Why Bloomberg evicted Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been a headache for mayors around the country. For Michael Bloomberg of New York, the encampment-like protest in a privately-owned park in lower Manhattan was more like a chronic migraine.

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It would not go away, and despite some false starts, Bloomberg could not, or would not, stop it for weeks on end. In the interim, his reputation suffered. Even the New York Post, otherwise devoted to Bloomberg, admonished him for his attack of indecision.

What was it about the increasingly annoying and messy protest that got to the normally impatient mayor, stopping him from clearing out Zuccotti Park until this week—two months after the demonstrators took it over? He didn’t want a street riot on his hands, for one. Nor did Bloomberg, who prides himself on protecting free-speech rights, want it to look as though he was cracking down on protesters in the communications capital of the country (especially since he did not agree with them). But the strongest factor behind the delay may well have been what wasn’t happening: Bloomberg was trying to negotiate an agreement, but the OWS protesters were having none of it. Bloomberg can be flexible—as brusque as he is—but you have to play by his rules. The occupants of Zuccotti Park weren’t even playing the same game.

Bloomberg says he finally authorized a police raid because of deteriorating conditions in the park, 33,000 square feet in the city’s busy financial district, packed with tarps and tents and hundreds of people living there day and night as if it was a campsite. The place was becoming a public health hazard, the mayor contended, attracting vagrants and crime. The park’s owner, Brookfield Properties, documented the problems in a letter to Bloomberg this week, triggering, he said, his decision to put an end to the occupation.

But Bloomberg could clearly have acted long ago, as did mayors of Portland and Oakland and elsewhere. The multi-billionaire mayor is, after all, a Wall Street success story whose closest friends—including his companion, Diana Taylor—are connected to the financial industry. He did not and does not share the protesters’ ideology or tactics. But the world was watching. The last thing Bloomberg wanted was a riot to mar his already difficult third term. The harsh police crackdown in Oakland in mid-November, with those images of baton-wielding police officers, loomed large.

The mayor prefers to resolve potential crises more quietly, through back-channel negotiations. It had worked before, maybe it would again.

It was during his second term as mayor that Bloomberg’s approach to crisis got what was, until now, its toughest test. The city was faced with the prospect of racial unrest when an unarmed African American man was shot and killed by undercover police in a hail of 30 bullets. The man, Sean Bell, was at his bachelor party in a Queens bar on the eve of his wedding when things got raucous; a police detective feared a weapon—and tragedy struck. In the city’s past, incidents like this had started racial confrontations. Nobody wanted to see that again.

Bloomberg, who had nurtured good relations with the black political establishment—especially with the influential Rev. Al Sharpton—moved fast. He and his advisers personally called community, church and political leaders, and brought everyone, led by Sharpton, to City Hall for a meeting. The police brass and the mayor sanctioned street demonstrations—peaceful displays of anger and grief. The city stayed cool.

That is how Bloomberg prefers to deal with simmering trouble, and he tried to do the same with Occupy Wall Street. At his behest, his top political aide, Howard Wolfson, tried to negotiate with the protesters last month, according to The New York Times, but failed. Then, through an intermediary, Wolfson ultimately did meet with them, but says that the effort went nowhere. By then it was Halloween, and not only had negotiations collapsed, but so had the city and Brookfield’s on-again, off-again effort a few weeks earlier to temporarily clear out and clean the park. Brookfield, clearly to City Hall’s relief, pulled the plug on that plan when, after alerting demonstrators in advance in a misguided effort to get their cooperation, the operation promised to get ugly.

What next? Other mayors were taking action, and yet Bloomberg still sent mixed signals. He said one day that if you were standing a block away from Zuccotti Park, you wouldn’t know the occupation even existed; he said another day that the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest, not the right to camp out in tents and under tarps in the middle of a city.

In fact, Bloomberg has always respected the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and the right to protest—but within limits. “No right is absolute, and with every right comes responsibility,’’ the mayor said after the raid. That sentiment is perfectly consistent for him. He makes no apologies for arresting demonstrators at the 2004 Republican Convention—the police had to keep the streets safe in a city still on edge after 9/11, he argues. He would not let antiwar protesters rally on the Great Lawn of Central Park during the convention, and he has no patience with civil liberties when they bump up against what he sees as a public good. Bloomberg supports his police department’s stop-and-frisk tactics and the use of surveillance cameras on city streets, both anathema to civil libertarians. To Bloomberg, they are tools that work effectively.

In the end, the right tool for the mayor was a stealth police force at 1 a.m. Bloomberg wanted to do it his way, through negotiations, striking a balance between First Amendment rights and public safety. But he couldn’t. And so only then did Bloomberg authorize the police raid, which seems to have gone more smoothly than in some other cities, despite the 200 arrests and limits on media coverage. It was not, for Mike Bloomberg, the perfect solution, but it was a solution. For New York’s pragmatic mayor, that’s the kind of resolution—for now—that counts as a success.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators hold up a poster of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as they return to Zuccotti Park in New York November 15, 2011. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz