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Occupy Wall Street Fire Hazard: Real Or Just A Pretext?

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Lawyers for the city presented pictures of electrical wires in court yesterday, to bolster their argument that conditions in Zuccotti Park constituted a fire hazard. | NYC Law Department

In the wake of yesterday's evictions, hundreds of protestors stood outside Zuccotti Park waiting for word from the court on whether they would be allowed to move back in, while Evan Wagner contemplated the blank expanse of pavement and granite stretched out beyond the police barricades before him. "The place was a firetrap," he said.

Wagner is a protester -- a very active one who slept in the park and participated in several working groups -- but in recent weeks he'd become outspoken about what he perceived to be a fire hazard that threatened the safety of the Occupiers and the durability of their movement. He wasn't surprised that the police had finally kicked everyone out, he said. "The writing was on the wall," he told The Huffington Post.

If the officials were to be believed, safety was indeed one of the major reasons for the evacuation. At a press conference Tuesday morning Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he and the park's owner, Brookfield Properties, had become increasingly concerned "that the occupation was coming to pose a health and fire safety hazard to the protesters and to the surrounding community." Later Tuesday, lawyers for the city echoed that sentiment in court.

So did the judge, who ruled that the protesters had failed to show they had "a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators and other installations."

In response, Gideon Oliver, a lawyer for the protesters, told HuffPost it was "unconscionable and unimaginable that the city could not devise a less heavy-handed way of addressing any of the public safety concerns." He dismissed the talk of fire hazards and generators as a mere pretext for delivering a blow to a movement that the mayor and his allies saw as a political threat.

Oliver said the city first began treating the generators as a safety problem in late October, when dozens of New York City firefighters and police officers descended on the park early one morning and took away six gas and diesel generators. At the time, FDNY spokesman Jim Long said that generators were simply off-limits in public spaces. "You can not have containers of fuel, gas, diesel or generators," he said.

Protesters countered that fire officials had inspected the generators the day before without saying anything about a need to get rid of them, and argued that the fire department's actions were politically motivated. Lawyers representing the protesters wrote a letter to the fire department demanding that the generators be returned, and about a week later the department heeded the request.

Yetta Kurland, one of the lawyers, told the Atlantic she believed the department realized they didn't have any basis for taking away the generators: "When there's a fire inspection, the normal procedure is for the FDNY to give corrective feedback. ... That didn't happen here. Rather than saying do this or that or taking corrective steps, they simply confiscated the generators and didn't even list on the confiscation order what the specific violations were."

Not all of the protesters felt the department's concerns were totally unjustified, however, and over the following days, a rift opened up between those who didn't and those who did. On one side was Wagner, who began working with some of the camp's lawyers to craft a fire safety plan designed to bring the camp into compliance with the city's fire code. On the other was Justin Wedes, who is involved in the working group with social media. He felt it right to simply ask how to keep the generators there legally. "The question was how do we have them here safely," he said.

The protesters were storing the generators off-site at the time. Wedes gave Wagner a 24-hour window to finish the fire plan.

At a meeting the next day, Wagner concluded that Wedes was determined to install the generator one way or another, so he abandoned his proposal and began focusing on other projects. Shortly after that he moved out of the camp. It wasn't just the fire risk that bothered him. "There were drugs," he said. "It was a dangerous place. My hope was that we could have resolved it internally, but after that weekend, my feeling was that madness had sunken in."

Last Friday, Wedes returned the generator to the media tent. Later that night, someone walked into the tent saying he was looking for an exhaust pipe, picked up the generator and walked away. Wedes spoke with several police officers on duty at the time who told him on camera that the fire marshall was responsible. Many protestors concluded that the man who took the generator was a plainclothes fire department officer.

In an interview yesterday, Wedes said he thought the evacuation was "the product of a whole lot of different motivations," and dismissed the fuss over the generators as "a convenient ploy." He pointed out that, when Brookfield Properties first attempted to end the occupation in October, their complaints had to do with dirt, not generators. "It's always something," he said.

In a petition filed with the court yesterday, Cas Holloway, the city's deputy mayor for operations, laid out the case for clearing the park: he pointed to the drumming, the "urination and defecation in public," the crime, and yes, the hazards caused by the generators, the maze of tents and the wooden pallets that people were recently seen bringing into the park. "The Fire Department determined that it was necessary to order the removal of the belongings from the park in order to mitigate the public safety hazard," he wrote.

While the court deliberated over that argument, Wagner gestured to the empty benches. "I see this as a clean slate," he said. "But it's hard to know what will happen."

Janell Ross contributed reporting.

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