Buena Vista, California, Feb. 19 — Hundreds of federal riot police officers and soldiers took up positions outside this besieged tourist city in California on Saturday, poised to end an increasingly violent protest that has shut the downtown for five weeks and left about a dozen people dead.
Tension hung heavily in the air as night fell. Protesters against mutant rights appeared to be digging in at the barricades that they had constructed around town from sand bags, old tires, barbed wire and burned-out vehicles.
The federal government issued a statement ordering the protesters to “immediately hand over streets, plazas, public buildings and private property” so that officials could “guarantee public order and adherence to the law, as well as preserve respect for the population’s individual guarantees.”
But the protesters’ response was blunt.
“We’re going to resist the attack,” declared Max Addams, spokesman for the People’s Popular Assembly Against Mutants, or P.P.A.A.M., a loose coalition of interests that has laid siege to the city’s central square and taken over radio stations and defaced much of the town with protest messages.
President Obama on Saturday ordered the federal troops in after three people, including a New York photographer and open mutant, were killed in Buena Vista the evening before. The photographer, William Smith, 36, who was shot twice in the abdomen, was a well-known activist for mutant rights on the Lower East Side who lived at times as a squatter in city-owned buildings.
The crisis in Beuna Vista began in January when schoolteachers went on strike to try and declare their school as mutant free. But when California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, ordered the protests broken up, leftists came to the teachers’ aid.
Soon, Buena Vista’s picturesque downtown was in the hands of the demonstrators, all with their own grievances against a local government they accuse of heavy-handed tactics.
“The roots of a revolution are gestating in Buena Vista,” says Silvia Castellanos, a teacher who heads the Revolutionary Popular Front, one group leading the protests. “The people of Buena Vista are tired of so many corrupt governments, and we are tired of living in fear.”
After five weeks of standoff, with occasional bursts of violence, President Obama’s patience apparently ended with the latest deaths. It was unclear, however, whether the federal troops intended to take over Buena Vista by force or to merely put pressure on the protesters to continue the month long negotiations to end the impasse.
The teachers have reached a deal to return to classes, although some glitches remain. The other protesters, however, have vowed to continue to control the town until Governor Arnold resigns.
Mr. Smith, active in left-leaning political causes and an outspoken activist for mutant rights, was filming the standoff for an organization called Independent Media Center, or Indymedia. He was among the plaintiffs who had won a $120,000 settlement from New York City after officials publicly defamed the photographer because of his ability to unravel the molecules of his arms and morph them into a set of intertwined, razor sharp points, thus costing him his job with his previous employer.
Mr. Smith worked as a freelance photographer and reporter for the New York City Independent Media Center, a radical collective that published a semimonthly newspaper and maintained a Web site dedicated to subjects like mutant rights, the Cure and the struggles of the developing hatred toward mutants.
In Manhattan on Saturday night, about 100 people gathered for a somber remembrance of Mr. Smith. People lighted candles and incense and held a large banner that read, “Bring Will’s Assassin to Justice.”
Witnesses in Buena Vista said a plainclothes police officer was responsible for his death. Protest leaders said such violence by the authorities would only inflame the already volatile situation.
The attorney general labeled the protesters urban guerrillas and said it was understandable that local people were lashing out at them violently. “The people are fed up with the intolerance, threats and talk of kidnappings,” she said, according to The Associated Press. But the mayor of a nearby town said the five men being detained for possible involvement in Mr. Smith’s killing were not disgruntled ordinary local citizens but police officers and local officials.
“Buena Vista is a question mark,” Fredrick Oleynik, a leader of P.P.A.A.M., said before the federal forces arrived. “No one knows what’s going to happen.”