It started Tuesday night when about 100 protesters began occupying City Hall Park in Lower Manhattan, with some spending the night, in an effort to draw more attention to their demand for deep budget cuts to the Police Department.
Within days, a movement took root. What started on a grass plot and a few square feet has now taken over most of the park and has garnered a lot of attention on social media, with “Occupy City Hall” as the group’s rallying cry. Volunteers have flocked to the park, leaving food, coffee and supplies to build a sort of camp.
So far, the police have not interrupted the meeting, which has been inspired by the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests at Zuccotti Park in the Lower Manhattan financial district. But some disagreements have emerged between protesters and the police over the use of umbrellas, tents, and bicycles.
The City Council camp, which was initially spearheaded by Vocal-NY, a grassroots organization, is the latest addition to the wave of protests in New York after George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.
Jawanza James Williams, organization director for Vocal-NY, conceptualized the occupation as a way to pressure the city to cut its police budget by at least $ 1 billion, a sum the group has asked to transfer to other resources. , including education and social. services.
The protesters, who are part of a movement to remove the police, are targeting the July 1 deadline for the city budget.
Corey Johnson, chairman of the City Council, which must approve the budget, has called for a $ 1 billion reduction in the $ 6 billion the city spends on the Police Department, but Mayor Bill de Blasio has not endorsed such a cut.
“We can’t leave anything to chance,” said Williams, who refers to “Occupy City Hall” as “a popular bazaar for liberation.”
In no time, the organizers, largely black and rare, have transformed the plaza. The hand-drawn art covers any appearance of government infrastructure: subway entrances, metal barricades, and kiosks, a stark contrast to the limestone municipal building across the street.
A sophisticated network was created to make the space habitable. Organizers built a library, community garden, and even a cabin for tea lovers. They collected donations of prepared meals, water, hand sanitizer, blankets, vitamins, and cigarettes. And they formed elaborate teams for food safety, sanitation, and distribution.
Orange bracelets distinguish the downsizing team from physicians, who wear a red cross emblem made of electrical tape. By Saturday, the organizers had installed the internet service and established a laundry schedule.
As the movement expands, tensions have arisen over the strategy, especially over whether Vocal-NY demands deep enough cuts in the budget.
Some supporters of the movement to remove the police have expressed displeasure at the number of young white men participating in the meeting, as well as the occasionally optimistic atmosphere.
Organizers responded that the movement’s ability to accommodate a wide range of views was a sign of success.
The coronavirus threat also hangs over the meeting. During peak hours, it is impossible for protesters to distance themselves socially. Thousands stand side by side in the plaza, even as the occupation extends further south. At night, protesters still gather on the lawn, sleeping in masks. Others roll up their sleeping bags and tarpaulins further when it’s time to call it a night.
The camp is run by a combination of veteran organizers and first-time volunteers.
Sierra Nicole, 23, of West Harlem, did not think she would end up supervising the welcome desk when she arrived Thursday afternoon. On the first day, Ms. Nicole went directly to that desk for more information, but when she noticed that a volunteer seemed tired, she offered to take her place. He accepted.
A few hours later, a protester approached Mrs. Nicole eager to volunteer. The next space available was in eight hours, at 3 am, but the protester, a woman, did not seem to mind. Mrs. Nicole enrolled her.
Many volunteers work 24 hours. At 4 am Friday, Gregory Lecrocq, 31, of the Upper East Side, began his shift at the food station, preparing breakfast sandwiches for early risers. From his volunteering, he sleeps from 8 am to 3 pm At 4 pm, he usually returns to the protest.
Occupy has also become a meeting point for other marches. Protesters in Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn have stopped to show their support, as well as to collect food and water.
Some protesters have said they plan to stay in the plaza beyond the budget deadline, until their demands for systemic change are met. Williams said he is not opposed to people staying longer.
Either way, Vocal-NY members said they were optimistic that they had organized a movement that could be sustained in the long term, said Jasmine Budnella, 34, the group’s drug policy coordinator.
Still, as the week progressed, organizers said they had struggled to set the right tone. While showing joy is an important form of resistance, Williams said, the group does not want people to forget why they have gathered. Sometimes the occupation may seem festive. But those moments are often followed by a speaker who emphasizes the need to stay alert and vigilant.
“We are here because blacks are dying on the street,” a speaker told the crowd Thursday night. “We are not here to socialize, we are here for real life problems.”
Many protesters said they had vowed to sleep outside every night until the end of the month, noting that they had everything they needed to survive: food, water, clothing, a place to shower and bathrooms.
Others said they would try to appear every other night. Those who did not want to sleep outside said they would volunteer from sunrise to sunset.
Organizers said the spirit of the movement is focused on anti-consumerism, inclusion and camaraderie. Everything is free and protesters are constantly on the lookout. They said making the camp a safe space for vulnerable communities has also been a priority.
On Thursday night, Moji Armu and his two children, ages 6 and 9, ran into the demonstration on the way home.
Ms. Armu said that she had thought about taking her children to protests in the past, but that they had been scared to do so after seeing images on television of protesters clashing with police. But on Thursday, her children noticed an art station at the Occupy gathering and ran to the tray of paint tubes.
A little later, he said his 6-year-old son stopped in bewilderment. He did not realize that what he had witnessed: artistic creation, dance, could be considered a protest.
He asked his mother if she had just attended her first protest. She smiled and said, “You sure did.”