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The barricades that have surrounded Zuccotti Park ever since Occupy Wall Street was evicted nearly two months ago came down this evening.
As word circulated that Brookfield Properties employees were disassembling the metal fencing that has choked access to the park, participants in last fall’s occupation streamed back in, cheering and hugging each other.
The sudden reversal came a day after a joint letter to the Department of Buildings from the National Lawyers Guild, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and others challenging the legality of the barriers and restrictions at the park.
Paula Segal, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, helped direct the legal campaign against the park restrictions, launching a website that directed people to file zoning violation notices with the city over the clamped-down park.
Segal’s campaign started shortly after the November eviction, she said, but it wasn’t until yesterday’s letter that the Department investigated the citizen complaints, as required by law. An inspector visited the park and the Department determined that there was no violation.
A few hours later, though, the barricades were coming down.
Segal, who started working with Occupy Wall Street only after the eviction, said tonight that this was the first time she has stood in Zuccotti Park without it being surrounded by barricades.
“It feels really good,” she said.
Gideon Oliver of the National Lawyers Guild said the development was a good sign. “This is a step in the right direction, and an acknowledgment that the city has been suppressing free speech,” he said. “But we’ll still have to see how Brookfield and city behave in terms of enforcing whatever other rules they believe apply in this space.”
Within an hour of the removal of the barriers, the kitchen working group was serving hot food to all who wanted it, protesters were making and arranging cardboard signs, and the Occupy Wall Street library was slowly being reassembled, cartload by cartload.
As has been true several times in the past, the library quickly became a flashpoint and a rallying place, as Brookfield employees repeatedly warned protesters that the books were not allowed in the park. Protesters defied the warnings. Gideon Oliver noted that there is no prohibition on books in Brookfield’s evolving list of rules for the park, and that to ban the books would be unconstitutional. The Brookfield guards ultimately backed down, telling Segal they were just there to inform people of the rules, not enforce them.
The barriers that had restricted park access to two check-points stood stacked and chained together at the north edge of the park tonight. A police officer said the barriers belonged to Brookfield, not the NYPD.
Two protesters were arrested for sitting on benches behind the stacked barriers, but after a dozen more replaced them, the police stopped trying to keep occupiers away from the area.
A Brookfield security guard said the rules against tents and structures would still be enforced, but that, for the moment at least, food would be allowed in.
What the significance of the newly un-barricaded park will be going forward remains to be seen — after all, it has been technically accessible to the public throughout, and the same park rules that discouraged occupiers over the last two months remain in place. But the psychological significance of the reopened park to the movement is real, and tonight, the protesters are treating it as a victory.