NEW YORK (Reuters) - Anti-Wall Street protesters seem to have made a serendipitous choice by picking a small park in lower Manhattan as their home base.
That’s because the park is technically not a park at all, but a privately owned public plaza, which means ordinary city park rules do not apply -- and neither do normal private property rights.
“The occupation landing at Liberty Plaza was a happy accident as far as I see it,” said civil rights attorney Samuel Cohen, who has been a daily presence at Zuccotti Park, or Liberty Plaza Park as it was once called.
During the week, the crowd there has consisted of a few hundred people who hand out fliers, chant slogans, hold press conferences or argue while munching on free food. On weekends it has become much more crowded. Some die-hards have even been spending the night there.
The situation in the park has come to symbolize the showdown between police and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been a persistent presence in New York for almost three weeks.
The protesters, who have had lawyers on hand to advise them, say their presence in the park just two blocks from Wall Street is lawful under free speech and free assembly rights.
Police and the city cannot rely on public park rules such as a mandatory closing time in order to evacuate the area.
Plaza owner Brookfield Office Properties BPO.N, a commercial real estate corporation, meanwhile has made it clear the situation is becoming untenable for it.
“Because many of the protesters refuse to cooperate by adhering to the rules, the park has not been cleaned. ... As a result, sanitary conditions have risen to an unacceptable level,” Brookfield spokeswoman Melissa Coley said in a statement on Monday.
Zuccotti Park appears to have been chosen by accident as a staging ground after protesters found Wall Street itself to be off limits when the protests began.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sunday said “this is the place where you can come to express your views, protesting is fine but you don’t have the right to go and, without a permit, violate the law.”
The New York Police Department, which has been concerned about controlling the sometimes large, but often scattered protests, has also not told the protesters to leave. Instead, it has made the occasional arrest of someone they think is interfering with public space.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne on Tuesday declined to comment on the park situation.
Civil liberties groups on Saturday harshly criticized the NYPD after it arrested more than 700 protesters for blocking traffic lanes on the Brooklyn Bridge and attempting an unauthorized march across the span.
Many critics also said the arrests had only served to harden the resolve of the protesters, and had potentially attracted broader sympathy for their movement.
In the meantime, civil rights lawyer Wylie Stecklow, who also has advised the protesters, has suggested they not do anything to provoke police action, such as put up tents which police have indicated may violate sanitation rules.
“What we’re telling folks down there is right now, the cops are not raiding you. probably not the right fight to pick right now.”
But as the nights grow colder, the protester presence may start to dwindle.
“I don’t think they can continue to be outside all the time, I‘m concerned for their health,” said Darrell Prince, 35, who has helped the protesters organize their finances.
“But if a wave of police come here, that would just harden the impetus to be out here,” he added. (Reporting by Basil Katz; Editing by Xavier Briand)