NEW YORK - Emergency service trucks rumbled up Broadway to positions on two sides of Zuccotti Park. Powerful klieg lights blinked on, illuminating about 220 protesters in tents and sleeping bags. The one-square-block was as bright as day. But it was only 1 a.m.
Voices of the police, booming from loudspeakers, echoed through the financial district. Officers swept through the park, picking their way around tents and over sleeping bags, handing out leaflets. Dozens of protesters linked arms and shouted “This is our home,’’ “Barricade!’’ and, in one case, “You’re stepping on my bed!’’
But the message was clear: Occupy Wall Street’s two-month encampment was coming to a sudden end.
The eviction early yesterday morning, which ended with the arrests of 140 bleary-eyed protesters who had not heeded the orders to clear out, capped two intense weeks in which Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and his aides tried but failed to negotiate with members of Occupy Wall Street. They concluded that the protesters were unwilling to negotiate and unable to address their encampment’s growing problems on their own.
The predawn operation, led personally by police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, followed a series of crackdowns by exasperated mayors across the country; many of them had initially tolerated the movement, which criticized the nation’s economic inequality, but then wearied as the encampments became increasingly disruptive.
Last night, after a judge agreed that officials could ban tents and tarps, several hundred protesters without sleeping gear returned to the park, began to meet, and prepared for an uncertain future.
“I think everyone’s still in the processing mode,’’ said Nate Barchus, 23, a protester from Providence, who acknowledged feeling rage and disappointment. “This will be a catalyst.’’
Bloomberg’s order to clear out the encampment prompted criticism and praise. Some neighbors and business owners, glimpsing park pavement for the first time in weeks, seemed relieved, while a raft of liberal politicians, labor leaders, and civil libertarians denounced the move as an unjustified infringement on free speech.
For the mayor, a champion of the First Amendment who made a fortune on Wall Street and defends its virtues, the decision was even more onerous: Just a month ago, he said that the city would clear the park for cleaning, but backed down after a chorus of political protest and an influx of new demonstrators.
On Monday, the city took extraordinary steps to keep its plan secret and preserve the element of surprise, leaving members of the mayor’s staff, local politicians, and even police commanders in the dark.
This time, there would be no warning.
The administration had tried to avoid such a confrontation with behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
After weeks of fruitlessly trying to talk to the protesters through intermediaries, Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, the mayor’s top political aide, said he was thrilled when he received a call in mid-October from Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein of Central Synagogue in Midtown Manhattan. The rabbi, who is the chairman of the Partnership of Faith, an interreligious group of senior city clerics, had been approached by members of the demonstration’s “comfort working group’’ for help getting the city’s permission to set up tents and portable toilets.
Wolfson agreed to a meeting immediately, but it took two weeks to arrange one with the demonstrators, the rabbi said.
On Oct. 31, Wolfson sat down in a carpeted conference room owned by Trinity Church across a table from five members of the protest, an imam and the rabbi looking on.
Wolfson hoped to work through the Bloomberg administration’s problems with what it saw as an increasingly lawless and unmanageable campground in the pulsing heart of the financial district. The protesters only wanted to discuss the need for toilets and tents. Wolfson told them their requests for permits had been denied, and the negotiations were over before they had begun.
“The city was interested in engaging in a dialogue,’’ Wolfson said. “It was made clear that that was not something that Occupy Wall Street was willing to do.’’
Han Shan, a protest member, said he had volunteered to attend specifically to make sure his compatriots were not lured into negotiations that no one in the movement was authorized to conduct. He said the exchange demonstrated that the mayor’s office did not understand how Occupy Wall Street functioned.
The Bloomberg administration’s concerns mounted quickly after the failed meeting, fueled by increasing disorder within the park.
Two days after the church meeting, a man was charged with sexually abusing an 18-year-old woman at Zuccotti Park, and Bloomberg’s tone began to shift.
On Monday Bloomberg gave the order to move in. City officials noted that Brookfield Properties, the company that owns the park, had asked the city to help it clear out the tents, but it was not clear whether the company’s request preceded or followed the mayor’s decision.