New York (AP) — Officials on Thursday moved to put an end to Wall Street protesters' month-long occupation of a park that spawned similar gatherings across the nation, setting up a potential confrontation with police and an uncertain future for a movement that claims to speak for the disillusioned middle class.
Demonstrators at the half-acre park in lower Manhattan said they won't go anywhere at the Friday morning deadline when the park's owners, their patience worn thin, want them to clear out and stop pitching tents or using sleeping bags. Thursday evening, many trained in civil disobedience. They linked arms and sat down.
The company that owns the private park where the demonstrators have camped out said it has become trashed and unsanitary. Brookfield Office Properties planned to begin a section-by-section power-washing of Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street, at 7 a.m.
"They're going to use the cleanup to get us out of here," said Justin Wedes, a 25-year-old part-time public high school science teacher from Brooklyn who was one of about 400 people in the park Thursday night. "It's a de facto eviction notice."
The demand that protesters clear out sets up a turning point in a movement that began Sept. 17 with a small group of activists and has swelled to include several thousand people at times, from many walks of life. Occupy Wall Street has inspired similar demonstrations across the country and become an issue in the Republican presidential primary race.
The protesters' demands are amorphous, but they are united in blaming Wall Street and corporate interests for the economic pain they say all but the wealthiest Americans have endured since the financial meltdown.
There was a scramble of activity in the park Thursday afternoon and into the night. Hundreds of demonstrators scrubbed benches and mopped the park's stone flooring in an attempt to get Brookfield to abandon its plan.
Members of the protesters' sanitation working group passed out 30-gallon bins for people to organize their belongings. Jordan McCarthy, a 22-year-old member of the group, said she wouldn't be sleeping at all.
A last-ditch protest was planned at midnight.
Protesters would be allowed to return after the cleaning, which was expected to take 12 hours, but Brookfield said it plans to start enforcing regulations that have been ignored.
No more tarps, no more sleeping bags, no more storing personal property on the ground. In other words, no more camping out for the Occupy Wall Street protesters, who have been living at Zuccotti Park for weeks. The park is privately owned but is required to be open to the public 24 hours per day.
A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose girlfriend is a member of Brookfield's board of directors, said Brookfield has requested the city's assistance in maintaining the park.
"We will continue to defend and guarantee their free speech rights, but those rights do not include the ability to infringe on the rights of others," Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna said, "which is why the rules governing the park will be enforced."
Protesters say the only way they will leave is by force. Organizers sent out a mass email asking supporters to "defend the occupation from eviction."
"We are doubling up on our determination to stay here as a result of this," said 26-year-old Sophie Mascia, a Queens resident who has been living in Zuccotti Park for three weeks and intends to sleep there Friday night. "I think this is only going to strengthen our movement."
Protesters have had some run-ins with police, but mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and an incident in which some protesters were pepper-sprayed seemed to energize their movement.
The New York Police Department says it will make arrests if Brookfield requests it and laws are broken. Brookfield would not comment on how it will ensure that protesters do not try to set up camp again, only saying that the cleaning was necessary because conditions in the park had become unsanitary due to the occupation.
Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate, expressed concern over the city's actions as he inspected the park Thursday afternoon and listened to protesters' complaints.
"This has been a very peaceful movement by the people," he said. "I'm concerned about this new set of policies. At the very least, the city should slow down."
The city is provoking a confrontation by enforcing a planned cleanup, said Doug Forand, a spokesman for 99 New York, a coalition of community groups that support the protest.
"To us it's clear the whole guise of cleanup is just a smokescreen for the mayor's goal of shutting down the protest," Forand said. "They are very clearly set on using this as a means of silencing the voices of dissent that the mayor does not want to hear."
Forand said the coalition would stand in solidarity with the protesters early Friday.
Attorneys from the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — who are representing an Occupy Wall Street sanitation working group — have written a letter to Brookfield saying the company's request to get police to help implement its cleanup plan threatens "fundamental constitutional rights."
"There is no basis in the law for your request for police intervention, nor have you cited any," the attorneys wrote in a letter Thursday to Brookfield CEO Richard B. Clark. "Such police action without a prior court order would be unconstitutional and unlawful."
The attorneys said the sanitation working group has "committed itself to carrying out a thorough and complete cleaning" and to negotiate with the park's owner in good faith.
The protest has led sympathetic groups in other cities to stage their own local rallies and demonstrations: Occupy Boston, Occupy Cincinnati, Occupy Houston, Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy Providence, Occupy Salt Lake and Occupy Seattle, among them.
Several protests are planned this weekend across the U.S. and Canada, and European activists are also organizing.
As the hour neared for evacuation, Zuccotti Park had been cleared of about half of the protest's supplies. The self-organized sanitation team had hired a private garbage truck to pick up discarded curbside garbage, and belongings were accumulating at a storage area at one corner of the park.
Nicole Carty, a 23-year-old from Atlanta, hoped the last-minute cleaning effort would stave off any confrontation on Friday.
"We tell them, 'Hey the park is clean, there's no need for you to be here,'" she said. "If they insist on coming in, we will continue to occupy the space."
Click here to have the print version of the Craig Daily Press delivered to your home.