In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, the New York Police Department (NYPD) finally cleared out the “Occupy City Hall” encampment, an occupation that sprang up two weeks after the Capitol Hill
Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) Occupied Protest (CHOP) in Seattle. While the occupation started as a protest to demand New York City slice the NYPD budget by $1 billion, it continued after City Hall met that demand, reportedly devolving into little more than a homeless encampment. Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) defended the occupation on Tuesday, but it seems President Donald Trump’s threats to send federal law enforcement to New York may have forced de Blasio’s hand.
NYPD swept through the occupation around 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning, telling occupiers and homeless people to disperse and arresting at least seven people, The Wall Street Journal reported. Most of the 40-50 people left the encampment peacefully, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said at a press conference later on Wednesday.
Occupy City Hall, later unofficially renamed Abolition Park, stretched about a block long. After the horrific police killing of George Floyd inspired protests across the country and some protests devolved into riots in New York, protesters erected a series of tents and tables on June 21. The occupiers of Occupy City Hall vowed to hold the property until the city defunded the NYPD.
New York caved nine days later. The city approved a budget on June 30, shifting nearly $1 billion away from the NYPD and toward youth and social services. Many of the protesters left then, and the occupation became less a protest and more a homeless encampment. The encampment is now closed to the public. Sanitation workers cleaned up the site on Wednesday, scrubbing graffiti from the street.
In a press conference on Wednesday, de Blasio said the NYPD had decided to break up Occupy City Hall on Tuesday night.
“What we saw change over the last few weeks was the gathering there got smaller and smaller and was less and less about protests and more and more became an area where homeless folks were gathering,” the mayor said.
This action marked an abrupt change from Tuesday, when de Blasio defended his inaction regarding the occupation.
Exactly one month after the occupation began, de Blasio refused to take a position on the future of the camp Tuesday, NY1 reported. He had not yet ordered its removal, citing people’s right to protest.
“There is a balance we always strike between the right to protest and especially public safety, and I always put public safety first while respecting constitutional rights,” de Blasio said Tuesday. “That decision will be made by the NYPD as things emerge. We’re looking at the situation every day.”
The organizers who first set up the occupation acknowledged that the camp’s protest activity had ebbed, but they insisted that the encampment demonstrated the endemic problem of homelessness in the Big Apple.
Jawanza James Williams — director of Organizing for VOCAL-NY, which initially helped set up the site — told NY1 the group has officially stepped back from it. Williams still visited the site, aiming to help the encampment provide social services.
“The park looks like it looks because the city is failing its people. We have a homelessness crisis that rivals the Great Depression,” Williams insisted. “What we’re seeing at abolition park is not a reflection of the organizers or the politics in that space, it’s a reflection of how the city, the society and the culture itself is failing our most vulnerable people.”
It is illegal to camp out in New York City parks like City Hall Park. This lawless occupation may have billed itself as a refuge for homeless people, but de Blasio was right to order it cleared.
Ironically, de Blasio sang a different tune in 2011, when Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered the NYPD to clear out the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. Then-Public Advocate de Blasio released a statement saying, “Mayor Bloomberg made a needlessly provocative and legally questionable decision to clear Zuccotti Park in the dead of night.” He added that public safety and defense of the First Amendment “are not exclusive to one another.”
When confronted about his previous opposition to clearing out occupation encampments, de Blasio said comparing Occupy Wall Street and Occupy City Hall would be to compare “apples and oranges” because the 2011 encampment was “a political situation, a protest situation.”
So why did de Blasio have a sudden change of mind about Occupy City Hall? Did he really just want to remove a homeless encampment in front of City Hall because it was no longer a protest?
It seems more likely de Blasio acted because President Donald Trump had threatened to send federal law enforcement to bring law and order to the streets of New York City.
On Monday, the president promised to send “more federal law enforcement” to cities “run by liberal Democrats.” He specifically mentioned New York City.
“I know New York very well. I know the police very well. New York’s finest. The fact is they’re restricted from doing anything, they can’t do anything. I’m going to do something, that I can tell you,” Trump said. “We’re going to have more federal law enforcement, that I can tell you.”
The mayor did not take kindly to the idea. He insisted that if Trump sent federal law enforcement to New York City, he would challenge the move in court. Privately, however, he may have been shamed into finally ordering the removal of Occupy City Hall.
“We will be in court immediately, and we will win,” NYC Mayor de Blasio says on President Trump’s threat to send federal troops to the city.
“Every time the Trump admin. has tried to bend the constitution to their will, they have lost in court.” https://t.co/SKAEYXDZwz
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) July 22, 2020
Later on Wednesday, Trump unveiled Operation Legend, which involves sending federal law enforcement to U.S. cities, explicitly including Chicago and Albuquerque, N.M.
The drive to defund and abolish the police has chilled cops, leading them to withdraw from neighborhoods. This has contributed to a crime spike in major cities, including the Big Apple. Meanwhile, the deadly George Floyd riots have continued.
On Friday, a group of antifa rioters shot cans and fired mortars at police in a battle in front of Chicago’s statue of Christopher Columbus. Antifa riots have terrorized the streets of Portland for 54 straight nights. On Saturday evening, for example, two groups of antifa and Black Lives Matter rioters squared off against police and federal troops, setting the police union building on fire and attacking the federal courthouse. Before the unrest began, Mayor Ted Wheeler (D-Portland) decided to hamstring federal troops, aiming to prevent local law enforcement from teaming up with them. Rioters also set off mortars aimed at police stations in Seattle this weekend.
Earlier this month, Trump revealed his role in shaming Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) into breaking up CHOP. The president may have also shamed Portland’s mayor into closing down an “autonomous zone” in that city. It seems likely the president’s commitment to restoring law and order shamed de Blasio into finally breaking up Occupy City Hall, as well.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.