By Julie Shapiro and Tom Liddy
LOWER MANHATTAN — Occupy Wall Street is preparing for a showdown over what could be the end of their Downtown encampment.
In what could trigger the biggest single confrontation between police and protesters in the nearly month-long occupation, city officials drew a line in the sand on Thursday by warning protesters that they will have to clear out of Zuccotti Park on Friday for a scheduled cleanup, and that they will not be allowed to bring some of their gear back to the plaza afterwards.
Cleaning crews are scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m. Friday morning, but it was not immediately clear whether the NYPD would move in to displace the protesters before that. The NYPD did not immediately respond to an email for comment.
The move sparked an outcry from a number of elected officials and calls for calm and greater dialogue with the protesters.
"We are calling on the city to begin a dialogue...and if necessary postpone the 7 a.m. due date until we have an exact...knowledge about what is going to happen," said Borough President Scott Stringer.
"The city...should allow calmer heads to prevail in real discussions."
Stringer, speaking at the Municipal Building along with state Sen. Daniel Squadron and Community Board 1 Chairwoman Julie Menin, said that both the city and protesters had agreed to a "Good Neighbor" policy prohibiting things like alcohol and drugs and specifying certain acceptable conduct.
Later, City Councilwoman Letitia James, speaking at Zuccotti Park with Council Members Margaret Chin and Ydanis Rodriguez, decried the city's move as a "ruse, disguise and nothing more than an excuse to end Occupy Wall Street."
Rodriguez called for New Yorkers to come out en masse to support the protesters and Daniel Mintz, the head of MoveOn.org, said the group had collected a petition with 350,000 signatures opposing the plan to clean up Zuccotti.
Earlier Thursday, officials from Brookfield Property, which owns Zuccotti Park, handed out leaflets to protesters with a list of items that are banned after the cleanup — including sleeping bags, tarps and other supplies that have allowed protesters to remain in the park until now.
Since the occupation began on Sept. 17, the park has been overrun by sleeping bags, tarps, kitchen facilities, food vendors, trash, and human waste, leading to a litany of complaints from Brookfield and neighbors.
Officials said that protesters will be allowed back in after the cleanup, but demonstrators say the action is merely a "pretext" to shut down the group's encampment once and for all.
"Seems likely that this is their attempt to shut down #OWS for good." said Occupy Wall Street spokesman Patrick Bruner in a mass email Thursday.
He added that "'cleaning' was used as a pretext to shut down 'Bloombergville' a few months back, and to shut down peaceful occupations elsewhere," in a reference to protesters who camped out across the street from City Hall over the summer to protest budget cuts.
Protesters were frantically cleaning the park by themselves on Thursday afternoon in anticipation of Friday morning's visit by the NYPD in which protesters will be told to make way for Brookfield cleaning staff.
The group circulated an email titled "Tell Bloomberg: Don't Foreclose the Occupation," calling for protesters to gather at the park at 6 a.m. Friday for a "non-violent eviction defense."
The privately-owned, public plaza is scheduled to cleaned in four-hour intervals beginning at 7 a.m., according to a letter released by Brookfield. The park will be cleaned in three sections, starting at the Church Street side, they said.
Late Thursday, the mayor's spokesman, Marc La Vorgna, released a statement saying that "protesters can remain in the park during Brookfield's section-by-section clean-up and they will be able to return to the cleaned sections once work is completed tomorrow and can stay in the park 24/7 so long as they follow park rules."
"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, which is why the rules governing the park will be enforced."
In its letter, Brookfield said that during the cleanup, "any possessions left in an area when it is ready to be cleaned will be considered to have been left there because they have been abandoned, and they will be disposed of accordingly."
The fact that the space must be open to the public around-the-clock under an agreement with the city has created a murky set of logistical and legal issues in terms of cleaning the area and the rules by which the protesters must conduct themselves.
On Thursday, Brookfield distributed fliers to the protesters detailing ground rules for using the park.
Among other things, the rules prohibit:
- "Camping and/or the erection of tents or other structures"
- "Lying down on the ground, or lying down on the benches, sitting areas or walkways which unreasonably interferes with the use of benches, sitting areas or walkways by others"
- "The placement of tarps or sleeping bags or other covering on the property"
- "Storage or placement of personal property on the ground, benches, sitting areas or walkways which unreasonably interferes with the use of such areas by others"
- "The use of bicycles, skateboards and roller blades.
There have been mixed messages about what rules are legally enforceable at the park. Bloomberg said as recently as Wednesday that he wasn't sure if Brookfield had the legal right to evict the protesters from Zuccotti Park.
Earlier, Kelly said that neither the NYPD nor Brookfield had the authority at that point to boot protesters, and added that he expected them to be there for an extended period of time.
But Wednesday night, Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid his first visit to the park, where he told the demonstrators that they would have to clear out of sections of the park while they were cleaned.
The protesters vowed Thursday to resist any efforts by the NYPD to remove them.
On a Facebook post, they said they would "position ourselves with our brooms and mops in a human chain around the park, linked at the arms, before the NYPD arrived at 7 a.m. Friday.
"If NYPD attempts to enter, we'll peacefully/non-violently stand our ground and those who are willing will get arrested."
With Jill Colvin