Occupy City Hall’s New Life as Homeless Camp: ‘Not Pretty All the Time’ – The New York Times

When it first kicked off last month, the activist encampment that billed itself as Occupy City Hall was viewed as the latest wave of the city’s George Floyd protests — an innovative political space that, under summer skies, attracted peaceful crowds to speeches and teach-ins focused on a narrow goal: cutting $1 billion from the New York Police Department’s budget.

In the past week, however, the number of protesters has dropped off sharply and those who have remained have taken on a new responsibility: caring for dozens of homeless people who were drawn to the compound for its free food, open-air camping and communal sensibility.

It has not been easy.

Brawls have erupted. Passers-by and journalists have been harassed. Local residents — even those who say they support the camp’s politics — have complained that it has turned into a disorderly shantytown where violence has occurred. Several medics who had been there from the start announced this week that they were leaving, citing “a lack of safety” in a statement.

The coronavirus has also become a growing concern as people cluster together, sometimes without masks.

Image

On recent nights, about 100 people have typically slept in tents and on the ground in the park, most of whom are considered homeless, organizers said. Signs denouncing racism and the police are everywhere, taped to tables or attached to metal fences. On many days, music blares out of speakers.

The organizers of the camp — renamed Abolition Park — defended the project, saying that by serving meals to homeless people and helping to provide a safe place to sleep, they are doing what they said the city had not: addressing the needs of its most vulnerable residents.

They acknowledged that disagreements, even acts of violence, had occurred in the park, but they said they were looking for ways to deal with such troubles without involving the police.

“It’s not pretty all the time — and we’re not just going to abandon it because it’s not pretty right now,” said Desirae, the 20-year-old leader of the compound’s media team, who declined to give her last name. “We’re going to stay here through the ugly.”

The camp, just feet from City Hall, presents a thorny political problem for Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has been criticized by the demonstrators — and by his Black supporters — since the George Floyd demonstrations started in late May.

A spokeswoman for the mayor declined to comment, noting only that since the protests at City Hall Park started, there have been 12 complaints to the 311 hotline about the area near City Hall, none of them concerning homeless people.

The Police Department referred all questions to the mayor’s office.

Some organizers said the complications were the inevitable growing pains of “unlearning and relearning” concepts such as leadership, ownership and safety.

Image

Image

Image

Others said they considered this past week a transition stage as their movement, which is led by Black organizers, figured out internal structures, communication strategies and programming that can be sustained long-term. The physical space is also being reorganized, and a new “grand opening” is expected soon, they said.

And they said they were taking steps to curb the spread of the coronavirus, distributing masks and sanitizer.

Still, there have been tense situations, including violence.

At a community gathering on Tuesday night, several protesters clashed with one another verbally and physically. Then on Wednesday morning, two more protesters assaulted a person who entered the encampment with a sign proclaiming support for the police.

Throughout the day on Wednesday, joggers and passers-by — including one reporter — were confronted by people in the park, accused of having trespassed or of being spies for the police.

Over the weekend, a resident of 49 Chambers Street, a condominium complex across from the camp, said in an email that some people from the camp had tried to break into the building and had threatened to burn it down.

“We’ve spoken to the N.Y.P.D., and the response was that the mayor’s office ordered them to stand down and not interfere with crimes being committed on this specific block,” the resident said. “This leaves our building — the only residential building out of multiple government buildings on the block — defenseless.”

Image

The occupation began on June 23 when about 100 people, led by the grass-roots group Vocal-NY, set up shop on a small patch of grass to the east of City Hall with the sole mission of bringing pressure on the City Council to cut the Police Department’s funding at an upcoming vote before the July 1 budget deadline.

The little squatters’ colony grew into a kind of happy Hooverville, a sprawl of tarps, tents and bedrolls that spread through the plaza that lies between City Hall and the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. There were food tables, cleaning crews, a hand-sanitizing station and even a library where campers could go to hear lectures on the school-to-prison pipeline.

While the protest was mostly peaceful, the facades of the nearby Surrogate’s Court and Tweed Courthouse buildings on Chambers Street were marred with graffiti, though it was not known who was responsible.

Image

Image

Image

The encampment reached its peak on June 30 when thousands of people crowded into the plaza after dark to watch the Council vote on a giant video screen.

While the Council ultimately decided to shift nearly $1 billion away from the police, many of the protesters expressed disappointment, wanting deeper cuts. Most of them, along with leaders from Vocal-NY, went home within days.

But some, like Adi Sragovich, stayed — largely, she said, out of a sense of duty to the homeless people who had in the meantime flocked to the park.

On Wednesday morning, Ms. Sragovich, 20, was still at the compound, fixing people sandwiches and plastic bags of granola for breakfast.

“It felt unethical pulling out,” she said.

Beyond the free meals and the help-yourself clothes bin, the park activists have set up a makeshift mental health tent, where a licensed social worker has been advising people suffering from trauma, mental illness or substance abuse.

A team of volunteer “de-escalators” has also been drafted to move about the camp defusing disputes and soothing frayed tempers.

Image

“This space has transitioned a lot in the last two weeks,” said René Jean-Baptiste, 24, a protester who has been at the camp since the beginning. “We know it’s not permanent, but it is a safe space, and we’re trying to get the people the services they need.”

David Terry said he appreciated the gesture. A few weeks ago, Mr. Terry, 56, said he became homeless when a fire damaged his apartment in Harlem. He made his way to the camp near City Hall. Now he spends his days listening to the music in the plaza or lounging about with others talking politics. He has even tried his hand at the meditation tent.

“There’s other places I could go,” he said, “but I like it here.”

At least so far, the organizers have not come up with a specific list of demands or any explicit agenda for this latest version of the camp. But they have said they would like to refocus the conversation more on abolishing the police than merely defunding it.

Image

“Abolishing prisons and police does not just mean subtracting those institutions from society but building a world where everyone gets the care they need,” said Katherine, 27, an organizer who would not give her last name.

Twice during the occupation’s first phase, before July 1, scores of police officers pushed into the park and fought with large crowds of protesters, leading to arrests and injuries. But in the past few days, while the police have loomed in the distance, there have been no physical confrontations.

Some activists said they were more worried about outsiders or those within the camp.

“This is a utopia among chaos,” said a man who calls himself Professor Kannon and has been giving history lessons on police brutality and civil rights since the start of the encampment.

“We have disputes and disagreements — if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be a family,” Professor Kannon said. “The only people in here that’s going to harm us — is us.”