Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) -- New York City police in riot gear swept into a Lower Manhattan park early today to remove hundreds of Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who had been camping there for more than eight weeks to protest income inequality.
The action followed similar moves that shut camps in Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon. New York police and the park’s owners told protesters at 1 a.m. local time to remove items including tents and sleeping bags, after which city workers cleared remaining belongings, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. The park will remain closed while the city reviews a judge’s restraining order seeking to allow protesters to return with their belongings, the mayor said.
“The First Amendment protects speech,” the mayor said in a press conference 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, and must follow park rules, he said.
New York police have avoided a confrontation with demonstrators camped in a public park that’s privately owned near the World Trade Center site since the owner postponed clearing sections for cleaning in mid-October. In cities across the country, crime combined with poor sanitary conditions and complaints of losses at local businesses have eroded tolerance for the camps as expressions of free speech.
Birthplace of Movement
Hundreds of protesters have slept in tents and under tarps since Sept. 17 in Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of the protests and the physical symbol of what has grown into a global movement. The park is a public space owned by a real estate developer, Brookfield Office Properties Inc.
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 this week with plans 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.”
‘Lot of Taunting’
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 50 outside, Kelly told reporters after the mayor’s press conference. Most arrests were for disorderly conduct, Kelly said.
“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.
“I have become increasingly concerned -- as had the park’s owner, Brookfield Properties -- that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters and to the surrounding community,” the mayor said a release prior to the press conference.
“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. “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.
Protesters at Zuccotti have evaded eviction and confrontation with New York police before. Thousands of people convened in the early morning hours of Oct. 14, leading Brookfield to postpone a scheduled cleaning.
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.”
When protesters began camping in Portland on Oct. 6, “the groups that day were people who have been committed to the movement,” Sergeant Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Then those people started leaving and the homeless population and street youth began moving in.”
The camps have cropped up in cities nationwide to protest economic disparity. Demonstrators decry high foreclosures and unemployment rates that plague average Americans while large bonuses were issued by U.S. banks after they accepted a taxpayer-funded bailout.
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter said on Nov. 13 that the city “must re-evaluate” its dealings with Occupy Philly after numerous reports of thefts and assaults at the group’s tent city on Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall. Since Oct. 6, emergency medical services have made 15 runs to the camp and a woman reported a rape Nov. 12, he said at a news briefing. Nutter said he’s asked for additional police in the area.
Many of the initial leaders that the city dealt with have since left and the group is fractured, Nutter said. The mayor said he wants to avoid confrontation with the movement and agrees with them on issues such as unemployment, poverty and bank lending.
“Now we’re at a critical point where we must re-evaluate our entire relationship with this very changed group,” he said.
--With assistance from Chris Dolmetsch, Henry Goldman, Charles Mead and Liza Horowitz in New York, Terrence Dopp in Trenton and Simon Clark in London. Editors: Pete Young, Mark Tannenbaum, Mark Schoifet