NEW YORK -- The announcement came in the middle of a General Assembly meeting early Friday morning at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, where thousands had gathered in anticipation of an attempt by the police to clear the site.
"We have breaking news," said the speaker. "We can stay."
High-fives, cheers. For hours, protesters had been bracing themselves for a showdown with the police and mass arrests. Now it looked like the encampment in Zuccotti Park would live to see another day.
The conflict between the company that owns the park and the protesters began on Tuesday, when Richard B. Clark, chief executive of Brookfield Properties, wrote a letter to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in which he requested police assistance in clearing the site. "After weeks of occupation, conditions at the park have deteriorated to unsanitary and unsafe," Clark wrote. On Wednesday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the protesters would have to temporarily leave the park to make way for sanitation workers, who would be cleaning the site later in the week. Workers had not cleaned up the park since the occupation began.
The protesters generally saw this as a pretext for kicking them out -- a point of view that gained traction on Thursday, when Kelly said they would not be allowed to return with their sleeping bags and other items. Many protesters vowed to resist eviction by forming a human chain around the site.
In the meantime, they took it upon themselves to show that outside sanitation help wouldn't be necessary. Grabbing brooms and filling up water buckets at local restaurants, they threw themselves into a frenzy of sweeping and tidying. A coalition of civil liberties lawyers supporting the protesters wrote a letter to Clark in which they insisted that the protesters had long been addressing his concern about cleanliness. The lawyers also offered to meet with the company.
Before dawn on Friday, protesters prepared for the arrival of the police and sanitation workers by warning one other about the possibility of mass arrests and by apprising one another of the presence of lawyers.
At around 6:30 a.m., the park was filled with people. A series of speakers rallied them for the confrontation everyone still believed was in store, and in what has become a Zuccotti Park tradition, the crowd repeated every few words each speaker said so that people on the outer edges could hear. In fact, the crowd was so big that every few words were repeated three or four times.
The news came first in waves of tentative talk – "Did you see that tweet?" – and finally with the big announcement, "We can stay." In a press statement had made its way to a speaker at the General Assembly, a spokesperson for Brookfield Properties said that, for "the time being," they were "withdrawing their request from earlier in the week for police assistance during their cleaning operation."
The statement continued: "Brookfield believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters that will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use and that the situation is respectful of residents and businesses downtown, and we will continue to monitor the situation."
After the General Assembly adjourned, a group of protesters set off on a march down Broadway and according to some reports at least a dozen were arrested. Many others stayed in Zuccotti Park. Among them was Cecilia Blewer, 55, who had marched Wednesday with a group of parents and teachers. She picked up a broom and got back to sweeping. "There's always work to be done," she said.