On June 23, a week before the New York City budget deadline, Black Lives Matter activists began occupying City Hall Park. Their demand, a central demand: for the City Council to defund the NYPD by at least $1 billion. Although the council failed to make the meaningful cuts activists had demanded, many of the occupiers have pledged to remain.
Over the past several days, the eastern part of City Hall Park has been transformed into a space not only of protest but one of community building, resource distribution and political education.
Each day, a schedule is released, featuring teach-ins on topics like housing rights, Black-led co-ops and protesting safely. There are musical performances, films and meditation classes. People who want to volunteer can help man resource tables for food, cell phone-charging, clothing and bedding, PPE, toiletries and camping supplies. They can help clean up and perform security duties. There are spaces in the autonomous zone for gardening, art-making and calling your representatives. The entire space is designed for dreaming about what a cop-free future might look like.
Democratic assemblies are held frequently, during which people voice their opinions one at a time and vote on issues at hand. Tactics for dealing with the police are a frequent topic.
Their presence has been constant since the beginning of Occupy City Hall and there have been periodic skirmishes between demonstrators and cops.
Many of the organizers who helped establish the camp have decided to redirect their activities in different directions following the City Council’s budget vote. Others are determined to maintain the space. The Indy has been on hand at the demonstration since its inception. Here’s what some of those have taken part in the encampment have had to say in their own words.
One of the things that was most striking to me is that this morning someone said, “Some people just show up here for a meal.”
I think the most profound thing about this space is that there’s indigenous people and we’re on indigenous land, but the people who are indigenous to the streets are homeless people. I’ve never seen a space where these people receive such loving attention and acknowledgment and have resources offered to them in a way that makes them feel human.
‘Hopefully, people will see stuff like this and be inspired or motivated to start other actions.’
I think it’s the number one example of why defunding and abolishing the police and abolishing prisons is so crucial.
I don’t know police officers who set up whole systems, whole solidarity economies. They actually just criminalize these people.
There was an Iriquois leader here who spoke about how he’s destitute but he’s mentally strong and it hurts because the government keeps taking things away from him. He’s policed and he’s hurt by the state and the fact is that this space is here to heal people.
This is City Hall. City Hall historically should be a place for the last, the least, the lost and the looked-over, but it has always ignored people who need spaces to live.
The thing about this space is that the people who are the people that are the last, the least, the lost and the looked-over, they can transform into being valued first, being heard first, being served first. As long as we live in a police state where we criminalize these folks in their spaces, they won’t ever feel safe.
We need radical dependency on each other. There’s a role for the people that are currently cops, but they need to reassess how they want to help their community. Helping their community isn’t carrying around guns and handcuffs and pepper spray and teargas and threatening people with coercion and putting them in cages. They need to quit their jobs and join us in serving folks and making communities whole. That can’t happen if you have people who are an occupying force, and that’s what they are.
There’s a force of love and there’s a force of coercion and evil. We are forceful and we are occupying, but what we’re serving is love and attention and acknowledgment and resources, actual material resources. That’s not something the police do. They don’t serve material resources. They don’t give people space. The only space they give us is behind bars. They don’t hear people. They question people. They interrogate people. They are constantly looking to hurt others and that doesn’t work.
So it’s about assessing what you offer to folks. So the most powerful thing about this space to me is the people who are here. The people that are usually not seen are seen and heard and valued and safe here. That’s more important than anything else.
There are a lot of great speakers. There are a lot of non-binary Black speakers, which is great. People are saying their pronouns and stuff, it was a really good energy. And every day the group is growing. It was triple the number of people between the first and second days.
I really liked that yesterday these two women came and brought us aside and gave us some preparation for when the cops come. They showed us how to lock arms and different methods of sitting on the floor to make it harder for cops to actually get through.
But they were like, “When they decide they’re gonna come — no matter what we do and even if we’re not violent, even if we don’t incite anything, they’ll still come and beat the shit out of you.” I like how they are preparing people. Our main goal is to protect Black people. We have bodies here and we can be allies but I think it’s good that there’s now this objective of protecting people. That’s the focus.
It’s really great to see everyone coming out and volunteering, offering all these supplies that are super important. It’s really cool to see everyone pitching in. I think this is gonna be something. There could be occupations in different areas, too. Our objective is to occupy space. This is the first protest I’ve been to where the main objective is to occupy and hold the space. I think it’s really cool. Hopefully, people will see stuff like this and be inspired or motivated to start other actions like this.
This is my first time at Occupy City Hall, but the Justice Committee’s Cop Watch team has been here the whole time. Cop Watch is a program that goes out into the community and keeps an eye on the police. We do patrols in all of the boroughs. Whenever we see a police encounter, we stop and we observe it. We interact with the people if they need any help or want to know what their rights are. We’ve been doing it on the streets for a long time. Most recently, after the protest in the subway and the beatdowns that happened on the subway, we started going into the subways and doing trainings on the subways to teach people how to cop watch while they’re on the trains. It was well-received.
When this all jumped off and we knew the people were gonna be staying down here to occupy until there was a decision on the budget, we started to send people down in shifts because this was the late-night section, that’s why I decided to come down. I thought it might be crunch time since we’re getting close to a decision.
Being here I had flashbacks because I was part of Occupy Wall Street’s criminal justice sub-committee. This has brought me a flashback to both occupies. It’s got the same atmosphere, the people helping, the free resources and clothing.
I’m happy to be from Brooklyn, but I just don’t like to stay in Brooklyn. If I grew up in Manhattan, I know my character would be completely different. I have rhino skin, growing up in Brooklyn. I have all the toughness that anyone could want. I don’t think I would have been met with any of the hardships I was met with in Brooklyn so I’m happy about that. But I’m happy to be here all the time. I don’t like being in Brooklyn. I don’t like spending my time in Brooklyn.
For the past couple years, I’ve been hanging around Washington Square Park a lot. I really have a love for Bob Dylan and older generations — old white man music, to sum it up. I appreciate it to a certain extent. I went to Washington Square Park and met a lot of older musicians who listen to the stuff I like — mostly Bob Seeger, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel. So I frequent that place a lot. I busk there.
When the movement first started, I heard about what happened in other cities — and I’m a very withdrawn individual. Not to say I was on the side of the opposition, but I just didn’t really have any feelings toward George Floyd or Black Lives Matter. I just live. I never really focus on the outside world.
When this stuff happened, I was like, “I have a camera. I study film. I kinda wanna record people setting buildings on fire and shit like that.” I’ve had some run-ins with the NYPD, so I was like, “Yeah, fuck the police.” I’m really down with this and being from the Black side of Brooklyn I’ve seen the police brutalize my friends and stuff like that. I was like, “Fuck the cops. I’m with this.”
So the first three days, I was just going around with my camera and recording shit. My hard drive got full with space, so I was done. So I just went to Washington Square Park to play with a friend and a march came through and I was like, “Fuck. This shit can’t happen without us.” Eventually, I started playing along with the chants. People were asking me to play songs. I always go with a lot of Bob Dylan. His songs are very appropriate for the times right now. I started kind of preaching his lyrics, in a sense, to the people who might need them. People really enjoyed it.
Especially for marching. I was marching for like 18 days straight. I know that playing music or listening to music while you’re marching for 12 hours can take the tiredness out of your mind and really keep you going. So I was happy to assist with that.
This is way more dedication than a march. It’s people that are here for literally 24 hours. I see a couple of people right now that I know have been here for like five days straight. No showering or anything like that. And again, the same thing I do with marches, to give some people some energy or enthusiasm when they’re not intimidating cops or eating or something, I was more than happy to do it. Kind of like a public service kind of thing.
I’m very much so hopeful about this. And I’m a super pessimist. In the first few days, I thought nothing was going to change. I was proved drastically wrong. Within that first week, you had all four officers involved in the murder of George Floyd arrested and charged.
This happened in the midst of a pandemic where everyone is so angry and crazy from being inside. Everyone lost their job and people are fucking dying so everyone’s pissed off. To add on to this pandemic fucking police brutality is like the worst thing they ever could have done. We showed up in fantastic numbers. A great legion of New Yorkers. I think New York is on like day 34 right now and people are like, “You guys are still going?” And it’s like, “Yeah! We’re still fucking going!”
I am the secretary-general of the Pakistan-USA Freedom Forum. We stand for the supremacy of the constitution, civil rights and no war. End occupations! Anywhere, by anyone. Even by the USA.
This is my eighth day here. I’m a peace activist. My whole life, seventy years. The United States government totally doesn’t represent the United States citizens or the values of the United States. Our government abused the values of our forefathers. We got independence in 1776 but we’re just behaving the same now. We are the new colonialists. One of the dirtiest words in modern history, “colonialists.”
This country I adopted as my second country. Being a Muslim, being an immigrant and being a Pakistani, this is our job and our duty, to serve this country named the United States. When I say that I mean to tell the truth. To stand for justice, stand for the real thing, which is telling the government to check its actions. They are not representing us. It’s almost the end of this country. They think they are exceptional and superior but they’re helping Israel and looking the other way about 73 years of the Kashmir Valley by India. As my job as the secretary-general, I must tell you that we are very angry at the U.S State Department.
I think this morning I see the nerves of the high police officers looking shaky the way they arrested the two people at five a.m. They don’t know how to deal with your sons and daughters and the young students, the young kids who are the future of the country. They are not violent. They don’t have guns. They aren’t killing people. They might be doing something that in your mind is against the law, the law which you have always broken and always will break.
Which law allows you to shoot the weaker guy? The African American, the immigrant, the Muslim? Which law gives you the permission? And then you don’t go to court. Because you have a very powerful partner. The police union. The union is the helper of the murderer.
I’m originally from New York, but I moved to New Orleans in 2015. I got here a couple of days ago. This is the first demonstration I’ve been in in New York.
I would love to see money disinvested from the police and put into safe housing situations for trans people who are experiencing homelessness. I would love to see some of those funds allocated, even a piece of them, to protect the trans community from discrimination in housing, educaiton and provide access to healthcare.
This perspective comes from being trans in New York and experiencing homelessness and a lot of the disparities that I experienced. We don’t even have access to shelters that are safe. There is a movement to create safe spaces for the trans community to be able to exist and be able to live quality lives. Constitutionally, we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But we don’t have that because we’re not seen as people in society.
A lot of us are living in poverty. We’re living in poverty and survive with sex work because we don’t have access to resources like employment, even simple resources like working at Starbucks — you can’t because whoever’s managing at that Starbucks, if it’s between a trans person and a cis person, the cis person is going to get the job because they are upheld by some normal view of what people are “supposed” to be.
When we’re talking about Black Lives Matter we have to include in that narrative Black trans lives because there’s an intersectionality here. It’s so easy to remove trans people from the narrative and not acknowledge them but meanwhile, we’re dying at an unprecedented rate.
There’s a way to make that happen and to incorporate us into the movement. But we need people to be vocal about our presence and vocal about solidarity and about being able to protect trans lives and introduce initiatives to be able to protect trans people.
I don’t feel safe sleeping in public anymore, so I’m not staying the night. I have friends here that I’m staying with so I’m lucky in that way but I wasn’t always lucky like that. It took time.
I’m from the Bay Area, so I’m pretty familiar with the radical movements going on, but this is actually one of my first days out here and it’s honestly a lot more grounding than I thought it would be. It made me very appreciative for everyone who lays their bodies on the line every single day. It made me appreciate the radicalness of just using your body to be on the frontline, no other razzmatazz, no words. Just be here, show up and be with each other. And I think it’s really amazing.
One billion dollars would be a start. The fact that there’s even $1 billion to take away from them is kind of ridiculous, but the goal, in the end, is abolition. Period.
I think that in this era where we have a surplus amount of time and also the radicalization of people and the shift of the status quo — like the fact that “defund the police” is even a common statement now that it’s something we would even debate — speaks to where this movement is going and how willing people are to continue to move forward. I don’t think that this is just the end. We need to adjust to this society.
Kiara Thomas contributed to this article.
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