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BY JOHN BAYLES | Occupy Wall Street once again made its presence felt at Zuccotti Park when on Saturday, to mark the movement’s six-month anniversary, protesters returned to the park once considered their home-base. At the end of the day, a reported 73 people were arrested after the NYPD announced that the park was closing and ordered the crowd to disperse.
As midnight neared, the mostly peaceful day turned into a scene that resembled the group’s eviction last November when protesters were forcibly removed from the park so the proprietors of the privately owned public space, Brookfield Properties, could clean it.
Stephen Calkins, a member of the O.W.S. direct action working group who was arrested early Sunday morning, said it was the construction of a makeshift tent in the center of the park that spurred police officers to move in. Other activists said the police issued a warning to vacate the park or face arrest and gave them only a few minutes to do so. A core group of O.W.S. protesters sat down on the ground and linked arms and were, as a result, removed from the park and placed in handcuffs.
The event sparked outrage by local elected officials. U.S. Congressman Jerrold Nadler issued a statement on Monday concerning the incident and calling for a Department of Justice investigation into NYPD conduct with Occupy Wall Street and the media. Congressman Nadler had previously issued a similar statement in the days following the eviction of O.W.S. last November.
“I am disturbed yet again by allegations of police misconduct and excessive force used against Occupy Wall Street protesters during this weekend’s demonstrations at Zuccotti Park,” said Nadler. “Our law enforcement officers are charged with protecting our health and safety, but that duty must always be carried out with respect for the fundamental First Amendment rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. Once again, I call on Attorney General [Eric] Holder to launch a thorough investigation into law enforcement activities surrounding Occupy Wall Street – and its national offshoots – to determine whether the police have indeed violated the civil liberties of demonstrators or members of the media.”
Also on Monday, numerous members of the New York City Council held a press conference decrying the actions of the NYPD in relation to Saturday night’s actions.
“On Saturday, I stood right next to peaceful demonstrators who, in return for exercising their rights, were hit by NYPD police officers,” said NYC Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez. “The NYPD is tasked with upholding the law, and there is no law higher than the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly protects the right to peaceably assemble.”
Rodriguez announced his intention to introduce legislation on the NYC Council level creating a “Protester’s Bill of Rights.”
“The protesters from Occupy Wall Street are not terrorists, yet the NYPD is treating them as just that,” said Councilmember Jumaane Williams. “These are New Yorkers with the Constitutional right to assembly, and Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly are failing to ensure that right. Force should be an act of last resort, rather than a tool to antagonize and suppress a peaceful movement. Reform of training protocol is needed as a bare minimum response to this overaggressive police activity.”
Calkins said he did not witness the same aggressive behavior by the NYPD that led to outrage expressed in the national media as well as on social media sites like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter that followed incidents last fall, specifically when a NYPD officer was caught on video spraying pepper gas into the faces of four young girls.
“It was like a phalanx,” said Calkins on Monday. “They were coming in and literally peeling people out of the crowd one-by-one, working their way back to the center of the park.”
Calkins said while he did witness “hands and knees” being used by the NYPD to subdue activists, he did not observe police officers deploying non-lethal weapons such as mace, clubs or tasers.
Calkins alluded to the fact the arrests in the wee-morning hours on Sunday might have been the beginning of the anticipated O.W.S. American Spring. He said Downtown residents should expect the movement to remain active in the area, citing plans to once again stage physical occupations in Lower Manhattan in addition to other actions throughout the city.
“This is going to be here, people are going to see us,” said Calkins.
To continue to bring attention to Saturday’s events, some O.W.S. activists took over Union Square during the day on Monday as well. At least 100 demonstrators gathered under the now symbolic yellow-and-black “Occupy Wall Street” banner. One demonstrator held a sign that read, “Guns and cops may break our bones, but we will always occupy!”
Councilmember Stephen Levin echoed Calkin’s prediction about the upcoming months at the press conference on Monday.
“This is a group that takes democracy seriously and we should all admire the courage they exhibit by organizing and speaking truth to power. The six-month anniversary of the occupation [was last Saturday]… the weather is warm and the spring has arrived so O.W.S. protesters peacefully assembled. To my horror, the NYPD responded to this peaceful assembly with physical intimidation, violence, and excessive arrests.”
— additional reporting by Zach Williams