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Protesters told to observe ordinances

The Merced County Sheriff's Department evicted Occupy Merced protesters, as well as several homeless people, from an encampment about 11 p.m. Thursday in Courthouse Park at N and 20th streets.

After a brief conversation with the five deputies on scene, protesters agreed to their orders and left the park quietly. "You can come back at 7:30, exercise your right to protest -- which we support. But you cannot be in the park after 10 o'clock. That's a violation," said Sgt. John McKnight to a group of roughly 20 protesters holding signs and banners, many of whom showed up after word spread the camp was going to be ordered out of the park.

The group had camped in downtown Merced for two months with little interference from police or the sheriff's department before the deputies pulled up Thursday night and enforced the county park rules.

As to why the sheriff's department chose Thursday night to enforce the park hours, McKnight said the increasing size of the encampment played a part in the decision. "We didn't want this to get out of control," he said. "This was just the day that it happened."

A parks and recreation department official handed out fliers earlier in the day, stating the park's hours of operation, said protester Monica Villa. "She gave me about six fliers," Villa said. "She's been out here before. And the officers haven't bothered us. And now all of a sudden it's a big deal."

According to Villa, officials at the sheriff's department told her they were receiving complaints about homeless people in the park. However, she maintained that the community wants the Occupy encampment to stay. "We're getting inundated with people trying to support us," she said. "We've got chocolate, coffee. We've got wood. We've got people bringing us food, coming to ask us, 'What do you need?' I asked (the sheriff's department) how many complaints have come in and what they're complaining about, and there was no answer."

Asked what agency made the decision to remove the camp, McKnight said, "I know the parks department had some complaints concerning some sanitation issues. It was the sheriff's decision but it was in conjunction with the parks department."

Peggy Vejar, deputy director of the Merced County Parks and Recreation Department, declined to say whether she asked the sheriff's department to remove the encampment. "We have an ordinance that states the park hours," she wrote in an email. "As far as enforcement, that is the sheriff's or other law enforcement agencies' responsibility. The Occupy group has been given and informed of the ordinance since October. When the enforcement occurs is up to law enforcement. Whether it's today or in a month, it's an ordinance and is being enforced."

Immediately after the eviction, protester and UC Merced student Ruthe Offill, 23, said part of her wanted to make a stand and not leave, but she said she didn't think getting arrested would help the cause. "They (the deputies) seemed very reasonable," she said. "I'm very happy with the way it went. I'm just trying to handle it as amicably as possible. Honestly, I think it speaks more strongly for the movement that we're able to reason with the authority figures. It's important that we're recognized as an intelligent, reasonable group of people."

Some of the protestors said they'd return to the park to hold meetings during regular park hours.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 835-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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