By Sebastian Smith
NEW YORK — Fears of a possible police crackdown spread Friday through New York's Occupy Wall Street camp in the wake of violent clashes between police and protesters in California.
The camp that popped up in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park seven weeks ago, inspiring similar anti-Wall Street demonstrations across the United States and in London, faces mounting political pressure, along with plummeting temperatures.
The police presence was unchanged around the cramped tent village, but angry comments by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and increasingly hostile coverage in parts of the New York media jangled protesters' nerves.
The occupywallst.org website reported "rampant" rumors of police action and warned: "NYPD (police) could move in as early as tonight, or it could be next week. We know that our adversaries are trying to build political cover for eviction by demonizing us in the press."
Ex-Marine Jose Mediavilla, 29, cut a bizarre sight wearing a gas mask while using a broom and dustpan to clean around the cramped tent village.
"I've had it the whole time in case of raids," he said. "There were a lot of rumors last night and today I'm wearing it just to show I'm ready."
But he said that while the camp was being skewered by the press, ordinary people still supported its aims of drawing attention to Wall Street corruption and economic inequities. "So many people come up and express thanks to us," Mediavilla said.
The focus is hardening on the New York protest as authorities in cities around the country appear to lose patience.
Police in Oakland, California used tear gas Thursday to disperse stone-throwing anti-capitalist protesters.
Last week, Denver policed evicted a small group that refused to remove tents pitched without a permit, riot police in Los Angeles arrested more than 60 demonstrators while clearing out a camp and there were also clashes in San Francisco.
Some 130 protestors were arested in Chicago on October 23 while trying to camp in the city's Grant Park.
The OWS New York camp already survived one apparent attempt at eviction three weeks ago, when police and the owners of the small, mostly concrete park said they would enforce a cleaning operation, only to back off at the last hour.
Since then, Bloomberg has given mixed messages over his support for freedom of speech and his dislike for how protesters have established their noisy presence in the high-rent downtown neighborhood.
On Thursday, the mayor labeled the protesters "despicable" and "outrageous" for attempting to self-police incidents of reported sex assaults and other crimes, rather than go to the authorities. Protesters deny this is their practice.
Further heating the rhetoric against OWS are lurid media reports of unsavory behavior, including taking drugs and urinating in public. The popular New York Post tabloid has run prominent articles about the protest "insanity."
"Occupy Wall Street animals go wild.... ZOO-COTTI!" the front page headline screamed Friday over a photo report on a brief fracas between two protesters at Zuccotti Park.
On Thursday, the Post's front page contained an appeal for police intervention headlined: "ENOUGH!"
The few hundred New York demonstrators -- some of whom sleep out at night -- are already struggling to cope with falling temperatures.
On Friday, chilly winds tore at the often flimsy 100 or so tents, and at one point sent the huge blue tarpaulin protecting the protesters' sophisticated media equipment flying. Several young people around the camp could be seen shivering uncontrollably.
Despite the problems, the core of protesters seem as resolute and well organized as ever. Their neatly arranged encampment includes everything from an ever-expanding library to a bicycle-powered composting machine.
Marsha Spencer, a 56-year-old grandmother, hardly fitted the media image of violent anarchists as she sat knitting next to the tents.
"People here are still very hopeful," she said. "There's a lot of hope, persistence, drive. I'm doing this for my five grandchildren. It's a generation our country's been going downhill, so it could take one to get it back up."
Spencer and others said that there were homeless people, drug users and unruly individuals at the camp, but not in greater proportion than in any other crowd.
Construction worker Tim Reed, eating lunch at Zuccotti Park before returning to his building site, said he saw no need for a heavy-handed response.
"I think it's probably the biggest tourist attraction in New York right now," he said.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.
Photo by Terry Ballard from Flickr.