The Occupy Wall Street protests based in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan successfully repelled a Friday morning attempt by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to dissolve the crowd — which has been camped out there since September 17 — under the guise of cleaning the park after Brookfield Properties, the private corporation that owns the space, perhaps intimidated by the potential for a massive backlash, decided to postpone their work.
Thousands of people from across the country swarmed the area in the early dawn hours, preparing to stand together in solidarity. At 4 a.m., two hours before it was announced the City would not be seizing control of the park, the mood was one of anxiety and even fear. The Occupiers were, broadly speaking, split into two camps: One favored an accommodating approach that assumed the City and Brookfield would act in good faith and progressively clean one third of the space at a time, subsequently allowing the occupiers to return, as they promised. The other insisted on blocking the police from seizing any territory in Zuccotti, arguing that it was under the same auspices — “clean up” — that the “Bloombergville” protests against the Mayor’s education budget cuts were shut down earlier this year.
“I think there will be pain,” said Hamilton Pratt, an activist from New York. “People are not communicating with each other as a [unified] group. [Factions] give police the opportunity to hone in one or the other. And when that happens, I hate to say it, but there will be blood.”
But though many activists were bracing for arrests — or worse — the ability of the protesters to bring out hundreds of reinforcements, many fresh recruits desperately hoping to protect a cause they were still learning about, made the powers that be think twice.
“I think the masses of people forced the City to pull back,” Michael Ratner, president of the Center For Constitutional Rights, told The National Memo. “The city decided there was going to be too much national coverage of blood flowing. The health excuse was such a pretext. These people are cleaning all the time. They needed an excuse to get into the park without a court order. ”
Though the smell of the place was often less than pleasant, it was in fact rather clean by the time 6 a.m. rolled around Friday morning.
“We’re the sanitation crew, and today was a victory,” said Brian James, an artist from Massachusetts, gesturing at two friends. “We spent all day the past two days, all night tonight, scrubbing everything. The numbers [of those attending] had something to do with it. But we got this place spotless. I think the City realized that if they came in under the pretense of cleaning to kick us out, and they place already looked great, everyone would realize it was bullsh*t.”
Once it became clear the protesters would not be forcibly removed, activists started to talk about how helpful the scare had been in galvanizing new backers.
“Every time we have an event like this, it simply ratchets up support and press outreach,” said Ted Schulman, a seasoned activist who lives near the park.
“I came here because I heard there was a chance they might lose this, and so I came up from D.C.,” said Greg Disney, a student from Baltimore. Others interviewed came from Providence, R.I., and elsewhere across the region. Many had never visited the protest before, but they suspected this morning would be pivotal — and wanted to lend a hand.
“Whenever there’s a showdown, it helps,” said an activist called “Goldie” from Manhattan. “It brings all this press down here, and more people hear about us.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t a palpable sense of dread in the park late Thursday night.
“Yeah, we were worried. It was tense,” said Colette Mcintyre, a student at Barnard College. “There was a lot of intimidation and trepidation. We knew what time [they were coming]. It was a countdown. But despite all that, the fact is that we were still here. People care about this. It doesn’t matter that we’re wet and tired. This is representative of the fact that we’re not alone and there is a 99 percent.”
At 6:15 a.m., the City made clear it would not force its way into the park and risk chaos and bloodshed.
“Late last night, we received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park — Brookfield Properties — that they are postponing their scheduled cleaning of the park, and for the time being withdrawing their request from earlier in the week for police assistance during their cleaning operation,” Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said in a statement released to the press. “Our position has been consistent throughout: The City’s role is to protect public health and safety, to enforce the law, and guarantee the rights of all New Yorkers.”
The State Senator whose district includes the park, Democrat Daniel L. Squadron, took a prominent role in helping temporarily avoid a clash by holding several late night phone calls on Thursday with Richard Clark, director and CEO of Brookfield. The firm emailed the city its decision to postpone the clean up around midnight Friday.
“Brookfield Properties made the right decision in postponing its scheduled clean-up of Zuccotti Park,” Squadron said Friday. “Now, the dialogue must continue. The stakeholders must come together to find a solution that respects the protesters’ fundamental rights, while addressing the legitimate quality of life concerns in this growing residential neighborhood.”
And Mayor Bloomberg, by developing and then backing away from a plan to break up the protests, is weakened; he has unintentionally lent the movement fresh support and gravitas at a critical period in its development.
Follow National Correspondent Matt Taylor on Twitter @matthewt_ny
Copyright 2011 The National Memo