In the early morning hours yesterday after the New York City Council approved the City’s 2021 budget, NYPD officers advanced on Occupy City Hall protesters that had filled Centre and Chambers streets in downtown Manhattan, pushing them into City Hall Park. Though efforts by the police remained largely non-confrontational, many of the structures and stations set up by organizers were destroyed or damaged in the process.
The protestors have been camped in the area for a week, initially led by a group called VocalNY, and were calling for total defunding of the NYPD in the city’s new budget. VocalNY left the space after a budget decision last night that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez decried as a “disingenuous illusion,” but dozens of protesters and organizers have decided to stay in the encampment until “real” reform– not re-shuffling of city funds– is achieved.
“We collectively decided as a group that we wanted to hold on to this space for as long as we’re able, even though the organizers, Vocal New York, have left,” one organizer said. “Their intention was only to be here through the budget hearing.”
What started as a protest space has now blossomed into a self-serving community, reminiscent of the Occupy movement in 2011, or the more recent Autonomous Zone in Seattle. Behind barriers that were moved further into the park this morning, rainbow graffiti with sayings like “Justice for Breonna Taylor,” “Love yourself, love the people,” and “Abolish the Police” covers the pavement in front of City Hall. The subway entrance has been decorated with flags and signs, and protestors have erected a tent city in the middle of the square.
“Our intention now is to hold this space, as long as we’re able, we’re trying to figure out how to build capacity because this has actually been a really productive organizing space for us,” the organizer added, “We’ve been able to educate each other a lot, we’ve been able to build pretty strategic connections that can strengthen this movement.”
On Wednesday, protesters and organizers were working to rebuild and relocate the items and shelters that had been destroyed in the early morning police raid and subsequent thunderstorms. Tarps were strewn on the ground, and barricades pushed on their sides. Many of the group’s belongings were moved to a tree-covered area in the center of the park, and stacks of signs sat atop wet tarps and blankets. But already, many of the systems and services that have kept demonstrators fed and cared for for the past week were back up and running.
There is no payment in the Occupied zone. Demonstrators have set up a “People’s Bodega,” where you can get cleaning supplies, PPE, cough drops, or a cigarette (of your choice) handed to you by a gloved demonstrator with tweezers next to the “Abolition Library,” with titles selected, particularly, for the edification of white allies. Across from the Library is the Garden, where tomato plants spill over ceramic pots, and a demonstrator advised adding olive oil to soil to grow better tomatoes. There is a tent where medics with red crosses taped on their shirts treat injuries and illness, and an enormous food station near the street, where volunteers hand out donated food.
In a week, the space has become a community. Demonstrators mill around, and call each other by name from behind masks. Some unhoused people have moved into the occupied area, and demonstrators share food, clothes, and supplies. The park now has the hum of a well-oiled machine, with organizers running around, making sure everyone has shelter, food, and supplies.
At the perimeter, however, there are still police. This morning, they took down the barricades the organizers had erected, and pushed people into the park. Now, they stand in groups at the park’s edge, just outside police barricades, and watch the demonstrators.
“They intimidated us for about two, two and a half hours,” an organizer said, “Now they’ve just been watching us. I don’t know what their intentions are.”
Given the brutality seen in the first weeks of protests after George Floyd’s death and Wednesday’s clearing of the Seattle autonomous zone in the wake of multiple shootings, however, some worry they could descend on the camp at any moment. But as the community grows, the protesters– and the movement– have made it clear that they are here to stay. With marches growing into encampments, and outrage growing into specific, political demands, the protest movement that has gripped the city for over a month shows no signs of going away.