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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Several people were led away from the plaza in front of Memphis City Hall by police Wednesday morning after refusing to leave despite an order to do so.

Officers used bullhorns to try to disperse the crowd from Civic Center Plaza. Just before 6 a.m. they even warned them that an unlawful assembly would be declared if they didn’t leave as soon as possible.

The city said the protesters must move because of construction at City Hall. Activists claimed that this had nothing to do with construction and the city was just trying to get them to leave.

WREG’s Melissa Moon confirmed with Nixon General Contractors that work has been ongoing at City Hall for a few weeks fixing a leaky roof. Crews will be putting up fencing Wednesday around City Hall and bringing in fork lifts and dumpsters.

The area will be a hard hat zone, they said.

Several hours later the city released a statement further clarifying that the construction project had been underway since 2019.

“As has been reported for some time now, the roof of City Hall needed to be repaired to prevent leaks inside the building, most notable inside City Council chambers. In addition the City has entered the design phase of construction to replace the marble façade on the building.  More than a year ago, fencing was place around the building to create a fall zone,” the statement read.

“Due to the COVID-19 epidemic, construction was halted, and resumed with cranes used to stage construction material on the roof in May of this year.  All possible demolition without further need for scaffolding has been completed, and now, we must extend the barrier to complete exterior demolition and finish the project.”

The city also noted that they sent representatives to the front of City Hall on Tuesday and Wednesday to offer assistance to the homeless.

As of 8 a.m. the protesters had not left and officers began going to talk with the protesters individually to see if they could get them to move. Authorities told the protesters they could relocate north of the fountain or near the flag poles, but they refused, saying the idea is to disrupt City Hall.

Some of the protesters roped themselves to the fence outside City Hall and several people could be seen sitting in tents.

Just before 9 a.m. remaining protesters were led away by officers. Some of them were seen in handcuffs. Officers said they asked the citizens to move for their own safety.

An organizer for the protest told WREG about 17 people were arrested. Some were cited and released, while others were booked at 201 Poplar.

On Tuesday evening, protesters — some of whom had been camping out in tents for 15 days demanding that money be diverted from the Memphis Police Department to resources that help the poor — were given notice of the planned construction that was set to begin early Wednesday morning.

The group dug up some of the grass in front of City Hall this weekend and replaced it with a vegetable garden. One of the activists said, “The people have reclaimed Civic Center plaza. We are maximizing this space to feed those who are food insecure.”

The city posted signs that said a construction zone needs to be set up so repairs can be made to the exterior and roof of City Hall.

Police early Wednesday morning to set up barricades around the area and blocked off traffic on nearby streets.

They told the protesters they need to clear out, but the group said they won’t leave until their demands are met.