Monday, March 19, 2012

Occupy Wall Street Six Month Anniversary: It Is Legal to Stand in a Public Park.

Just got back from Occupy the Empty Space.  We were going to have a ride from Zuccotti to Judson for the event.  But there was a raid the night before in which the NYPD told everyone they needed to leave the park.  The problem is, Zuccotti Park, aka Liberty Square, is a privately owned public space, zoned to be open 24/7.  Brookfield received significant zoning concessions, including increased height and bulk in the most dense real estate area in the US, for building the space.  So why are the police arresting people on their behalf?  Police initially said it was because of a twitter message or it was for trespassing.  What they wouldn't say was perhaps just perhaps, it was because of the content of a message.   After all, when are you trespassing when you stand in a public space created for 24/7 access?  Does the law still count or is it a cover for the law of force. 

After dancing and celebrating six months of peaceable assembly to petition the government for redress of grievances, members of the movement were told to leave Zuccotti around 11 the night before.   “We sat peacefully on the ground, arms linked and the police picked us off like bits of trash, beating down people with batons, pushing us out of Liberty and barricading the park again,” wrote Monica Hunken.  “But we are brave and enduring. There is a new joy, a sort of spring fever in the air. Get ready for Spring training!

My fried LA Kauffman noted: “Last night at Zuccotti Park was a sweet, upbeat, street celebration ... until the police attacked. I won't soon get over the fear and rage of watching Cecily Macmillan having a huge seizure while handcuffed, the terror of seeing her go completely limp and still on the cold pavement, while the police fumbled and dilly-dallied. Horrifying to see how little room for dissent there is in this collapsing country.

Times UP! had planned to meet at Zuccotti to ride over to  Occupy the Empty Space at Judson at 2:30. March or ride over from Zuccotti at 1:30.  Yet, as soon as I got to Judson earlier in the day, I started getting phone calls that the ride wasn’t going to happen, that Zuccotti was completely gated off.  My friend Erik and I rover over to Zuccotti to find access to the space completely cut off. 

Liberty Square did not look too open to all on Sunday.
The first police excuse for the raid was to clean the space.
Photos by Erik McGregor

We talked with a few activists taking part on the COOLS session, a daily teach in – across from the park.  Early in the year, people involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement here in New York started talking about the COOLS, the Cultural Occupation of Liberty Square.  The point was to get as many people possible back into Zuccotti Park, dubbed Liberty Square, where the movement began.  This gesture was not as much about recreating anything from earlier in the fall as keeping the conversation going, keeping the stories of resistance moving forward into different directions.  To ground these conversations, we needed public spaces to remain open, specifically Liberty Square serving as our commons.  Like the Agora in Greek city spaces, Liberty Square would serve as our gathering space.

Each day at lunchtime, a different writer, storyteller, academic, or movement person is invited to take part in the COOLS.  Last week, I was invited to speak about the  top five achievements of ACT UP over the last 25 years.  A few older veteran ACT UP folks showed up, two or three younger AIDS activists involved with transgender and international AIDS work, two members of the Occupy Farms working group, as well as two older gentlemen involved with Occupy from the very beginning.  Working within the dialogical model of the Friere’s popular education model, we ended up sharing as information as I disseminated about ACT UP and its zap on Wall Street a quarter century ago this march or its April 25th anniversary action in the works.  One of the men involved, Bernie Venditto, had written a book about “Happiness” arguing that happiness involved a holy combination of social connection, poetry, and socialism. I could not agree more.  Quoting William Butler Yeats, he noted:

“The good are always the merry
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance.”

His mimeographed manifesto on happiness included entries in William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and the importance of Socialism.  He said he would only give me a copy if I was able to move the audience.  I was honored when he gave me a copy of his work.  His book is a peon to socialism and holiness, which he notes: “is great fun.”  But really the strength of the session grew out of the willingness of the participants of the COOLS to share what they knew with each other, so we could all learn something.  Some coming to the cools turn their sessions into didactic teach-inns or lectures.  This seems to miss the point that we are extending a conversation. Some weeks this conversation links the lessons of the Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980’s with the debates about safer spaces in the movement.  Hopefully we can learn the lessons of the linkage of censorship with feminism, while supporting fierce defense of public sexual culture with self determination and autonomy.   Other sessions involve debates about the diversity of tactics stretching back to the days of broken windows in Seattle in 1999.   Again, how can we support adding more voices and tactics to the movement, rather than attempting to stifle or censor those voices which we find objectionable?  Another session involved the history of mayday and general strikes.  Sometimes we meet at Zuccotti just to dance.  On other occasions, to begin bike rides to community gardens and throw seedbombs into fenced off vacant lots which could become community gardens.  The conversations taking place at the COOLS take countless forms and directions.   Today, the conversation was about the future of the movement in the face of repression. 

Before walking to the Zuccotti, Erik and I visited the Statue of Liberty during Times Up! Peace Ride,
wondering if Emma Lazarus' words would be tolerated today.

"Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Looking at the Statue of Liberty after the raid. Photo by Eric McGregor. 

Later Erik and I rode over to 100 Center Street, where activists were being processed.  A group of OWS folks was outside doing jail support.  Many were still grumbling about the woman who had had a seizure and the police stand by as she had a tremor  in her handcuffs handcuffs. At 1 Police place today, police were saying they really fucked up that one. Word at the plaza is no one is getting out today or even the following day. 

Sunday jail support. Photos by Erik McGregor

My friend Kate Spencer would later report she  was in a place where police hang out and chat and overheard them tallying up how many OWS arrests they'd made and high fiving each other. I wanted to puke.”

It felt like the NYPD had been furious about how many people got down to Wall Street the previous Friday during “OWS Spring Training” when a group  of a hundred or so clogged the streets in front of the stock exchange the day before.

The Spring Training flash mob on Wall Street  gave the NYPD a reason  to crack down the following day.
Photos by Erik McGregor

The previous day, Thursday, Times Up! held its Occupies of March ride, lampooning the close relationship between the 1% and the NYPD.  I dressed as a banker and dancedwith the police, pepper sprayed protesters, did a kick dance in their faceswith the police, and pied a few student protesters, before the police grew aconscience and decided to pie me back. Thursday, it had been a joke. And the real police actually guarding the banks were disarmed by our humor and play.  “Suppress peoples’ rights,” noted one real officer, commenting on the check we brandished from the “Big Banks” to the “NYPD” with a memo “for Suppression.” "We do lot more than crushing."  

OccuPIED photos when the banker finally gets his by Minister Erik R. McGregor and Brennan Cavanaugh. 

We later rode over to take part in a series of actions against Bank of America, in response to their patterns of foreclosing on people’s homes.  This is youth led movement.  I am always in awe of how energetic and passionate this group of people are who have involved themselves this movement.  They really hope to create something better of this democracy.

Bank of America actions later that afternoon.  Photos by Erik McGregor.

And for doing so, they have lost countless civil liberties, spent nights in jail, days in court, and time they will never get back, even if they do beat the charges.  Ray Kelly and the NYPD do not seem to care.  They just want to get people off the streets and escalate the cost of participation in this movement. 

But the reality of police repression of the movement has been a constant theme of the entire year.  Police have arrested my friends for sitting on park benches, for chalking, for walking the wrong way on the sidewalk and now for standing in a park designated by zoning laws to be open 24 hours a day (and unlike the rest of New York that St. Patrick's night, without alcohol).  These days, I spend one or two days a week in jail support for friends put through the system for speaking out as they were doing on Saturday. 

OnSaturday, they were out for blood.  Early in the day, a policeman threw away loafs of bread from the kitchen.  And started the crack down on the group peaceably assembling in the park as it is designed for.
Waves of my friends were arrested all day as then moved in and out of the park.  A woman I know had the police grab her breast as she was arrested, before they violently pulled her wrists back to cuff her. The violence of the police actions is profound.

They broke my finger, stabbed me in the eye... for standing in a park... for making a statement about this system,” noted one man after he was arrested on Saturday.  Later police claimed people were setting up tents to sleep in the park.  It should be noted people were dancing in the park.
Erik and I rode over to Judson for the beginning of Occupy the Empty Space.  There, everyone looked rattled.  “I can't stop thinking about last night and the innocent people around me brutalized by police.,” mused Monica Hunken, who started the show.  “We cannot allow this to go on by without accountability. It's time to kick out Bloomberg and Kelly. The NYPD is a sham. Let it be known, there was no clash. That infers equal action and reaction. There was only brute force by police upon peaceful protestors.”

Occupy the Empty Space still went on and it was a grant success. 

The story of this movement will continue and continue, even in the face of repression. OWS will continue to use it, despite the NYPD.

To be sure, the NYPD can and will make every effort to shut down this movement, just as they did with Critical Mass!  Yet, not enough people spoke out.  On May 30, 2008, the Reverend Al Sharpton made this same point before a Critical Mass Ride: “We’re going to work together to have a Critical Mass in this city where we can ride in justice… so when you ride tonight, we come to stand with you because we must stand together, whether you are white, whether you are Black, whether you are Latino or Asian, whether you are fat, skinny, gay, straight: we are all Sean Bell, we are all Critical Mass, we are all here together.”    Cyclists litigated. And, the city was found to be guilty of violating cyclists’ basic rights. Fall 2010, the City agreed to pay cyclists attacked on Critical Mass rides $965,000.00. Yet, instead of apologizing, the City set its target on cyclists and later OWS protesters taking another stab at reclaiming public space. 

Democracy is only as strong as long the people who use it. The question is will everyone else remain silent as our freedoms gradually erode?   Hopefully, the story of this movement will continue and continue, even in the face of repression.  Hopefully, the story will find a new chapter.