Police appeared determined to send a signal that they will not tolerate any attempt to re-establish an Occupy camp at its birthplace in Zuccotti Park in New York.
But after a winter in which the Occupy movement has lost some momentum, protesters said they had wanted to mount a show of renewed strength.
“This is our spring offensive,” Michael Premo, 30, of New York, told Reuters. “People think the Occupy movement has gone away. It’s important for people to see we’re back.”
At the end of a day of demonstrations in lower Manhattan on Saturday, police cleared the park of a group of protesters just before midnight. The NYPD said 73 people were arrested during the day.
Activists said the NYPD clamped down hard on the renewed demonstrations. A woman suffered a seizure while handcuffed on a sidewalk, another protester was thrown into a glass door by police officers while he was handcuffed, and a young woman said she was choked and dragged by her hair.
Individuals who have been involved in Occupy protests for months described the NYPD actions on Saturday as the most violent they had seen.
The protest began at 1pm on Saturday at Zuccotti Park, the public space that served as a base for the movement from 17 September to 15 November last year, when it was cleared in a highly-publicized eviction.
During the afternoon, there were clashes with protesters when police tried to move people off the sidewalk. Witnesses claimed police punched one protester several times in the head while he was subdued by at least four officers.
Occupy activist Paul Moore, who saw the arrest, said: “When they got all the cops around him they started punching, while his face was on the sidewalk, 10, 15 times.” Moore said he also witnessed an officer “rubbing” the heel of his boot on the protester’s head as was detained on the ground.
Tensions mounted after nightfall: by around 11.30pm, protesters had strung a tarp over a cord between two trees in the park and produced three symbolic tents that were paraded around on poles. They used orange netting to create a perimeter around the center of the park, as expectation of a police sweep mounted.
They were told to leave by a man with a megaphone who said he was a security officer for Brookfield properties, which owns Zuccotti Park. The official told the Guardian the protesters had to leave because they had violated the park’s rules prohibiting the presence of structures, sleeping bags and camping equipment.
Police moved in when dozens of protesters, who had sat down in the center of the park with their limbs intertwined, refused to leave. Rows of officers entered the park and began pulling the protesters apart by force.
Mariah McKinney, 21, said police officers pulled her from the crowd by her hair and throat. “I felt my neck being choked and my hair being dragged,” she said.
After clearing the park, police lined up about 30 flex-cuffed protesters on the ground near Broadway. While the protesters waited to be moved, witnesses say one, Cecily McMillan, began to suffer from a seizure. According to multiple accounts and video footage posted to YouTube, McMillan flopped about on the sidewalk with her hands zip-tied behind her back. McMillan was eventually removed from the scene by ambulance.
Several witnesses said police did not take the situation seriously enough and took too long to get medical attention.
The NYPD confirmed that McMillan was taken to hospital “suffering from an apparent seizure”. The National Lawyers Guild expressed concern that McMillan had not been allowed to meet legal counsel since her arrest.
Police used a city bus to remove more than a dozen arrested protesters. Protester Shawn Carrie managed to send a number of tweets and text massages from inside the vehicle. He claimed that a police officer “smashed a guy’s head into a window” and “stomped” on the neck of another protester.
“Police broke my left thumb and possibly my jaw. My right ear is bleeding and there’s a bootprint on my face,” Carrie tweeted. The National Lawyers Guild confirmed Carrie was taken to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, along with McMillan and one other injured protester.
Following the mass arrests at Zuccotti Park, protesters took off on winding march through lower Manhattan. Several more arrests took place as demonstrators moved in and out of traffic.
In one arrest witnessed by the Guardian on 10th Street, a protester was slammed into a glass door by a burly police officer, resulting in a large crack in the glass.
Just saw police slam a protester into this door, 55 East 10th. This was the result. Arrestee was punched in the face. twitter.com/RDevro/status/…
— Ryan Devereaux (@RDevro) March 18, 2012
As he was led away, the protester, who gave his name as Jose, yelled to the Guardian that he had been “punched in the face” by police.
Tim Pool, a citizen journalist who has been covering Occupy Wall Street protests since September, described Saturday’s arrests as the “most violent” he had seen so far. Pool argued that the NYPD’s efforts were a “a swift boot stomp” aimed at curtailing any attempts at another occupation.
Jose Martín, an Occupy Wall Street protester, said he believed the NYPD deployed heavy-handed tactics as warning against any possible attempt to re-establish the Occupy Wall Street camp. “They came in really hard,” he said. “They’re attempting to scare people off.”
Occupy campsites were set up for months in cities around the United States and in Europe last year. In nearly all cases, authorities eventually shut them down.
A blow to the movement came when a pre-dawn sweep broke up the encampment at Zuccotti Park in November. At an Occupy protest in Oakland, California, in January, police fired tear gas into crowds of protesters and more than 200 were arrested.