New York City police wearing riot gear swept into Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan today, removing hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who had been camping there for more than eight weeks to protest income inequality.
New York police and the park’s owners told protesters at 1 a.m. on Tuesday that they must remove all items, including tents and sleeping bags, from the premises, after which city workers cleared anything left behind. The park will remain closed while the city reviews a judge’s restraining order seeking to allow protesters to return, with their belongings, according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“The First Amendment protects speech,” said Bloomberg in a press conference today at City Hall. “It doesn’t protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over public space.” Protesters will be allowed to return without those items or tarps, according to Bloomberg, and must follow park rules.
New York police have tried to avoid confrontations with demonstrators camped in the privately-owned public park since the owner, real estate developer Brookfield Office Properties Inc., postponed clearing sections for cleaning in mid-October. Zuccotti park is the birthplace of the Occupy movement, which has cropped up in camps in cities all around the world where crime, poor sanitary conditions, and complaints of losses at local business have eroded tolerance for the camps as expressions of free speech.
Protesters took over Zuccotti Park on September 17, and have since been sleeping in tents and under tarps. The park and its inhabitants have become a physical symbol of what has grown into a global movement. Demonstrators outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London held a press conference today expressing their support for Occupy Wall Street and called for a protest outside the U.S. embassy.
The NYPD operation came less than a day after organizers announced that they would mark the two-month anniversary of the movement this week with plans to “shut down Wall Street” and “occupy the subways.” Protesters are planning a “Day of Action” on November 17, according to the group’s website, with demonstrations organized throughout the day. After shutting down Wall Street in the morning, and 16 major subway stations in each of the five boroughs in the mid-afternoon, protesters plan to “gather at Foley Square (just across from City Hall) in solidarity with laborers demanding jobs to rebuild this country’s infrastructure and economy.”
Updates on the OccuplyWallSt.org offer a play-by-play of what went down during the early-morning raid. According to the site, police arrived with bulldozers and full riot gear at 1:20 a.m. on Tuesday, deploying pepper spray by 2:07 a.m. At 2:20 a.m., press helicopters were evicted from airspace and one New York Times reporter was arrested. The updates continued throughout the morning, relating the destruction of the OWS library as police threw over 5,000 donated books in a dumpster, to when the police began cutting down trees in Liberty Square, until finally the square was cleared at 6:05 a.m.
Roughly 220 occupiers were in the park this morning when police announced over loudspeakers that they must leave or face arrest, according to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. About 142 people were arrested inside the park, and 50 outside, said Kelly, most for disorderly conduct. “Those who were arrested wanted to be arrested,” said Kelly. “There was an awful lot of taunting and getting into police officers’ faces.”
Mayor Bloomberg has remained in constant contact with the park’s owners throughout the protests, and yesterday they requested that the “city assist them in finally enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park,” said Bloomberg. “The occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters and to the surrounding community,” said the mayor
Occupiers had set up a medical tent, kitchen area serving three meals a day, library, comfort station providing protesters with underwear, sweaters, pants and blankets, and tables offering media outreach and legal guidance, all in the one-square block park in Manhattan’s financial district. Until now, protesters have been able to avoid eviction, though more than 900 people have been arrested and charged in connection with the protests since mid-September.
Oakland police cleared an encampment yesterday after a slaying on November 10, while Salt Lake City banned protesters from staying overnight at Pioneer Park on November 11 after a person was found dead at the camp that morning. Police in Portland evicted campers at Chapman and Lownsdale squares on November 13 after two people suffered drug overdoses.
According to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, many of the residents of the Occupy encampments are not affiliated with the movement. “In part of clearing the camp, we moved a lot of the homeless — they were about half of the residents,” she said. Camps have played host to sexual assaults, drug dealing, theft, and multiple deaths, drawing the homeless, street youths, and a criminal element, according to officials around the country.
While many leaders originally sought to avoid confrontations with the protesters, and in many cases agreed with them on issues such as unemployment, poverty, and bank lending, they are now being forced to re-evaluate their relationships with the groups. But protesters are adamant that, despite their physical removal from camps around the country, “you cannot evict an idea whose time has come.“