* Affirms city plan to ban tents, sleeping bags
* Police evicted protesters, arresting at least 147
* Protest encampment called a “health and safety hazard”
* Zuccotti Park is Occupy Wall Street movement’s epicenter (Adds details, background)
By Basil Katz and Chris Francescani
NEW YORK, Nov 15 (Reuters) - A judge upheld New York City’s legal justification for evicting Occupy Wall Street protesters from a park on Tuesday when police in riot gear broke up a two-month-old demonstration against economic inequality.
Protesters will be allowed to return but Justice Michael Stallman found the city, at least for now, can legally ban protesters from camping in tents and sleeping bags at the park between Wall Street and the World Trade Center under reconstruction in lower Manhattan.
Since Sept. 17, protesters have occupied Zuccotti Park to protest what they see as an unjust economic system that favors the wealthiest 1 percent at a time of persistently high employment, decrying a political system that bailed out banks after reckless lending sparked the financial crisis.
The Occupy Wall Street movement triggered similar protests in cities throughout the United States and the world.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg decided the protesters had become a health and fire safety hazard and ordered police to evict them from the camp, where city officials cited reports of sexual assaults, thefts and drug dealing.
Hundreds of police stormed the camp around 1 a.m. (0600 GMT) and dismantled tents, tarpaulins, outdoor furniture, mattresses and signs, arresting 147 people, including about a dozen who had chained themselves to each other and to trees.
With the park cleared of protesters and barricades, sanitation workers dismantled tents, hauled away trash and blasted the square with water cannon, erasing odors of urine and human waste.
In London, authorities said they were resuming legal action to try to shift anti-capitalism protesters who have set up camp at St Paul’s Cathedral.
Toronto officials also told protesters to leave on Tuesday.
The New York eviction followed similar actions in Atlanta, Portland and Salt Lake City. Unlike in Oakland, California, where police used tear gas and stun grenades, New York police said most protesters left peacefully.
Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire whose wealth made him a target of the protesters, ordered the eviction at the request of the owners of Zuccotti Park, commercial real estate company Brookfield Office Properties.
The mayor’s loyalties have been divided since the protests began. Socially liberal and a supporter of free speech rights, Bloomberg is a former Wall Street trader who made a fortune selling news and information to the financial industry through his eponymous company, Bloomberg LP.
Yetta Kurland, a lawyer for the protesters, said she did not know yet whether they would appeal the judge’s ruling.
“This was not about public health or safety,” Kurland said. “That was a pretext to shut down a large occupation two days before a large protest was planned.”
The police raid came two days before protesters planned to stage a protest outside the New York Stock Exchange that potentially could have disrupted floor trade.
New York officials were set to allow protesters back into the park without tents and sleeping bags but then they got notice of a court challenge, at which point they left the barricades up pending legal clarification.
The National Lawyers Guild got a temporary restraining order allowing the protesters back into the park with tents and sleeping bags.
Stallman then overturned that order after a hearing, saying protesters’ rights to free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution were still protected.
The judge wrote the protesters did not show they had a right to stay “along with their tents, structures, generators, and other installations to the exclusion of the owner’s reasonable rights and duties to maintain Zuccotti Park, or to the rights to public access of others who might wish to use the space safely.”
“We’re very disappointed,” said Daniel Alterman, another lawyer who represents the protesters. (Additional reporting by Clare Baldwin; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Michelle Nichols; Editing by John O’Callaghan)