MANHATTAN — Allowing Brookfield Properties to drive Occupy Wall Street protesters from Zuccotti Park with the help of police would have been a disastrous miscalculation for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, political observers said.
“The mayor’s made some huge blunders over the last couple of years, but this might in fact have been the worst one he’d made so far,” said Democratic consultant Scott Levenson, who said the potential for violent clashes would have drastically emboldened the movement and sparked outrage not just in the city, but across the globe.
"He could not ever have recovered,” Levenson said.
On Wednesday night, the mayor paid the protesters a surprise visit, telling them that they would have to temporarily clear out of the privately-owned plaza by Friday morning so that the space could be cleaned, following a litany of complaints about sanitation there.
The move, which would have used NYPD enforcement, sparked a furious call for resistance from demonstrators and set the stage for a showdown that was narrowly averted only after Brookfield called off the cleaning at the last minute.
“No one gains from a confrontation, especially if it turns ugly,” said political consultant George Arzt, who was once press secretary for former Mayor Ed Koch.
Because Zuccotti Park is privately owned, but must be open to the public 24-hours-a-day under an agreement with the city, a murky set of legal issues has emerged as to the conditions under which protesters can remain and who is responsible for enforcing them.
Since the protests began on Sept. 17, the city has avoided a direct confrontation with protesters at Zuccotti, saying the landlord was responsible for setting the rules and asking for help with enforcement. But all that changed this week after Brookfield asked the city for help moving the protesters for the cleaning.
The mayor and his aides insisted he had nothing to do with Brookfield’s decision, first to press forward with the cleanup effort, and then to back off.
“The city does not have the legal right to go in and to close the park,” Bloomberg said during his weekly radio sit-down with WOR’s John Gambling Friday morning. The mayor had received word just before midnight that Brookfield — which counts among its board members his girlfriend, Diana Taylor — decided to call off its cleanup efforts for now.
“Our staff, last night, was under strict instructions from me not to pressure them one way or another. This was their decision,” he said.
But Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio said there is little doubt in the minds of most that Bloomberg aides, the NYPD and Brookfield were in close communication, strategizing and trying to navigate the complexities of their legal grounds.
“To suggest that they did it independently of the city administration is stretching belief,” he said.
And Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, said the events are yet another example of reversals by the mayor, which include the removal of Schools Chancellor Cathie Black and Bloomberg's decision not to reveal the fact that Deputy Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s resignation was driven not by a job offer, but a domestic violence dispute.
“This is just the latest manifestation,” Carroll said.
The mayor, who has shown increasing disdain for the protesters, refused to answer questions in Midtown Friday about whether he thought the decision to postpone the cleanup was a smart move.
But on his radio show, he suggested that the delay could make it impossible for Brookfield to ever move in and begin to enforce the rules it has long-attempted to place on the square, including prohibiting sleeping bags, mattresses and obstructing walkways — moves that would have effectively shut the month-long occupation down.
“Brookfield said that they want to take a couple of days to try to negotiate something. I think if you get through a couple of days, the questions is, what would be possible? And is it more complex two days from now to do what they had said they wanted to do today?” he asked.
“From our point of view, it will be a little bit harder, I think, at that point in time to provide police protection. But we have the greatest police department in the world.”
While the mayor stressed his distance from the decision, he slammed other politicians whom he said “inundated” Brookfield with calls “threatening them and saying, ‘If you don’t stop this, we’ll make your life more difficult.’"
In a statement issued Friday, Brookfield confirmed the outpouring of support for the protesters from local pols and credited them for the move.
“At the request of a number of local political leaders, Brookfield Properties has deferred the cleaning of Zuccotti Park for a short period of time while an attempt is made to reach a resolution regarding the manner in which Zuccotti Park is being used by the protesters,” the company said.
And while many in the police department and administration may have been eager to finally pounce and clean up the park, observers said the move likely saved Bloomberg from a tremendous political fallout, even if it was a blow.
“It was clear to me, at 10 o’clock [Thursday] night, that the cost for the mayor of going through [with it] was going to be far beyond what he expected when he made the announcement,” Levenson said, arguing that the mayor had “completely undervalued how far the protest has spread.”
“The mayor lost [Friday] morning," he said. "No one who's an observer of New York politics can look at what happened [Friday] morning as anything other than the mayor backing down.”