NEW YORK — Crackdowns against the Occupy Wall Street encampments across the country reached the epicenter of the movement Tuesday, when police rousted protesters from a Manhattan park and a judge ruled that their free-speech rights do not extend to pitching a tent and setting up camp for months at a time.
It was a potentially devastating setback. If crowds of demonstrators return to Zuccotti Park, they will not be allowed to bring tents, sleeping bags and other equipment that turned the area into a makeshift city of dissent.
But demonstrators pledged to carry on with their message protesting what they call corporate greed and economic inequality, either in Zuccotti or a yet-to-be chosen new home.
“This is much bigger than a square plaza in downtown Manhattan,” said Hans Shan, an organizer who was working with churches to find places for protesters to sleep. “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”
The protesters have been camped out in the privately owned park since mid-September. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said he ordered the sweep because health and safety conditions had become “intolerable” in the crowded plaza. The raid was conducted in the middle of the night “to reduce the risk of confrontation” and “to minimize disruption to the surrounding neighborhood,” he said.
By early Tuesday evening, some protesters were being allowed back into the park two by two. But they could each take only a small bag.
Later Tuesday, the protesters held a general assembly, at which they discussed topics including where and how to retrieve their belongings that had been swooped up in the raid and options for going forward, including appealing the judge’s decision.
Still, some protesters think the loss of Zuccotti Park may be an opportunity to broaden and decentralize the protest to give it staying power.
“People are really recognizing that we need to build a movement here,” Mr. Shan said. “What we’re dedicated to is not just about occupying space. That’s a tactic.”
But without a place to congregate, protesters will have a harder time communicating with each other en masse. The leaders of the movement spent most of Tuesday gathering in small groups throughout the city – in church basements, in public plazas and on street corners – and relaying plans in scattered text messages and email.
Some protesters had been grumbling about the recent formation of a “spokescouncil,” an upper echelon of organizers who held meetings at a high school near police headquarters. Some protesters felt that the selection of any leaders whatsoever wasn’t true to Occupy Wall Street’s original anti-government spirit; namely, that no person is more important or more powerful than another person.
By Elaine Donnelly
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