'The Whole World Is Watching': Occupy Wall Street Stares Down the NYPD

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Occupy Wall Street protesters celebrate following news that the deadline for their removal from Zuccotti Park in New York's financial district was postponed on Oct. 14, 2011.

At 5 a.m. Friday, Oct. 14, an air of menace and anxiety gripped Zuccotti Park, the center of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Police officers stalked its periphery, some with bundles of white plastic handcuffs strapped to their belts. Parts of the park's interior resembled a panicked scene from a bustling Indian railway station: activists, many of whom have camped out in the plaza since the occupation began a month ago, lofted on their heads giant plastic sacks stuffed with their sleeping bags and personal effects. As they had been doing all night, protesters scrubbed and swept, their response to a mandate from the park's private owners, Brookfield Properties, to leave the site so it could be cleaned. One man stood on a bench, shouting over and over at those around him to "move your shit or we'll dispose of it."

The catch, as all were aware, was that those who followed the Friday-morning evacuation order would not be allowed to return with sleeping bags or tarps or to even lie down in the park. "This was never about sanitation. It was about a pretext for eviction," says Senia Barragan, a graduate student at Columbia University who is part of Occupy Wall Street's press team. Over the course of Thursday night and into Friday morning, hundreds squeezed into the park in support of Occupy Wall Street, not knowing what would happen come dawn. Tucker Mowatt, one of the protesters, blinks his bleary eyes when asked if he is willing to risk arrest. "Of course I am," he says. "The whole world is watching."

Occupy Wall Street's Victorious Friday Showdown

And in the early-morning half-light, in the presence of a veritable army of journalists, Occupy Wall Street got to declare its first important victory. After a tense moment of silence, Nelini Stamp stood on a wall with a paper in her hand and called for a "mike check." She said she had a statement from Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway. The planned cleaning, which was to have been enforced by the police, was postponed. "Brookfield believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters," the statement read. The crowd erupted in euphoria. Raucous chants of "This is what democracy looks like" echoed off nearby buildings.

While the deputy mayor's statement said Brookfield would seek to work out an arrangement, there were no details on whether new rules banning sleeping bags and sleeping in the park would be enforced. "If they want to address our general assembly, we'll certainly welcome them," says Patrick Bruner, Occupy Wall Street's press secretary.

Many had been prepared for a far different scenario. At Thursday night's general assembly, a regular gathering where group decisions are made, the protesters discussed strategies for what to do when the police arrived to clear the park. There was talk of dividing the park into thirds, pushing the crowd into two-thirds of the space and allowing cleaning crews to work in the empty third. Other speakers wanted to form a perimeter and not cede an inch of ground, an action that would certainly have resulted in mass arrests.

By 6 a.m. Friday, it was clear that the one-third/two-thirds idea wasn't going to work. Zuccotti Park was packed with nearly 2,000 people shoulder to shoulder on the east side, near Broadway. One of the protesters on the direct-action committee explained what would happen when the police arrived: Those willing to be arrested would either remain, crammed together, in the middle of the park or link arms around its perimeter. Those rallying in support could assemble on a facing sidewalk. "Staying in this park in any capacity is arrestable," the speaker said. But when he asked who was willing to remain, nearly everyone in the throng raised a hand.

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