Zuccotti Park Eviction a Setback to ProtestersProtesters disheartened after NYPD crackdown
KIMBERLY DEVI MILNER
The tents, cardboard signs, generators, food supplies and medical equipment that once manned Zuccotti Park as headquar- ters for the Occupy Wall Street movement are all gone.
Hours before the Nov. 15 predawn police raid on Occupy Wall Street’s downtown en- campment, protesters were given flyers on behalf of Brookfield Properties demanding they immediately evacuate themselves and their property from the park. A similar ef- fort to ostensibly clean the park had failed a month earlier, but the November eviction left no tarp unturned and no protester standing as media sources reported that over 200 people were arrested and removed, despite some individuals chaining them- selves to trees and each other.
“I didn’t think protesters knew the extent to which police were going to steam- roll over us,” said 26-year-old NYU social anthropology grad student Mark Kushneir. Kushneir, a member of the working group for Immigrant Working Justice, was part of the crowd of hundreds that protested and played drums on the sidewalks around the barricaded park-- now occupied by police and Brookfield private security.
Many protesters saw the night raid, and the police brutality that marked the eviction, as the city’s latest endeavor to intimidate and control the non-violent movement. “The people inside the park remained peaceful,” said 26 Robert Grodt, “I saw thick clouds of chemical agents being dispersed in crowds of people. These people handled themselves in a way that should be exalted.”
And as the sun rose to reveal the cleared park, the wheels of litigation were spinning just subway stops away as lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) filed for a temporary restraining order against the city in a downtown New York Supreme Court. Frustration and ru- mors filled the crowded sidewalks, packed with protesters who spent the day awaiting a verdict.
“The issue is complicated by Zuccotti’s status as a privately-owned public park. One of the occupiers’ main arguments is that the owners have changed rules since the occupation began, and [protesters] are concerned that it’s violating their first amendment right,” said Daniel Mulkoff of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Albeit conceding that Brookfield Prop- erty had no laws governing people’s behav- ior in Zuccotti Park prior to the Occupy Wall Street protest, the City’s legal team claimed that the occupation was an inap- propriate obstacle to sanitation. “While First Amendment activity is appropriate there, it is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions,” said Sheryl Neufeld, the City’s defense lawyer.
The petitioner’s argued that the very act of sleeping overnight in Zuccotti was symbolic speech and therefore protected by the First Amendment. “Both the City and Brookfield are bound by the First Amendment,” said Alan Levine. “It’s not a camping case,” he continued. “Their pro- test hasn’t caught on around the world and around the country because it’s a camping case.”
Back at Zucotti Park, across the street from the east entrance, protesters called an emergency General Assembly to decide their course of action. “If we get kicked out of Zuccotti Park what are our op- tions?” asked one protester. “I can think two: Finding somewhere else to go, or stay in civil disobedience.” After the facilitator reminded the assembly that a large wave of marches was to happen just two days later, the assembly chose not to engage in further civil disobedience, but instead resolved to keep their numbers at Zuccotti Park strong.
Later that night a large turn out showed up for a General Assembly held in the cleaned Zuccotti Park, mulling a bittersweet verdict. The court had denied the injunction, but allowed protesters to return with conditions, such as prohibiting them from bringing in sleeping equip- ment or big boxes. “We can fill [Zuccotti Park] with our bodies, we can fill it with our ideas,” said the assembly’s facilitators, according the movement’s minutes. While some speakers suggested taking night shifts at the symbolic, and now decorated, encampment near Wall Street, others thought the occupations could branch out. “My suggestion is to talk to each other and find some people who are going to keep the work going outside of Occupy Wall Street. We need to occupy everywhere. There are buildings in the Bronx, there are empty stadiums,” said Ivy.The day following the eviction NLG lawyer Alan Levine requested a conference with the judge who had presided over the case. Citing that the police were conduct- ing warrantless and unreasonable searches of protesters, preventing people from lying down in the park and “even going through the park waking up protesters who have been sleeping while sitting up.” Among other things, he reflected that many of the arbitrary actions being implemented had nothing to do with “the concerns that the City and Brookfield expressed to the Court. Rather, they simply reflect a determina- tion by the City to make life miserable for the occupation in the hope that the protest will go away.”
With heavy barricades, guarded en- trances to the park and security presence within the park, the occupiers have lost their self-defined jurisdiction to the park. But many protesters don’t see it as defeat. “There were a lot of frustrations at the General Assemblies, feeling that some- thing needed to move,” said a 28-year-old protester who gave the name May Day, who came from the Portland occupation “to see the belly of the beast.” May Day said, “It’s like a letting go. It’s so much bigger than this. In some ways this was a gift to the movement.”
But with Zuccotti Park becoming home for many protesters and homeless individ- uals, the raid was an eviction that swept many of their material possessions to a Manhattan District Seven Garage facility. Ben Wilies tried to leave the park peace- fully during the raid but was not allowed to get his property. “They physically dragged me out,” said the 28-year-old homeless indi- vidual. When he went to receive his things at the district lot the next day, he said they were wet and jumbled with everyone else’s belongings. “It was horrible. You could tell they took no care. I lost my tent, sleeping bag, wallet that my ID, my cell phone [were in] and all of my winter clothes.” Wilies is also nostalgic about the camaraderie and activist trends against homelessness that started to form between homeless individ- uals in the Occupy Wall Street movement. “Hopefully they relocate this. We had funds to last through the winter comfort- ably,” he noted.
On returning to Zuccotti the night after the raid, Tony Claves said security filmed every protester and searched their bags. But despite the tense atmosphere Claves said, “I had never seen the General Assem- bly that big before.”
“That night it seemed like a message of both celebration – that it took that kind of violent show of force to stop us – but also acceptance. To accept circumstances had changed but to recognize we could change as well.” Claves works in maintenance in a nearby building and has been at Zuccotti Park since day eight, taking photos during his lunch break. “There’s no point in doing this kind of activism at night,” said Claves, “when you see the kind of force cops have been using in the cover of darkness.”