Sunday, April 8, 2012

Restaging the City and Our Imagination: Sleeping Out as Social Protest

For as long as there has been quality of life policing, activists have asserted that people have every right to sleep on the street (especially when they can no longer pay their rent).  Being poor is not a crime; being priced out of one’s apartment is not a crime.  The impulse to sleep out in the city is a simple way to demonstrate the point that there are different ways of living.  While those in power assert any number of approaches – from quality of life policing to zoning to parks rules – activists see the impulse to evict, arrest, and marginalize those who sleep out as an extension of a politics of exclusion and racial marginalization dating deep back into the colonial past.  Many of these practices extend from anti-vagrancy and loitering laws used to evict, control and marginalize Latinos, run-away slaves and the poor forming their own communities.  When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani extended this practice with a new wave of zoning laws and broken windows policing in the 1990’s, public space groups – FIERCE, Picture the Homeless, Fed Up Queers, Coalition for the Homeless, Reclaim the Streets, and Lower East Side Collective – popped up across the city.  Many, such as Fed Up Queers’ Jennifer Flynn, immediately recognized that while a mid-1990’s city zoning law explicitly stated the goal to do away with adult businesses, the subtext with much of this was to zone away the poor.  Many took to sleeping in the street in solidarity with the homeless feeling the brunt of the city’s mistreatment.  From battles over the Giuliani-ism to Occupy’s eviction theater in Union Square, this is a struggle with flashpoints extending back decades.

The first time I slept out in Union Square was in January 2000 after a Lower East Collective Meeting.  Bill DiPaulo, of Times Up! joined me.  We stayed up talking to the lawyers on hand about the Battle of Seattle which had just passed.   Twelve years later I heard Bill DiPaulo chiming in on live stream during one of the recent eviction dances taking place at midnight at Union Square being captured and sent out to the world on livestream.

Audio from Global Revolution livestream, nearing midnight after the ‎"Million Hoodies" demo at Union Square, for Treyvon Martin captured the police warn those in the park:  “The park closes at 12 O Clock.  You have to leave the park.” “The NLG reporting over 500 or more cops surrounding the park,” note the two activists filming the livestream.  “There will be massive arrests.  There is a massive police force.”  “You have to exit the park at midnight,” police insist the crowd.  “Whose Park?  Our park?” the group responds, echoing an anthem heard in standoffs dating back decades.  “Its important to note that every effort to quell the movement has failed,” note the videographers, who continue speaking  “And now it’s the American Spring.  In eight minutes there will be a mass arrest.  I’ve never seen this many cops.  This is similar to the raid the other night.  You gotta know when to hold and when to fold em and when to walk away.  This is the absolute meeting place for the park.”  “Five, four three two one,” the crowd chants as the clock turns midnight  People roar.  “A ati anti capitalista,” people chant, clapping  “Crushing people’s rights or courtesy professionalism, respect.”  “We have a right to peaceable assembly, freedom of assembly. You guys don’t hurt us.  We’re not criminals.  We’re citizens of the United States,” note the videographers  “Get up, get down, there is a revolution in this town,” scream the crowd.   “More high ranking officers than I’ve seen since the raid,” note the videographers. “While the NYPD can evict people from the park.  The locals say this is open 24 hours a day.  People are always here drinking, smoking.  The NYPD can evict people from the park, but they cannot stop this movement.  People are coming from around the country.  This is bottom up.”  “Take off that riot gear, we don't see no riot here,” scream the crowd.  “People were playing chess in the park last night, but their game was interrupted by a checkmate by the police,” notes a cycling activist interviewed by those on the livesteam  “Every time they try to sabotage us, they just make us stronger.” (chants).  One we are the people, two we are united, three, this occupation is not leaving.  Where is my freedom?”

The cat and mouse game between activists and police was not knew.  Back in 2000 in the final months of the Giuliani administration, the city would try and try to push the homeless out of the Union Square, attempting to render their very presence illegal.  When the city said it would arrest people for putting their heads down in the park, a coalition of homeless groups and politicians condemned the decision.  I joined Stonewall Veteran Sylvia Rivera, as well as Chris Quinn, Margarita Lopez and members of Coalition for the Homeless in another sleep out in Union Square.  And there were no arrests.

In October, we moved the protest to City Hall Park when the City Rent Guidelines board jacked up rents again.   A press release at the time noted:

"New York is no longer affordable," said Susan Howard of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. "More people are sleeping on the streets."  That night, Caroline and I stayed in the square with a large group of activists.  A whole community took shape that evening with dumpster divers bringing by snacks for those of us huddled up in our sleeping bags.  I enjoyed some sushi and conversations drifted on into the night, until a few of us finally drifted off into sleep.  Susan Howard and others in the Met Council on Housing successfully litigated against the city for their practice of forcibly removing the homeless from the public streets. 

Over the years, the cat and mouse between those who live, work and play in public streets, would only accelerate, with battles over Critical Mass, parade permit rules, and a restaurant extending from Union Square over and over again.  “Union Square is not for Sale,” declared Reverend Billy during the late 2000’s, reminding us that Union Square really was our historic commons.

Last Thursday, I received a message from Austin Guest announcing another edition of “eviction theater” to take place at Union Square.  The idea of eviction theater is to use the streets of New York as a stage set, framing the police guarding and protesters in a social change drama.  The theatrics of a police theater of domination had been seen clashing with activists from Occupy as for nearly three weeks since the six month anniversary of the OWS when the police kicked activists out of Zuccotti. That afternoon and evening of March 17th, many were charged with “trespassing” in the park, zoned for 24 access.  There is rule of law and “rule of force” in New York, as John Penly puts it.  The police function within a rule of force, regardless of the number of lawsuits they lose over their unconstitutional assault on access to public space.  After the raid, many wandered over to Union Square where they slept a few nights and started facing midnight evictions before early morning returns.  Eviction theater was born from there.  

 The battle to take place after the Critical Mass bike ride, still coping with an onslaught from the police, some eight years after the initial attack during the Republican Convention of 2004.  Yet, over the years, the mass has continued, along with the wanderlust to create something of a more passionate form of social relations. 

Bike Check!

We all have a different idea of what "critical mass" means. We all
have dreams of what it could be, even if we don't label it. It is the
same. It is the longing in our hearts and minds and bodies to be
together, to speak and listen together, to play together, to use our
bodies together. To take care of each other. To love. To live.


It is happening tonight. 7pm Union Square North.

See you there. If not today, perhaps May Day.

De-colonize your heart!
Ride Safe!

People enjoyed laughing at the spectacle of our  mock clash cops and protesters.  Its always better to laugh, after all.

The Rap Battle of March 30th built on this same theatrical trajectory. 

Last Thursday, Guest sent out another post. 

- A Teach-in and Practical Demonstration -
------------ for the NYPD -------------
-Regarding How Very, Very, Very Legal it is- 
------ to Sleep on Public Sidewalks ------
----------- in front of Banks -----------

Proposed Scenario: 

- assemble in a line in front of the cops just before midnight (when they kick us out every night)
- read cops the entirety of the relevant passage of the sleep and lie law 
- show cops a map of the protected public sidewalks surrounding union square and indicate exactly where on that map we plan to sleep that night
- indicate the legal observers on hand who will be closely watching their actions to make sure they don't violate the law
- indicate the livestreamers and press who will be on hand to document and report their actions should they choose to break the law
- show them the list of officers' names and badge numbers which we will have collected previously in the evening
- show them the big sign with the number for the civilian complaint review board that we plan to call in any and all infractions of the law should they choose to violate it
- split up into "sleeping groups" of 10-15 and disperse to our sleeping posts (each group will have lookouts who sleep in turns, printed copies of the relevant law to display publicly as they sleep, hand-made cardboard signs about free speech/inequality/etc, and -- ideally -- a livestreamer, legal observer, and medic to accompany them)
- enjoy a peaceful nights' sleep without any arrests! 
- wake up, celebrate victory, and announce that the sidewalks are officially safe for sleeping on just like the law says they're supposed to be!
Earlier in the evening many of us had been at the book release party for Andrew Boyd and his edited volume, Beautiful Trouble, chronicling a lifetime of pranks against banks, the Koch brothers, and billionaires large and small. 
After the party, I rode to Union Square for the eviction theater.  There I ran into activists from public space activism, sexual civil liberties struggles, a few journalists, as well as Occupiers as well as some hundred Occupiers. Bill Dobbs was there.  We gossiped about the new ACT UP action coming up on April 25th.  
David Graeber was carrying a placard with the Met Council legal win, confirming the legality of sleeping in the streets as a form of protest.  “Everyone who sleeps in the streets instead of the shelters is involved in a form of protest,” he explained.  Shelter kills.
Around midnight, Austin guest started the theater, just after the police cordoned off the park with metal barricades.  Guest congratulated the crowd for successfully surrounding the civil liberties stifling NYPD.  Throughout his soliloquy, he called on everyone to take down the names of the police and their badge numbers.  We also called on the police to join the show, calling out the names and badge numbers of those on hand. 

Eventually, he called on “Blue Haired Lauren, a star of eviction theater” who talked everyone through a map of banks surrounding Union Square, where activists could enjoy a sleep over as a form of protest.  “Snuggling together,” someone screamed from the crowd. 

Graeber eventually stood up to read through the Met Council legal decision.   The whole performance translated into a thoughtful form of eviction theater at midnight at Union Square. My favorite moment was when David Graeber read a legal decision and Bill Dobbs said: "THe anarchist tells us about the law."

I later told that to David who smiled, "Well, we do appreciate a diversity of tactics."

As the eviction theater was finishing, activists would move over to sleep in front of banks surrounding Union Square. Many of these banks have steadily contributed to homelessness by continuing foreclosures of people’s homes, pushing those without the fortune to receive government bailouts like they have, into the streets.   Of course, the whole action extends the Occupy Story into a decade long battle over access to public space and eviction of social outsiders.    It also extends the story of a movement organized against social and economic inequality expanding exponentially.

Between the and Beautiful Trouble parties as well as eviction theater, it was a great week for Occupy.  Conversation after conversation took shape throughout these quiet moments, as we shared ideas, hopes, reflections, and ruminations on what a political imagination can mean and do in the streets and city.  

No comments:

Post a Comment