NEW YORK — Hundreds of police officers in riot gear raided the Occupy Wall Street encampment in New York City in the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday, evicting hundreds of demonstrators and demolishing the tent city that was the epicenter of a movement protesting what participants call corporate greed and economic inequality.
The police action began around 1 a.m. and lasted several hours as officers with batons and plastic shields pushed the protesters from their base at Zuccotti Park. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said about 200 people were arrested, including dozens who tried to resist the eviction by linking arms in a tight circle at the center of the park. A member of the City Council was among those arrested during the sweep.
By 4:30 a.m., the park was empty, wiped clean of any traces of the camp that had been there since Sept. 17. Tents and sleeping bags were hauled away to the dump. Workers used power washers to blast the stone plaza clean.
It wasn't clear what would happen next to the demonstration. Hundreds of ousted protesters spent the day marching through Manhattan, chanting and looking for a new space to gather. There were skirmishes between protesters and police. Several journalists were arrested while trying to cover the marches.
By late afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators waited on the sidewalk just outside Zuccotti Park, waiting for the outcome of a court hearing to determine whether they would be allowed back in. At least two people were quickly arrested after hopping the barricades and rushing out into the square, but there was no mass movement to retake the plaza from the police.
That left demonstrators wondering what to do next. There was talk among some Tuesday of trying to occupy another park or plaza, and a small group of protesters rallied at a park on Canal Street, north of the financial district.
"At the end of the day, if this movement is only tied to Liberty Plaza, we are going to lose. We're going to lose," said Sandra Nurse, one of the protests' organizers, referring to the park by the nickname the demonstrators have given it. "Right now the most important thing is coming together as a body and just reaffirm why we're here in the first place."
The surprise action came two days short of the two-month anniversary of the encampment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he ordered the sweep because health and safety conditions had become "intolerable" in the crowded plaza.
"From the beginning, I have said that the city has two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protesters' First Amendment rights," he said. "But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority."
He said that people would be allowed to return soon, but that the city would begin enforcing the rules set up by the park's private owners banning tents, sleeping bags, or even lying down on the property.
A state court judge held a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the legality of the eviction, following an emergency appeal by the National Lawyers Guild, a civil rights group.
Alan Levine, a lawyer for the demonstrators, said they had a free speech right to remain in the square. City lawyer Sheryl Neufeld said the demonstrators have a right to express themselves, but "it doesn't mean that they have a right to appropriate this private space for themselves."
"The protesters took over the park for their own use," she said.
There was no immediate ruling by the judge, Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman, but he said he hoped to make a decision later in the afternoon.
Earlier in the day, another judge had issued a temporary restraining order that appeared to bar the city from preventing protesters from re-entering the park, but it was unilaterally ignored by the police and city officials.
The eviction began in the dead of night, as police officers arrived by the hundreds and set up powerful klieg lights to illuminate the block. About 200 people were camped out in the park at the time.
Officers handed out notices from Brookfield Office Properties, the park's owner, and the city saying that the plaza had to be cleared because it had become unsanitary and hazardous. A commander announced over a bullhorn that everyone had to leave. Many did, carrying their belongings with them. Others tried to make a stand, even chaining themselves together with bicycle locks.
In contrast to the scene weeks ago in Oakland, where a similar eviction turned chaotic and violent, the police action was comparatively orderly. But it wasn't entirely bloodless.
"The cops hit my legs with a baton," said demonstrator Max Luisdaniel Santos, 31, an unemployed construction worker, pulling up his pants to show some swollen scars on his calf. "Then they shoved my face into the ground."
He pulled open his cheek to show where his teeth had cut into the flesh as he hit the stone paving.
"I was bleeding profusely. They shoved a lot of people's faces into the ground," Santos said as he stood near the park Tuesday morning, looking shaken. He said he lost his shoes in the scuffle, but wasn't arrested.
One person was taken to a hospital for evaluation because of breathing problems. Journalists recorded video of police picking up protesters and tossing them over barricades.
City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, who has been supportive of the Occupy movement, was among those arrested outside of the park. Kelly, the police commissioner, said he was trying to get through police lines to reach the protesters. Several journalists were detained or manhandled by police while trying to cover the eviction.
Protesters were able to grab about $2,500 in cash that was at the plaza before police kicked them out, said Pete Dutro, who is in charge of the New York City movement's finances.
"We got all the dough," Dutro said. "It's on my person."
Bloomberg said the evacuation was conducted in the middle of the night "to reduce the risk of confrontation in the park, and to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood." He said he wanted people unaffiliated with the protest movement to be able to use the park, too.
Some city politicians condemned the eviction.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio called it "needlessly provocative and legally questionable." Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said he was "greatly troubled by reports of unnecessary force against protesters and members of the media, including the use of chokeholds and pepper spray." U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler and state Sen. Daniel Squadron said the action had raised "serious civil liberties questions."
The eviction comes about a month after the city initially announced protesters would have to leave for the park's cleaning and could return — without their camping equipment. Protesters were able to rally support and draw protesters to the site that morning. Officials backed down then, but didn't advertise this time around.
The police commissioner said he thought the operation went well. Kelly said officers gave the crowd 45 minutes to retrieve their belongings before starting to dismantle tents and let people leave voluntarily until around 3:30 a.m., when they moved in to make mass arrests.
"Arresting people is not easy. Some people think it is. No, it isn't. It involves contact," he said, adding that he thought the officers "showed an awful lot of restraint."
"There was an awful lot of taunting, people getting in police officers' faces, calling them names," he said.
Concerns about health and safety issues at Occupy Wall Street camps around the country have intensified, and protesters in several cities have been ordered to take down their shelters, adhere to curfews and relocate so that parks can be cleaned.
Occupy encampments have come under fire around the country and even overseas as local officials and residents have complained about possible health hazards and ongoing inhabitation of parks and other public spaces.
Activists converged at the University of California, Berkeley, on Tuesday for a day of protests and another attempt to set up a camp less than a week after police arrested dozens of protesters who tried to pitch tents on campus.
The Berkeley protesters will be joined by Occupy Oakland activists who said they would march to the UC campus in the afternoon. Police cleared the tent city in front of Oakland City Hall before dawn Monday and arrested more than 50 people amid complaints about safety, sanitation and drug use.
In London, authorities said they were resuming legal action to evict a protest camp outside St. Paul's Cathedral after talks with the demonstrators stalled.
Associated Press writers Meghan Barr, Chris Hawley, Samantha Gross and Karen Matthews contributed to this report.