Bloomberg's Eviction of Occupy Wall Street is an Assault on the Power of Public Spaces

This is not what a public park should look like. Photo: Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Last night, the NYPD swept through the core of Occupy Wall Street, destroyed the encampment (and many people's belongings), and arrested some 70 protesters who refused to leave. When I showed up at a hastily-organized rally for supporters this morning in Manhattan at 9 am, protesters were bewildered and outraged. The mood seemed to be: It shouldn't have happened like this.

Not in a public place.

Public spaces, after all, are of the utmost importance to a well-functioning democracy. People need places where they can gather to socialize, play, and, most importantly, exercise their rights to free speech. To peacefully and safely organize demonstrations. And that's why Mayor Michael Bloomberg's actions today in New York City are so reprehensible. By forcefully banishing the Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park (which is a privately owned public space) under the cover of night, he has violated one of the most important, foundational principles of the United States; the right to peaceably assemble.

The eviction -- which began when police in riot gear stormed the encampment at 1:00 am this morning -- is one thing. But ignoring a court order, issued by New York Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings, stating that protesters are legally allowed to return to the park -- is another altogether. And if you think I'm being overdramatic, just head over to the Washington Post, where you'll find an emphatic editorial with the tagline "Bloomberg's actions are how a police state begins".

The article refers to the efforts to skirt public attention by dismantling a peaceful protest in a public place at night, by keeping press blockaded out of the area (even the airspace!), and failing to cite any reason for the removal other than the tired "health and safety" trope -- despite the fact that health experts have inspected the camp, and found it to be safe and sanitary (if malodorous).

Now, we here at Treehugger often point to the significant role good public spaces play in making cities and communities greener and more livable -- but today's events remind us that they're important to the fabric of a free society too. During the Arab Spring, people flocked to public spaces like Tahrir Square to air their grievances, in many ways making the revolutions possible. The autocratic leaders of Arab nations lacking public spaces -- like Saudi Arabia -- have been more successful in stamping out democratic reform.

And, as you know, the United States has an exceptionally rich history of peaceful public protest. Earth Day, the civil rights movement, and anti-war protests were all so successful thanks largely to peaceful protest tactics -- and each has reformed our nation for the better.

Brian Merchant/CC BY 2.0

Which is why we need to be wary when authorities attempt to place draconian limits on how public places may be used -- and bar citizens from peacefully entering them. I followed the Occupy Wall Street protesters as they marched from 6th Avenue and Canal Street in Manhattan to the freshly-evicted Zuccotti Park, where they were met with barricades and a massive platoon of police in riot gear. Protesters waved copies of the injunction ordered by the Supreme Court judge that ordained them entry into the park.

"We have a court order!" the crowds chanted, as the police looked on stone-faced.

"You're breaking the law!" was the next slogan shouted, without any response from the police.

A few protesters tried to tear away the barricades preventing entry to Zuccotti, and were forcibly apprehended and arrested by the police. Back at 6th and Canal, protesters attempted to occupy another park and were quickly removed.

As of this writing, Bloomberg has yet to issue a statement why he is disregarding the court order from the New York Supreme Court. Certainly, he and other mayors and statesmen may find tolerating free assembly inconvenient. It can be noisy, messy, and embarrassing to elected officials. But it it remains to this day -- even in our social media-saturated world -- a most important fixture of a robust democracy. We need to be able to discuss, to air our grievances, to organize, to call out injustices. And most of all, people need to feel that they can safely do so in public venues.

By aggressively clamping down on this peaceful demonstration in a public space, doing so without due cause, and then failing to acknowledge a court's order to allow it to continue, Bloomberg has set a precedent that bodes ill for the future of civil liberties in New York City. We must recognize the importance of these common spaces, and the role they play in enabling the workings of a healthy democracy -- and we must push back when leaders like Bloomberg attempt to diminish our access to them.

Tags: Activism | New York City | Occupy Wall Street

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