Occupy Wall Street vs. Bloomberg's Bureaucracy

The city won Monday night, but awkwardly. On the ground with Occupy Wall Street on the day it regrouped via a "mass text loop."

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NEW YORK CITY -- Even with a New York State Supreme Court judge's ruling late yesterday that lifted a restraining order on the clearing of Zuccotti Park, one surprising dynamic that's emerged in the wake of the mass sweep of that lower Manhattan space is that the sometimes shaggy group of protesters making up the Occupy Wall Street movement seemed to meet, if not beat, the Bloomberg administration's agility when it came to handling information.

To wit, Mayor Bloomberg and crew seemed caught flat-footed by an entirely predictable temporary restraining order issued by Judge Lucy Billings at 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning that blocked both the clearing of the park and letting the protesters back in with the tents and other supplies prohibited by the "'rules' published after the occupation began," i.e. the First-Amendment-questionable rules for behavior on Zuccotti Park that were instituted by park owner Brookfield Properties with the obvious intention of getting the people who have spent the last two months camping in the space to finally pack up and go home.

Occupy Wall Street protesters, on the other hand, looked hugely limber throughout the day. Remember that video that went viral last week showing the synchronization of a starling flock? It was like that. At rush hour yesterday morning, Zuccotti Park was a ghost town, with identifiable protesters far outnumbered by residents, press, and amateur gawkers who were spending the morning looking upon an newly-cleared park. It was almost eerily quiet. Where had all the people gone? Sure, some had been arrested. But Occupy Wall Street, as a group, has always been fluid in size and composition. Surely there were Occupy Wall Street participants and supporters lurking somewhere in New York City. Indeed, street chatter and tweets talked of people re-amassing in Foley Square and Duarte Park, two other open spaces elsewhere in the city. Then, shortly after ten, they returned. Streaming down Trinity Place, hundreds of protesters chanted "Almost home! Almost home!" They clutched paper copies of Judge Billings' hours-old order in their hands. Stacks of copies of the order were passed out amongst the crowd. Some protesters waved them in the faces of the police. Others tried to walk individual police offices through the nuances of the decree. The chant went up: "You! Are! Breaking the law!" In the swirl of the crowd, I asked one protester how'd she'd known where to go yesterday morning, and when to come back. Via a "mass text loop," she explained -- that is, a bulk text messaging list shared by the protesters.

The city won Monday night, but both sides exhibited characteristics yesterday that will shape where the Occupy Wall Street movement goes from here.

By early afternoon, both Foley Square and Duarte Park were deserted. (Of course, the latter had been the site of a mid-morning police crackdown.)

Then there was how New York City behaved yesterday. The response was of little surprise, if organizations truly do take on the characteristics of their leaders. Throughout the two-month stand-off, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has indulged in convoluted messaging when it comes to Zuccotti Park, and the rights of protesters to be there. To be sure, it's not simple stuff. Zuccotti Park is a "privately owned public space," a legal construct invented in New York City under the landmark 1961 zoning resolution, as an attempt to build up lower Manhattan while providing for some open space for the public to enjoy. It's true that Zuccotti Park is not a purely public space, as we tend to think of them. But it's also true that it is not really a private one, either. New York City has embraced the challenge of having privately owned public spaces in order to get something, well, more than a more risk-averse city might. But these spaces raise provocative First Amendment issues. And if Bloomberg has been consistent about anything, it's been consistently wavering on what sort of First Amendment rights should prevail in Zuccotti Park. On the one hand, the city is a strong defender of freedom of speech and assembly. On the other, the future of Occupy Wall Street is ultimately Brookfield's call to make. Except on the days when that's not the case. That pattern continued itself yesterday, in that Bloomberg offered up yet one more version of who's running the show here.

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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