A judge ruled Tuesday that Occupy Wall Street protesters can return to Zuccotti Park -- but without their tents and sleeping bags, a ban that seemingly throws the future of the two-month-old movement into question.
It was uncertain how the protesters would respond to the decision in the immediate aftermath of the ruling. Will they return to the park regardless of the ban? Or will they seek another location in New York City that permits tents and sleeping bags?
In any case, the decision did not provoke unrest in Lower Manhattan when it was announced shortly before 5 p.m.
It did end a pensive standoff that lasted all day as the protesters awaited the ruling.
The park was cleared early Tuesday by police on orders from the Bloomberg administration and by daybreak it was a markedly different scene than in recent weeks. Gone was the tent city that sprung up as the weather grew colder. Sanitation crews took everything except whatever personal belongings protesters could grab.
Scores of protesters were arrested after they refused to leave.
At issue in the courtroom a few blocks away was whether the protesters have the right to encamp in a quasi-public space. The park is owned by real estate developer Brookfield Properties and Mayor Bloomberg said Tuesday that he acted after the owners sought help in clearing the park from the city. At a press conference, the mayor said the park had grown into a public health and safety hazard.
A separate judge issued a temporary restraining order Tuesday morning which barred the city from enforcing rules that would prevent the protesters from erecting tents and bringing sleeping bags into the park. The city challenged that ruling and won.
All day Tuesday protesters lined newly erected barricades, surrounded by hundreds of police officers. The park was thoroughly cleaned out -- no sign remained of the protester's encampment since Sept. 17.
The OWS protesters, who have been criticized for not articulating a specific set of goals, have said they generally oppose what they perceive as corporate greed, political corruption and economic inequality.
The sweep early Tuesday mirrored aggressive moves by authorities to clear other OWS encampments in Oakland, Calif., and Portland, Oregon.
Mark Bray, a spokesman for OWS, said the movement is mulling an alternative site a few blocks north at 6th Ave. and Canal Street.
"Our movement will continue. You can't evict ideas," Bray said.
Bray said protesters were not seeking or anticipating a violent clash with police once the court makes its ruling, but that such a clash could work in favor of the protesters by drawing worldwide attention to their movement.
Several arrests were made Tuesday as protesters awaited the court's ruling. The arrests played out almost with formulaic precision: a protester disobeyed a police order, he was surrounded by police and the whole melee was immediately smothered by photographers.
Protesters broke into a mix of chants and jeers during each arrest. "The world is watching." "Who are you protecting?" "Call 911."
One man in a suit walked through the crowd holding a cardboard sign -- clearly a parody of the protesters' ubiquitous cardboard signs -- that read 'Thank you mayor Bloomberg.'
Charles Helms, a union organizer from New Jersey, said he's concerned for the protesters' property -- their tents, sleeping bags, generators, etc.
Helms, 64, said he has supported the movement since its inception two months ago.
"I'm not an educated man. I'm just a worker. But if we don't bring corporations, banks and Wall Street back to reality there's not going to be anything left for the next generation."
A police spokesman said prior to the ruling that police were awaiting the court’s decision and that their next action -- whether to let the protesters back into Zuccotti Park -- would be determined by the court and based on instructions from police headquarters.