Upstate Occupy Dreaming of a White Christmas?

Bennett Baumer Dec 16, 2011

Drum circles, military tents, sleeping bags, pizza box protest signs, sprawling general assemblies and mic checks that echo throughout that small piece of prime public-private real estate – Zuccotti Park – are all gone. On November 15, following similar police raids in other American cities, Occupy Wall Street lost its birthplace. Nevertheless, there are still dozens of smaller Occupy Wall Street encampments, including in New York City’s backyard.

Occupy Albany sprouted on October 21 across the street from the gorgeous Classical/Romanesque state capitol and directly east of the impressive block long colonnade department of education building. The encampment originally encompassed two parks, one controlled by the state and the other by the city of Albany. Gov. Andrew Cuomo quickly moved the evict protestors from land controlled by the state, but the Albany County district attorney, David Soares’ refusal to prosecute protestors on city owned land stymied Cuomo. Cuomo has threatened to bring in a special prosecutor to the case, leaving the threat of eviction looming.

“There were arrests in Lafayette Park (controlled by the state) but they have stopped making mass arrests,” says Drea Chaskin. “I was the last tenant standing in a rent-stabilized building in Bushwick,” Chaskin explained before moving to Albany this May and getting involved in Occupy Albany.

Occupy Albany recently downsized their encampment from a highpoint of 40 or more regular nightly sleepers, and 80 tents. On December 7, the city of Albany cited them for minor infractions but issued the smaller encampment a permit to remain on state parkland through December 22. Gone is the kitchen but the requisite protest signs still exist, as does Occupy Albany’s presence as a thorn in Cuomo’s side.

Fall will turn to winter in a matter of days. Nightly temperatures in Albany have all ready fallen well below freezing and snow has already accumulated this month. Occupy Albany is at a crossroads: the downsized encampment can try to eek out a living during the brutal cold and hold a symbolic presence outside or move indoors entirely. In sum, a second phase is arriving and Occupy Albany can spend upwards of $15,000 on winterizing the camp or use that money for other means. Occupy Albany recently sent out an electronic poll to gauge interest in keeping the camp going or transitioning indoors. There’s also the issue of what to do after December 22.

“What folks are leaning towards is a hybrid model of an info tent, signs and tents for sleeping and leasing an indoor space,” Occupy Albany participant Colin Donnaruma said.

Occupy Albany obviously shares similarities with Occupy Wall Street (born in Zuccotti Park) but also departs in important ways, namely its focus on pressuring the governor over specific issues contrasted with blanket denunciations of Wall Street (though that exists too). Occupy Wall Street’s rhetoric has changed the national economic dialogue and inspired international solidarity while Occupy Albany’s impact is regional and keenly exposed divisions between state and local governments.

“People brought in issues they’d been working on (redistricting, millionaire’s tax, fracking) and our proximity to the capitol increased pressure on us to pressure state government,” Daniel Robbins said. Robbins is an unemployed social worker and volunteers on the coordinating committee.

Occupy Albany is part of a nexus of upstate occupation groups including Kingston, Poughkeepsie, Glen Falls and Rochester. These occupations have done convergences in Albany, conducting noisy and loud protests. It appears to be working.

Reversing himself, Gov. Cuomo raised taxes on high-income earners during a special legislative session earlier this month to address “fairness” in the tax code though the governor allowed the high income surcharge to expire (known as the “millionaire’s tax”). Nonetheless, Occupy Albany was not happy with the compromise and cited that the new tax increases bring in less revenue (only $2.5 billion in place of the $5 billion of expiring tax) than the former tax code.

“If you look at how adamant [Cuomo] was 2-3 weeks ago and now, it has a lot to do with Occupy’s framing of the 99 percent – that started to connect with people,” Colin Donnaruma of Occupy Albany said.

Further down state, Occupy Poughkeepsie faces a similar dilemma. Poughkeepsie city officials evicted the occupation at Hulme Park on December 7 but occupiers continue to hold general assemblies in the park and in area churches. The city of Rochester also arrested 28 people on trespassing charges in Washington Square Park though protestors held a pre-hearing rally on December 14 in support of their occupation.

“The general trend [in OWS] is to move inside and we want a regional occupation. We are in the vein of Zuccotti Park, we’re all inclusive,” Roger Clementine, an Occupy Poughkeepsie member said. “But will people just walk into an encampment in snowy, below freezing weather?”


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