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#TakeTrumpTower Teach-ins Reclaim Public Space

New Yorkers are taking over privately-owned public space at the president’s Midtown skyscraper and fighting the powerful interests Trump represents in the process.

Jesse Rubin May 11

Activists gathered at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan on Tuesday afternoon, criticizing the president’s climate policies and calling on New York Comptroller Scott Stringer to divest the city’s pension funds from fossil fuels. Unlike most previous demonstrations that have taken place since the November elections, where barricades and armed guards have kept protesters sometimes as far as block away from the building, this gathering took place on the heavily fortified Trump property itself.

Trump reached an agreement with the city in 1979 to allow the tower to reach 20 stories taller than the city’s zoning resolution permitted in exchange for providing public amenities, including a ground level atrium, a bench and two upper-level gardens. Advocates have long accused the Trump Organization of failing to hold up its end of the bargain by arbitrarily closing off public sections of the property.

“The spaces here in Trump Tower that are supposed to be open to the public very often aren’t,” said civil rights attorney Samuel B. Cohen, who was on hand for Tuesday’s gathering — part of an ongoing initiative to #TakeTrumpTower and reclaim the privately-owned public spaces at 725 Fifth Avenue.

Taking place on the tower’s fifth-floor public terrace, the event was billed as teach-in but felt more like a protest. Trump Organization security, Secret Service and NYPD officers huddled at the crowd’s periphery as speakers denounced Trump and urged Stringer to pull pensions from fossil fuel investments.

One floor below them, the skyscraper’s fourth-floor public garden was closed — “due to construction,” a placard read, though none appeared to be taking place. On March 20, when activists attempted to stage a separate teach-in on the topic of affordable housing, the doors to the fifth-floor terrace were locked — because of fallen snow, Trump Organization representatives informed activists.

We’re back in Trump Tower to #TeachTrump that affordable housing matters to New Yorkers. #421AGoAway

Posted by New York Communities for Change on Monday, March 20, 2017

“It appears that Trump is violating both the spirit and the letter of his agreement with the city,” Cohen remarked. At one point during the demonstration the fire department was called — an attempt by the Trump Organization to shut down the gathering, activists suspect — but the teach-in was allowed to proceed without a hitch.

Speakers expressed loathing for Trump and deep concern over his climate policies.

“Divestment is a whose-side-are-you-on question,” May Boeve, Executive Director at 350.org, told The Indypendent after addressing the crowd. “We’ve got the fossil fuel industry on one side, obviously backed by the Trump administration, and then we have the rest of us and our communities and our needs and the climate crisis.”

“Wherever Trump goes, he brings death with him,” Jamie Tyberg of New York Communities for Change told The Indy. “Everything good has gone to die ever since he was elected president. We are seeing Obamacare die and because of that people will literally die. Because of his ties to the fossil fuel industry, their financial backing of his campaign and now his administration, the planet is going to die faster than it already was.”

Trump and other wealthy elites are intensifying climate change and profiting off of it, said Tyberg. Poor and working class New Yorkers are “not the ones causing these problems. They’re not the ones with the choice or the power to do anything about climate change. The divestment movement is really powerful because you are shifting the responsibility away from the individuals and into the institutions themselves, because that’s where really all the wealth and power is concentrated.”

According to a December report from Arabella Advisors, nearly 700 institutions and more than 58,000 individuals spanning 76 countries have begun divesting from financial holdings tied to fossil fuel interests, representing a $5.197 trillion transfer of assets. New York City’s pension fund portfolio is worth approximately $175 billion, making it a prime target for climate activists. As part of his duty as comptroller, Scott Stringer manages these funds, which include major investments in oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron as well as major banks like Wells Fargo, whose close connection to the Dakota Access Pipeline has drawn anger from American Indian communities and environmentalists.  

“Divestment impacts the financial sector and that’s who Trump is paying attention to,” said Boeve. “The idea that there is a carbon bubble and your assets could be stranded if you’re invested in coal, that’s an idea that’s now mainstream economic thinking. And that’s incredibly important, down to the community level.”

A spokesperson with Stringer’s office raised concerns that divesting from fossil fuels could violate the comptroller’s legal fiduciary duties, but highlighted Stringer’s environmental record.

“Here’s what these folks aren’t telling you — Scott Stringer has one of the strongest environmental records around,” said comptroller spokesperson Jack Sterne in a written statement provided to The Indy. “From being one of the first to fight against fracking nationwide, to working with comptrollers and treasurers across America to support the Paris [Climate] Agreement, to fighting against climate deniers and pushing for climate competent corporate boards, Comptroller Stringer has gotten real results.”

Activists with #TakeTrumpTower intend to continue using public spaces at the building as a forum for political education and to bring attention to issues affecting the city and the country. The next teach-in is planned for June 14 and will feature an interactive performance regarding Trump’s cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Peter Rugh contributed reporting to this piece. 

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Photo: Demonstrators at Trump Tower on Tuesday. Credit: Heather Craig.