NEW YORK, Oct 4 (Reuters) - From a legal point of view,
the Occupy Wall Street protesters seem to have made a lucky choice by
picking a small park in lower Manhattan as their home base.
That's because the park is technically not a park at all,
but a privately-owned public plaza, which means ordinary city
park rules do not apply -- and neither do normal private
"The occupation landing at Liberty Plaza was a happy
accident as far as I see it," said civil rights attorney Samuel
Cohen, who has been a daily presence at Zuccotti park, or
Liberty Plaza as some of the protesters have come to call it.
During the week, the crowd there has consisted of a few
hundred people who hand out fliers, chant slogans, hold press
conferences, or argue while munching on free food. On the
week-ends it has become much more crowded. Some die-hards have
even been spending the night there.
The situation in the park, which is two blocks from Wall
Street, has come to symbolize the showdown between police and
the protesters, who, despite their small numbers, have been a
persistent presence in New York for almost three weeks.
The protesters, who have had lawyers on hand to advise
them, have said their presence in the park is lawful under free
speech and free assembly rights.
The police and the city, who perhaps would rather have the
area clear, cannot rely on public park rules such as a
mandatory closing time in order to evacuate the area.
The plaza owners, Brookfield Office Properties, a
commercial real estate corporation, have made it clear the
situation is becoming untenable for them.
"Because many of the protesters refuse to cooperate by
adhering to the rules, the park has not been cleaned since
Friday, September 16, and as a result, sanitary conditions have
risen to an unacceptable level," Brookfield spokeswoman Melissa
Coley said in a statement on Monday.
Zuccotti park appears to have been chosen by accident as a
staging ground after protesters found Wall Street itself to be
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sunday said "this is the place
where you can come to express your views, protesting is fine
but you don't have the right to go and, without a permit,
violate the law."
The New York police department, which has been concerned
about controlling the sometimes large, but often scattered
protests, has also not told the protesters to leave. Instead,
it has made the occasional arrest of someone they perceive is
interfering with public space.
New York police spokesman Paul Browne on Tuesday declined
to comment on the park situation.
"I think the police and the city are trying not to make a
scene," said Bruce Bentley of the New York chapter of the
National Lawyers Guild, which has dispatched trained legal
observers at the request of the organizers.
"I think the police want it to end one way or the other,"
Bentley said, but they have still not tried to clear out the
park. "I don't think they've done it yet because there's
concern about what might happen next."
Civil rights lawyer Wylie Stecklow, who has been advising
the protesters since the park occupation began, said it seemed
the police had taken a more hands off approach in recent days,
preferring to wait the protesters out, perhaps in the hope cold
weather would drive them away.
The New York police department was harshly criticized by
civil liberties groups on Saturday after they arrested more
than 700 protesters for blocking traffic lanes on the Brooklyn
Bridge and attempting an unauthorized march across the span.
Many critics also said the arrests had only served to
harden the resolve of the protesters, and had potentially
attracted broader sympathy for their movement.
In the meantime, Stecklow said, he had suggested the
protesters not do anything to provoke police action, such as
put up tents which police have indicated may violate sanitation
"What we're telling folks down there is right now, the cops
are not raiding you. [Putting up tents is] probably not the
right fight to pick right now."
The protesters, who are mostly in their twenties and
thirties, have coalesced under various slogans but most express
discontent at the general state of unease in the economy and a
lack of any political leadership. Specifically, they protest
against home foreclosures, high unemployment and the 2008
bailouts, as well as excessive force and unfair treatment of
minorities, including Muslims.
"I don't think they can continue to be outside all the
time, I'm concerned for their health," said Darrell Prince, 35,
who was eating some tinned orange slices distributed free to
the protestors. Prince said he is helping the organizers keep
track of their finances, and said they had amassed a $20,000
war chest from unsollicited donations.
"If a wave of police come here, that would just harden the
impetus to be out here," he said.
(Reporting by Basil Katz)
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