Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Friends and Enemies, Squats and Fences from Duarte Square to CHARAS El Bohio December 17th and 18th, 2011

Every social movement faces choices about who or what to target, who are their friends, enemies and in between.  When a group picks the right spot – such as Wall Street – they can ignite a movement.  ACT UP targeted Wall Street for its first action in 1987 and they changed the social discourse about HIV/AIDS.  The same thing happened on September 17th, 2011 when Occupy Wall Street (OWS) targeted Wall Street.  In the weeks to follow, the movement targeted banks, billionaires, Goldman Sachs, connecting the struggles of immigrants, health care activists, and community gardeners in a larger call for both social and economic justice.  They laid these claims by establishing a call to access public space. This progression continued December 17th, the three month anniversary of the movement.  Yet, instead of targeting a bank, OWS set its eyes on a space we had already attempted to access: Duarte Square and Park on 6th Ave and Canal.  This space was owned by a Trinity Church, an organization which has been a friend of the movement.  The whole weekend would be about claiming or reclaiming spaces – from Duarte Square to CHARAS El Bohio Community Services Center – fenced off from the public. 

The call of action for December 17 declared:


Join artists, musicians, and local community members for an
all-day performance event in support of Occupy Wall Street’s
re-occupation of space in downtown Manhattan.

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION and right to assemble are sacred human freedoms. Occupy Wall Street has renewed a sense of hope, revived a belief in community and awakened a revolutionary spirit too long silenced. To Occupy is to embody the spirit of liberation that we wish to manifest in our society.

On Saturday, December 17th – the 3 month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, the birthday of Bradley Manning, and the 1 year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi – the act that sparked the Arab Spring – Occupy Wall Street will liberate another space.

Occupations create space for community, values, ideas and a level of meaningful dialogue absent in the present political and social system. They have allowed us to realize that we cannot fix our crises isolated from one another. We need collective action, and we need civic space. We are creating that civic space.

Outdoor public space plays a crucial role in this civic process and encourages open, transparent organizing in our movement, unbeholden to a broken political system. As we saw in Liberty Square, outdoor space invites people to listen, speak, share, learn, and act. It is a source of inspiration and empowerment.

Over the last month we have seen a series of coordinated attacks on occupations across the nation in an attempt to stop the growth of a movement for social and economic justice. Outdoor space is a threat because it is a visible form of dissent– a visible challenge to the system, visibility that screams liberation.

We occupy to liberate. We move forward in the grand tradition of the transformative social movements that have defined American history. We stand on the shoulders of those who have struggled before us, and we pick up where others have left off. We are seeking a better society for us all.

Join us as we liberate space and deepen this moment into an enduring movement.

I fully concurred with a call to celebrate the movement and to reclaim space.  For the first few months, the strength of the movement was to highlight the loophole in the zoning laws allowing privately owned public spaces, such Zuccotti Park, which had to be open to the public.  Yet, with D17 the movement was targeting a friend, Trinity Church, a revered Episcopal Church which has long supported the movement as well as progressive causes.  Trinity offered material aid to OWS, including a space for those camping to use its bathrooms for some two months.  Trinity is also a real estate player in New York, with assets rumored to be in the billions.  This makes it a target.  In recent weeks, Judson Church has supported the movement, and asked the Trinity to do more, just as it recognized it needed to.  Chris Hedges posed challenge Trinity Church to put its rhetoric into action.

It was the church, and especially the African-American church, that made possible the civil rights movements. And it is the church, especially Trinity Church in New York City with its open park space at Canal and 6th, which can make manifest its commitment to the Gospel and nonviolent social change by permitting the Occupy movement to use this empty space, just as churches in other cities that hold unused physical space have a moral imperative to turn them over to Occupy movements. If this nonviolent movement fails, it will eventually be replaced by one that will employ violence. And if it fails it will fail in part because good men and women, especially those in the church, did nothing.

Where is the church now? Where are the clergy? Why do so many church doors remain shut? Why do so many churches refuse to carry out the central mandate of the Christian Gospel and lift up the cross?

Some day they are going to have to answer the question: “Where were you when they crucified my Lord?”

Many of us concurred with this message.  But we also recognized that Trinity is not a bank.   Banks and Wall Street are the most pressing targets of the movement.   There are many New York groups who have not offered their spaces to the movement, the YMCA, Housing Works, for example.  Yet, this does not make them targets of the movement’s ire. 

The topic of OWS has been a constant point of reference during sermons at Judson since the movement began three months ago.  In recent weeks, so has the controversy with Trinity.   Many in the congregation have taken pride in the movement’s successes and Judson’s strong solidarity with the movement.  Yet, there has also been ambivalence about taking on Trinity.  On December 18th, Donna Schaper, of Judson, would point out that conflicts over Trinity's wealth and the right of human beings dates back to Melville's day. 

In her essay, "From Wall Street to Astor Place: Historicizing 'Bartleby," Barbara Foley notes:

A chapter in the debate over land rights in New York that bears specific relevance to “Bartleby” is the scandal that erupted in 1846–1847 over the Episcopal diocese’s management of its real estate. Trinity Church—situated on Broadway at the foot of Wall Street—was the headquarters of the diocese and gave it its name. A wealthy institution and a major owner of real estate throughout lower Manhattan, Trinity began in the mid-1840s to be heavily burdened with debts incurred in constructing both a new building at the Trinity site and Grace Church, a luxurious church at Broadway and Tenth Street that was to be patronized by wealthy parishioners. Trinity had, moreover, extended long-term leases at below-market rates to a few affluent New Yorkers—central among these the Astor family, which “paid $269 a year for some 350 lots on a lease that would not expire until 1866.” There occurred a public outcry when, in the mid-1840s, Trinity retrenched by closing down a number of its missions in the poorer parts of the city, such as the Bowery and Five Points. Some ministers—including a relative of Melville’s friend Richard Henry Dana Jr.—quit the diocese in protest. In 1846 some church members charged that Trinity had failed to use its wealth “to sustain the feeble, and to supply the destitute”; taking their own church fathers to court, they challenged Trinity’s “moral and legal right to its lands.” In 1847, the courts upheld Trinity’s title—but “not before the public was treated to the spectacle of a high-toned brawl over the use and abuse of wealth.” Radicals of the time added their commentary, verbal and symbolic. Mike Walsh, whose two “pet evils” were Trinity and Astor, “declared that Trinity’s property, ‘enough to make every person in the United States comfortable and happy,’ should be confiscated for public use, and then followed this up by urging the city to take over St. John’s Park on the grounds  that it was an exclusive and privileged preserve from which the laboring class was excluded. Walsh demonstrated his contempt for Trinity’s  exclusiveness by climbing over the park’s fence and walking on the forbidden ground.” Squatting, a time-honored practice in rural Anti-Rent  movements, was also, it would appear, a weapon in the arsenal of urban radicals.

A century and a half later, OWS planned to contribute their own chapter to this radical story.  As word about the plans made its way through OWS organizing circles, many I know voiced concern about this direction for the movement.  Some talked about concern with organizing for an occupation in the coldest months of the year; others suggested that taking on a friend was foolhardy and counter productive.  And still others worried that some in the movement seemed to be pining for a conflict with police.  While many have praised the tactical decisions, as well as some of the luck enjoyed by the movement, supporters came to question the decision to target a space for an occupation, which activists had already failed to gain access to the morning after the eviction.  I worried that there were only so many times a movement can fall on its sword.  This was our experience in the New York chapter of the international party protest group Reclaim the Streets, active from 1998-2004.  The lessons of the global justice movement are manyMovement sage: LA Kauffman muses:

The movement had done an impressive job of raising public awareness of global trade issues and arguably derailed some of the most destructive trade schemes under consideration during those years. But we were so filled with adrenaline from the extraordinary events that unfolded on the streets that we missed something crucial: just because you leave a protest feeling exuberant about your experience there doesn’t mean it was a success. 

The Occupy movement has, on the whole, been more nimble than that so far, more willing to shift tactics and approaches to maintain public sympathy and sidestep dreary wars of position with the police. Mirth keeps a movement going; self-importance makes it abrasive and clumsy. The great success of Occupy has been setting things in motion. It will win not because it sustains an encampment or shuts down a port or takes over a foreclosed home. Change happens when what a movement inspires shifts in other forces, other institutions. The bold actions that make a movement inspiring are always necessarily temporary and symbolic. Their power lies outside them, in their potential to catalyze lasting change.   

Saul Alinski always argued movements must assess their work; they have to digest it and look at what actually worked and did not and try to learn the difference.  I’m not sure we did that ten years ago. Every action creates a reaction.  What was the reaction we were anticipating with D17?
Last Tuesday, I posted a question on my blog.  “With the Folks chime in, is battling Trinity Church a smart move for the movement? I'm not sure. I have any number of criticisms, but I worry we may be inviting a backlash?  What do others think?”  While certainly not a formal measure or unbiased scale, sixteen people responded suggesting they felt the target was off track.
Several suggested the movement was taking on a friend, a group which had supported the movement. 

One friend put me in touch with Susan Mareneck, a member of Trinity Church, who I reached out to to get a feeling for what people were thinking at Trinity.   Here’s what I know,” noted Mareneck.  “there is some concern at Trinity that the Occupy Movement specifically wants to camp in Duarte Square to keep control over who is allowed to join them.  I believe the line of thinking at Trinity is that - like the church itself, for whom being open to the public, however inconvenient that is when people with different motives present themselves - the Occupiers need to continue to grapple with an obligation to be inclusive.  From what I can gather the OWS representatives have been straightforward about their desire to keep difficult people (addicts, mentally ill, criminal elements) out and see the configuration of space with the enclosure at Duarte Square as allowing them to do so.  Trinity believes that as the church is called to love and be open to all, they are therefore, on principle, unwilling to provide a restricted space for the purpose of keeping even disruptive people out.  

Others I know in the harm reduction community have expressed similar misgivings about the movement’s approach to baring drug users from the OWS encampment, when it was located at Zuccotti.  Still, many such as members of VOCAL and Housing Works have long supported the movement.  Building community is complicated. While we hope for it to be inclusive, all too often community spaces include dynamics of exclusion, according to who has what, owns which space, and sleeps where .  These lines become increasingly vexing in New York where real estate is perhaps the purest form of capital and exclusions according to class, drug use, and place of origin become sources of inordinate policy debate.

As this debate about the action took shape over the week, I reached out to members of Judson Church,  where I am a member.   I wrote the following letter to their list serve.

I have watched this debate for several days now. I am excited by Desmond Tutu's statements in support of this effort. I am also aware there are many in this movement who have grave concerns about targeting Trinity, instead of the banks, or instead of moving the occupation to a privately owned public space (POPS) like Zuccotti.  Those opposed to this choice are smart direct action people aware that we have to pick our targets carefully.  Wall Street is a great target. Goldman Sacks is a great target.  Is Trinity a great target?

Every action creates a reaction.  I hope and pray we are not inviting an ill timed, counter-productive reaction.  Trinity has been a friend.   And they do own the land. Why not take this to a place where we know we have a right to be - such as another POPS?

When ACT UP stormed St Patrick’s in 1989, they invited a similar  reaction and they were ready to counter.  Are we ready to counter if there is a backlash?  

I hope there is not one and I could be wrong.  But have people thought of what the counter response might be if papers around the city  bring their weight to attacking the movement for making an enemy of a friend?  

I could be wrong, but I’d love to hear from others about this?

Members of Judson would reach out off line and share similar concerns.  By this point, Desmond Tutu had written supporting the movement.

Trinity Church is an esteemed and valued old friend of mine; from the earliest days when I was a young Deacon. Theirs was the consistent and supportive voice I heard when no one else supported me or our beloved brother Nelson Mandela. That is why it is especially painful for me to hear of the impasse you are experiencing with the parish. I appeal to them to find a way to help you. I appeal to them to embrace the higher calling of Our Lord Jesus Christ--which they live so well in all other ways--but now to do so in this instance...can we not rearrange our affairs for justice sake? Just as history watched as South Africa was reborn in promise and fairness so it is watching you now.

By Friday the 16th, Tutu would reach out to clarify his point, that he did not support direct action against Trinity.  By this point, Judson and members of Occupy Faith made a decision to further their support for OWS but not civil disobedience.  Michael Ellick of Judson would report that

OccupyFaith has an eventful few days coming up Tomorrow, beginning at noon at 6th Ave & Canal, there will be an OWS celebration of the 3-month anniversary of OWS.  As many of you know, this event will also discuss the OWS request to Trinity Church for permission to "occupy" an empty lot owned by Trinity.  To clarify, Occupy Faith NYC has always supported the OWS ask of Trinity, and will continue to do so, but there is no clear consensus on actions like civil disobedience.  Without this consensus, we will not be endorsing such actions, and individual faith leaders who may choose to go this route will be doing so autonomously.  That said, I encourage all of you to join us tomorrow for this event, which will be a large day of community support for OWS expansion into Community Board 2 territory
While there was little consensus to move ahead with a civil disobedience action at Duarte Square among movement supporters, the story of a planned action for N17 had made it to the papers.  And instead of OWS targeting banks and corporations, the Saturday New York Times would report: “Occupy Group Faults Church, A One Time Ally.”  “Charity is not enough,” Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson, was quoted .  “Charity keeps things the same.”  While charity has its obvious limits, it does make a difference for those with little else. For many, it is the difference between life or death.  The article was not particularly flattering to the movement, which was left looking like it was out to smear a one time supporter because they had not done more to help them.  Part of the goal of movements is to engage in actions which generate debate about ideas.  When ACT UP stormed St. Patrick’s, their action inspired a debate which the movement was ready for.  As OWS prepared to act up at Duarte Square, few seemed quite ready for the reaction or the debate the action would inspire about a movement which had gone to great lengths to engage the 99%, labor, church groups, and the like.  And if they were, the story line was out there for supporters to engage or support.

Still, I planned to attend the action Saturday after organizing class, as did many supporters who had been unable to attend GA meetings or block.  The movement has built a great deal of good will and passion among those, such as myself, who show up and try to lend a hand in whatever way we can. Arriving Saturday, friends from the VOCAL as well as members of the Performance Guild were there.  No one had any idea of what was going to happen.  Word on the streets, the General Assembly that morning had voted against the direct action to try to get into the space.  Some suggested, an alternate venue had been identified.  Others were filming and setting the story of the day.  

In the meantime, the Performance Guild had scheduled their own version of Dickens, with
Occupy: A Christmas Carol.  We began the show singing the anti consumer holiday classic from the Church of Stop Shopping. 

Toys for the World (tune of Joy to the World)
Toys for the world are made by kids... and not by elves at all!

they work them night and day, for very little pay,
And little tiny hands.....make all your fav'rite brands
That fill up the shelves in every shopping mall!

Toys for the world that Santa brings......So your sweet kids can play!
What's underneath your tree....Is our economy.
And all those girls and boys.....Who make you're children's toys
Are not getting squat from us on Christmas Day!
Are not getting squat from us on Christmas Day!

Pepper spraying the Statue of Liberty and anyone  else I can find.  Photo by Erik McGregor

I learned a long time ago that when it comes to theater that I do better as a member of the chorus.  So, I was more than happy when someone in the Guild said I could play a cop, armed with pepper spray, ready to take out activists, the status of liberty, and anyone else in my way.  I enjoyed vamping it up with my pepper spray, doing my best UC Davis Pepper Spraying cop.  A journalist asked what I was doing.  Protesting the people’s freedom by taking some of it away I assured them. 

Members of the Performance Guild drafted the notes for the impromptu performance. 

Opening Arrest Prelude
Characters are playing out scenes simultaneously in the space and the audience can move around to catch them all (circus style).
-3 kings- arrested for being illegal immigrants
-Rudolf- use of electricity
-menorah lighting- open flame
-Santa- breaking and entering
-playing dreidel- illegal betting
-carolers- blocking pedestrian traffic
-drummer boy- violating noise ordinance
once all the arrests are made the arrestees are brought to the center by the police where they are condemned by Bloomscrooge. The police are an omnipresent piece of the scenery and carry elaborate weapons (a mace, a nutcracker, etc). They move like robots.
Bloomscrooge is the head of StateCorp.

Scene 2- Bobbi Cratchet is counting Bloomscrooge’s huge pile of money all day long (she is his money counter). She goes to receive her pay for the day and finds that she has accrued debt from her work.

Scene 3- Bobbi Crachet is a single mother and goes home to her son Tiny Tim who is a marionette with health problems. She begins to think about organizing StateCorp employees into a union.

Scene 4- Bloomscrooge goes home to bed and is visited by John D. Rockefeller who tells him that no matter how much of a great philanthropist he thinks he is he will be doomed to hell like Rockefeller (who is in hell), who was a much better philanthropist than Bloomscrooge. And he tells him that he will be visited by 3 ghosts.

Scene 5- Ghosts of Occupations Past- This is a pop-up book that is presented and opened by the librarian where painted scenes emerge that actors speak through by inserting their mouths into the holes. The four scenes are:
-The Tea Party (the revolutionary one)
-Seneca Falls Convention
-Bonus Army
-Rosa Parks and the Freedom Riders
There are also signs displayed for mom and pop shops

Scene 6- Ghosts of Occupations Present- Bobbi Crachet is facilitating a GA meeting where the audience has become employees of StateCorp. The Zapatista movement, Tahrir Sq and Spain are mentioned in the meeting. The proposal being brought to the group is whether or not to strike. Bloomscrooge is able to briefly hypnotize the group his melodic voice and waving money in front of their faces. Maybe a song about how you could be a millionaire too? Tiny Tim is resting on the arm of the Lady Liberty puppet. The signs for mom and pops are turned into corporate signs- Duane Reade, Chase, Starbucks etc.

Scene 7- Ghosts of Occupations Future- This is the city of Bloomscrooge’s dreams. All the signs denote Bloomscrooge Park and Bloomscrooge School, Bloomscrooge Prison etc. The people are going to the work camp in a chain gang style. Bloomscrooge is confronted by the police and asked for his papers (which he doesn’t have). He cannot communicate or show his identity in this world so he is treated like an illegal and sent to the work camps. Lady Liberty is bound.

Scene 8- Bloomscrooge awakes from his dream and feels relieved that it’s just a dream and such a thing could never happen. While Bloomscrooge has been asleep Tiny Tim in a tinkerbell moment has been empowered by the power of the people and has become a real boy. Tiny Tim becomes the facilitator of the GA and dismantles Bloomberg’s box seat (throne) and turns it into things people need (housing, heath care, education) and distributes it to the group. Bloomscrooge is lead away in chains.

Pepper spraying the Little Drummer Boy  Photo by Erik McGregor.   

Cameras and people circled us as we performed.  Being a policeman was fun.  I could do anything I wanted, taking on whoever I felt like without recourse.  The gesture was not out of left field.  Throughout the last few months, the NYPD had pepper sprayed activists, put their knees on their heads, punched people, and the like, with little to no recrimination.  

I was also surprised how well as Christmas Carol worked with Bloomberg.  The performance was so much fun.  But its social conflict is real.  Every day, the poor face neglect and social desolation in this country.  And many have grown weary of being told to wait, to be patient and polite while the rich get richer.  While Trinity is thought to have billions in real estate holdings which makes them a player in New York social and economic circles, those in OWS are pushing for a different narrative of urban living.  Many work with a different political calculus.  While traditional politics organized in terms of mobilization of resources, OWS has built itself around anarchist principles of direct democracy.   Its logic involves those who are part of the conversation opening a space anyone wanting to take part into the conversation.  As Francesca Polletta says, freedom is an endless meeting.  This is a meeting which I am not often able to be part of, because of so many things.  Democracy is time intensive.   As labor historian Stanley Aronowitz points out, the challenge for such a structure is to find ways to incorporate working people with responsibilities at home and at work which keep them away from the movement.  I was not able to make it to the general assembly meeting earlier in the morning, as a I had to teach. 

What’s going to happen?  I don’t know, people mumbled throughout the afternoon.  This was the conversation I had over and over with people I walked around the space for the next two hours, talking, listening, interviewing, gossiping, and so on.  Bill Dobbs and I talked about the encroachments of the city, of privatization, into regular people’s lives, and public spaces over the last decade.   These conversations are part of what I love about this movement.  It creates a space for retail politics, for ideas, conversations, politics, interviews, stories, rallies, art, controversies and ideas.  This is the stuff of democracy.  It is part of why the movement needs a space. 

“Everyone, we’re about to march,” someone mic checked around 3 PM. A group was circling and doing the “A Ati Anticapitalista” dance.   By this point, near a thousand people started to meander out of the park, chanting all the way. Chants of “Bloomberg beware, the 99 are everywhere!” and “For every eviction, another occupation!” filled the air as we walked a few streets up 6th Ave, took a left, and back down 7th.  We stopped in front of the fence in front of Duarte Square, where a direct action person called for everyone to hold up.  Looking around I saw a huge mass of people between the fence and the street and then rushing and excitement.  The crowd was lunging toward the fence where a commotion was now taking shape.  More and more pushing and I saw someone produce a ladder, which a man in purple started to climb up, to cheers, gestures of defiance, and clenched fists.  Only later would I learn that man was retired Bishop George Packer.  He was the first to climb the wall. More and more people started to climb over to cheers.  People started pushing on the fence.  Watching the fence ripple, I thought about the scene in Quebec ten years ago when anarchists tore down the fence during the FTAA meetings of 2001.  Many would describe the action, with prankers shooting teddy bears and tear gas canisters back and forth over the wall, as a high point of a global justice movement.  Watching these scenes, journalist Naomi Klein would note that fences serve as “barriers separating people from previously public resources, locking them away from much-needed land and water, restricting their ability to move across borders, to express political dissent, to demonstrate on public streets… Fences have always been part of capitalism.” They are also part of contests over public space in New York City.  And this  was part of what activists were fighting as they charged over the fence on Saturday.  “For every eviction, another occupation” the crowd screamed.  “Whose city? Our City?”  we screamed as the iconic action took shape.  “I feel liberated, but also imprisoned,” one man commented from the other side looking through the fence.  “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” people screamed, louder voices echoing through the streets, as people tricked over the fence and danced on the other side.  “I think the consciousness of America has been lifted,” another continued.  By this point, several of the fences had been cut open.  I started to climb up the stairs.  Just as I was climbing a panic of screams followed as everyone pushed back under the fence, getting away from the police rushing to arrest whoever they could.   

Bishop George Packer was the first to climb the wall. He was a supporter of direct action the whole day. Photo by Erik McGregor

Down on the other side of the fence, people were screaming and police were pushing in.   I started to circle the space.  The temporary autonomous zone hadn’t lasted long, a few minutes.

People dancing, celebrating, and climbing the wall, while the police did their best to keep those images  out of public discourse.  Photo by Erik McGregor    

“That was a completely narcissistic action,” one man commented.  “Basically they were saying, if you don’t let us have your space, we are going to hold our breath and scream and have a hunger strike and jump over.”

I didn’t quite think it was that bad.  It felt great to scream at the machine.  But we wanted more.
My head said the gesture was not well targeted, my heart felt good about taking on big real estate in New York, even if it was from a church which had been very supportive. It still felt great to tear at the wall, to climb over, and see what it might look like on the other side.

“Looked like some kids thumbing their nose at people who allowed them to piss for two months,” noted another friend.  Part of what made OWS so smart for so long was how many friends it was making, reaching out to labor, healthcare, religious groups, and so on.  Everyone seemed to understand the movement’s goals.  This time, it felt like OWS was more than comfortable to alienate friends. 

“We really burnt a bridge there,” another long time movement participant chimed in. 

Walking back to the space, I ran into Jeremy Brecher one of the author’s of Anonymous Writers for the 99% book Occupying Wall Street: the Inside Story of an Action That Changed America. We were supposed to meet at 4 PM to donate books to the library. This is part of what makes this movement so important.  It is about a place, which creates countless stories.   

Austin  mic checked.  “When we have fun, the police seem to get scared.  So what are we going to do?  We’re going to have fun and dance!”

Austin and Michael mic check.   Photo by Erik McGregor   

Looking around the space, there was a lot of love.  Some people had unfolded a huge carboard layout with words, Occupy, which people were dancing on.  We didn’t even need a sleeping space if we could do this all afternoon, I mused to a friend. 

“But you’re twenty years older than everyone here who want to sleep over,” my friend chimed in. 

Austin metaphorically handed the mic over to Michael Ellick of Judson. “The police don’t seem to like it when we get together,” he noted. “Lets not meet their institutional violence with anything but love and commitment to justice.”

Media around the world would report on the action.  “Arrests as Occupy Protest Turns to a Church,” noted the Times. A video of Bishop Packard on the way to booking documented the conversation and rationale for the action.  Yet, many would grumble about the action. Sur Plus posted on a note on facebook declaring:

 I didn't believe (this time round) that there was a hope in hell of occupying this space. I think all the organizers all pretty much knew that everyone going over the fence was going to arrested and that this was going to be project of storytelling after the fact. I don't believe this square was a strategic target and I'm really hoping that the obsession for this particular space dies with this second (or is it 3rd?) failed attempt. There are smarter things to concentrate limited resources on, as was evidenced by the D6 foreclose defense - which btw continues. I vote that OWS in NY concentrates is Winter energy on building neighborhood assemblies in preparation for the warmer season.

We did need a space to organize.  In years past in New York, we have lost countless spaces, such as CHARAS, where we were able to meet, organize, talk, hang out and dance.  And I rode home back to Brooklyn.

Sunday, December 18th, we planned to celebrate the ten years since the city had taken this squatted space away.             

PRESS RELEASE: Friends and Supporters of CHARAS/ El Bohio Create a Community Center in the Street to Mark the Ten-Year Eviction Date

Sunday, December 18, 2011
12pm: Rally at Tompkins Square Park
12:30pm: Procession to CHARAS - 605 East 9th Street


With performances by Great Small Works, Hungry March Band, Reverend Billy & the Church of Stop Shopping, and the People's Mic. Kid Friendly Activities include Face Painting, Dancing and Art!

To mark the ten-years that has passed since the eviction of an historic East Village community center, protestors and local residents will be creating a “Curbside Community Center.” Their “Center” will feature live music, a potluck and a speak-out outside the fenced-off former public school building at 605 East 9th Street, where the CHARAS/ El Bohio Community Center had operated from 1979 until the police eviction on December 27, 2001.

“The building has been locked and empty for the last decade,” said Carlos 'Chino’ Garcia, Executive Director of CHARAS. “It once was once a hub for community activists, artists and Lower East Siders. Now it’s just an eyesore.”

But the hundreds of people who are expected to gather on Sunday aren’t just celebrating the history of CHARAS. Their fiery-colored banners speak to what they hope will be its future. “Community Dreams, Not 1% Schemes,” one banner reads. Another references the blue construction fence enclosing the property with a riff on Ronald Reagan’s iconic Cold War quote: “Mr. Bloomberg: Tear Down This Wall.”

They want the building back, and believe that CHARAS has the community support and proven track record to make this transfer of property possible.

For over 20 years, CHARAS had served the low-income, activist, and artist communities of the Lower East Side, providing space for studios, performances and galleries, as well as workshops, English classes, after-school programs, and meetings for countless neighborhood organizations. In 1999, despite widespread opposition, the City auctioned CHARAS to private developer Gregg Singer. After a five-year battle, CHARAS was evicted on December 27, 2001. The building has sat vacant and derelict ever since.

The property is restricted for community use, and the terms of sale required Singer to submit a development plan within 45 days of purchase. Mr. Singer has spent the last decade attempting to get special permits, tenants and funding to develop a nineteen-story youth hostel and also a dormitory. In 2007, in an effort to stop the building from being landmarked, Singer destroyed several of the building’s decorative cornices. The Landmark application was approved despite the damage; however the building has remained open to the elements and the roof has been compromised.

“We kept the building alive for twenty years, and Singer has been unable to create anything for the community in ten,” Howard said. “It's time we get our building back.”

Sunday was another lovely New York day.  Dodi and Scarlett and I went to Judson for the holiday service, where they lit the fourth week of Advent Candles, sang and enjoyed the service.  “We are preoccupied,” Donna Schaper preached.  “We’re just beginning to understand what god means by terrain, human terrain.”  We enjoyed some cookies, carols and fellowship. I wished everyone the best for the holidays and the girls and I grabbed a cab for the CHARAS Celebration. 

For years now, New Yorkers have danced and celebrated in impromptu parades to and from  CHARAS.  We did so after  Seattle in 1999. And we did so December 18th. Photo by Erik McGregor 

Dancing and singing, making signs, meeting friends, organizing, this is what  CHARAS was all about .  It is part of what made the space a target.    Photo by Erik McGregor    

I used to love to see who would show up at a CHARAS defense action because it seemed like everyone in the Lower East Side would come.  And many of them were here Sunday.  Tim, Rev Billy, Mark, Christine, Julian, Melanie, Ron, Erik, Nikki, Susan, Eric, Seth, Barbara, Aresh, Brook, Chino, and so many more.  We told stories, listened to the story of CHARAS, painted, beat drums, and the kids started to freeze.  In the time my kids have been alive Charas has never been open.  It’s been sitting rotting, fenced up, like the fence around Duarte Square, and so many other community spaces, with fences keeping the community and its democracy inspiring organizers out.  Without public space, it is difficult to think about democracy thriving and this is part of why opponents choose to keep such spaces boarded up.

The police, who had listed the event as a Code 1 riot, were arriving just as we left.  They were there to protect and preserve the shit out of democracy by arresting and beating those standing on the sidewalk.  Mark, who explains the history and significance of CHARAS, and another four would spent 32 hours in jail.

Erik McGregor captured the scene of the police crack down on those  painting and playing drums at CHARAS on Sunday.  Mark Read and three other activists would spend the next two 32 hours in jail.  Arriving home, Read saw this photo, writing: "And this is how they handled (aka brutalized) the black man standing with me. I had the pleasure of getting to know Eric while locked up for 32 hours. I am boiling with rage and sadness at seeing this photo upon my release. This is how they protect and serve?"
The attack on activists at CHARAS was not unlike other attacks on regular people peaceably assembling.  For many, the memories of the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988 still loom large. 

The girls and I had no idea this was taking shape as we ate chicken and rice soup and perogies at Odessa, across from the park, running into friends, telling stories, laughing, and enjoying a little bit of the story telling capacity which is left of the old neighborhood.  New Yorkers need their public spaces.  The passion and rage to tear down the walls at Duarte Square is very much about the impulse to break down all that separates us. The immigrant rights march the same afternoon was about breaking that fence between insiders and outsiders that divides us.  Vaclav Havel, who inspired the Velvet Revolution against the divide between East and West, was shuffling off as we agitated against the wall in New York.  I assume he would have understood what we were doing. 

Running into friends is part of what makes life in NYC wonderful.  Its part of what made  CHARAS  so wonderful.  After the action, Rev Billy and company had a reunion with Dodi, the first child babtized into the Church of Stop Shopping nine years ago, and Scarlett, babtized into the church in the Fall of 2007.  Lovers of shopping, both are now sinners in the Church.  Photo by Peter Shapiro.

OWS has impacted the policy conversation about banking and income inequality in countless ways. “We don’t know where it is going but we’re going to continue tracking America’s injustices  which lead us to Wall Street” noted Rev Phillip Lawson on December 17th As of now, police continue to brutalize those opponents of neoliberalism.  Thanks for an amazing year OWS. You’ve changed our conversation and helped inspire so many stories.


Just out of jail, Mark Read sent the following note, published with permission.

NYPD’S#OWS Arrest Protocol and Movement Suppression Strategy


So, last night I got out of jail after a 31 hour stint on a charge of Disorderly Conduct which did not even rise to the level of a misdemeanor.  I was charged with merely a “violation.”  

Being fully processed (taken to central booking at 100 Center Street and arraigned before a judge) for a charge of this kind is highly unusual, but it is certainly not an isolated case for #ows protesters.  In fact, for #ows arrestees this is now the norm, which is clearly the result of a protocol put in place sometime in the last two months, and applied citywide.  Such a protocol is a violation of our constitutional rights, and is no doubt part of a wider movement-suppression strategy probably being coordinated with homeland security.  We need to understand all of this clearly, and respond to it as a movement to try and stop it and hold the policymakers accountable.  Below is a brief account of my arrest, followed by initial suggestions for how to respond.

While in custody several NYPD officers revealed the existence of this protocol to myself and my co-arrestees with explicit statements.   We asked them why we were not being given desk appearance tickets  (DATs) for our minor charges.  We were told by one officer  (Arresting Officer Lisa Stokes of the 9th Precinct) “I don’t know, I’m just doing what my bosses tell me.  If it’s an Occupy Wall Street arrest, you go downtown.   Just the way it is.”   We asked the same question to a different officer (Didn’t mark his name, a mistake), who told us “You guys were with Occupy Wall Street Right?   Well, you guys gotta go downtown.  Sorry about that.”

Later on (We were held at the precinct for 11 hours.  This is an extraordinarily long stay at the precinct.  Twice as long as the longest I’ve heard of), we were paid a visit by a homicide detective (again, didn’t memorize his name, another mistake.  He wasn’t wearing a badge, though, so its unclear if he would have been telling us the truth.  We don’t even know if he was really from homicide).  He told us “Hey, so I’m a detective with Homicide.  I need to ask you a few questions about Occupy Wall Street.  It’s not a big deal, we’re doing this with all of you Occupy Wall Street protesters now.”  He seemed a bit chagrinned that he had to do it at all. We were never mirandized.

It has been clearly established that treating one population of people differently from another, on the basis of their political beliefs or associations, is a violation of the first amendment rights to speech and assembly.  The fact that the NYPD has a protocol in place that dictates to precinct captains how they must handle #OWS-related arrests, and which mandates that #OWS arrestees will be handled differently than non #OWS arrestees that have been booked on identical charges, is a very clear violation of our civil rights.  And there is precedent within the NYPD on this very issue.  In the wake of the murder of Amadou Diallo, and the 1700 arrests that happened in protest, the NYPD top brass issued a memo that protesters were to be processed differently than non-protesters with identical charges.  This resulted in a lawsuit which the protesters won, on first amendment grounds (others will know more specifics of this case).

So, what can we do?  Several things.  First and most important is that arrestees make a note of every conversation that they have with an officer while in custody, and write it down as soon as they are released before they forget.  Get names and badge numbers if you can. Share it with your lawyers.  Have your fellow arrestees do the same, and corroborate your stories.   I would suggest that all of us share this with the legal working group, who should also weigh in on this ASAP.  I would also recommend to everyone to plead not guilty to their charges rather than take an ACD (Adjournment Contemplation and Dismissal).  I would further suggest that as many of us as possible insist on a jury trial.  Through this we can put a real strain on the judicial system.  If they are going to bog us down and make our lives miserably inconvenient, we ought to respond in kind.  Muck up the works.  I would further suggest that this is an expense that #ows should bear.   (In my humble opinion it would be a far more legitimate expense, from a movement perspective, than spending $10,000 a week feeding the homeless and giving out $100 a week to any working group that asks for it, for cigarettes and metro cards.  I don’t think that #ows ought to function as a social services agency, as much as I support social service agencies.  And no, I don’t think its reasonable to expect volunteer lawyers to do trial work pro-bono).   Last but NOT least we all need to be aware that this is going on, and we need to support each other with committed jail support.  It was an incredible relief to have friends waiting for us when we got out.  I will be returning that kindness to my brothers and sisters in the future, and I want to urge everyone to do the same.

We are a young movement, full of dynamism and commitment, and we will change things.  Those in power find that threatening and they are behaving accordingly.  The more of a threat we become, the more they will attempt to suppress us.  This is a fact, and we need to keep our eyes wide open about it.  We don’t need to be afraid of it, but we do need to be intelligent in the way that we move forward.   I hope that this sparks some conversation as to how we do that.

Love and Rage,

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Give My Regards to Occupy Broadway: Times Square as a Place Where Stories Start (once again)

Times Square used to be a place where stories started – that’s what Jimmy Breslin wrote about Broadway.  In recent years, many have come to suggest the sanitized space is more akin t a dentist office.  Samuel Delany eulogized the cross-class contact he once experienced with strangers in space, while writer Bruce Benderson went as far as to leave town after Giuliani sanitized the culture making high’s and lows of the space, leaving little but the Disney store.  After the 1995 XXX zoning law and subsequent battles over public sexual culture in the streets and stories of the naked city, sexual civil liberties activist Bill Dobbs suggested that if a sailor were to come to Times Square on shore leave, he or she would want to slit her wrists.  

“Don’t move to New York,” my graduate mentor told me when I was living in Chicago in 1997, “Giuliani is killing it.”  Determined to prove him wrong, I settled into the city in September 1997.  At the time, the appeal by business owners to the zoning law, was making its way through various levels of the appeals process.  In the mean time, a sidewalk preacher, named Bill Talen, joined a movement to fight the zoning law.  By 1998 and 1999, all the appeals had exhausted themselves.  It was one of the few First Amendment cases Norm Siegel and the ACLU would lose against the City.  Watching the city padlock a XXX business in the once bawdy Times Square Bill Dobbs would suggest the zoning law had rendered NYC a censorship zone.   Responding to this politics, a group called SexPanic! joined Reverend Billy to take part in a civil disobedience blocking the cash registers at the Disney Store in November 1999, organized by Reverend Billy and a few members of the nascent Lower East Side Collective, including this author.  A few days later, Reclaim the Streets helped organize a raucous street party on Buy Nothing Day before members left to take part in a little demo in Seattle marking the coming out party of the US alter globalization movement.  This new movement aimed to challenging the privatization of public space.   Many of us stayed up all night doing jail solidarity for arrestees, charged with disorderly conduct for dancing in a public street.  For me, that was the last time stories really grew out of Times Square.  Like many New Yorkers, I looked elsewhere for stories.

A few days later, I joined members of Housing Works and ACT UP to take part in a World AIDS Day march.  My friend Keith Cylar was there, as were many of the hero’s of the New York’s AIDS direct action movement.  Now long passed, Cylar and many of those other heroes were on my mind as I rode my bike to Zuccotti Square to meet a similar group of AIDS activists, from Housing Works, Queerocracy, VOCAL-NY and HealthGAP, last week, twelve years for the World AIDS Day events planned for December 1, 2011.  Remarkably absent from the scene at City Hall was the 24-hour reading of names of people lost to HIV, which Housing Works had organized for as long as I could remember.  Still, each AIDS day, I am forced to remember a generation of men, of women, of creative, thoughtful people gone way too soon, too many premature goodbyes.  Three decades into this , AIDS lingers, yet there are some who have come to start talking about this ending, once and for all.

Keith Cylar and ACT UP colleague Harry Wieder, laughing.
Both are now gone, they laughed as long as they could.
Photo by Michael Wakefield

            “This should be over,” a friend from VOCAL mused, talking before the rally was to begin at the corner of Liberty and Broadway. 
            Walking through the crowd, I chatted with friends from various chapters of my life over the last fifteen years.  Andy Birnbaum, of the Yes Men was there.  Long time AIDS activist Andrew Vélez was there talking with several activists.  Vélez, of course, was one of the instigators of Occupy Broadway, a direct action gesture of occupation as creative resistance planned for the next day.  A veteran of an AIDS activist movement which has always used the city as a stage set for street actions, Vélez stood up and suggested we should occupy a bonus plaza on Broadway as we discussed the links between social movements and public space during a book talk on our book The Beach Beneath the Streets at the Brecht Forum a month prior.  People compared notes, planned a meeting, set a date and started organizing.
            “Mic check” a young activist from Healthgap screamed at the corner of Liberty and Broadway.

My name is Michael Tikili and I work for Health GAP, an international AIDS activist organization aimed at breaking the barriers to access to life saving medication.  I am a member of Queerocracy, an activist youth group here in New York City and also the Queering Occupy Wall St. Caucus.  I am 25 years old HIV + and have never known a world without AIDS!  Several weeks ago Sec. Clinton made an announcement, stating it is now U.S. policy to create a generation free of HIV and AIDS.  However, talk is cheap when there are lives at stake!  There are over 34 million infected people globally and 2/3 of them are in dire need of medication.  To the Obama administration, I pose these questions:  How are you fostering a generation free of AIDS if you not scaling up funding to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria,- as well as the Presidents emergency plan for AIDS relief? How are you fostering a generation free of AIDS when you are signing Free Trade Agreements that strengthen intellectual property rights of Big Pharma companies, knowing that it will block the production of generic medications, which the majority of the worlds medicated HIV + population rely on to survive?  Excuses are being thrown about that we cannot afford to take on this mortgage crisis, yet our foreign assistance is only less 1% of our countries budget.  If we do not pay now we will be paying forever! I have a solution to the problem of where we can get the money to end AIDS! Tax the banks!  Tax the banks! Tax the banks!  I am calling on our leaders to step up to the plate and impose a financial transaction tax on the speculative transactions that placed us in this economic crisis to begin with.  A financial speculation Tax has the potential to raise billions of dollars to end AIDS! We are now at a time where science proves that if we fund treatment, we can end the AIDS pandemic. Access to life saving medication is a human right.  I am calling on our government—Bloomberg and Obama--to do what is right and Tax wall st.—For the good of the people.

Activist after activist stood to share their stores, mic checking with the crowd, sharing bits and pieces of a larger three decade long community struggle against disease, melancholia, and the ongoing cancerous debilitations of poverty and inequality experienced by so many during this epidemic. I am still overwhelmed with feeling when I think about how long this epidemic has lasted and that there are many who have never known a world without it.  Of course, the counter narrative of this often tragic story is one of care, defiant pleasure and gestures of theatrical direct action.  As mic checks ended, we started to march up Broadway.  At Park Place and Broadway, a group stood chained to each other, blocking traffic.  “Bloomberg Billionaire, People with AIDS, he don’t care!” many screamed over the next 45 minutes, as the police busily tried to clear the streets, while AIDS activists blocked business as usual.  Charles King and Eddie Fukui were there, as were several others from Housing Works. “End AIDS Now!” observers chanted.  Walking around surveying the arrests, I spoke with a few people from Healthgap, whose organizer Jennifer Flynn was, for once on AIDS day, not around.  Word later in the day, was that her daughter, Flynn Robert Walker was born at 4:29pm 12/1/11. Seven lbs and one ounce.  Jennifer and I corresponded later in the weekend, musing that hopefully one day, her child’s birthday will be a time when we don’t have to talk about AIDS or AIDS day.  That would be one hell of a story. Riding my bike away from the demo, it was odd not hearing the old names of so many of the names of AIDS heros, passed, read out loud for World AIDS Day.  Memories of those names echoed through my mind just as they once bounced from building to building across the corridors and canyons of Lower Manhattan, their memories reverberating, just as Flynn was making her way into this world.  There they go, here she was coming.

Jennifer Flynn 

Throughout that afternoon, different actions and stories werecrashing, mixing and intermingling.  Ever since the Beach event at the Brecht Forum a group from the Occupy Wall Street Arts and Culture group had been meeting to organize an occupy Broadway event.  A few of us had worked together to form the Shrub Block on November 17th, when we hit the streets as  the Shrub Block.   Monica H and Ben V. collaborated with Claire from the Occupy Wall Street crew to help take the message to Bloomberg that if he kicked us out of the park, that we would take the park and the movement to the rest of the city.  Over the next few weeks, more and more activists would take this message to the rest of the naked city. 

Shrub Block N17 Ben Cerf to the left.  Photos by Peter Shapiro

More and more OWS activists would find their way into the city’s most hallowed grounds.   From Lincoln Center to the Met, audiences throughout the city were speaking up in support of OWS and its activists, now occupying the city’s cathedrals of culture. 

When the police tried to demarcate spectators from OWS participants at Lincoln Center later that night of December 1, those in the audience, including luminaries Lou Reed and Phil Glass, spoke up in defense of the movement.  “I was born in Brooklyn, and I've never been more ashamed than to see the barricades tonight. The police are our army. I want to be friends with them. And I wanna occupy Wall Street. I support it."   When the police caught a glimpse of Reed and Laurie Anderson helping a patron climb over the barricades after the performance, they seemed to throw their hands up in the air.  The movement received similar treatment when they zapped the Met earlier in the week. As John Cassidy blogged in the New Yorker:

Building on this aesthetic linking of art and activism, Occupy Broadway would take place the next day on December 2. ““We’re a big artistic mass; this is the next stage of the movement,” a young activist explained at  a pre action meeting on Tuesday night.  Claire facilitated the meeting filled with some of my greatest heroes in the world of cultural activism, theater types, writers, activists, and what seemed like the whole direct action or “DA” committee from Occupy Wall Street.   Our agenda included discussion of stage management slots, dealing with the NYPD, our scenario/ flow, working group representation, scheduling, and a budget for the action, which was to take place in less than three days.
“This is great outreach to show we’re just disorganized, rabble rousers,” one woman noted.
“No, we’re organized rabble rousers,” another concurred with a laugh.
The DA planned to organize the march lead by Rude Mechanical Orchestra to the undisclosed bonus plaza.  We had another four bonus plazas established as alternate locations if we were unable to get into the first.   Part of the point of the action was to actually make use these barren, often barron spaces.  As Smithsimon and I suggest in the Beach Beneath the Streets:

As icons of modern architecture, urban plazas encapsulate some of the key contradictions of contemporary urban public space. Why is some of the most expensive real estate in North America virtually empty, occupied by plazas that are supposed to be public but are used by almost no one?   Urban plazas offer a case study with which to examine the impact and evolution of public space outlined in the previous chapter.

Throughout the book, we argue:

That most such plazas built in the twentieth century were indeed unwelcoming, harsh environments. Second, we demonstrate that the design of these barren spaces, and the antisocial impact those spaces have are not incidental, but intentional products of social actors. Third, we challenge conventional aesthetic-focused examinations of public space, which hold architects solely responsible for the shape and function of a plaza, recognizing instead that architects’ work reflects the desires of their developer clients. Fourth, we see how urban plazas reflect the social objectives of their developer-owners, and that most often, New York office plazas reflect developers’ desire that the public not use these nominally public spaces..Most mid-twentieth century bonus plazas are harsh and unwelcoming. In a survey of Manhattan’s bonus plazas, the majority were found either to not attract users, or to actually repel them (Kayden et al. 2000).  

 Developers pushed to propel users even as the managers of these plazas, such as Brookfield Properties made huge profits, while failing to pay taxes.  Our job was to put these plazas to the use which they were originally designed, for the people.
            Rumors about the action had invited police to put in a few calls.  We assumed they would be looking for any reason they could find to shut the action down.   “We will perform, no matter what,” one young man chimed in during the discussion of the police. 
            Discussion eventually moved to the topic of the action itself, who would MC, and how we would fill the time if a performer was late.   I would MC after the RMO stopped performing.  Passing the “mic” so to speak to Rev. Billy and Penny Arcade.
Others contemplated our costume choices. 
            “Do we need bowties?” one of the DA crew asked, chiming in about the discussion of costumes for stage managers, actors, and the DA. 
            “Is it really a question of need?” a friend from Circus Amok chimed in as the topic turned to clothing choices: Hats or Elf costumes for the stage managers?  Claire displayed one of the elf costumes, we’d worn in the shrub block.  Other stage managers did not want to dress as elfs for 24 hours.  This discussion went on for a while, overlapping with discussion of Broadway related songs we could sing, such as “One” from a Chorus Line and “Broadway Lullaby.”  Eventually DA decided on top hats, while stage managers went with flapper outfits. And the topic meandered back to the police. 
            “We have the power,” noted one of the first organizers.  “And we are right.  We have a right to do this.  Police love us when we are afraid.  No need to worry about cops.  The worst case scenario is going to be fine.”

            By Friday, some eleven hundred people had reviewed the press release for the action, with papers including the LA Times writing previews for the action.  Journalists were calling from across the country.  And it felt like for just a momement, that Times Square really was a place where stories happened.  My first interview of the day was with fashion art icons Andrew and Andrew on East Village Radio at 10:45 AM on Friday.   By the end of the day, I had either completed or arranged for interviews NY Times, New York Magazine, Huffington Post, and KPFK in Los Angeles.   Adrenaline was running out of my ears by lunch time. 
            My big decision before leaving Brooklyn to meet everyone at 43rd and 8th, was how many costume changes.  Monica suggested I have at least two, including a light lycra number as well as my Muppet outfit.  So, I packed three, forgot my water, and jumped on the bike for my second ride across the Manhattan Bridge of the day.  The reflection of the sun was still shimmering on the water, as it began to set while I crossed from Brooklyn into Chinatown.
            Riding up through mid-town, one can really see how close people can be to becoming the Michael Douglas character in “Falling Down.”  There are crazy amounts of traffic, jay walkers, and very little order to the street. 
            Arriving at the 15th floor of the meeting spot on 43rd and 8th, the DA all have their top hats; the stage managers look super duper in their flapper outfits.  The food people are at the space, ready to bring food.
            Its my moment.  Fuck.   The adrenaline which has been pouring out of my ears all day, is slowing.  I rehearsed my shortened version of the POPS manifesto all day.  Now is the moment, as I begin what feels like the longest mic check in history of a movement with many, many of these moments.

Mic Check Mic check, Mic Check

Welcome Police, Occupiers, and fellow New Yorkers.
You are all part of the show.  

In recent weeks,
Bloomberg has tried to convince the world
that the Occupation show is over.

Yet, he’s a bad stage manager. 
Today, instead of sitting on the sidelines,
Regular people around the world
Are tearing up the seats
And rushing the stage
No one can tell the difference
Between spectators and participants.

We are all the show.


The crowd was screaming.  I should have stopped right there. This is getting long.  But went on. 

Why have we decided ?
to perform  in a privately owned public space

Because bonus plazas are
required to be open to the people.

Landlords make immense profits
even as they consistently
 renege on their contract
with the city
by restricting public access.

All too many citizens
remain unaware
that they have a legal right
to access these spaces.
These are public spaces
being consumed by privatization.

Today and forever
we will hold developers to their legal obligation
to provide accessible publicly owned private spaces.
We call for an end  
to the trampling
of public assembly

As Norman Siegel says,
"Last time I read the First Amendment
 it didn't say,
'You have a First Amendment right
to peacefully protest on public streets,
except where Mayor Bloomberg lives.”

Today we perform
in solidarity with occupiers from Tahrir Square to Davis, California
by challenging restrictions
on the public commons
and democracy itself. 

Our occupation is a form of creative resistance.
We are using public space
to create a more colorful image
of what our streets could like,
with public performances, art, and music
Through this open access performance,
 New York re-imagines itself  - as a work of art,
rather than - a retail shopping mall.
With capitalism gone mad,
foreclosures increasing,
and bank crises consuming whole communities,
we are signaling through the flames
that there is another way of living.

Occupy public space.
Reclaim democracy.
Enjoy the show.
We are all the show.


Will this mic check ever end?  Talen, Shepard and company. by  Erik McGregor
The second half took forever.   And I edited the Artaud line out about signaling through the flames, sadly. Thankfully it finally ended.
“Too long,” a fellow organizer noted.
            “Let the words pour off your lips,” another noted. “Take your time.”  Oy ve. Boy,when you die at the palace, you really DIE at the palace!” Mel Brooks groaned in The History of the World.  I knew what he meant.  But the show had to go on.  I had another two and half hours to MC.  And my voice was gone.  Sing through your diaphragm Ben, I remembered so many other actors advising me through the years.  Still, my first instinct is to scream like a banshee through my throat until no sound comes out (which is sometimes a good thing).
Thankfully, Reverent Billy was there to speak.  He would guarantee take 45 minutes and put us back on schedule.  The second he started to speak, he took me back to those days back in 1999 when I first met him preaching up here in Times Square.   Talen recalled the musicians and sidewalk preachers, those men who thought they were Hendrix, the preachers preaching to no one in particular at all.  When the city swept them off the sidewalks and back into the psychiatric hospitals, replacing Samal Delany’s old XXX movie houses with Disney stores and retail outlets, much  of the energy of the street was gone, lost in a sea of identical details, as the preacher put it in perhaps the first sermon I heard from him that fall twelve years ago.   He’d started started preaching in the space only a few years prior.  In 1994, the last year before the Giuliani XXX Law was the last year that truly relevant theatre found its expression there, not Talen. Twilight, Angels in America, Bring on the Noise, Bring on the Funk, those were plays which captured the conscience of the King and the culture.  After the streets were sanitized in 1995,  low culture was washed away from the streets of the Square; few stories found a foundation on the streets of the Theater district; the high was no longer found inside the theaters of Broadway, such as the Winter Garden where Mamma Mia was playing across from our stage.  Without the low in culture, it is very difficult to find room for high. Without this contrast, we are left with the bland, the coo coo clock, as Orson Wells joked in the Third Man.  In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. So long Holly.”  XXX Zoning happened because people did not like the aesthetics of Times Square and the cross class contact this space engendered.  In pushing for this, New York cut off a spicket to creativity which had run since the earliest days of the bowdy, godless Dutch colony.   “I was preaching against sweatshops in front of the Disney Store and I saw Times Square privatized and turned into a giant shopping mall” Talen preached.  Not enough stories could hatch from the Times Square shopping mall.  There wasn’t enough alchemy.  In the years following 1999, we would go back for retail interventions, Starbucks,  and Talen would get arrested at the Disney Store from time to time.  Still, it felt like Times Square had been colonized by Disney and her tentacles were reaching out to the city as a whole.  “Disney runs everything here” David Letterman moaned in 1994 complaining about the corporate welfare deal which brought corporation to the City.
Talen was on fire.  Problem was, he was remarkably short, just ten minutes as opposed to the twenty he was allotted, and we were ahead of schedule.  As Talen finished by 6:45 and we moved to the front of the plaza, where the Labor Chorus performed, not a one of them younger than Peter Yarrow. 

Even the police were part of the show. Photo by Erik McGregor

            As they performed “Solidarity Forever” the police the police pushed to gain egress to the building.  Its cool, a few of us noted, not wanting to fight the police.  That was not the point.  We still had the plaza.  “Out with the jive, in with the love,” I mic checked.   I would MC for the next two hours.  By 7:15, we had cleared our first five acts, and we were a half hour ahead of schedule, where we would stay, scrambling to find story tellers, singer songwriters, theater geeks, hoola hoopers and professors from the crowd to help us hold the space.  In between performers, I changing into my second and third costumes; some performers held the space better than others.   Looking at the crowd, a fear of god feeling set in.  We had twenty two hours and forty-five minutes to go and people were already pooping out.   “We’re going to lose the crowd,” I groaned.   Lets set an intermission I asked Monica, who was well aware we could lose the crowd if we broke for dinner.   I wasn’t sure we could hold the space as one performer chimed in after another, some late, and some thankfully early.  Hunken jumped in and lead everyone in “The Consensus Dance” to the tune of the Hokey Pokey.  And eventually Penny Arcade showed up, holding the space for some twenty minutes.
Fear of God.  We have another 22  hours and 45 minutes to go and we are  an hour ahead of schedule.  
Costume changes two and three.  The show much go on!
photos by Erik R. McGregor 

“When does Mike Daisey come on?” the writer from the New Yorker asked.  “Why is he starting so late?”
By eight thirty, more and more regular people were jumping on the stage to talk and itfelt like we could make it.  My co-author Greg’s wife Molly rocked on the hoola hoops and Greg told a story about the owners of the plaza.
And we had the crowd back.  
            By the time Jenny Romaine from Great Small Works arrived, she owned the place.  And so would Reno following her.  One great performance after another until well into the morning hours, some telling jokes, others singing or doing tricks.  We all really were the show. 
            Mike Daisey stood up around midnight.  “On the subway up to the show,” Daisey mused he had no idea of how many people he would be performing for.  He confessed he had no idea what he was getting into.  “And I’m delighted you’re here,” he explained, with a humble gentleness, as the crowd cheered.  He immediately established a rapport with the crowd.  To hold a space really is about connecting with the crowd and hearing what they need, what are their concerns, etc. .  “Its an amazing thing to try to hold a space.  Cause that’s what we do in the theater, we hold spaces.  But one of the tricks they never tell you is, to not hold it at all, but to give it back to the people, to give it back to the audience.  They are the source, the thought, the source.  You don’t do anything.  You take what you are given, you mediate that and give it back to them.”  His monologue really was a highpoint.  In a way, he was talking about what Talen was talking about, the links between audience and self, community and city, the collective experience of stories, dreams, unconscious desires, reflections on the tragicomic continuum of human experience, all of which is necessary to truly say we are living democratically.  It was that contract of experience which produced Kusher in Times Square out of the AIDS crisis. 
Writing about the Greek stage and democratic living, Johnathan Lear points out:

To a degree, this obsessive use of rationality to justify irrational means is part of what Mike Daisy was talking about when he described the mayor Friday night. More than this, this expression, dialogue, community sharing and debating is part of what used to propel the stories of Times Square.  And it could be in the future.  “Call me if you want to do something else like this,” he told me after his show.

            As I left Friday night, a group was performing Ben Johnson.  The 3-5 AM shift for the people’s stage, open mic  turned out to be a huge success.
            As I taught that morning at CUNY, the Hungry March Band performed, turning the plaza into a dance floor.  And the General Assembly declared the Plaza, “the People’s Performance Plaza.”  Many on hand would call for more shows in similar plazas.
            By the time I arrived the next day after lunch, the show was still chiming along.  Monica and Ben looked a little tired, but they seemed to be running on a second wind.
            “Every time we would sit down, the police would come up to us and make sure we were not sleeping.”
            Ben had been speaking with the Huffington Post.

I would speak with the same reporter later in the day. With two hours to go, Andy Vélez stood smiling, recognizing we were really going to do it.  He’d battled Bloomberg before.  And he was more than happy to see a counter narrative to Bloomberg’s New York by and for the 1% take shape.  My friend Peter filmed Vélez talking.  Vélez explained that when he met a representative from the City after he’d helped organize a zap at the Mayor’s house, he was taken by how uptight the man seemed to be.  “Don’t’ worry, I am only attracted to heterosexuals,” Vélez declared attempting to put the man at ease. From Occupy Broadway to ACT UP, Vélez has made a career for standing up for what is right in this world, through direct action, play, and a little fun.

Reading the First Amendment at 2 PM Saturday.  We'd read it over and over  each and every hour for 24 hours.
Photo by Diane Green Lent

The next few hours of the final stretch were some of the most fun moments of the event. 

Singing, performing, and catching a second wind.
Top three photos by Erik McGregor.  Bottom by Yet Men.

            By this point, Monica had found yet another wind, helping lead the crown reciting the First Amendment, inviting us all to join in some Occupation anti-consumer carols, which were later interrupted by the Yes Men, and later in a dance on bikes routine with her dance troop Heelz on Wheels. Occupy Broadway was like a dream.  I have never done something like that.  It was lovely to watch the action take shape as a public performance, which generated story after story about democracy, public space, and the ever expanding movement.  After it was over, Hunken would reflect on the action.

Thank you everyone for making this happen.  Occupy Broadway was another example that occupation is creation. and when police and government push us out of public spaces they are not only attacking a creative act of the people, they are attacking our democracy. The more we make clear our intentions, this "building" of something together, the symbol itself becomes indestructible. There is an unspoken protection of the ritual of performance. You must let the show continue. We will continue to create together in our commons. The Show Must Go On!

This photo has nothing to do with Occupy Broadway.  I just love it. Photo from OWS San Francisco .

The next couple of days after the action were a haze.  It was like coming up from a dream, a space where we performed in between this reality and next.  Sunday, we dropped by the Farmer's March at La Plaza Cultural Community Garden in the Lower East Side.

The rally was followed by a march to Zuccotti Park.  Photo by Jamie Leo

Public space, its all about space for talking, sharing, creating ideas, art and new ways of thinking our lives and democracy.  For our democracy to thrive, there has to be art, theatre, and space for people to access them.  The theater as a public commons for ideas, expression, and reflection, this is perhaps the most important element of the public theater.  As I finish writing this long story about some of the many stories which have grown from OWS on Broadway, I am left wondering where they will take me.  I just maped a bike route to East New York to meet a group of OWS and Organizing for the Occupation Activists to challenging the foreclosure crisis.  Today is national Occupy Our Homes day.  It’ll be another New York story.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Sam J. Miller
Date: Mon, Dec 5, 2011 at 12:27 PM
Subject: [PTH Friends] Occupy our homes, TOMORROW.
To: "Homeless, Friends of Picture the"

"The cops treated Occupy Wall Street the way they've been treating homeless
people for years." - GKM, Picture the Homeless Leader

*TOMORROW, *December 6 will be a big day of action for the Occupy Wall
Street movement... and for Picture the Homeless and our allies in the
housing justice movement.

If we can't occupy Wall Street, we'll occupy our homes. #OWS will join the
struggle of families and communities that have been on the front lines of a
struggle for economic justice. They'll stand in solidarity and ask our
fellow occupations to join us for a national day of action on the
foreclosure crisis. We are fighting Wall Street's reach on every block,
every farm, every house in America with sit-ins at foreclosed properties to
right this moral injustice.

Join us on December 6 for a national day of action to fight back against
the housing crisis and be part of the continuing movement to Occupy Our

In 2008, we discovered bankers and speculators had been gambling with our
most valuable asset, our homes--betting against us and destroying trillions
of dollars of our wealth. Now, because of the foreclosure crisis Wall
Street banks created with their lies and greed, millions of Americans have
lost their homes, and one in four homeowners are currently underwater on
their mortgage. Not only do we have thousands of people without homes, we
have thousands of homes without people. Boarded-up houses are sitting
empty--increasing crime, lowering the value of other homes in the
neighborhood, erasing the wealth that lifts families into the middle class.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, the housing justice movement, and brave
homeowners around the country are coming together to say, "Enough is
enough." We, the 99%, are standing up to Wall Street banks and demanding
they negotiate with homeowners instead of fraudulently foreclosing on them.

*Meet us at the corner of Pennsylvania and Livonia, in Brooklyn, at 1PM
(2/3/4/5 to Pennsylvania Avenue)*

Follow hashtag #D6

‎"Our homes areunder attack, we've come to take them back!!!" we chanted as we moved fromforeclosed home to foreclosed home that rainy afternoon.  Eventually, the group of several hundred occupiers would move to take the wood off an abandoned home, helping move in a family from the community.  Just riding through East New York, there were so many potholes on the streets, I got a flat. Walking my bike to the subway, I saw people sleeping under bridges, rats, and an image of a neighborhood neglected for far too long.  Hopefully, the movement against foreclosure is getting stronger. 

While we don’t’ know where this is going, most of us seem to know the game changed.  Already Cuomo, who until now has served as governor of the 1% seems ready to represent the rest of us.  For months now, labor has collaborated with OWS to dub Cuomo a supporter of the rich.  The movement occupied his office demanding and extension of the Millionaire Tax.  And today, it appears a deal is under way to increase taxes on the 1%.  "Under the proposal announced Tuesday, for married couples filing jointly, income from $40,000 to $150,000 would be taxed at 6.45 percent; from $150,000 to $300,000 at 6.65 percent; from $300,000 to $2 million at 6.85 percent, and over $2 million at 8.82 percent."  At first  glance Cuomo's proposal would look like a major win for the movement.  Yet, with a little more scrutiny, it would be more of a lower case victory, in between the Governor's smoke and mirrors.

Who knows, maybe a new New York story is taking shape?  Already we are hearing Brookfield Properties plans to shut down and fence off Zuccotti for repairs, not unlike the battles of Tompkins Square Park a generation ago.  This movement no longer depends on one part.  Its an idea, action, and evolving story. 

From LA back to NY back to the first shut down of the Port of Oakland since 1934, the  Occupation  Movement is taking amazing, unsuspected curves and turns.