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Black Lives Matter Hunkers Down Outside City Hall 24/7

Issue 216

Eman Abdelhadi Aug 15, 2016

Update below | As part of the latest wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations arising this summer, approximately 200 activists in New York helped set up an encampment at City Hall Park on Monday, August 1. Their demands include reparations for victims of police brutality, defunding the NYPD and reinvestment in black and brown communities. 

Threatened with eviction by multiple rows of NYPD officers during the encampment’s first night, demonstrators moved a block southwest of City Hall to a property that is open 24 hours a day and designated as privately-owned public space. Activists are sleeping in the nearby park between Spruce and Beekman at night and return daily to City Hall Park which they have rechristened “Abolition Square.” The number of participants fluctuates with several hundred visiting the protest after work hours and approximately a dozen sleeping overnight. The police presence around the demonstrators has tapered off since the encampment’s first night. But barricades remained around City Hall as The Indypendent went to press, to keep demonstrators at bay.  

Initially protesters, led by organizers with Millions March NYC, were also seeking the resignation of NYPD Commissioner William Bratton. Just one day into the encampment, the police chief announced he was stepping down at the end of the month to take a lucrative job in the private sector. 

Activists at Abolition Square celebrated Bratton’s resignation. However, the broken windows policies the commissioner institutionalized during his career are larger than any one person. Protesters say they will remain until the NYPD ceases to criminalize poor and working-class people in communities of color.

“They know that the economy is crumbling in our communities,” said Joel Northam, one of the protest organizers. “But rather than do anything about it they’d rather arrest people and put them in cages. It’s a really sick cycle. These arrests are filling the coffers of the city and in return the city is pouring more money into its policing apparatus.”

Instead, the demonstrators want the NYPD’s annual $5.5 billion budget to go toward reparations for those who have been brutalized by police or their survivors, and to be invested in Black and Latino neighborhoods subjected to broken windows policing. 

“Those are our short-term demands,” said Northam. “As far as our long term demands go, we want the abolishment of this police force, this justice system, these political parties and this entire corrupt-ass system.”

The protest marks a divergence from other Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have shaken the country in recent years, both in form and substance. The organizers’ radical, abolitionist politics set them apart from reformist strains within the movement. The tactic of establishing an encampment also differs from other protests, as it brings people together over a sustained period. 

In Chicago, members of the #LetUsBreathe Collective have set up an ongoing encampment, too. Located across the infamous Homon Square detention facility that they want shut down, they’re calling their tent city “Freedom Square.” 

Many observers see reflections of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street movement in the demonstrations, although Northam prefers not to use the term “occupy,” as it is offensive to indigenous peoples. 

Since it was established, Abolition Square has been host to dozens of workshops, including self-care sessions, street medic trainings and discussions of police and prison abolition. Groups like Revolutionaries Against Gender-oppression Everywhere (RAGE), Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) and Labor for Black Lives, a nascent network of unionists mobilizing to support Black Lives Matter, are among those who have hosted meetings in the park. 

A generation politicized and trained through the Movement for Black Lives, as well as the anti-war and Occupy movements, has come together at Abolition Square. By providing a meeting space and a sustained presence for radical politics, participants hope the encampment will become a major organizing hub in New York City. 

Update: The encampment near City Hall remains intact but organizers have shifted tactics in recent days. The group's media arm, Abolition Square Media Collective (@abolition_media), published the following statement this week: 

On Monday August 15th, Abolition Square launched a new outreach program aimed at providing jail support to recently released arrestees from Manhattan Central Booking at 100 Centre Street in Lower Manhattan.

Abolitionists campaigned outside the courthouse targeting those freshly released from being arraigned. The majority of people who pass through the New York City court system are charged with minor offenses, such as turnstile jumping, open container, or for simply being Black. These are the people affected by Broken Windows that Abolition Square needed to reach. Nicknamed “The Tombs,” Manhattan Central Booking has a notorious reputation for Kafkaesque bureaucracy, negligence, and abuse with judges readily sending people to Riker’s Island simply for not being able to post bail.

Since 8:00 am, campaigners said they talked to nearly 100 people who had just gotten out of jail. In the early morning, a large crowd of approximately 40 people had gathered around the activists to learn about jail support, their legal rights regarding interaction with law enforcement and the courts, and the larger Abolition Square project.

“We’re willing to stay connected with the people who are both affected and who want to get involved,” protesters explained. “We are there for our community, we don’t leave our people locked up in there.”

Abolition activists gave court victims directions to the square. Many people were relieved and even enthusiastic about the support they received outside the courthouse. Many were very receptive of the abolition and reparations demands showing a growing sentiment of NYPD rejection among New Yorkers. Some explained their charges and circumstances in great detail, with activists providing legal advice, while others angrily denounced the bureaucratic nightmare of the Central Booking process.

In a city where nearly 1.2 million people have open warrants, the courthouses are where the real material violence of the carceral state begins. Even if someone survives their arrest by an officer, they are then introduced to an entirely new level of oppression upon their booking. Abolition Square participants agreed it was time to assist those who face this immediate violence. Some organizers plan on reaching out to the Outer Boroughs to further organize black and brown working class communities.

In addition to providing legal and social support to court victims, protesters also chanted “Fuck the Police!” and “Abolish the NYPD!” to much fanfare.

For the latest developments search the hashtags #AbolitionSquare and #ShutDownCityHall on Twitter.

The Indypendent is a monthly New York City-based newspaper and website. Subscribe to our print edition here. You can make a donation or become a monthly sustainer here.

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