NEW YORK — Protesters with the Occupy Wall Street movement threatened on Thursday to block efforts to clean up the Lower Manhattan park where they set up camp nearly a month ago, raising concerns of a showdown with authorities.
While New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said the protests against economic inequality can continue as long as laws are obeyed, the private owner of the publicly accessible Zuccotti Park said the park needs to be cleaned.
Volunteers launched a cleanup effort on Thursday afternoon, with protesters urging each other to "pick up a broom, pick up trash," The New York Times reported.
"The cleanup is a pretext to remove us from the camp. And we can return only if we abide by the rules of Brookfield Properties," said Justin Wedes, 25, a public high school science teacher from Brooklyn who was sweeping the pavement with others. "We're redoubling our efforts today."
A source told NBC News' Michelle Franzen that protesters were hoping Thursday's cleanup effort would be enough to allow them to stay in the park, but demonstrators were prepared to hold their ground if they were told to leave.
Owner Brookfield Office Properties plans to clean the park where several hundred protesters have been sleeping on Friday, a move that demonstrators believe is a ploy to remove them.
"Seems likely that this is their attempt to shut down #OWS (Occupy Wall Street) for good," protesters said in a statement on Thursday. "We know where the real dirt is: on Wall Street ... We won't allow Bloomberg and the NYPD to foreclose our occupation. This is an occupation, not a permitted picnic."
Brookfield Office Properties representatives, escorted by police, handed out notices to the protesters on Thursday to tell them that the park would be cleaned in three stages and would reopen for public use consistent with park regulations.
But the rules ban camping, tents or other structures, lying down on the ground, placing tarps or sleeping bags on the ground and the storage personal property -- everything the protesters have been doing since they set up on September 17.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly told reporters that protesters would not be allowed to bring sleeping bags and other camping gear when they return to the park, The New York Times reported.
"Brookfield respects the rights of free speech, assembly, and peaceful protest," the company said in a statement.
Police said they will be on hand to ensure public order, but it is up to Brookfield Office Properties to enforce the rules of its park. Police will only become involved if laws are broken or if an official complaint is made by the park owners.
"I'm worried there is going to be a riot," said Lauren DiGioia, 26, who has spent the past week at Zuccotti Park and is a member of Occupy Wall Street's sanitation committee. "It is most definitely a ploy to get us out."
"This is the cleanest protest I've ever witnessed," said Emilio Montilla, 29, a laid-off teacher's assistant. "We take care of ourselves. We're self-sufficient."
'Wear and tear' on park
"They're going to use the cleanup to get us out of here!" Wedes said. "It's a de facto eviction notice."
Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said in a statement Wednesday that the protest has "created unsanitary conditions and considerable wear and tear on the park." He said Brookfield asked for police help to clear the park so it can be cleaned.
Holloway said the cleaning will be done in stages Friday. Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the protesters Wednesday to offer assurances.Story: Old guard back in the trenches at 'Occupy' protests
Allison Esso of Human Services Council, a group that supports the protesters, was wary. "I'm hoping that they're not trying to undermine their ability to protest," she said.
The protest has sympathetic groups in other cities which each stage their own local rallies and demonstrations: Occupy Boston, Occupy Cincinnati, Occupy Houston, Occupy Los Angeles, Occupy Philadelphia, Occupy Providence, Occupy Salt Lake, and Occupy Seattle, among them.
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News' Michelle Franzen contributed to this report.