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For U.S. Police, A Delicate Balance In Dealing With Wall Street Protesters

Photographers gather as an Occupy Wall Street protester is detained near Zuccotti Park in New York City on October 14.
Photographers gather as an Occupy Wall Street protester is detained near Zuccotti Park in New York City on October 14.
WASHINGTON -- As it sweeps across the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired thousands of people to proclaim that they are part of the "99 percent" who are losing out in what they see as an unfair global economy.

It has also inspired thousands of police officers to pull out their plastic handcuffs to deal with protesters who refuse to leave tent cities in public parks and block roadways with their marches.

Police face a challenge in balancing Americans' right to free speech and assembly, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with a duty to maintain public order.

Whether that balance is being maintained depends on whom you ask.

When it began one month ago, Occupy Wall Street was just a handful of hard-core activists in New York City camped out in a privately owned park in the city's financial district and occasionally shouting, "People, not profits!" to the Wall Street bankers and traders hurrying by. The small group lacked an official permit to hold a protest, but they confined their activism to the sidewalks, so the police left them alone.

That friendly arrangement changed on October 1 when the group, now around 1,000 strong, decided to test the city's patience by blocking the Brooklyn Bridge:

Police moved in and arrested 700 people, who were charged with disorderly conduct and blocking traffic. They were fined and released a few hours later.

The mass arrests marked a turning point for both sides. In the two weeks since, Occupy Wall Street has grown in both numbers and boldness, and so has the police force deployed to control them.

Photo gallery on accompanying allegations of police brutality

During a month of nearly continuous protests, scores of people have been taken away in plastic handcuffs and pepper spray has been used. Motorized scooters were ridden to disperse crowds and night sticks have been brandished to subdue demonstrators considered violent.

More than 100 activists were arrested this past weekend in New York during the largest protests yet and charged with a variety of offenses, including trespassing, violating park curfews, disorderly conduct, and even "loitering with masks," according to New York Police Department chief spokesman Paul Browne.

The clashes have led to accusations of police brutality. A search of YouTube for "Occupy Wall Street police violence" turns up more than 3,000 videos.

A popular host on the left-leaning cable news network MSNBC, Lawrence O'Donnell, recently broadcast one of the videos, which shows activists being hit with pepper spray, roughed up, and arrested. Then he spent several minutes condemning members of the New York police force who use harsh tactics.

"We're not doing anything," O'Donnell said. "You heard the woman say that as the police were grabbing people for absolutely no reason, crushing them on the pavement, and arresting them. We're not doing anything. We will post all of the video that we have on this protest on our blog, and you won't find anyone doing anything that is legal grounds for arrest."

Protests Spread

Similar confrontations have occurred on a smaller scale in dozens of U.S. cities in recent days.

In Boston, 141 protesters were arrested for occupying a public roadway and for refusing to leave a public park. A spokesman for the demonstrators, Philip Anderson, gave an account to the website "At 1:30, 200 police in riot gear moved in. It got kind of brutal. Veterans, union workers, students, were thrown to the ground, put in headlocks, dragged across the ground. Some people injured themselves. One hundred-plus people got arrested. That included medics, that included legal observers, that included ranking members of the National Lawyers Guild, and within a few hours we had raised almost $4,000 to bail them out of jail. Most of them are out now. Some of them are still in jail. Arraignments are taking place today."

One of those arrested was Urszula Masny-Latos of the National Lawyers' Guild, a group that monitors civil disobedience protests and represents people who get arrested. She said that, despite her green hat with the words "Legal Observer" on it, "four officers grabbed [her] and dragged" her away. She described her experience to as "just brutal."

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he agreed with the protesters' cause but couldn't let them "tie up the city."

"I understand they have freedom of speech and freedom of expression but...civil disobedience will not be tolerated," Menino said.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said much the same -- that he supports protesters' right to free speech as long as they don't violate the law.

"The constitution doesn't protect tents," he said at an October 17 press conference. "It protects speech and assembly."

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