Less than 30 minutes after police began bulldozing the Occupy New Haven encampment on the New Haven Green, city officials were forced to halt the eviction when a federal appeals court issued an injunction allowing the protest to survive at least another week.
City officials first started preparing to evict the protesters on Monday after federal judge Mark Kravitz issued a 26-page ruling on a lawsuit that Occupy lawyer Norm Pattis filed last month in hopes of preventing the protesters’ removal. Kravitz rejected Pattis’s argument that evicting the encampment would violate the protesters’ First Amendment rights and ruled that the city could lawfully remove its tents and other structures from the Green starting at noon on Tuesday.
In an effort that involved the police, fire and parks departments, the city began to disassemble the encampment immediately after noon on Tuesday, inciting a confrontation with protesters brandishing signs and makeshift shields and drawing a crowd of more than 100 onlookers. But shortly after the eviction began and police arrested two Occupy members, both city officials and protesters got word that Pattis had successfully received a week-long stay for the protest from the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York.
“In the six months that the Occupy encampment has existed on the Green, the city has acted in a cooperative and supportive fashion in terms of free speech,” Mayor John DeStefano Jr. said at an afternoon press conference following the ruling’s announcement. “But this has become an obnoxious use on the Green by a few people. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a few to monopolize one of the central assets of the city — the people of New Haven deserve the New Haven Green back.”
City officials — including New Haven Police Department Chief Dean Esserman — gathered on the Green before the noon deadline, facing a group of around 30 protesters who chanted slogans like “Hell no, we won’t go!” and “What do you do when you’re under attack? Fight back!”
According to DeStefano, the city was notified around 11 a.m. that Pattis had filed a request for an injunction with the New York appeals court, and shortly afterwards received a request from the lawyer to delay the eviction until the court made its decision. DeStefano declined to delay the eviction, and said that even as late as noon it appeared Pattis’ efforts for another stay were unsuccessful.
At 12:01 p.m., city officials ordered the eviction to begin, first targeting Occupy New Haven’s “peace garden.” But when workers began to bulldoze a set of tents designated as an art installation, protesters screamed at the driver of the bulldozer and protester Don Montano lay down in front of the machine.
“This is an abortion of justice,” an Occupy protester who identified himself only as “Moose” yelled at police officers through a megaphone. “[Occupy] is the people’s dream.”
Just when police officers moved to confront Montano, word spread among those at the encampment that Pattis had successfully obtained a stay from Circuit Judge Raymond Lohier Jr., who ruled that the eight Occupy protesters listed as plaintiffs in the initial lawsuit could remain on the New Haven Green. It was within the city’s legal authority, however, to evict any or all of the other demonstrators. A standoff began between city officials and protesters as police awaited orders on whether to proceed and Occupy demonstrators chanted to the crowd of onlookers on and around the Green.
One Occupy protester approached police officers holding a long plastic pipe with a doughnut tied to a string at the end and taunted police to eat it. Most onlookers stood apart from the Occupy encampment, though some engaged in heated argument with the protesters over their mission and prolonged presence in New Haven.
“They’ve clearly overstayed their welcome,” New Haven resident Bill Burleigh said. “I live here — I want everything out.”
Finally, Victor Bolden, the city’s top lawyer, arrived around 12:40 p.m. and, after conferring with Esserman, confirmed that City Hall had received word from the appeals court to stop the eviction. Bolden announced after his arrival on the Green that all protesters — not just the eight plaintiffs — would be allowed to stay until at least next week, since it would be too difficult to differentiate between the belongings of plaintiffs and non-plaintiffs.
According to DeStefano, two members of Occupy New Haven were arrested for interfering with the eviction while it was underway by climbing on city trucks. Both protesters who were arrested received probation before judgment, he said.
“I have no reason to believe the arrests weren’t appropriate,” DeStefano said during the press conference.
When police arrested Sara Ferah after he tried to retrieve his belongings from a public works bulldozer, protesters ran screaming after the officers Ferah was escorted off the Green. Yet a group of onlookers cheered and clapped for police as they placed Ferah into a patrol car and drove away.
Lohier’s court order mandated that the city allow Occupy New Haven to remain on the Green for at least a week until the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to hear an appeal of Kravitz’s decision in favor of the city. Should the appeals court hear the case, DeStefano said the city would continue to fight for control of the public space in court.
“We will represent the interests of the city, which I want to be clear from my point of view are to return the entire Green to the use of the entire community,” DeStefano said.
Following the announcement of the appeals court’s decision, Occupy protesters celebrated, chanting at police and city workers involved in the eviction. Protesters said they are planning a party on the Green on April 15, to celebrate Occupy New Haven’s six-month anniversary, and will hold their regular general assembly meeting Wednesday evening.
Occupy New Haven, which officially began on Oct. 15, initially enjoyed a cooperative relationship with City Hall. Then-City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph said the city’s only concern about the protest when its tents went up on the Green involved public safety around the encampment.
With the arrival of warmer temperatures, city officials and the Green’s legal proprietors — members of a private group that has perpetuated itself since the 17th century — said they were concerned that Occupy’s presence on the Green was hindering the ability of other residents to use the space. They also cited concerns that the encampment could cause long-term damage to the Green, including to the elm trees that give New Haven its nickname, the Elm City.
But protesters have claimed that the city sought Occupy’s removal at the behest of Yale administrators who they say wished to clear the Green in time for the University’s May Commencement ceremony. DeStefano, head Green proprietor Drew Days LAW ’66 and University spokesmen have all said that Yale has had no involvement in the city’s decisions concerning Occupy New Haven.
After two February meetings between city officials and protesters failed to reach a compromise, city officials issued a notice that the Green would have to be cleared of tents by March 14. But following a last-minute lawsuit by Pattis, district court judge Janet Hall gave Occupy protesters permission to remain on the Green through March 28, when Kravitz was to hear the case. Kravitz then extended Occupy’s deadline to stay on the Green a second time to Monday in order to give himself time to issue a decision, which the court of appeals is now deciding whether to review.
Occupy New Haven, a branch of the international anti-economic-inequality Occupy protest, is the oldest surviving encampment of its kind in New England.