Union Square park has historically served as a rallying point for political movements in America—on the first Labor Day celebration in 1882, for instance, some 10,000 workers amassed there. These days you need a permit for more than 200 people to get together anywhere in NYC, and since the early morning of March 21st, the NYPD has been closing Union Square around midnight, ostensibly for cleaning (and to comply with Parks Department curfew). Early this morning, even the sidewalk on the southern edge of the park was closed by cops, who carried out a weary pas de deux with a handful Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, in what has become a dreary nightly ritual of oppression.
We passed by Union Square from the north just before midnight, and the first thing that caught our eye were the dozens of police cruisers and vans parked in the bike lane along the entire east side of the park. This creates an obvious hazard, forcing bikers out into the two lanes of traffic zooming down Park Avenue. But keeping Union Square from befalling the fate of Zuccotti park seems worth risking a few cyclists. Last night at least 100 officers were deployed at the park to close it down for the symbolic cleaning. As far back as we can remember, the NYC Parks Department curfew was never been enforced at Union Square, until Occupy Wall Street began gravitating there last month.
After midnight, about fifty demonstrators lingered on one side of a barricade on the park's south side, taking turns ranting about various issues ranging from Monsanto to Morgan Stanley. The lack of coherent message, articulated as it was last night by a rag-tag mix of burnouts and earnest radicals, is an easy target for parody. But the Bloomberg administration sure is taking them seriously, in so much as they can't be allowed to establish any sort of presence overnight in any park in town. Last night there was just a handful, but Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly are cagey enough to know that if they let ten protesters spend the night anywhere, tomorrow it will be twenty and within a week there'll be hundreds.
"Ask yourselves," one young protester implored a cluster of stoic young officers, "Why are you here? There have been fights and drugs here in Union Square forever. It's never been shut down. But as soon as someone wants to stand up for a political cause there are tons of cops here." Another activist, Caleb Maupin, told us, "They make up the laws as they go along here. One night they say we can't have cardboard. Another night we can. Tonight there's fewer people here so they push us all the way off the sidewalk. But I've seen much worse than this tonight."
You could sense the absurdity of the assignment in many of the cops' faces as they followed their orders to first clear the park, and then, at ten minutes to 1 a.m., to clear the sidewalk immediately in front of the park. Then, ten minutes later, the cops—with an air of weary tedium—marched west, forcing the remaining 25 protesters off the entire sidewalk on 14th Street and across University Place. It's clearly a shit detail, and many of them seemed to be begrudgingly playing along last night, making a couple of arrests and intimidating the remaining stragglers into dispersing, so they could go do something involving, you know, crime prevention.
By 1:15 a.m., a couple of clusters of protesters huddled across 14th Street, outside the Bank of America and Forever 21. Two of the more outraged activists had been arrested (the NYPD would not tell us on what charges), and the rest of the cops milled about on pristine, desolate Union Square shooting the breeze. We walked back through them along the sidewalk they just cleared, and about halfway to the other side of Union Square one officer said, happily, "Hey, we're leaving!" Another, sounding either surprised or disappointed or relieved, replied, "Oh, we're not going to arrest the rest of them?" Not that night anyway.