(Updates with removal of New York demonstrators in the first three paragraphs, comments from Occupy Wall Street spokesman.)
Nov. 15 (Bloomberg) — New York City police began removing Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park, following U.S. cities including Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, whose mayors ordered police to shut down camps in recent days.
The police began clearing protesters from the park at about 1 a.m., the New York Times reported today. Sergeant John Buthorn, a police spokesman, declined to comment on police actions in the park.
“The mayor will be speaking on behalf of the city, not the NYPD,” Buthorn said today in a telephone interview. “Because of the situation, the Police Department is not going to speak for the mayor.”
Police in riot gear closed off the camp for four to five blocks in any direction, Anup Desai, a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street said in a telephone interview.
“A few hundred camped there today. Their belongings, their tents, everything that they had with them was taken,” he said.
Oakland police cleared a downtown encampment yesterday after a slaying on Nov. 10. Police in Portland evicted campers at Chapman and Lownsdale squares on Nov. 13 after two people suffered drug overdoses last week. Salt Lake City banned protesters from staying overnight at Pioneer Park on Nov. 11 after a person was found dead at the camp that morning.
“The people who originally founded the encampments are either no longer there or no longer in control,” Oakland Mayor Jean Quan said yesterday in a telephone interview. “In part of clearing the camp, we moved a lot of the homeless — they were about half of the residents.”
New York police had avoided a confrontation with demonstrators camped at Zuccotti Park, a public space that’s privately owned in Lower Manhattan, since the owner postponed clearing sections for cleaning in mid-October. In other cities, crime combined with poor sanitary conditions and complaints of losses at local businesses have eroded tolerance for the camps as expressions of free speech.
Demonstrators in New York intend to mark the two-month anniversary of the movement this week with plans to “shut down Wall Street” and “occupy the subways.” Officials elsewhere lament that deaths, sexual assaults, drug dealing and theft threaten public safety in tent cities nationwide.
“In the past few days, the balance has tipped,” Portland Mayor Sam Adams said in a Nov. 10 statement. “We have experienced two very serious drug overdoses, where individuals required immediate resuscitation in the camp.”
Some local officials say the camps, which offer food and shelter, have drawn the homeless, street youths and a criminal element that jeopardizes public safety.
“The encampment idea became hijacked by people who were more interested in a party,” Sergeant Pete Simpson, a spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
When protesters began camping in Portland on Oct. 6, “the groups that day were people who have been committed to the movement,” Simpson said. “Then those people started leaving and the homeless population and street youth began moving in.”
The camps, which began in New York on Sept. 17, have cropped up in cities nationwide to protest economic disparity. Demonstrators decry high foreclosures and unemployment rates that plague average Americans while large bonuses were issued by U.S. banks after they accepted a taxpayer-funded bailout.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker on Nov. 11 announced the city would stop issuing overnight camping permits for the demonstrators.
“The Pioneer Park protest site has become a place where some members of our homeless population have settled rather than seek available shelter and needed services,” Becker said in a statement. “We will continue, as a city, to honor and respect the rights of all of our residents to express themselves.”
In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter said on Nov. 13 that the city “must reevaluate” its dealings with Occupy Philly after numerous reports of thefts and assaults at the group’s tent city on Dilworth Plaza outside City Hall. Since Oct. 6, emergency medical services have made 15 runs to the camp and a woman reported a rape Nov. 12, he said at a news briefing. Nutter said he’s asked for additional police in the area.
Many of the initial leaders that the city dealt with have since left and the group is fractured, Nutter said. The mayor said he wants to avoid confrontation with the Occupy movement and agrees with them on issues such as unemployment, poverty and bank lending.
“Now we’re at a critical point where we must re-evaluate our entire relationship with this very changed group,” he said.
The movement has no plans to change its encampment strategy despite the crackdown, said Mark Bray, a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street.
“The tactical strategy of having an encampment has become an important symbolic battleground and we’re not giving it up,” Bray, 29, of Jersey City, a doctoral student in history at Rutgers University, said yesterday in a telephone interview.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg declined to say at a news briefing yesterday whether he was in talks to end the encampment.
“We’re not going to allow people to stop commerce and to stop people’s right to go around and express themselves,” Bloomberg said. “They all have the right to protest and that’s one of the basic principles.”
The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
–With assistance from Henry Goldman in New York and Terrence Dopp in Trenton. Editors: Chris Peterson, Pete Young