Occupy Wall Street camp torn down in night raid

New York was in chaos yesterday after riot police destroyed a long-running protest camp. The city mayor says it was a health hazard, but activists say the raid was an attack on free speech.

Some of the protestors in Zuccotti Park had been there since the beginning, huddled in tents and under tarpaulins to demonstrate their anger at the alleged bad behaviour of bankers and the super-rich. Over the weeks since it first appeared, their Occupy Wall Street encampment became a sort of tent city, with a bustling kitchen, a hospital and even a library with more than 5,000 donated books.

But around one o’clock yesterday morning, while the ‘Occupiers’ were sleeping, police were moving in. ‘I was dead asleep,’ one protestor told reporters. ‘Then I was like, oh man, there was cops kicking the tents and people yelling “this is not a drill!”.’ Officers in full riot gear handed out eviction notices. Campers would have 20 minutes to leave. Then, the arrests would begin.

Many protestors obeyed orders and left, taking what they could with them. The rest assembled in the centre of the park. Some formed seated columns with linked arms. Others used bicycle locks to join themselves together. The atmosphere was tense but determined.

What happened next? Accounts differ. Reporters who tried to get to the scene were ushered away by police, confined to a metal pen where police vans were parked to block their view. A news helicopter was denied permission to fly overhead. This lack of press oversight means the picture that emerges is confused, with reports circulating of batons and pepper spray being used to clear the park. Tents, guitars, suitcases and the 5,000 books of the Occupy Wall Street library were thrown into lorries and taken away.

The New York camp was the third to be hit in three days. An Occupy protest in California was forcibly dismantled on Monday, and one in Oregon the day before. But Occupy organisers have sworn to regroup, and believe that these latest evictions will only fuel more anger against what they see as a corrupt and undemocratic establishment.

Constitutional wrongs

Protestors say that the raid on Zuccotti Park was a disgraceful attack on freedom of speech, a right that is guaranteed by the US Constitution. Real democracy requires that citizens be free to assemble and free to raise their voices in protest without suffering violence from police.

Freedom of speech is all very well, argued New York mayor Mike Bloomberg in a statement, but that doesn’t mean anyone has the right to just camp out for weeks in the middle of one of the world’s busiest cities. What’s more, he said, the protest encampment had become a health and safety hazard, putting both bystanders and protestors themselves in harms way. ‘Protestors have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags,’ he continued. ‘Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments.’

You Decide

  1. Were New York authorities right to evict the Occupy Wall Street protestors?
  2. Is public health and safety more important than freedom of assembly?

Activities

  1. How important are protests in a democracy? What limits should be put on the right to protest? How do you balance the rights of protestors with the rights of other citizens? Write a set of guidelines for city mayors to follow.
  2. Read Mayor Bloomberg’s statement to the press on the Occupy Wall Street eviction. Do you agree with his argument? How would you respond?

Some People Say...

“The protestors have made their point. Now they should go home.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why weren’t reporters allowed to get close to the action?
According to Mayor Bloomberg, press access was restricted for safety reasons. Unsurprisingly, reporters were furious at being barred from the scene.
And what is the Occupy movement really about?
As a movement, it was inspired by anti-capitalist ideas and by the protests of the Arab Spring, which demonstrated the power of the protest camp as a way to make a political impact. Symbolically, occupying public areas is a way of asserting that the nation belongs to the people. Wall Street protestors famously claim to represent ‘the 99%’ of Americans who are, they say, oppressed and marginalised by the richest 1%.

Word Watch

Zuccotti Park
A privately owned park in the heart of New York’s financial district. On September 17th this year it became the main base for the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Pepper spray
A chemical spray used in riot policing and for personal self-defence. It causes severe stinging when sprayed in people’s eyes, and temporary blindness.
Establishment
‘The establishment’ is a usually derogatory term for authority figures within a state, including clerics, politicians and the wealthy. The establishment is similarly used to ‘the system’.
US Constitution
The Constitution of the United States, with its amendments, is the most important legal document in the US. It clearly sets out the duties and rules of government as well as the rights of citizens.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.