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, evicted hundreds of protesters and then demolished the tent city, leaving the future of the demonstration in limbo.
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. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said protesters would be welcomed back, but would no longer be allowed to erect tents or unroll sleeping bags. A judge's ruling later in the day upheld the city's crackdown.
"I don't know what we'll do," said Chris Habib, a 36-year-old artist from New York, who was milling with other protesters near Zuccotti Park. He said he hoped the group could settle on a new protest site. He said he was confident the movement would continue even if its flagship camp was dismantled.
"A judge can't erase a movement from the public mind," he said.
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.
At least 22 people were arrested after trying to move to an empty lot belonging to a church, Trinity Wall Street, that has been sympathetic to the movement. Two more people were arrested after hopping the barricades at Zuccotti Park, but there was no mass movement to retake the plaza from the police.
By late afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators waited on the sidewalk just outside Zuccotti Park, banging drums and chanting while they waited for the outcome of a court hearing to determine whether they would be allowed back in.
Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman said in his ruling later Tuesday that the protesters "have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators and other installations to the exclusion of the owner's reasonable rights ... or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely."
The plaza, near ground zero, is open to the public but is privately owned.
Lawyers representing the protesters had sought an order that would let them resume camping in the park. They said after the decision that they hadn't decided whether to appeal. They were examining the ruling in an attempt to determine what sort of new rules would apply to protests at the park.
Protesters milling around Zuccotti Park said they were dismayed.
The surprise action came two days short of the two-month anniversary of the encampment. 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 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.
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