Updated at 3:43 p.m. ET
NEW YORK - Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement vowed to reoccupy its encampment in Zuccotti Park after New York police forcibly removed them in the pre-dawn darkness Tuesday before sanitation crews came into the park to clean it.
Tents, sleeping bags and equipment were carted away, and by 4:30 a.m., the park was empty. It wasn't clear what would happen next to the demonstration, though the new enforcement of rules banning tents, sleeping bags or tarps would effectively end an encampment that started in mid-September.
"At the end of the day, if this movement is only tied to Liberty Plaza, we are going to lose. We're going to lose," said Sandra Nurse, one of the organizers, referring to another name for the park. "Right now the most important thing is coming together as a body and just reaffirm why we're here in the first place."
A state court judge held a hearing Tuesday afternoon on the legality of the eviction, following an emergency appeal by the National Lawyers Guild, a civil rights group.
Alan Levine, a lawyer for the demonstrators, said they had a free speech right to remain in the square. City lawyer Sheryl Neufeld said the demonstrators have a right to express themselves, but "it doesn't mean that they have a right to appropriate this private space for themselves."
"The protesters took over the park for their own use," she said.
There was no immediate ruling by the judge, Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman, but he said he hoped to make a decision later in the afternoon.
Earlier in the day, another judge had issued a temporary restraining order that appeared to bar the city from preventing protesters from re-entering the park, but it was unilaterally ignored by the police and city officials.
The police action began around 1 a.m. and lasted several hours as officers with batons and plastic shields pushed the protesters from their base at Zuccotti Park. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said about 200 people were arrested, including dozens who tried to resist the eviction by linking arms in a tight circle at the center of the park. A member of the City Council was among those arrested during the sweep.
It wasn't clear what would happen next to the demonstration. Hundreds of ousted protesters spent the day marching through Manhattan, chanting and looking for a new space to gather. There were skirmishes between protesters and police. Several journalists were arrested while trying to cover the marches.
By late afternoon, hundreds of demonstrators waited on the sidewalk just outside Zuccotti Park, waiting for the outcome of the court hearing to determine whether they would be allowed back in. At least two people were quickly arrested after hopping the barricades and rushing out into the square, but there was no mass movement to retake the plaza from the police.
That left demonstrators wondering what to do next. There was talk among some Tuesday of trying to occupy another park or plaza, and a small group of protesters rallied at a park on Canal Street, north of the financial district.
The surprise action came two days short of the two-month anniversary of the encampment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he ordered the sweep because health and safety conditions had become "intolerable" in the crowded plaza.
"From the beginning, I have said that the city has two principal goals: guaranteeing public health and safety, and guaranteeing the protesters' First Amendment rights," he said. "But when those two goals clash, the health and safety of the public and our first responders must be the priority."
He said that people would be allowed to return soon, but that the city would begin enforcing the rules set up by the park's private owners banning tents, sleeping bags, or even lying down on the property.
The eviction began in the dead of night, as police officers arrived by the hundreds and set up powerful klieg lights to illuminate the block. About 200 people were camped out in the park at the time.
Officers handed out notices from Brookfield Office Properties, the park's owner, and the city saying that the plaza had to be cleared because it had become unsanitary and hazardous. A commander announced over a bullhorn that everyone had to leave. Many did, carrying their belongings with them. Others tried to make a stand, even chaining themselves together with bicycle locks.
In contrast to the scene weeks ago in Oakland, where a similar eviction turned chaotic and violent, the police action was comparatively orderly. But it wasn't entirely bloodless.
"The cops hit my legs with a baton," said demonstrator Max Luisdaniel Santos, 31, an unemployed construction worker, pulling up his pants to show some swollen scars on his calf. "Then they shoved my face into the ground."