New York City police in riot gear swept into a Lower Manhattan park early today to remove Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who had been camping there for more than eight weeks to protest income inequality.
Zuccotti Park will remain off-limits to protesters who want to camp there in tents and sleeping bags. Demonstrators lost a bid to return to the park with those items when state Supreme Court Judge Michael Stallman lifted a temporary restraining order late this afternoon, ruling that the city had the power to rid the plaza of the protesters’ gear.
Hundreds had gathered around metal barricades surrounding the park near the World Trade Center site for hours after the police ouster, awaiting the outcome of the court hearing.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Peter Mueller, a 25-year-old illustrator who said he has camped out at the park. “I believe tents are an expression of our First Amendment rights. I would hope there would be some redress.”
Police and the park’s owners told protesters at 1 a.m. local time that they could re-enter the park after city workers cleared it, only if they returned without the tents, tarps and sleeping bags they had used to establish a continuing presence.
“The First Amendment protects speech,” Bloomberg said in a press conference at City Hall. “It doesn’t protect the use of tents and sleeping bags to take over a public space.” The prolonged presence of demonstrators in the confined area had begun to pose a health and safety risk to protesters and the public, he said.
‘Looking at Alternatives’
About 50 security officers employed by the park’s owner, Brookfield Office Properties Inc., stationed themselves within the emptied and barricaded park, supported by dozens of police officers. Protesters vowed to continue to voice opposition to what they describe as policies favoring the rich, even if they are forced to another site.
“We’ll set up camps somewhere else,” said Mark Bray, a spokesman for the group. “We’re looking at alternatives.” Demonstrators may return to Zuccotti Park to stage a sit-in soon, he said.
The action followed moves that shut camps in Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon. In these cities, mayors cited crime, poor sanitary conditions and local merchants’ complaints to justify evictions of protesters from similar encampments, saying public safety concerns outweighed the demonstrators’ free-speech claims.
New York police had avoided a confrontation with demonstrators in the park near the World Trade Center site since Brookfield postponed clearing sections for cleaning in mid-October. They have camped there since Sept. 17.
‘Dangerous’ Conditions Cited
“Conditions in Zuccotti Park had become dangerous, unhealthy and unsafe,” said Richard Clark, Brookfield’s chief executive officer, in a statement. “These risks were unacceptable and it would have been irresponsible to not request that the city take action. Further, we have a legal obligation to the city and to this neighborhood to keep the park accessible to all who wish to enjoy it, which had become impossible.”
In Toronto, protesters that have set up camp in St. James Park near Toronto’s financial district over the past 31 days are receiving eviction notices today, according to news network CP24. Demonstrators outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London held a press conference today to express support for Occupy Wall Street and called for a protest outside the U.S. embassy.
The New York police operation came after organizers announced they would mark the two-month anniversary of the movement on Nov. 17, intending to “shut down Wall Street” and “occupy the subways.”
“Some politicians may physically remove us from public spaces -- our spaces,” activists said in a statement released at 2:25 a.m. local time. “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”
Occupy camps nationwide have protested economic disparity, decrying high foreclosure and unemployment rates that affect average Americans while the bankers and financial executives award themselves bonuses with a taxpayer-funded bailouts.
About 220 people were in the park when police using loudspeakers told protesters to leave or face arrest, said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. About 142 people were arrested inside the park and more than 50 outside, Kelly told reporters after the mayor’s press conference. Most arrests were for trespassing and disorderly conduct, Kelly said.
Ydanis Rodriguez, a Democratic City Councilmember from northern Manhattan, became one of those arrested, said Yetta Kurland, an attorney with the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, in an e-mailed news release.
“Those who were arrested wanted to be arrested,” Kelly said. “There was an awful lot of taunting and getting into police officers’ faces.”
Police broke down tents and “destroyed everything” while forcibly removing protesters who had locked arms, said Chris Porter, 26, a welder from Indiana who joined the protest in the park about a month ago.
“We have been in constant contact with Brookfield and yesterday they requested that the city assist it in enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park,” Bloomberg said in a statement before the press conference. “But make no mistake -- the final decision to act was mine.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The one-square block space hosted a medical tent, kitchen area serving three meals a day, library, comfort station doling out underwear, sweaters, pants and blankets, and tables offering media outreach and legal guidance.
Hundreds of protesters arrested last month during a demonstration on the Brooklyn Bridge are scheduled to start appearing in court today to face disorderly conduct charges.
Before today, more than 900 people had been charged in connection with the protests since mid-September, including about 700 arrested during the Oct. 1 bridge demonstration, according to police.
The demonstrators refer to themselves on signs and in slogans as “the 99 percent,” a reference to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s study showing the richest 1 percent control 40 percent of U.S. wealth.
Oakland police cleared a downtown encampment yesterday after a slaying on Nov. 10. Police in Portland evicted campers at Chapman and Lownsdale squares on Nov. 13 after two people suffered drug overdoses. Salt Lake City banned protesters from staying overnight at Pioneer Park on Nov. 11 after a person was found dead at the camp that morning.
“The people who originally founded the encampments are either no longer there or no longer in control,” Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said yesterday in a telephone interview. “In part of clearing the camp, we moved a lot of the homeless -- they were about half of the residents.”
Deaths, sexual assaults, drug dealing and theft in the tent cities threaten public safety, officials said. The camps have drawn the homeless, street youths and a criminal element, some officials said.
“In the past few days, the balance has tipped,” Portland Mayor Sam Adams said in a Nov. 10 statement. “We have experienced two very serious drug overdoses, where individuals required immediate resuscitation in the camp.”