The Mayor Confronts the Protesters
A Legally Justifiable Move May Prove Hard
The Occupy Wall Street protesters had achieved a great deal before they were rousted from Zuccotti Park by New York City police the other morning. This ragged group, living in tents and tarps for two months in the financial district in Lower Manhattan, helped focus everyone’s attention on the growing income inequality in this country. They made “99 percent” into popular language for the have-nots. They spawned protests against further enriching the already rich 1 percent, like those in Chicago, Boston, Oakland, Calif., New Haven, and even London.
For two months, a confrontation between the demonstrators and the City of New York has been steadily brewing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg restrained the police and resisted political pressure for weeks, but he had some legitimate worries about crowding, drug use, noise and unsanitary conditions. His decision to clear tents and sleeping bags out of Zuccotti Park, the focal point of the protests, and have the area cleaned, was justifiable legally.
The Supreme Court has made it clear that city governments may prohibit overnight camping in public spaces. A state judge followed that law in backing up Mr. Bloomberg on Tuesday.
But Mr. Bloomberg hasn’t done as good a job as he might have in managing the appearance of this last move, and we worry that his decision to clear the park of tents could end up quashing the entire protest.
We suspect there was a better, less-disruptive way to get demonstrators to deal with problems cited by the city and the park’s owner, Brookfield Office Properties. Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that he had tried to meet with protesters and found that they “did not want to negotiate with the city.” That should not have been the end of it. Many of those protesters wanted to stay by obeying laws and respecting the community.
In that same interview, Mr. Bloomberg said that the park’s owner had asked the city to clear the area. He insisted that the surprise police action in the middle of the night was safer for everybody because fewer people were at the park. It is certainly true that the tumult showed much more restraint by both protesters and police than the rioting and use of tear gas in places like Oakland.
For the mayor, the test will now be how to make certain these important protests can go forward. He has said that the park should be open to everybody, not just the occupiers. Well, yes, but we doubt that that was the real motivation for clearing the park of tents. It sounded like a justification spun up by political advisers. In any case, protecting everybody’s right to be there should not be a pretext to keep out the Occupy Wall Street protesters.
The mayor promised that the protesters would be allowed in the park 24 hours a day but not to sleep. They will almost certainly test those limits. Asked what happens when somebody lies down or goes to sleep on a bench in the park, the mayor said the protester would be asked to leave. If that does not work, the demonstrator would be carried out. Sounds like a recipe for conflict.
Now that Mayor Bloomberg has dismantled the anti-Wall Street group, he must keep his promise to support the protesters’ right to speak up about income inequality, especially in the city’s financial district.