NEW YORK — The cleanup of a plaza in lower Manhattan where protesters have been camped out for a month was postponed early Friday, sending cheers up from a crowd that had feared the effort was merely a pretext to evict them.
Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said the owners of the private park, Brookfield Office Properties, had put off the cleaning, scheduled for 7 a.m. More than hour beforehand, supporters of the protesters had started streaming into the park, creating a crowd of several hundred chanting people.
A confrontation between police and protesters, who had vowed to stay put through civil disobedience, had been feared. Boisterous cheers floated up from the crowds as the announcement of the postponement circulated, and protesters began polling each other on whether to make an immediate march to Wall Street, a few blocks away.
“Late last night, we received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park — Brookfield Properties — that they are postponing their scheduled cleaning of the park, and for the time being withdrawing their request from earlier in the week for police assistance during their cleaning operation,” the deputy mayor’s statement said.
Brookfield believes it can work out an arrangement with the protesters that “will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use,” it said.
Brookfield, a publicly traded real estate firm, had planned to power-wash the plaza section by section over 12 hours and allow the protesters back — but without much of the equipment they needed to sleep and camp there. The company called the conditions at the park unsanitary and unsafe.
In a last-ditch bid to stay, protesters had mopped and picked up garbage. While moving out mattresses and camping supplies, organizers were mixed on how they would respond when police arrived.
Some protesters said they would resist; others planned to cooperate but engage in nonviolent civil disobedience if they are not allowed back in the park.
Han Shan, 39, of New York, a spokesman for Occupy Wall Street, said it was clear to everyone that the plan is to shut down the protest.
“There is a strong commitment to nonviolence, but I know people are going to vigorously resist eviction,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a huge number of supporters throughout New York and the surrounding area defend this thing … I’m hoping that cooler heads will prevail, but I’m not holding my breath.”
Some 600 to 700 protesters gathered in early morning darkness. Many had not slept and were busy cleaning while a light rain fell. The group’s sanitation team had hired a private garbage truck to pick up discarded curbside garbage.
Dozens of people, including a man in a Santa Claus suit, tossed out trash and used thick brooms and water from buckets to sweep the concrete.
A few people hunkered down under tarps but few slept. Police kept a low profile — a couple of officers walked through the encampment while other police sat in vans Thursday evening but did not remain through the night.
The company’s rules, which haven’t been enforced, have been this all along: No tarps, no sleeping bags, no storing personal property on the ground. The park is privately owned but is required to be open to the public 24 hours per day.
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 wide-ranging, 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.
A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose girlfriend is a member of Brookfield’s board of directors, said Brookfield had 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.”
Many protesters said the only way they would leave is by force. Organizers sent out a mass email Thursday asking supporters to “defend the occupation from eviction.”
Nicole Carty, a 23-year-old from Atlanta, hoped the group’s cleaning effort would stave off any confrontation.
“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.”
Brown said he lost his job at McDonald’s a month ago. He spent the past week and a half sleeping at the park and protesting, but he didn’t want the end to be ugly.
“You’ve got a lot of amateurs here …,” he said. “I tell people don’t block the pedestrian traffic, keep a Bill of Rights handy and be respectful of police. I’m for the rule of law, not chaos.”
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 said 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.
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.”
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.
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.
Occupy Seattle protesters running a live video feed from their corporate power protest at Seattle’s Westlake Park said police started making arrests Thursday. Police confirmed that 10 people were arrested. City law bans camping in parks.
The situation was tense near Colorado’s state Capitol early Friday, where hundreds of Occupy Denver protesters had been told to clear out or risk arrest.
Police warned around 3 a.m. that they would start clearing the park, but no arrests had been made yet.
Several protests are planned this weekend across the U.S. and Canada, and European activists are also organizing.