New York City police raided Occupy City Hall before dawn on Wednesday, arresting seven demonstrators and clearing out the encampment that sprung up nearly a month ago in lower Manhattan as part of a campaign to defund the NYPD.
Video of the incident shows masses of police in riot gear descending upon the small tent city before 4 a.m.
Police told BuzzFeed News seven people were arrested but had not been charged.
As the sun rose, sanitation workers hosed off graffiti left on the plaza reading "defund the police," "BLM," and other anti-racist and anti-police messages. Tents were taken down and thrown into garbage trucks.
Jawanza James Williams, the director of organizing for Vocal New York, which originally organized Occupy City Hall, told BuzzFeed News the city was "pressure- washing away the messages of freedom, Black Lives, a world without police and prisons, in the same ways that workers pressure-wash away the spilled blood of Black people murdered by police for now hundreds of years."
"The De Blasio administration allowed this to happen, even amid CDC recommendations not to break up encampments with homeless folks to prevent COVID-19 spread, indicating this raid had nothing to do with safety and everything to do with being politically expedient," said Williams.
Occupy City Hall began in late June as a protest calling for a billion-dollar cut to the New York Police Department's $6 billion budget. Protesters camped out on a small patch of grass near City Hall ahead of the June 30 deadline to finalize next year's city budget.
While the new budget technically shifts $1 billion out of the NYPD budget, it has been widely criticized for not making meaningful change due to the plan's reallocation of money to departments that also fund police.
“Defunding police means defunding police. It does not mean budget tricks or funny math," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a statement. "It does not mean moving school police officers from the NYPD budget to the Department of Education's budget so that the exact same police remain in schools."
After the budget was passed, many people remained in the Occupy City Hall encampment, and it became a refuge for New Yorkers experiencing homelessness. Dubbed "Abolition Park," the encampment provided shelter, food, clothing, medical and mental health assistance, and even a library to those staying there.
“It’s summertime, it’s not cold. There’s a lot of people, there’s food, clothes,” one person who was living there, 37-year-old Benigno Perez, told Gothamist in early July. “Most of the people’s going through the same thing. I love it. If you look around you see the unity...the unity of the people.”
Williams said his organization, Vocal, did not remain officially involved in Occupy City Hall after the budget was passed, but that he has returned frequently to the site. Even as the plaza turned from a protest encampment to one more focused on supporting people experiencing homelessness, he said activism at the site remained.
"[P]eople were self-organizing for accountability and safety, and also to respond to the potential influx of police infiltrating the camp," Williams said. "But the activities of political education continued, direct actions outside of the camp continued, celebrations and performances continued, art creation, and cultural production in general."
In a press conference on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio did not indicate there were plans to break up the encampment. He had said doing so would be the NYPD's decision.
"There is a balance we always strike between the right to protest and especially public safety, and I always put public safety first while respecting constitutional rights," de Blasio said.
But on Wednesday, following the raid, de Blasio said he'd changed his mind due to the encampment's shift in purpose.
"What we saw change over the last few weeks was the gathering there got smaller and smaller, was less and less about protest, and more and more became an area where homeless folks were gathering," he said. "We do always respect the right to protest but we do have to think about health and safety first, and the healthy and safety issues were growing."