On Scene: The Night the Police Cleared Occupy Wall Street

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Bryan Smith / ZUMA Press / Corbis

The New York Police Department clears out Occupy Wall Street activists from the city's Zuccotti Park early on Nov. 15, 2011, arresting at least 70 people.

At 12:57 a.m. E.T., Occupy Wall Street's emergency alarm system kicked into gear, with text messages flying to allies and media alike. Zuccotti Park, the New York City spot that had been the movement's adopted home for nearly two months, was under threat of eviction. Six hours later, the drone of police helicopters still reverberated around lower Manhattan. But Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti encampment, a site that inspired a global phenomenon, was gone.

Reports suggest that at least 70 protesters were arrested by police over the course of a three-hour operation, including some who chained themselves together. Hundreds of police officers, the majority clad in riot gear, encircled the park shortly after 1 a.m. A statement from the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the park conditions were unhealthy and prone to fire hazards. It read, "From the beginning, I have said that the City had two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors' First Amendment rights. But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public — must be the priority." Protesters were allowed to leave the space with some of their belongings, but they were warned that tarps and tents would no longer be permitted in the park. Many dug in and chained themselves around the occupation's central kitchen area in a forlorn last stand.

The move by New York City was far stealthier and more sudden than an attempt a month ago to oust the occupation. Then, as thousands massed in the park in support of Occupy Wall Street, Bloomberg and the governing authorities of Brookfield Properties, Zuccotti Park's owners, relented when dawn broke over the city. On Tuesday morning, under the blare of floodlights brought in by police, a far more depleted group of about 200 protesters remained. Hopes were raised when the National Lawyers Guild said it had obtained a court order that permits protesters to return with tents to a New York City park. Bloomberg responded quickly that the city was planning to go to court later in the day to contest the order.

I arrived two blocks north of the park shortly after 1:30 a.m. By then, police had already barricaded streets leading into the park, thwarting many journalists as well as legal observers from the New York Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild from being able to oversee the manner in which the arrests were conducted. When asked why Church Street was fenced off, a riot cop simply waved his truncheon, saying, "The street is closed." The city apparently also shut down the Brooklyn Bridge and a number of subway lines with stops near the park, though reports surrounding these late-night closures are conflicting.

From my vantage point, activists and supporters of Occupy Wall Street gathered along Broadway, attempting to get a closer look at the events unfolding in Zuccotti Park. But police pushed them back, often roughly, threatening those who didn't retreat from certain sections of the sidewalk with arrest. I saw about a dozen protesters flee from a corner, their faces streaming after being maced or pepper-sprayed. Irate at what they considered an infringement on their civil rights, many others stood their ground, chanting the ubiquitous refrain, "We are the 99%," as well as a newer one, "The police serve the 1%," until riot police waded in, forcibly shoving bystanders and protesters aside with, as far as this reporter could see, an excessive degree of force.

Meanwhile, a convoy of police cars, vans and sanitation trucks rolled into the park. Those protesters who had remained either left or opted for civil disobedience and succumbed to arrest — though, according to a few eyewitness accounts at Zuccotti Park, some were violently dragged by police. Initial reports suggest that the park's occupants were told they would be able to reclaim their items the next day. But it could be argued that city authorities have junked much that once made up Occupy Wall Street — tables and banners, tarps and tents. The movement's bicycle-powered generators, vital to manning its Internet operations, were possibly destroyed or tossed. Perhaps most tragically, Occupy Wall Street's roughly 5,000-volume library, compiled through myriad donations and painstakingly cataloged by volunteers, was reportedly thrown out.

As it became clear that protesters outside the park would not be able to return to support the last resisters, an air of despondency crept over the crowd. Pockets of people dispersed to other parts of the city, plotting rallies and impromptu occupations that never quite took off. One man, shouting obscenities at the police, wheeled around, declaring the night's action, combined with similar raids on Occupy sites elsewhere in the past week, part of "a fascist retaliation."

Around 3 a.m., three dozen protesters stood around a corner south of Canal Street. As police choppers whirred above, they held one of the movement's famed general assemblies, attempting to reach consensus about what to do next. But disagreements soon emerged, expletives were hurled, and the group fractured — the loss of Zuccotti Park, known as Liberty Plaza to the activists, seemed too raw to bear.

In his statement, Bloomberg insisted that he was not infringing on the protest movement's freedom of speech. "Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments," the statement read. If that were the mayor's way of laying down the gauntlet, then it was already lifted by the wounded, but hardly cowed, movement. Hours after power hoses washed away their trace in Zuccotti Park, protesters were drawing hundreds to a temporary site in Foley Square, blocks away near city hall. The anticipation for planned nationwide protests on Nov. 17 — commemorating two months of the Zuccotti occupation — was higher than ever.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report