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.

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.

"We have been in constant contact with Brookfield and yesterday they requested that the City assist it in enforcing the no sleeping and camping rules in the park," said Bloomberg in a statement released during the previous night. "But make no mistake -- the final decision to act was mine."

Somehow, in his public dealings with Brookfield Properties over the last two months, Bloomberg has managed to pull off whatever the opposite of a neat trick is. He's figured out how to look deferential to a major city developer (upon whose board, it should be said at least once, his girlfriend sits) while also hanging the company out to dry. Occupying the park early yesterday morning, for example, were Brookfield employees clad in neon green jackets. NYPD officers stayed outside the perimeter of the park. And so, when the protesters returned shortly after ten, as the police scrambled into action, it was a pair of Brookfield workers who were in place to wrestle with a young man in a brown coat and black pants who broke through the newly-enforced barricade. And then there's Brookfield's stumbling into the legal decision that could, as this proceeds through the courts, ultimately spell the death of Bloomberg's park-clearing directive. As Judge Billings detailed in her order, the company put in place the "no tent" rules only after Occupy Wall Street began. After-the-fact limits targeting specific kinds of political speech are generally a legal no-no. But those are also generally the sort of decisions that elected governments have to contend with, not real estate companies.

What makes Bloomberg's clumsy response not all that surprising, perhaps, is that we're dealing with a political apparatus that, despite all the talk of embracing 21st century democracy, can be strikingly plodding in its ways. Yesterday's hearing on the substance of Billings' order was scheduled and rescheduled, moved and moved once again. A herd of press and protesters trudged from one location to another. Somewhere on the trip between 71 Thompson Street and 60 Centre Street (or was it between 60 Centre Street and 80 Centre Street?), Occupy Wall Street participants grumbled that this was beginning to look like a conspiracy. Was the city just shifting times, judges, and courtrooms to through off the Occupy Wall Street legal forces? Perhaps that was part of it. But more likely, the back-and-forth was just a manifestation of a legal system that's still dependent on paper, clerks, phone calls, and schedules posted days, if not weeks, in advance. Quickness isn't one of its inherent characteristics. The city won Monday night, but both sides exhibited characteristics yesterday that will shape where the Occupy Wall Street movement goes from here.

Part of the trade-off New Yorkers make with Bloomberg is that he's playing a more sophisticated game than many. And New Yorkers, proud of their ability to do big things, gamble a little bit of the security that lesser cities might cling to so that they can shoot to be grander, bolder, more innovative, or simply different. That trade-off is part of the history of New York City, locked in concrete today decades after Robert Moses built highways flying over the city or carved out parks where affordable housing once stood. It's why New Yorkers sign off on 50-story buildings and get just the tiniest of open parks in return. In fact, the bet sounds a lot like the one that Americans have long made with Wall Street -- risking big on the assumption that the establishment actually knows what it's doing. Often, as we now well know about city planning, it just doesn't.

Image credit: Andrew Burton/Reuters