided against renting the facilities. If tea party members had tried civil disobedience instead, “we would have been removed and arrested,” Dooley said.

“We feel like the mayor is selectively deciding who can use the parks,” she said.

Reed has said the city’s legal code gives him discretion to grant certain groups allowances. But before the tea party complained publicly, Reed also said he was  concerned that he was setting a precedent and opening the city up to legal problems by giving Occupy Atlanta more time.

The organizers of Occupy Atlanta say that they are a peaceful, nonviolent movement pressing for basic American rights.

"We do have a message and it's quite clear: We want corruption out of government," said Malcolm McKenzie, an Atlanta computer technician who is among the protesters. "We feel government has sold itself to the highest bidder."

He said the group holds no affiliation to any political party, and that it's unfair to say the participants are just malcontents when many are willing to risk jail.

"Some people don't see it, but we're helping them with their rights," McKenzie said.

Grafstein, the UGA professor, said he senses echoes of the conflicts that occurred during the era of Vietnam War protests. War protesters turned to occupations, as opponents branded them as subversives and hippies, sentiments echoed in today's banter.

"I wish they would just go home and take a bath," said Grant Gilley, 24, an Alpharetta college student. "I respect their right to protest. I'm just getting a little fed up with them staying there."

Criticism has also emerged from some liberals, such as Jill Whitley, 28, a stay-at-home mom in Newnan.

"I'm as liberal as I can possibly be," said Whitley. "I feel like [the Occupy movement is] a bunch of hipsters and crazies hanging out with no idea of what the issues are and no concrete goal."

An then there's David Howell. He keeps going to the park, trying to talk whet he sees as sense into the protesters, person by person, day after day -- despite having been asked to leave several times and having someone try to slap his camera phone out of his hand.

So how does he feel his campaign is going?

"Not very well," he said.

Staff writer Christian Boone contributed to this article.