New York police on Tuesday demolished the Manhattan camp of the anti-Wall Street protests in a surprise raid which threw the two-month-old movement into crisis.
Despite launching a swift legal challenge to the dismantling of their tent camp in Zuccotti Park, a judge backed a ban on pitching tents in the private area, ruling the demonstrators could gather but not camp or sleep there.
Throughout the day, protestors played a game of cat-and-mouse with authorities as they sought to re-establish their camp a stone’s throw from Wall Street, the symbolic epicenter of a movement protesting alleged corporate greed which has spawned copy-cats in other US cities and abroad.
But in the evening, police reopened the park and let the demonstrators back in one-by-one, stressing they would not be allowed to stay there for the night.
“No one will be denied entry,” a police officer said at the gate, as people began to wander back in again. Once inside, the crowd began to chant: “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street.”
Both sides were claiming a victory of sorts after judge Michael Stallman ruled that the owners of the park and the authorities were not denying protesters their constitutional right to freedom of speech by banning them from camping.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement that “the city has the ultimate responsibility to protect public health and safety and we will continue to ensure that everyone can express themselves in New York City.
“Zuccotti Park will remain open to all who want to enjoy it, as long as they abide by the park’s rules,” Bloomberg added in his statement.
The judge’s ruling “vindicates our position that First Amendment rights do not include the right to endanger the public or infringe on the rights of others by taking over a public space with tents and tarps,” Bloomberg said.
But protesters were also elated that they were allowed back into the park, owned by Brookfield Properties, which they have been occupying since mid-September.
“The police don’t have too much choice. It’s a victory even if this movement is not about sleeping here”, said Mike Reilly, 29, from Philadelphia.
“The movement will survive in one way or another,” he added.
Dallas Carter, 32, said the protestors “have to go back to court to get the tents and sleeping bags again. But it’s still a victory.”
New York police had moved in at about 1:00 am (0600 GMT) Tuesday with bright lights, overwhelming numbers of helmeted officers, and an army of sanitation workers.
About 200 people were arrested during the operation, which saw only sporadic violence and ended well before dawn, leaving cleaning crews to cart off piles of tents and other gear, then scrub the square clean.
For eight weeks, the park — a short walk from the New York Stock Exchange and the site of the World Trade Center — sheltered the birthplace of the anti-Wall Street movement.
The decision by Bloomberg to end the occupation followed crackdowns in other US cities, and spurred officials in London to resume legal action against a camp outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral.
Small business owners in the area had complained about the noise and unsanitary conditions in the camp, accusing the demonstrators of trashing their store bathrooms and driving away customers.
Pressure had been mounting on Bloomberg to resolve the situation in a neighborhood already strained by years of disruption from the World Trade Center rebuilding project.
On Monday riot police dismantled a similar protest camp in Oakland, California arresting more than 30 protesters. Some 50 protesters were arrested in Portland, also on the West Coast, on Sunday. A protest in Denver was also recently broken up.
Tuesday’s development left the Occupy DC protest in Washington as one of the last significant permanent camps created by the movement.
“I don’t think there’s any plan on leaving,” said Marc Smith, a spokesman. “There’s really not too much concern at this point.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said President Barack Obama was “aware” of the situation but maintained that “each municipality has to make its own decisions about how to handle these issues.”
“We would hope and want that… a balance is sought between the long tradition of freedom of assembly (and) freedom of speech in this country.”
Photo: Flickr user david_shankbone.