Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Court Battle Over Liberty Plaza

Beginning around 1am on Tuesday, November 15, New York City police raided Liberty Plaza, a.k.a Zuccotti Park, confiscating protesters' belongings and ordering them to leave. Those who stayed were arrested, along with several reporters covering the story. At an 8am press conference, Mayor Bloomberg said the raid had been in response to health and safety concerns associated with the camp. By the time he spoke, protest organizers had already filed an injunction against the city's action, and were waiting for a judge to rule on the case.

Some of the protesters went a few blocs away to Foley Square. Others travelled further to a lot at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, but were soon cleared out by police. By the time I visited Liberty Plaza around 1pm, they had returned and were massed around the edges of the park, which was now blocked off by metal police barriers.

The eviction had created a strange inversion; before the park was full of protesters and ringed by police, now it was full of sparse groups of police and ringed by crowds of protesters, with another perimeter of police, some in riot gear, standing beyond them. There was a steady stream of bystanders staring as they passed, tourists on the west side of the park near the hotels and Ground Zero, office workers running the gauntlet between cops and protesters along Broadway on the east. A long line of TV news vans was stationed along the south side of the park and around the corner for more than a block south down Trinity Place.

Some people milled around with belongings from the encampment, like the woman in a knit ski hat who was pushing a shopping cart piled with a suitcase, a giant cardboard box and a couple of handbags. Others slept along the sidewalk. A man and woman sat along the west side of the park with a giant Statue of Liberty puppet, the paper mache head lying on the sidewalk detached from the cloth-draped body. A tired-looking young blond guy was sitting near the curb panhandling for money to get to the protest in Washington D.C. A cardboard sign propped up next to him said, "Lost everything: Medication, wallet, money, identification, dog food." A small black pit bull puppy was curled up on a sweatshirt behind him.

A couple of grey-haired men in glasses circled the park with a procession of a few other people, accompanying "We Shall Not Be Moved" on an accordion and a sticker-covered guitar. Two younger, bearded men were playing a ukulele and a tambourine. Nearby, a guy in a black sweatshirt and straw hat was was leaning against the barricades, reading a newspaper and stopping to yell about the police every couple minutes.

A young guy saw me taking down notes and approached me, describing an older man he thought was an agent provocateur. "He's been walking around kicking the barricades, and then the cops come," he said. A middle-aged, homeless-looking man, carrying a guitar and dangling a cigarette from his lip, got into a confrontation with a young passerby wearing earbuds. The homeless guy was muttering angrily to himself and the young guy thought it was directed at him.

People were talking about other locations the protests might relocate to, about whether anyone was still up at Canal Street, and about the big street protest that was supposed to happen in two days. They complained about the raid and the way it was carried out, reportedly with beatings and pepper spray. They asked if anyone had heard any news about the ruling that might allow protesters to reenter the park.

Several blocks away at Foley Square, a group of about 100 people were gathered around a dry fountain. The atmosphere was noticeably less tense than at Liberty Plaza. The only police I saw in the immediate vicinity were a couple of cops standing casually in the middle of the crowd, one of them talking to the protesters about Charles Bukowski. A few minutes after I arrived, somebody announced, in the crowd-relay style standard at Occupy Wall Street, that the ruling had come out in supporting the protesters and everybody could return to the park. A huge cheer erupted and the crowd immediately began marching back to Liberty Plaza, beating on drums and waving American flags. When they got to Chambers Street and passed City Hall, a few people started shouting "Bloomberg sucks!" A tall thin man who was beating on a plastic tub kept yelling at everyone to stay on the sidewalk. A line of motorcycle cops appeared heading east on Chambers, did a U-turn and accompanied the march west along Chambers and south on Broadway.

About a half a block from Liberty Street, an older woman made her way through the crowd, against the procession, and said that the report had been false and the park was still closed. The crowd from Foley Square mixed with the throng around Liberty Plaza, which was concentrated mostly on the east side. Around 4:30pm, word went around that the ruling was in and people began reading the decision on their smart phones.

While the announcement of the ruling meant that protesters could reenter the park, its language endorsed the city's position: "tents, structures, generators and other installations" could be banned. The city and police seemed to take a broad interpretation of that language. When the police began letting people back in around an hour later, an officer shouted through his bullhorn that large backpacks, sleeping bags, tents and camping equipment would not be allowed. People were admitted in small groups through one opening in the barricades and their bags were checked.

Protesters eventually filled the park, but the difference became clear quickly. The next day, Reuters reported that only two dozen people stayed in the park Tuesday night--well below the hundreds that had become the norm--and were accompanied by private security guards, who remained in the park at all times, kept people from lying down and woke them if they tried to sleep.

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