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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Calls Flood In from Elected Officials, NY City Backs Off and Occupy Wall Street Protesters Stay in Zucotti Park [Liberty Plaza]

Calls Flood In, City Backs Off and Protesters Stay

Holding Zuccotti Park: Cheers erupted after an announcement was read from the Bloomberg administration that Brookfield properties, which owns Zuccotti Park, would not require protesters to leave.
Inside City Hall, the calls poured in late Thursday, predicting a debacle: Hundreds of people sympathetic to the Occupy Wall Street protest were streaming into Lower Manhattan, vowing to resist a forced cleanup of the park taken over by demonstrators.
“This is not going in a good direction,” Daniel L. Squadron, a state senator, recalled telling aides to the mayor. 

Just before midnight came a sign that the calls were having an impact: The park’s owner, also under pressure, e-mailed City Hall to say the plan should be canceled. The mayor’s office agreed — the police would stand down and the protesters would remain, with their sleeping bags and tents, in Zuccotti Park.

The abrupt and unexpected reversal, loudly cheered by rain-soaked demonstrators in the early morning darkness, averted a dangerous clash at the southern tip of Manhattan and seemed to give the unfolding protests against corporate greed, once dismissed as aimless and ephemeral, a growing air of credibility and endurance.

Behind the scenes, interviews suggested, the change in course was fueled by an intensifying sense of alarm within city government, shared even among some of those who work for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, that sending scores of police officers into the park would set off an ugly, public showdown that might damage the reputation of the city as well as its mayor.

Jubilant demonstrators, heartened and emboldened by what they perceived as a victory, started marching through the winding streets of the financial district, brandishing mops and brooms and declaring that they had arrived to clean up the mess created by Wall Street, resulting in 15 arrests.

The relative calm of Friday morning followed a tense Thursday night, during which city and state lawmakers waged an aggressive campaign to persuade both the mayor’s office and the company that owns the park to back down, seeking to defend the protesters’ rights and defuse mounting tensions over the encampment.

“Everybody was in agreement about trying to avert something disastrous from happening,” said Jumaane D. Williams, a city councilman from Brooklyn, who called top aides to Mr. Bloomberg on Thursday night.

Several lawmakers said that aides to Mr. Bloomberg, who had backed the cleanup plan, expressed deep unease about the possibility of an early-morning fracas.

“There were serious concerns” inside the administration, said one elected official who said he had spoken with two of the mayor’s top aides; the official asked not to be identified because the conversations were confidential.

The mayor’s staff, under strict orders from Mr. Bloomberg, did not lobby the owner of the park, Brookfield Office Properties, about whether to push ahead, leaving the decision up to the company’s management, according to several people involved in the discussions.

But in a series of somber, back-to-back telephone calls from 6 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, officials including Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, and Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, made personal appeals to the chief executive of Brookfield, Richard B. Clark.

Mr. Squadron, the state senator, said he spoke at least four times with Mr. Clark, telling him, at one point, “The plan is bad for protesters’ First Amendment rights and bad for the community.”

“Can we come up with a better solution?” Mr. Squadron asked him.

Mr. Clark, who keeps an apartment downtown, was noncommittal in his conversations with the officials, expressing sympathy for the rights of the protesters but also exasperation with the indefinite occupation.

“It has to be cleaned up,” the officials recalled Mr. Clark saying.

Even as late as 11 p.m., those who had spoken with him remained convinced that Brookfield would insist on carrying out the cleanup a few hours later.

But the drumbeat of worried calls and personal pressure began to weigh on Mr. Clark. Shortly before midnight, he drafted an e-mail to Deputy Mayor Caswell F. Holloway saying he did not want to proceed.

“Based on input from many, we have decided to postpone the cleaning operation for Zuccotti Park,” Mr. Clark wrote. “Accordingly, we do not require the assistance of N.Y.P.D.

City Hall reacted swiftly, ending plans to remove the protesters, but did not inform the public or the protesters for another seven hours.

For Mr. Bloomberg, who simultaneously has extolled the demonstrators’ freedom to speak out but criticized their agenda, the monthlong protests are a particularly fraught challenge. He is a billionaire who comes from, and believes in, Wall Street; his girlfriend is on the board of the company that owns the park; and he is a mayor obsessed with the cleanliness of the city’s public spaces.

On Friday, Mr. Bloomberg attributed Mr. Clark’s decision to “threatening” phone calls from elected officials. “If you don’t stop this we’ll make your life more difficult,” the mayor said, in summarizing the calls. (The officials said they delivered no such threats.)

The decision seemed to frustrate Mr. Bloomberg. He said that if Brookfield later changed its mind, that would place the city in a difficult situation.

“From our point of view,” Mr. Bloomberg said, “it will be a little harder, I think, at that point in time to provide police protection, but we have the greatest police department in the world and we will do what is necessary.”

By 6 a.m., just before City Hall announced the cleanup was canceled, the crowd had grown to more than a thousand, their numbers swelled by Internet pleas for reinforcements.

The protesters, many of whom had stayed up all night anticipating confrontation, planned to form a human chain around the park to try to keep police officers from entering.

As they had before, the protesters took a stab at cleaning Zuccotti Park themselves, to send the message that official intervention was unnecessary. The mops, brooms and buckets of soapy water were gathered, and a group began a sweep of the granite-paved paths, throwing away unclaimed objects.

“This place is extremely important,” said Kyle Christopher, 27, a photographer from Buffalo who had been part of the protests a few blocks from Wall Street since their first week.

After the morning’s drama had eased, the occupation returned to its new normal: metal barricades lined Zuccotti Park and police officers were stationed around the park’s perimeter. People standing in the makeshift kitchen area ladled out food to others waiting in line. The sound of drums echoed across the park. At the eastern edge, a line of protesters holding aloft cardboard signs faced passers-by on Broadway. And in the park’s center, people milled about as they discussed what might come next. 

Reporting was contributed by Al Baker, Cara Buckley, Rob Harris and Colin Moynihan.

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