New York Police have evicted anti-Wall Street demonstrators from the New York square where the nationwide 'Occupy' movement first began, arresting at least 70 people in the process.
Law enforcement officers handed out notices on Tuesday morning from Brookfield Office Properties, owner of Zuccotti Park, and the city saying that the park had to be cleared because it had become unsanitary and hazardous.
"Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with their tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments."
- Michael Bloomberg, NYC mayor
Protesters were told that they could return in several hours, but without sleeping bags, tarps or tents.
Paul Brown, a spokesperson for the New York Police Department, said the park had been cleared by 4:30 am and that about 70 people who'd been inside it had been arrested, including a group who chained themselves together.
Police in riot gear filled the streets, car lights flashing and sirens blaring.
Demonstrators, some of whom shouted angrily at police, began marching to two locations in Lower Manhattan where they planned to hold rallies.
Some protesters refused to leave the park, but many left peacefully. Ben Hamilton, 29, said he was arrested "and I was just trying to get away" from the fray.
Al Jazeera's Cath Turner, reporting from New York City, said police used "heavy-handed" tactics to evict demonstrators.
"It seems like the New York Police Department came out about ...1:15 in the morning here in New York City, and have surrounded the park. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of police started moving people from their tents.
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"They started pushing them out their tents and started clearing them out and pushing them away from the park."
Rabbi Chaim Gruber, an Occupy protester, said police officers were clearing the streets near Zuccotti Park.
"The police are forming a human shield, and are pushing everyone away," he said.
Jake Rozak, another protester, said police "had their pepper spray out and were ready to use it".
Occupy Wall Street activists have pledged to return to the park and have called for supporters to march in New York City during the day on Tuesday.
The eviction of Zuccotti Park came one day after police moved into an encampment by protesters in Oakland, California, clearing out occupants, including at least 20 arrests, and removing tents. In a similar move, police in Portland, Oregon confronted thousands of protesters on Sunday.
In each city, activists returned to the protest sites the day following the police raids.
Notices given to the protesters prior to the raid said the park "poses an increasing health and fire safety hazard to those camped in the park, the city's first responders and the surrounding community".
Al Jazeera's Cath Turner reports from nearby Zuccotti Park as police forcefully the Occupy Wall Street camp
It said that tents, sleeping bags and other items had to be removed because "the storage of these materials at this location is not allowed".
Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York City, later released a statement that said health and safety was a priority over protesters' First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
"From the beginning, I have said that the City had two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protestors’ First Amendment rights.
"But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority."
He closed by saying "protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments".
While city officials assert that the park had been cleared out for sanitary purposes, protesters and witnesses said police appeared more concerned with dismantling the demonstrators' encampment.
"They haven't even pretended to clean the park," our correspondent said.
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"This is a genuine attempt to dismantle any kind of occupation, any kind of settlement here. So I think the cleaning has gone out the window and really it's just a complete sweep through. There will hardly be anything left."
Alex Hall, 21, of Brooklyn, said police walked into the park "stepping on tents and ripping them out".
On Monday, a small group of demonstrators, including local residents and merchants, protested at City Hall. In recent weeks, they have urged the mayor to clear out the park because of its negative impact on the neighborhood and small businesses.
Protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park on September 17 as a focus for dissent against a financial system they argue mostly benefits corporations and the wealthy. The movement has sparked similar protests against economic inequality both nationally and internationally.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies