NEW YORK (AP) — The official cleanup of a New York plaza where protesters have camped out for a month was postponed early Friday, sending up cheers from demonstrators who feared the effort was merely a pretext to evict them and said the victory emboldened their movement.
Protesters had already been scrambling to clean up the park on their own in hopes of staving off eviction when Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway announced that the owner of the private park, Brookfield Office Properties, had put off the cleaning.
There was still some skepticism even after the protesters, who call their demonstration Occupy Wall Street, were told they could stay on.
"I'll believe it when we're able to stay here," said Peter Hogness, 56, a union employee from Brooklyn. "One thing we have learned from this is that we need to rely on ourselves and not on promises from elected officials."
Nonetheless, they declared it a boon to their movement, which blames Wall Street and corporate interests for the economic pain they say all but the wealthiest Americans have endured since the financial meltdown. Since starting a month ago in New York, the movement has spread to cities across the U.S. and the world.
"This development has emboldened the movement and sent a clear message that the power of the people has prevailed against Wall Street," New York organizers said in a statement.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose girlfriend is a member of Brookfield's board of directors, noted on his weekly radio show that the company can still go ahead with the cleanup at some point.
"They called to say they want to see if they can work out an agreement with the protesters," Bloomberg said on WOR Radio. "If they want to take a couple of days ... then they can do that."
The company's rules, which haven't been enforced, have all along prohibited tarps, sleeping bags and storing personal property on the ground. Though the park is privately owned, it is required to be open to the public 24 hours per day.
Brookfield, a publicly traded real estate firm, had planned to power-wash the New York plaza section by section over 12 hours and allow the protesters back — but without much of the equipment they needed to sleep and camp there. The company called the conditions at the park unsanitary and unsafe.
The New York Police Department had said it would make arrests if Brookfield requested it and laws were broken. But the deputy mayor's statement indicated that "for the time being" Brookfield was withdrawing its request for police assistance in cleaning the park.
A confrontation between police and protesters, who had vowed to stay put through civil disobedience, had been feared. Many protesters had said the only way they would leave was by force, and organizers sent out a mass email Thursday asking supporters to "defend the occupation from eviction."
Boisterous cheers floated up from the crowd in New York as the announcement of the cleaning postponement circulated, and a small group soon marched away with brooms, saying they were going to clean up Wall Street, a few blocks away.
There were reports of a handful of arrests. In one case, a police scooter hit a protester, who fell to the ground and screamed before kicking the scooter over to free his foot; he was then arrested.
A few blocks south of the park Friday morning, about two dozen demonstrators screamed "Pigs!" and hurled obscenities at a dozen officers in riot gear, who showed no visible reaction. The officers then left the area, trailed by protesters with cameras.
Protesters have had some previous run-ins with police, including mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and an incident in which some protesters were pepper-sprayed.
Near the Colorado state Capitol in Denver early Friday, hundreds of protesters were told to clear out of a park or risk arrest, and dozens of police in riot gear moved in and declared the area closed. In Trenton, N.J., protesters were ordered to remove tents from their encampment near a war memorial.
In New York, supporters of the protesters, including union members, streamed into the plaza in the early morning darkness in a show of solidarity in a show several hundred strong.
After the announcement filtered through the crowd, some scrubbed the park's marble and pavement with brooms and soapy water and picked up trash as others unfurled tarps on the rain-dampened concrete and ate potluck breakfast off paper plates. One man practiced his yoga sun salutation despite the dark clouds.
Liane Nikitovich, 44, fitness instructor, said she was buoyed by the news but also concerned that it was a postponement — not a cancellation.
"It's really a victory for freedom of speech and for democracy," Nikitovich said. "This is one moment. It shows that our support is growing worldwide."
The protesters are pleased that the city and Brookfield "saw fit to allow the protest and dialogue to continue," said Doug Forand, a spokesman for 99 New York, a coalition of community groups that support the protest.
The demand that protesters clear out had set up a potential turning point in a movement that began Sept. 17 with a small group of activists and has swelled to include several thousand people at times, from many walks of life. Occupy Wall Street has inspired similar demonstrations across the country and become an issue in the Republican presidential primary race.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a reference to the protests in a speech Friday at The Economic Club of New York.
"The protests ... are a reminder that we have a great deal of work to do," she said.
Attorneys from the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild — who are representing an Occupy Wall Street sanitation working group — wrote a letter to Brookfield saying the company's request to get police to help implement its cleanup plan threatened "fundamental constitutional rights."
The nationwide movement also includes groups called Occupy Boston, Occupy Cincinnati, Occupy Houston, Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy Providence and Occupy Salt Lake.
Several protests are planned this weekend across the U.S. and Canada, and European activists are also organizing.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Larry Neumeister, Tom McElroy, Cara Anna, Deepti Hajela, Cristian Salazar, Verena Dobnik, and Meghan Barr, and photographer Mary Altaffer in New York; and Thomas Peipert in Denver.