Barricades surrounding a park that served as a camp for Occupy Wall Street protesters were removed Tuesday, allowing protesters to stream back in.
The atmosphere was celebratory but calm on Tuesday evening as about 300 protesters began filling New York City's Zuccotti Park a couple of hours after the barricades were taken down and a day after a complaint about the barricades was filed with the city. Protesters milled around, eating lasagna on paper plates and playing chess.
"We have a family," protester Samey Lee told NBC New York. "It's the Occu-family."
"It never really went away ," said another protester, Solomon Segal. "It was just out of sight."
Security guards who were previously guarding the barricades stood off to the side, along with a handful of police officers. It was a minor victory for the protesters, who have complained about financial inequality in demonstrations that gained traction across the globe.
"Word spread pretty quickly, and we ran down here," demonstrator Lauren DiGioia said. "It's hard to remember what it was like before the barricades were put up."
"Now that the barricades are down, we feel free to come and go as we please once again," Frances Mercanti-Anthony told NBC New York.
Police spokesman Paul Browne said the NYPD and Brookfield Office Properties, the park's owner, had been talking about removing the barriers last week. The decision was made to remove them Tuesday because officials felt they were no longer necessary, Browne said.
Organizer Bill Dobbs said, "We're really excited to get a public space back. It's an acknowledgment the city was playing fast and loose with the law."
"We're reclaiming this space within our legal rights," demonstrator Paula Meniato told NBC New York.
Brookfield spokeswoman Melissa Coley confirmed in an email that the barricades were taken down but declined to comment further. A Brookfield employee who refused to give his name told an Associated Press reporter: "The barriers are down, but the other rules are the same."
Some Occupy protesters planned to stay overnight, DiGioia said, but it was unclear whether they planned to use tents or sleeping bags, which have been banned from the lower Manhattan park since an early morning police raid evicted protesters Nov. 15.
One security guard told a group of protesters: "No sleeping bags allowed, either, OK, folks?"
Zuccotti Park regulations, stipulated by Brookfield, ban everything from erecting tents or tarps to lying down on benches. Those rules were not enforced until the police raid, and were only made public after protesters began occupying the park on Sept. 17. Until then, the only visible rules posted in the park forbade skateboarding, rollerblading and bicycling.
Protester Jeff Brewer said he tried to erect a tent but it was quickly taken down by security guards.
"I was still putting in the poles when they showed up," Brewer said. "Our food is in, our library is up. I think it's going to be a big celebration for us in the park right now."
Demonstrators were also told they were not allowed to maintain a lending library, but they ignored the ban.
"Why can't we have our books!," they yelled at police officers.
On Monday, civil rights groups filed a complaint with the city's buildings department saying the barricades were a violation of city zoning law because they restricted public access to the space. The New York Civil Liberties Union commended the removal of the barricades in a statement late Tuesday.
"We're pleased the city is finally giving the park back to the people," said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. "We hope Zuccotti Park can now resume its rightful place as a center for meeting and protest in New York City."
Since the eviction, members of the public had only been able to enter the public through two checkpoints at the park that were guarded by police officers or security personnel.
The granite plaza near the New York Stock Exchange is one of more than 500 "bonus plazas" in the city: privately owned public parks borne of a little-known compromise struck in 1961 between the city and developers. According to the compromise, in exchange for building a towering skyscraper, developers had to also construct a plaza that would provide "light and air" for passers-by. The bigger the plaza, the taller the building could be.
Virtually all bonus plazas are required to be open 24 hours a day, barring a safety issue. They are governed by specific regulations in the zoning law. For example, the law states that the layout of such plazas must promote public use and easy pedestrian circulation throughout the space.
The complaint accused the city of failing to enforce the law by allowing the barricades to exist. Buildings department spokesman Tony Sclafani said Monday that inspectors had found no problems at the park.