Why Bloomberg evicted Occupy Wall Street

By Joyce Purnick
November 16, 2011

By Joyce Purnick

The views expressed are her own.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been a headache for mayors around the country. For Michael Bloomberg of New York, the encampment-like protest in a privately-owned park in lower Manhattan was more like a chronic migraine.

It would not go away, and despite some false starts, Bloomberg could not, or would not, stop it for weeks on end. In the interim, his reputation suffered. Even the New York Post, otherwise devoted to Bloomberg, admonished him for his attack of indecision.

What was it about the increasingly annoying and messy protest that got to the normally impatient mayor, stopping him from clearing out Zuccotti Park until this week—two months after the demonstrators took it over? He didn’t want a street riot on his hands, for one. Nor did Bloomberg, who prides himself on protecting free-speech rights, want it to look as though he was cracking down on protesters in the communications capital of the country (especially since he did not agree with them). But the strongest factor behind the delay may well have been what wasn’t happening: Bloomberg was trying to negotiate an agreement, but the OWS protesters were having none of it. Bloomberg can be flexible—as brusque as he is—but you have to play by his rules. The occupants of Zuccotti Park weren’t even playing the same game.

Bloomberg says he finally authorized a police raid because of deteriorating conditions in the park, 33,000 square feet in the city’s busy financial district, packed with tarps and tents and hundreds of people living there day and night as if it was a campsite. The place was becoming a public health hazard, the mayor contended, attracting vagrants and crime. The park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, documented the problems in a letter to Bloomberg this week, triggering, he said, his decision to put an end to the occupation.

But Bloomberg could clearly have acted long ago, as did mayors of Portland and Oakland and elsewhere. The multi-billionaire mayor is, after all, a Wall Street success story whose closest friends—including his companion, Diana Taylor—are connected to the financial industry. He did not and does not share the protesters’ ideology or tactics. But the world was watching. The last thing Bloomberg wanted was a riot to mar his already difficult third term. The harsh police crackdown in Oakland in mid-November, with those images of baton-wielding police officers, loomed large.

The mayor prefers to resolve potential crises more quietly, through back-channel negotiations. It had worked before, maybe it would again.

It was during his second term as mayor that Bloomberg’s approach to crisis got what was, until now, its toughest test. The city was faced with the prospect of racial unrest when an unarmed African American man was shot and killed by undercover police in a hail of 30 bullets. The man, Sean Bell, was at his bachelor party in a Queens bar on the eve of his wedding when things got raucous; a police detective feared a weapon—and tragedy struck.  In the city’s past, incidents like this had started racial confrontations. Nobody wanted to see that again.

Bloomberg, who had nurtured good relations with the black political establishment—especially with the influential Rev. Al Sharpton—moved fast. He and his advisers personally called community, church and political leaders, and brought everyone, led by Sharpton, to City Hall for a meeting. The police brass and the mayor sanctioned street demonstrations—peaceful displays of anger and grief. The city stayed cool.

That is how Bloomberg prefers to deal with simmering trouble, and he tried to do the same with Occupy Wall Street. At his behest, his top political aide, Howard Wolfson, tried to negotiate with the protesters last month, according to The New York Times, but failed. Then, through an intermediary, Wolfson ultimately did meet with them, but says that the effort went nowhere. By then it was Halloween, and not only had negotiations collapsed, but so had the city and Brookfield’s on-again, off-again effort a few weeks earlier to temporarily clear out and clean the park. Brookfield, clearly to City Hall’s relief, pulled the plug on that plan when, after alerting demonstrators in advance in a misguided effort to get their cooperation, the operation promised to get ugly.

What next? Other mayors were taking action, and yet Bloomberg still sent mixed signals. He said one day that if you were standing a block away from Zuccotti Park, you wouldn’t know the occupation even existed; he said another day that the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest, not the right to camp out in tents and under tarps in the middle of a city.

In fact, Bloomberg has always respected the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the right to protest—but within limits. “No right is absolute, and with every right comes responsibility,’’ the mayor said after the raid. That sentiment is perfectly consistent for him. He makes no apologies for arresting demonstrators at the 2004 Republican Convention—the police had to keep the streets safe in a city still on edge after 9/11, he argues. He would not let antiwar protesters rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park during the convention, and he has no patience with civil liberties when they bump up against what he sees as a public good. Bloomberg supports his police department’s stop-and-frisk tactics and the use of surveillance cameras on city streets, both anathema to civil libertarians. To Bloomberg, they are tools that work effectively.

In the end, the right tool for the mayor was a stealth police force at 1 a.m. Bloomberg wanted to do it his way, through negotiations, striking a balance between First Amendment rights and public safety.  But he couldn’t. And so only then did Bloomberg authorize the police raid, which seems to have gone more smoothly than in some other cities, despite the 200 arrests and limits on media coverage. It was not, for Mike Bloomberg, the perfect solution, but it was a solution. For New York’s pragmatic mayor, that’s the kind of resolution—for now—that counts as a success.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators hold up a poster of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as they return to Zuccotti Park in New York November 15, 2011. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

28 comments

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gee. if only Wall St. were a gated community……

Posted by radice | Report as abusive

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

It doesn’t give the right to inconvenience Wall Street bankers going to work or disrupt commerce?

More violence…Tick Tock

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Violently attacking peaceful protesters is evil.

Plus, it profoundly violates the 1st Amendment.

Posted by TransWarp101 | Report as abusive

Peaceful protest under the law is protected. Squatting on public land is not. This is nothing like what happened in the Nazi era or in Lybia. The OWS protesters are completely free to express themselves.

Anyone with military experience knows (or should know) that sanitation is of the highest importance when in the field. That OWS site was a public health menace waiting to happen.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

The “cleansing” of OWS protesters from every major city in the same week was coordinated with the help of the (so-called) Homeland Security agency. It was only a matter of time before we saw this arm of government target US citizens as terrorists, I suppose.

The simple reason for the protesters being removed at this time was that they would be soon getting in the way of commerce. America has its priorities after all, and exercising your constitutional rights of free speech and peaceable assembly are not as high on the list as keeping the streets clear for Christmas shopping. I’m sure every mayor in the US was under extreme pressure from retailers to shut this down before black Friday.

Posted by ociffer | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep You remarked that “The “movers and shakers” of the movement that was to become America risked considerable fortunes, their futures and their very lives for an extended period.”

This is clearly the narrative that the victorious 1% would like to have written as gospel in history books. In fact the original 13 colonies were built with the cheap labor of African slaves, indentured servants, tenant farmers and other working people. The industrialized U.S. of the late 1800s was built with child labor, 12 hour shifts, and 7-day work weeks. It is labor that creates value, not capital. Some risked their fortunes perhaps, but workers gave their lives.

You obviously stand with the elite — good luck with that and I hope your gated community has good security — you’ll probably need it if the economic inequality persists and worsens,.

Posted by ociffer | Report as abusive

In two areas the police action did it wrong : first they trashed the books. Second they arrested reporters for doing their job.

Those two actions are NOT the actions of a free republic. Those are the actions of a FASCIST police state, like a third world potentate. Crush the poor, enrich the kleptocratic wealthy. Just like a Central American dictatorship.

Posted by SilverKnight | Report as abusive

@ocifer,

The original 13 colonies were built upon colonialism, exploitation of indigenous natives, competence and perspiration. Yes, there were indentured servants, apprentices (that’s how people who couldn’t read learned a trade back then), tenant farmers (that’s how those who had no land could still produce something to live on, and the great majority “worked”, including the politicians.

Those were NOT times of “plenty”, and so, yes, most people worked 24/7 from dawn to dusk just to stay alive. That’s just how it was, everywhere.

But they didn’t “Occupy Boston, etc. They did what was necessary to succeed, and that included, in their minds, revolting against a King they believed incompetent and exploitative…not their own society. They came up with a plan and they made it work.

Big differences. Significant truth. When I “stand”, I will “stand” with the competent…those who are or will be successful and prevail. To do so, I must also either be successful or prepare myself for success. No mystery here.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive