The Occupation at City Hall

The Occupation at City Hall

The occupation sought to challenge the priorities of a city government that would choose to cut funding for guidance counselors, park workers, teachers, and other social services while continuing to spend billions on cops.

Protesters sleep at Occupy City Hall (Angela Brussel)

The apparition of New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s face on a projector screen, surrounded by hundreds of protesters, was one of the most uncanny—yet defining—images of Occupy City Hall. After weeks of unrest, the city council faced its first substantial political test: a vote on the 2021 budget. For the protesters who had spent the week camping outside City Hall, Johnson’s budget didn’t do enough to reduce spending on the NYPD. Cheers, applause, and boos filled the middle plaza as council members, at bizarre camera angles characteristic of Zoom meetings, explained their votes deep into the night.

As occupiers watched the screen, others manned the barricades along the perimeter of the park, facing down police in riot gear who threatened to break into the encampment. At various points the boundaries of the space expanded as nearby blocks were annexed. A young man wearing a camouflage jacket and an American flag bandana as a mask later told me about having been arrested as a teenager and making the dreadful walk down Police Plaza Path. Dancing on that same walkway brought a sense of “joy.”

The occupation, which began on June 23 and was cleared out by police in the early hours of this morning, was established with one central demand: for the city council to vote to cut the NYPD budget by at least $1 billion. In New York City, taxpayers hand over about $11 billion to the police each year—making it one of the most lavishly funded departments per capita in the United States. Local frustration about the oversized presence of the NYPD isn’t new. But the national movement that sprung up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in Minneapolis brought renewed energy and confidence to activists who argued that cities should reconsider how much they spend on policing. On June 26 the Minneapolis City Council had unanimously agreed to scrap their police and replace it with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention. Activists around the country hoped to see more action along these lines. Through the month of June, in New York and across the country, protesters holding “Defund the Police” signs were kettled, tear gassed, and beaten up. In the face of nonviolent dissent, the police’s only response was more violence.

“Why do our students lack textbooks when the NYPD has submarine drones?” one sign at the occupation asked. “Why are our crucial programs and community services always the first on the chopping block?” The occupation sought to challenge the priorities of a city government that would choose to cut funding for guidance counselors, park workers, teachers, and other social services while continuing to spend billions on cops. It began seven days before the scheduled vote on an austerity budget, which had to make up for a $9 billion shortfall in revenue due to the slowdown of the economy during the coronavirus pandemic. In its timing and focus on the vote, the occupation had a practical orientation. The activists who gathered around the screen for hours to watch council members speak showed deep investment in the politics of the immediately possible.

They were ultimately disappointed with the outcome of the vote. While the city government claimed a cut approaching $1 billion, activists said it was a sleight of hand. Instead of real cuts, the budget shifted money from the NYPD to other departments where it would still be spent on policing, and used calculations of an expected decrease in overtime claims with no mechanism to enforce it (the city’s Independent Budget Office estimates that the force will exceed the overtime cap by $400 million). The council members’ apparent capitulation to the duplicity of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s budget drew much ire, and protesters vowed that the occupation would be the beginning, not the end, of their fight to defund the police. This fight could also be a defining moment for the council itself: as journalist Ross Barkan has noted, thirty-five of the fifty-one city council seats are term-limited and an organized push in 2021 by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or other groups could bring in a new wave of council members more attuned to their demands.

For a week the occupation also served as a dynamic site of debate among people eager to examine or live out the more radical politics of the moment, inspired by Black Lives Matter, the largest movement in this country’s history. The conversations I had and the interactions I observed in the camp suggested an ambitious political horizon. The camp was named “Abolition Park,” and the vision of a future without police or prisons mingled and, at times, clashed with the goal of reducing the NYPD’s budget. The abolitionist current was manifest on various levels—from fiery disputes between activists to approaches to dealing with interpersonal harm within the space. As they camped out to draw attention to the upcoming vote, organizers sought to model, however imperfectly, the world they hoped to eventually build: one that wouldn’t be free from conflict, but would be free from violence.

The occupation began when local activist group VOCAL-NY, Black Youth Project 100, and the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color caucus of the DSA, all of whom fall under the Communities United for Police Reform umbrella, organized a march that ended with the establishment of the camp. Members from these groups coordinated the provision of food and supplies, recruited volunteers, and wrote community agreements for the space. Wearing a black “Defund the Police” face mask, Jawanza Williams of VOCAL-NY told me that, amid the nationwide spectacle of police violence, political education and teach-ins could challenge dominant ideas about the necessity of policing and introduce new people to abolitionist ideas. “We have to be able to imagine new futures,” he said. “And we cannot use the frameworks that exist to imagine our future. We have to redefine some words. We have to redefine safety.”

 

When I first arrived at Abolition Park on Friday, June 26, the occupation had been in place for three days. A green and white Don Panchito truck was giving away free tacos. In front of the fence guarding City Hall were tables for writing letters to representatives (QR codes took you directly to pages to contact a city council member or de Blasio, or to register to vote) and an ever-expanding library. Across from those tables was the medic camp and, further in, an island of people sitting on lawn chairs, mats, blankets, yoga mats, and tarps. Loud cheers erupted when a group of cyclists, on their own march against police brutality, coasted past. Motorists honked in support. Drivers in a trash truck received one of the loudest cheers of the night. Protesters yelled, within police earshot, “These are the real essential workers.” Around the edges I could hear the brush strokes of people making art on the floor. A shrine to Breonna Taylor, the twenty-six-year-old woman killed by the police in Louisville in March, was decorated with lit candles and flowers. Another monument featured a grid of fifteen people killed by the NYPD—including Kimani Gray, Ramarley Graham, and Shantel Davis—with golden halos and rose petals scattered around. The whole encampment was a giant cenotaph for Black people killed by police.

“This is the first time in my life living through a true revolutionary movement,” Rudy Martinez, a graduate student of Colombian descent who was reading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives under the canopy of trees, told me. Martinez wore round eyeglasses, an ankh necklace, and had a Sontag-like streak of white in his shoulder length hair. It had been hard for him to stay home and sleep or focus on anything else with all that had been happening across the country. He had been impressed by the seventeen-year-olds he kept running into and was excited to see “teenagers do in one night what theorists have been theorizing for decades on end.”

Some of the teenagers returned from their Maghrib prayers. One, a Moroccan-American with a black and white Palestinian keffiyeh wrapped around his head, was a baby when 9/11 happened. He was alarmed to realize that Black communities had been undergoing the harassment that Arab and Muslim-American ones had undergone in the last two decades—but for hundreds of years. He could “either be home playing video games or be here standing in solidarity,” he said. On the inside of an old pizza box next to a tree, the demands of the “Arab Diaspora” were listed: the closing of NYPD offices or operations in countries in the Middle East and the redistribution of the money to Black working-class communities.

Isidore Barney, a seventeen-year-old in a tie-dye Black Lives Matter T-shirt who was overseeing a table of supplies, had arrived on the second day after seeing a call for volunteers on the @justiceforgeorgenyc Instagram page, which has been sharing information about planned protests and marches in the city. Before the summer break, she had been in school in Iceland, where she was making Black Lives Matter posters to hang up around Reykjavik and educate “white Icelanders (especially boomers who aren’t active on social media) on racial injustice, especially microaggressions.”

Building on a moment in which protests and marches have led to the radicalization of a young, multiracial cohort, the occupation included frequent political education workshops and teach-ins. Some were planned with the involvement of organizers and announced ahead of time at the camp and on Instagram. Others came together whenever, wherever—all it took was enough demand and a teacher. A significant proportion were focused on abolitionist politics. A reading group met to discuss chapters of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag, a landmark study of mass incarceration in California. Other workshops taught participants about the fight to support public higher education or the importance of voting in all elections and not just the presidential ones. There were also de-escalation trainings to provide practical tools for when conversations got heated—as they often did.

Perhaps the most instructive educational moments were spontaneous “principled struggle” sessions that began when individuals called out problems or disagreements in the hope of holding others accountable. One such session occurred around 9.30 p.m. on the Friday I arrived. There had been a comedy show, in line with the organizer’s belief “that joy is a form of resistance.” At the People’s Assembly—where a majority of people circled around the main plaza lit by streetlights to listen to a speaker—numerous people voiced their frustrations. “I didn’t sign up for Coachella,” one said about the celebratory nature of the space. Another said comedy felt inappropriate when “there are people still dying.” Others argued about the quiet hours from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m., “I didn’t come here to sleep . . . the cops are being paid to babysit,” a protester said. An organizer responded that there was not one leader, and things were up for discussion. But the crowd seemed to revel in the rebellions, and many cheered as the critiques kept coming.

Some of the issues raised highlighted the racial dynamics at the camp. One protester lamented that she felt like several groups of white people on the margins were not engaging with the programming. (A different protester later told me that he thought these privileged individuals were a tactical asset to the camp as any police incursions and violence against them would trigger more backlash than if it were directed at the Black protesters.) Another recurring critique challenged the lead organizers’ affiliations with the nonprofit world; there were heated discussions about whether or not “nonprofit” and “grassroots” are opposing constructions, and the ways that funding affected activism. Some people just wanted more energy and action; various groups sought to mobilize people to take over the nearby bridges, or streets, sometimes against the wishes of lead organizers who thought fewer bodies in the camp endangered it.

Among Black protesters, there were also wonderful debates that exhibited how various strains of Black liberationist thought, ranging from pan-African to Black nationalist, are being rearranged to meet a new historical moment. Other arguments devolved when the speaker chose to wield their identity to foreclose critique. These exchanges were also instructive: the dead-ends served as a live action political education on why it’s important to understand intersectionality as the prioritizing of politics that benefits the most oppressed among us, rather than a tool for individuals who want to deflect disagreement.

An ethos of community accountability and restorative justice informed behavior and expectations. At every turn, individuals worked to identify harm in what was being said, and to interrupt it, or address it later, without resorting to vengeance, violence, or other carceral habits. In this way, the camp sought to align the personal and political, even if it wasn’t always easy to meet that goal. As people at the camp strove to abolish the “cop within their minds” (as one activist put it to me), they encountered barriers, psychic as well as political. One such moment of introspection for me was seeing a post shared by the @abolitionplaza Instagram that squared the apparent contradiction of calling for the arrests of the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor while espousing abolitionist politics. “Grieving families have FULL permission to call for justice how they see fit . . .” the post read. “But we do need to do the work to examine what justice looks like free of vengeance.”

From the outset, the occupation had been criticized by some for being reformist, and for not making a big enough ask after having mobilized so many people. (A teach-in at the camp by the Racial Justice Working Group of NYC-DSA argued for a 50 percent budget cut, for instance.) VOCAL-NY, one of the lead organizations behind the encampment had been accused by some of not being abolitionist enough. “If you believe that Black Lives Matter, then you need to make sure that Black people are protected,” Jawanza Williams told me, pointing to VOCAL’s decades of work on homelessness, the AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, and the drug war. “Who is most affected by all those issues is Black people.” He explained that their membership (which consists of people directly affected by these issues) held a variety of perspectives. His work was to “make sure that they are offered up other alternatives to think about the world and to be able to imagine Black futures that do not have prisons and that center the dignity and the humanity of people.” He was open to principled critiques and thought that after this action, the organization would have a chance for reflection. “Reforms,” he said, “are only antithetical to abolition if they expand the carceral state.” He defended the occupation as an abolitionist action, since “it reduces the power of the NYPD.”

 

Defunding the police is not as radical as it is being made to seem, and the “demands are eminently reasonable,” said the historian and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb in a recent talk about the protests. Governments shouldn’t be looking to create “great policing in underprivileged communities.” The first people to say the police do too much are the police, Cobb said. If politicians had hired a consultant who advocated that police “stick to core competencies”—stopping violent crime—”they would get a fat check and big round of applause.” What policymakers have an issue with is who is making the argument to defund.

During the budget vote, some of explanations offered by council members appeared to validate Cobb’s observation. In a statement explaining their stance in support of the budget, the council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus acknowledged that “our city faces unique fiscal challenges that demand painful choices and shared sacrifice,” pointing to the challenge of narrowing a $9 billion deficit despite $7 billion in lost revenue. They dismissed the “defund the police” call as an “oversimplification of our centuries-long struggle on matters of race. To defund frames that struggle as an issue of economics, which is but part of a larger context that also includes changes to social structures, priorities, and culture.”

Had the budget not been passed that night, there was a risk that the state would take over the task and enact cuts at its whim. And the final budget partially wrested back money for things like summer youth employment programs and counselors for schools in low-income communities. Still, even if they were acting with genuine concern for their constituents, many council members chose to oversimplify the matter. Leader Laurie Cumbo commented that the occupation felt like a colonization and incorrectly stated that it was not being led by Black activists. “If you really cared about this, we’d see you at NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority], at homeless shelters,” she said. “Work under the existing leadership of the communities that are already there.” VOCAL-NY responded on Twitter that the organization had run a homeless drop-in space for more than a decade close to Cumbo’s office. Speaker Johnson also described listening to African-American council members as his “north star,” in the deliberations over the police budget.

It was bizarre to witness this tactic of using Blackness (or proximity to Blackness) to support the budget in lieu of critical engagement with the substance of policies that harm Black people. The call to defund the police was being framed as an extraneous demand, and yet at its center was the desire of Black and brown New Yorkers (and more than half of all New Yorkers, according to a recent poll) to see reallocation of money from a violent police force to services they count on. The politicians’ rejection of the legitimacy of the protesters was a local version of a dynamic we’ve seen on the national stage. As the scholar and writer Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor noted about the Congressional Black Caucus earlier in June, “we can no longer assume that shared identity means a shared commitment to the strategies necessary to improve the lives of a vast majority of Black people. Class tensions among African-Americans have produced new fault lines that the romance of racial solidarity simply cannot overcome.”

Part of the point of recent protests, I believed, was to stop treating Black people, or any people, as a monolith. “We don’t have to agree, but at least we faced each other in the park,” Nelini Stamp, an organizer of the occupation, told me as we talked about her experience being challenged by other activists at the camp and, later, by the council members. “Even if it was painful in the park, what happened was more principled than how some city council members decided to view protests over the last few weeks.” The fundamental difference, she felt, was the dismissal of the hundreds of thousands of people who had, in the streets and over emails and calls, tried to engage with their elected leaders. The majority of council members voted to pass a budget that not only failed to actually cut $1 billion from the NYPD budget, but also included the Mayor’s plan to increase the police budget by $42 million by issuing New Yorkers more tickets.

As the budget passed, I thought of Lou, a Cameroonian immigrant who had been brutally beaten and arrested within minutes of joining his first protest and was held just across the street at 1 Police Plaza. The night before the vote he wondered how so many people have been bystanders for so long; how political leaders in New York could say Black Lives Matter when the killer of Eric Garner walked free; what it must do to a person psychologically to “see another human being terrorized for so long, and do nothing about it. He is not fully himself anymore. A human being when you see another human being oppressed or killed or mistreated—a real human being stands up and stops it.”

Lou’s comments reminded me of a session during the People’s Assembly when the gathered group sang “ancestors watching / I know they watching / ancestors watching I know I know,” as individuals yelled out the names of their ancestors, biological and ideological: “Marsha P. Johnson!” “Sylvia Rivera!” “Bayard Rustin!” “Fannie Lou Hamer!” “Malcolm X!” The names came faster and faster, drowning out the chirps of a green parrot, the patter of feet, faint voices on a megaphone, the melodious conversations and laughter from the margins of the camp, the hum of cars on the highway nearby, the groans of the subway below, and the helicopter hovering above. The ancestors aren’t the only ones watching anymore. The police have ended the occupation in the park, but with upcoming elections, council members and politicians are on notice.


Anakwa Dwamena is a contributing editor for Africa Is a Country, and on the editorial staff of the New Yorker magazine.


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