On December 27, 2011, it was a damp but impressively warm (high of 57 degrees, way above normal) in New York. The streets in the financial district were packed with tourists at the World Trade Center site to see the new buildings rising, and shoppers filled the nearby Century 21 department store, picking over the bargain racks.
We stopped by Zuccotti Park to see the birthplace of the Occupy movement. As you might know, police cleared Zuccotti Park of the protester element in the middle of the night on Nov. 15, 2011 because they caused problems. “Conditions at the park had deteriorated to the point that serious concerns about crime, fire hazards and public health needed to be addressed,” said Sheryl Neufeld, senior counsel with the New York City Law Department, building the case for the city to clear the park. Seeing the park, the first thing that struck me is that park is almost completely made of granite. So, you can imagine the fire hazard potential.
We remembered Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pleasant entreaties the month before to visitors such as ourselves. That very morning, after the Occupy protesters were dispersed, the city hosed it all down, and the Mayor made this friendly announcement:
“The City has the ultimate responsibility to protect public health and safety and we will continue to ensure that everyone can express themselves in New York City. Zuccotti Park will remain open to all who want to enjoy it, as long as they abide by the park’s rules.”
On that warm December day we visited, the thousands of the residents and visitors were readily welcomed by a portable police observation tower (a modern mini-Panopticon), double rows of steel barriers around the perimeter, and cheerful police at the few access opening in the double barriers. Some police even posed for photos with tourists. One officer offered to me that the Occupy protesters had trashed the place, and now it’s open for the public to enjoy.
I’ve never felt more welcome, nor ensured that I should be expressing myself. Thanks Mayor! The 99% or the 1% — clearly we’re all welcome and equal at Zuccotti Park.
Update: So much for freely expressing yourself in Zuccotti Park. A group of 500 was forced out; many were arrested on New Year’s Eve. (OK, they did really push the rules by bringing “a small multicolored tent, about two feet tall, made for a child. Two young girls, who were at the park with their mother, began playing inside.” Dangerous!) The police made up ad hoc policies, setting time and space limits as it suited them.
Meanwhile, people protesting for clean government and economic fairness in Russia are encountering the same kinds of problems. It’s nice to see political leaders in the U.S. and Russia agree on certain values, like standing up for oligarchy.