NEW YORK -- A little more than a month ago, when the occupation of Zuccotti Park was in its early days, the New York City Police Department was not in the business of letting protesters pitch tents.
One demonstrator, Justin Wedes, recalled watching as police swooped in to arrest protesters for camping during the occupation's first week. He himself was caught up in the dragnet for using a bullhorn to warn protesters about the raid. At that time, Wedes said, the NYPD's attitude toward tents seemed to be "arrest now and ask questions later."
Now, more than a month into the occupation, protesters have turned a full city block in the heart of Lower Manhattan into a campground. A sea of dozens of blue, red and orange tents dominates Zuccotti Park. Whether in an official policy shift or a simple bow to reality on the ground, the NYPD appears to have quietly acceded to the creation of New York City's newest residential block.
The NYPD did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
There are so many tents in the park, in fact, that the people living there have created miniature streets between them. Someone in the park lives at the corner of Jefferson Street and Trotsky Alley, for example.
But it may be only public opinion -- perhaps the neighborhood's firm desire to avoid a messy end to Occupy Wall Street -- that keeps Trotsky Alley open. The Bloomberg administration has argued that it has the right to enforce the rules and regulations posted by Zuccotti Park's owner, Brookfield Office Properties, which prohibit camping. And while First Amendment case law does suggest that protesters have a right to erect tents in a symbolic manner, it does not imply that they can actually sleep in those tents.
"There is litigation that's gone all the way up to the Supreme Court as to the right of people to have tents as an element of political expression," Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the National Lawyers Guild told HuffPost last Wednesday.
She referred to a case called Clark v. Community for Creative Nonviolence, in which the court decided protesters seeking to raise awareness of homelessness could set up tents on the National Mall, but not sleep in them.
"Whether or not you can camp and sleep and put bedding in them is a different issue that's dealt with by local jurisdictional ordinances," Verheyden-Hilliard said.
So if the city thinks Brookfield is in the right to forbid camping on its property, it could use that as justification for tearing the tents down. But the New York Civil Liberties Union has called on the NYPD to leave the protesters' tents, and the park, alone.
"The First Amendment ought not be the ceiling, it ought to be the floor" for freedom of expression, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU. "It's entirely appropriate for the city to look the other way and to accommodate this form of protest."
"Occupy Wall Street has the right to occupy Zuccotti Park 24/7," she asserted, "and whether there's a rule against tents or not, it kind of defeats the spirit of allowing people in there 24/7 to ... to preclude them from being there in a way that is warm."
Wedes said he believed the NYPD may have relented on the tent issue because of another First Amendment right: the freedom of religion. Two weeks ago, as a police move on the park seemed imminent, some in the park had erected a sukkah, a traditional Jewish religious hut used to celebrate the festival of Sukkot.
"We are all Jews tonight," Wedes recalled other protesters telling the police during Sukkot. Their structures, too, were allowed to remain standing.