Cheers, marches and arrests after Occupy Wall Street reprieve
Police arrested several protesters from the Occupy Wall Street movement on Friday after they embarked on an impromptu victory march through Lower Manhattan following the cancellation of a plan to clean the privately owned park where they have been camped for 28 days.
Protesters had seen the planned clean-up as a ploy to evict them from Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street's base for 28 days, even though park owner Brookfield Office Properties said it only wanted to move people temporarily so it could scrub the plaza. But it also said that when protesters returned, they no longer could have tents, sleeping bags, tarps and other necessities that have enabled scores of people to live there 24/7.
As protesters' numbers swelled Thursday night amid vows to resist the clean-up, Brookfield apparently was flooded with phone calls from local elected officials who support the protest, warning it to cancel the Friday morning cleaning, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his regular weekly radio interview.
"I wasn't privy to the conversations, but I'm told they were innundated," Bloomberg told WOR radio Friday morning. He did not name the elected officials who intervened for the protesters but said they were "threatening them [Brookfield] and saying 'if you don't stop this, we'll make your life more difficult.'" Listen to his entire interview here.
Some City Council members have been vocal supporters of Occupy Wall Street, which began Sept. 17 with a march to the Stock Exchange and which has since expanded to include similar sit-ins in cities across the nation. Councilwoman Letitia James was among those cheering the clean-up's cancellation. "I knew they were going to either have to negotiate or postpone it," she said. "So I'm glad we were victorious."
Word of the change in plans didn't filter out until about 6:30 a.m., shortly after the city sent out an announcement. Protesters had spent the night bracing for a showdown with police, who were due to enter the park at about 7 a.m. to clear the way for Brookfield's cleaning crews. A joyful roar erupted inside the park early Friday, and within minutes plans were being made for a march to City Hall.
That procession went smoothly as about 250 chanting, sign-waving protesters tramped north up Broadway, passed City Hall, and then headed back to Zuccotti Park.
"Close the gate!" one police officer said breathlessly as the stream of people neared the tall, iron gates leading into the building that houses City Hall. Police in riot gear lined up in front of the locked gates, but there were no altercations as marchers walked slowly past them, guided by leaders who urged them to keep moving.
The arrests occurred at a second impromptu march, which headed south on Broadway deeper into the financial district. Police spokesman Paul Browne said he "estimated 8 to 10" people had been arrested. Past marches have also led to arrests, mainly for obstructing roadways or disorderly conduct.
By 9 a.m., as the streets around Zuccotti Park filled with commuters, the marches had wound down and people were settling back into the rain-soaked park, which is covered in piles of clothes, sleeping bags, bicycles and other personal belongings.
Blue tarps covered the myriad stations set up to make life easier for the campers, who endured a night of rain and thunderstorms. There were plastic containers stuffed with donated goods -- everything from vitamins at the medical station to blankets at the comfort station -- and tarps had been placed over the crates filled with books, CDs and other music and reading material that comprises the group's library. A line began forming as the food station in the park's center began dishing out free breakfast.
Senia Barragan, a protester who had come over from New Jersey, said the demonstrators had been prepared to face New York police if they had come into the park Friday to help clear the way for Brookfield's cleaning crews. But she said they weren't surprised when the clean-up was called off because of efforts protesters had made to negotiate a different outcome.
"I think that we want to move forward with the city and with Brookfield, to cooperate and to keep this space a public space but also the home of our occupation," said Barragan. "We want to cooperate with them."
But trying to ensure Zuccotti remains open to all, while also preserving it as Occupy Wall Street's domain, seems destined to create further headaches even if the latest battle has subsided. The small-business people who eek out a living selling food, T-shirts, hats and other items from carts on the sidewalks lining the park have complained that Occupy Wall Street is killing their businesses -- even as demonstrators speak out in favor of just such working-class stiffs.
"I support the people, but why not go to City Hall?" said Mohammed Ali, a Bangladeshi immigrant who sells hot dogs, pretzels and other food items.
Ali estimated that he's lost more than $1,800 in business because his usual customers -- tourists and local workers -- don't want to push through the sidewalk crowds to reach his stand. Up the street, Senegalese immigrant Lam Ba agreed, even though he also sympathized with the protesters.
"They have the right to complain. These people are fighting for the whole world," said Ba, who sells clothing. But he said he was losing about $100 a day in sales.
Bloomberg, whose long-time companion, Diana Taylor, is on Brookfield's board of directors, seems to have given mixed signals about the protesters. He has repeatedly said he supports the right of everyone to protest, but he has also made clear he's getting impatient with the ruckus around the park and sympathizes with businesspeople and individuals who say they're being inconvenienced.
"The protesters in all fairness have been very peaceful there, but it is a very big crowd and it's one point of view," Bloomberg told WOR radio, complaining that Occupy Wall Street's domination of Zuccotti Park means people who either disagree with them or don't want to be drawn into the protest can't enjoy it.
"The longer this goes on, the worse it is for our economy. You just go down and talk to the stores in the neighborhood," he added. "There's one or two selling more pizza, but most say this really is hurting them."
Protesters, though, say that's a small price to pay for changing the world.
"I understand there are concerns. Any kind of significant social movement will have elements that will inconvenience some people," said Mark Bray, an Occupy Wall Street participant.
-- Tina Susman
Photo: Occupy Wall Street protesters march down Broadway from Zuccotti Park in New York on Friday, after the park's owners, Brookfield Properties, postponed plans that would have cleared the park to clean it. Credit: EPA / Andrew Gombert