New York police evicted Occupy Wall Street protesters from a park in the city's financial district early on Tuesday, two months after they set up a camp and sparked a national movement against economic inequality.
Wearing helmets and carrying shields and batons, the police dismantled the sea of tents, tarps and protests signs at Zuccotti Park, arresting 70 people, including about a dozen who had chained themselves to each other and to trees.
As confused and angry protesters tried to work out how to regroup, sanitation workers cleared mounds of trash from the privately owned, publicly accessible park, where hundreds of people had camped, then swept and mopped the granite space.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the park owners, commercial real estate corporation Brookfield Office Properties, had decided that the protesters had become a health and fire safety hazard to themselves and the local community.
"Protesters have had two months to occupy the park with tents and sleeping bags. Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments," Bloomberg said in a statement, adding that the situation had become "intolerable."
Parts of the park had developed a stench of urine and excrement, flower beds had been trampled, and authorities and protesters said there had been reports of sexual assaults, thefts and drug dealing.
The park was due to reopen on Tuesday morning and the protesters were to be allowed to return as long as they stuck to new park rules that included a ban on sleeping bags, tents and the storage of belongings in the space.
But court documents showed that New York State Supreme Court Judge Lucy Billings issued a temporary restraining order early on Tuesday and until a hearing was held at 11:30 a.m. (1630 GMT), authorities were not allowed to evict protesters from the park and could not enforce the rules.
As a result, Bloomberg told a news conference that the park would remain closed until the court order was clarified. Several hundred evicted protesters regrouped at a nearby square and proceeded at mid-morning Tuesday to march through lower Manhattan streets.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which began when protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, inspired solidarity rallies and so-called occupations in public spaces across the United States and elsewhere in the world.
The clearing of the New York park followed recent evictions in Atlanta, Portland and Salt Lake City, but unlike action in Oakland, California -- where police used tear gas and stun grenades -- New York police said most protesters left voluntarily and peacefully.
Protesters say they are upset that the billions of dollars in bank bailouts doled out during the recession allowed banks to resume earning huge profits while average Americans have had no relief from high unemployment and job insecurity.
They also believe the richest 1 % of Americans do not pay their fair share in taxes.
"I'm glad they cleared the park," said Patrick Hickey, 45, who works in construction at the nearby World Trade Center site. "I think the point they were trying to make was made a long time ago and it got lost along the way," he said as he had a cup of coffee and watched the park being cleaned.
Mike Szumski, 54, a technologist at a Wall Street bank he declined to name, hope the protesters would return. "They have a message and people around the world are responding," he said. "It was a funny little community but they will keep going because there's bigger things at stake than (losing) a couple of books or a couple of paintings."
Protesters vowed that the eviction from the park that had become the epicenter of their movement would not deter them. "After this we get bigger. There is no question we get bigger. This is our chance to be heard," added Jennifer Sarja, 38, who had been bringing blankets and food to protesters staying in the park.
Justin Wedes, 25, said the movement would only grow stronger. "Because every single person who was forced out of the park will bring five friends and everyone who heard about it will bring themselves and their friends," he said.
Police had barricaded streets around Zuccotti Park, which had been lit up with spotlights. The eviction began at around 1 a.m. (0600 GMT) and the last protesters were removed by about 4:15 a.m. (0915 GMT).
"They gave us about 20 minutes to get our things together," protester Sam Wood said as the eviction was taking place.
The protesters had set up a kitchen in the middle of the park and they also had a medical tent, a social media headquarters and a library. Protesters have said several hundred people had been regularly sleeping in the park.
Authorities had previously threatened to clear the park but backed down. On Oct. 14, plans to clean out Zuccotti Park were postponed, averting a possible showdown between police and protesters.