Craig Ruttle, Associated Press
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.
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