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New York park cleanup postponed to protesters' delight

Friday, October 14, 2011 | 12:21 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK — The official cleanup of a plaza in lower Manhattan where protesters have been camped out for a month was postponed early Friday, sending up cheers from a crowd that had scrambled to scrub the park on its own out of fear the effort was merely a pretext to evict them.

Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said the owners of the private park, Brookfield Office Properties, had put off the cleaning. Supporters of the protesters, including union members, had started streaming into the park in the morning darkness well beforehand in a show of solidarity.

There was still skepticism even after the protesters were told they could stay, for now.

"I'll believe it when we're able to stay here," said protester Peter Hogness, 56, a union employee from Brooklyn. "One thing we have learned from this is that we need to rely on ourselves and not on promises from elected officials."

The "mother" protest in New York that began a month ago has spawned similar encampments in cities across the U.S. and world, and in places beyond New York it was clear that officials' patience was wearing thin.

Near the Colorado state Capitol in Denver, hundreds of protesters were told to clear out of a park or risk arrest, and dozens of police in riot gear moved in and declared the area closed. In Trenton, N.J., protesters were ordered to remove tents from their encampment near a war memorial.

Boisterous cheers floated up from the crowd in New York as the announcement of the cleaning postponement circulated, and a small group soon marched away with brooms, saying they were going to clean up Wall Street, a few blocks away.

There were reports of a handful of arrests. In one case, a police scooter hit a protester, who fell to the ground and screamed before kicking the scooter over to free his foot; he was then arrested.

Brookfield, a publicly traded real estate firm, had planned to power-wash the New York plaza section by section over 12 hours and allow the protesters back — but without much of the equipment they needed to sleep and camp there. The company called the conditions at the park unsanitary and unsafe.

The company's rules, which haven't been enforced, have been this all along: no tarps, no sleeping bags, no storing personal property on the ground. The park is privately owned but is required to be open to the public 24 hours per day.

The New York Police Department had said it would make arrests if Brookfield requested it and if laws were broken. But the deputy mayor's statement indicated that "for the time being" Brookfield was withdrawing its request for police assistance in cleaning the park.

The company believes it can work out an arrangement with the protesters that "will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use," the statement said.

A confrontation between police and protesters, who had vowed to stay put through civil disobedience, had been feared. Many protesters had said the only way they would leave was by force, and organizers sent out a mass email Thursday asking supporters to "defend the occupation from eviction."

A few blocks south of the park Friday morning, about two dozen demonstrators screamed "Pigs!" and hurled other insults and obscenities at a dozen officers in riot gear, who showed no visible reaction. The officers then left the area, trailed by protesters with cameras.

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose girlfriend is a member of Brookfield's board of directors, had confirmed Thursday that Brookfield had requested the city's assistance in maintaining the park.

"We will continue to defend and guarantee their free speech rights, but those rights do not include the ability to infringe on the rights of others," Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna said, "which is why the rules governing the park will be enforced."

Protesters have had some run-ins with police, but mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and an incident in which some protesters were pepper-sprayed seemed to energize their movement.

Even before the protesters learned they were allowed to stay Friday, they were busy cleaning.

After the announcement filtered through the crowd, some scrubbed the park's marble and pavement with brooms and soapy water and picked up trash as others unfurled tarps on the rain-dampened concrete and ate potluck breakfast off paper plates. One man practiced his yoga sun salutation despite the dark clouds.

Liane Nikitovich, 44, fitness instructor, said she was buoyed by the news but also concerned that it was a postponement — not a cancellation.

"It's really a victory for freedom of speech and for democracy," Nikitovich said. "This is one moment. It shows that our support is growing worldwide."

The protesters are pleased that the city and Brookfield "saw fit to allow the protest and dialogue to continue," said Doug Forand, a spokesman for 99 New York, a coalition of community groups that support the protest.

The demand that protesters clear out had set up a potential turning point in a movement that began Sept. 17 with a small group of activists and has swelled to include several thousand people at times, from many walks of life. Occupy Wall Street has inspired similar demonstrations across the country and become an issue in the Republican presidential primary race.

The protesters' demands are wide-ranging, but they are united in blaming Wall Street and corporate interests for the economic pain they say all but the wealthiest Americans have endured since the financial meltdown.

Attorneys from the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — who are representing an Occupy Wall Street sanitation working group — wrote a letter to Brookfield saying the company's request to get police to help implement its cleanup plan threatened "fundamental constitutional rights."

The nationwide movement also includes groups called Occupy Boston, Occupy Cincinnati, Occupy Houston, Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy Providence and Occupy Salt Lake.

Several protests are planned this weekend across the U.S. and Canada, and European activists are also organizing.


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