By Mike Lillis - 11/16/11 12:45 AM EST
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (I) decision to evict Occupy Wall Street protesters from a Lower Manhattan park is a blow to free speech, several House Democrats said.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, warned that in preventing protesters from camping out in Zuccotti Park, the city has “effectively removed [the protesters’] ability to be there 24/7.”
“I wish there would have been something done to accommodate the ability for them to stay there for the duration.”
While a few Democrats acknowledged that Bloomberg had a responsibility to ensure the safety and health of those in the park, others offered support for the demonstrators and concern that the mayor was going too far.
“I’m afraid that what the mayor says is temporary may tend to be permanent as they put up more restrictions,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.). “I’m very cautious [because] I’m very supportive of [the protesters], and if the city doesn’t keep its word [I’ll] have a lot more [to say].”
Bloomberg on Tuesday sent police forces into Zuccotti Park — the spot that launched the nationwide Occupy Wall Street movement — to clear tents, tarps and other belongings in an effort to clean the area in the name of public health.
The mayor said the protesters would be “free to return” after the sanitation crews were through, but only without their tents and sleeping bags.
“Protesters — and the general public — are welcome there to exercise their First Amendment rights, and otherwise enjoy the park, but will not be allowed to use tents, sleeping bags or tarps and, going forward, must follow all park rules,” Bloomberg said Tuesday in a news release.
Bloomberg’s plan initially hit a snag Tuesday when lawyers for the activists challenged the police action, causing the city to close the park until a court could rule on the complaint. Late Tuesday afternoon, however, a judge ruled that New York City and the park’s private owners could clear the protesters from Zuccotti Park and prevent them from re-encamping.
Many Democrats in Congress have sought to align themselves with Occupy Wall Street, which some have seen as a liberal answer to the Tea Party.
Though the message of the demonstrations has sometimes shifted, it has been consistent in highlighting growing inequalities in wealth that Democrats say have been driven by GOP policies. Democrats hope to highlight those themes in next year’s campaign season.
Several liberals have criticized local governments in other parts of the country for clashes with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), for example, criticized police in Oakland for using excessive force against demonstrators there.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D) agreed that New York City has a responsibility “to protect the health and safety of protesters and the community.” But the New York liberal, who represents Lower Manhattan, said the police have to balance those concerns with the “core First Amendment rights of protesters.”
Bloomberg, who was scheduled to be on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to testify on gun reforms, instead remained in New York to manage the Occupy Wall Street situation.
Not all Democrats were critical of Bloomberg’s action. Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), a prominent supporter of the Occupy Wall Street activists, said Bloomberg’s move is no threat to the larger movement, which he characterized as “the embodiment of the frustrations of the American people.”
“The movement will continue,” Larson said. “They’re still going to be able to go there. It’s just that there were some health issue and concerns of deterioration to the park, which is certainly not the goal [of the protests].”
Larson said he’s not concerned that the protesters will be prohibited from returning.
“I think Bloomberg’s a man of his word,” he said.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) delivered a similar message, saying Bloomberg’s decision to protect public health was spot on.
“From all indications, from many sources, it was becoming a health hazard [and] they had to clean it out,” Pascrell said. “[Bloomberg] told ’em not to come back with their bedding, because it’s only going to happen again. … I can’t fault him for that.”
Still, other liberals warned of a slippery slope if government officials begin clearing protesters, even in the name of public health.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said he was reluctant to comment on actions happening outside of his district, but voiced more general concerns that such moves could infringe on First Amendment protections.
“We always must remain careful about disrupting a non-violent, non-threatening protest,” Cleaver said. “That’s antithetical to who we are.”