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Shortly before 3 am on Wednesday, several hundred protesters gathered in the plaza directly east of City Hall Park in downtown Manhattan. A few were new faces, but many had been there on and off for a week, when activists set up an encampment and declared that they were occupying the space as part of the nationwide movement against racism and policing.
The protesters had a lot going against them. Less than 24 hours earlier, the New York Police Department had staged a violent raid at the outskirts of the encampment, injuring several people. And just hours before, those in the encampment watched as local legislators, while negotiating and voting on the city budget for the next fiscal year, brushed off their calls to defund the police.
Yet energy was high among this early morning crowd. They knew what fight they had signed up for, and, having accomplished something as remarkable as a weeklong protest encampment, they were ready to keep the momentum going. The question was, what were they to do next?
The encampment at New York’s City Hall was erected on June 23—the 27th consecutive day of mass protests in the city. That evening, activists with community organization VOCAL-NY held a rally they called “Occupy City Hall,” where they announced that they planned to do just that. “We have called on the movement to occupy the space of City Hall,” Jawanza Williams, VOCAL-NY’s organizing director, told the crowd. The group made clear that it wasn’t leaving until the City Council defunded the NYPD by at least $1 billion in the city’s fiscal year 2021 budget—due in exactly a week—and reinvested that money in needed services for Black and other marginalized communities.
With its clear and short-term policy demands and nonprofit sponsor, the encampment was a departure from the more leaderless and open-ended radical protest zones of recent years, such as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest in Seattle, Black Lives Matter’s Abolition Square in 2016, or Occupy Wall Street in 2011. And that was purposeful: “You gotta have wins,” Williams told me. “A billion dollars out of the NYPD and into housing, education, social services, and health care has material impacts on the people that need it the most—[though] it’s not enough.”
To Williams, the City Hall encampment is part of a greater organizing vision. It’s tactical: Organizers chose that Tuesday to set up the encampment because it was election day in New York state—“go vote for the world that you deserve, and then come to City Hall and occupy to demand it.” And it’s systemically targeted: The demonstration’s language purposefully evokes Occupy Wall Street and its anti-capitalist spirit—“to connect race, class, and the police, and how the institution of policing functions in capitalism,” Williams said.
Because of the short notice, only a few dozen people stayed at the encampment the first night. But the next day, hundreds flocked to the site, showing that this escalatory, communal action was the second wind of the movement in New York City after nearly a month of marching, and curfews, and mass arrests, and police violence, and patronizing statements from public officials.
By the encampment’s second afternoon, participants had set up water depots, hot food stands, snack stands, sanitation stations, personal protective equipment stations, a “bodega” for sundries, sleeping and lounging material caches, a charging station, WiFi, a de-escalatory security team, a first aid desk with a team of medics, an art station, a library, a garden, a voter registration table, a phone-banking table, a welcome desk, a press table, lost and found, organized bathroom access, a trash and recycling system, a performance and teach-in schedule, and a text alert system—all of it free, most of it functioning around the clock. The area became a resolute middle finger to the city, state, and federal governments that, in addition to siccing cops on protesters, had botched their Covid-19 response to such a degree that a ragtag group of strangers was taking care of their citizens—including homeless comrades—better than they were. In this way, the encampment quickly became a radicalizing force; aside from its policy demands, it is a place to practice and discuss the all-encompassing goal of a compassionate, cop-free society.
Still, protest encampments are messy affairs, and disagreements among factions arose—particularly over what some perceived to be an attitude of hierarchy and ownership over the communal space from some of the original organizers. There was also grumbling about the $1 billion demand, as many saw it as a much too small portion of the NYPD’s $5.7 billion operating budget to have any chance at pushing the envelope.
Eventually, however, the encampment converged toward something resembling an ideological and tactical stasis. Protesters were welcomed to engage in their own direct actions—there were marches that blocked traffic at the nearby Brooklyn Bridge and rallies outside City Council members’ homes. And it became generally understood that $1 billion, divested from the NYPD and reinvested in social programs, was an official though arguably insufficient demand by some of the original organizers of the encampment.
The $1 billion demand “is a demand by some of the organizers. But we are only instrumentally interested in policy,” said one protester, a facilitator of the Abolition Library Commons, the encampment’s pop-up library and discussion space. “We are interested in a world where everyone lives well, and no one is in a cage.… The overwhelming movement is based on the intuition that the institution of police is obscene.”
In this way, the abolitionist and collective character of the encampment—though perhaps muddled at first—began to more fully blossom as the week went on.
By this Tuesday, the day of the budget vote, news reports had been indicating that the City Council and the mayor had reached an agreement that in eyes of the protesters was transparently bogus. Mayor Bill de Blasio and most Council members claimed that the budget was set to cut the NYPD’s funding by $1 billion, but nearly half of those “cuts” were to come from shifting the City’s school safety agent program from the police department to the department of education. Other cuts were to include a reduction in fringe benefits and other similar costs that don’t count toward the NYPD’s $5.7 billion operating budget. All in all, the agreement wouldn’t meaningfully reduce the police presence in the city, and would save crumbs from the police budget, even as social services were to undergo coronavirus-induced austerity.
According to Council member Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, a vocal supporter of the protests who was part of the budget negotiations and voted no on the final agreement, the City Council has isolated itself from the desires of the people, as voiced through the ongoing movement. “If you were out in the protests feeling the energy, the kind of connection between strangers who are out there pushing a particular message to defund the NYPD and restore social and health services for communities that are impacted by Covid, you understood,” he said. “But we’ve been in a bubble this whole time, negotiating a budget, separated from the people on the ground who are crying for change.”
The movement was well aware of the council’s disconnect. Inside the encampment, the reaction to the budget news was that of both anger and unsurprise—and, with masses of people present that day, eagerness to take action. After watching the budget hearing finish with expected results late that night, protesters decided to take the 3:00 am meeting to figure out what to do now that the encampment’s initial demands were going officially unmet.
A facilitator volunteered to guide the group as it collectively answered a tense set of questions: Do we stay or do we leave? Do we stick to the plaza or take the streets? And, most pressingly, What do we do about the next police raid?—a raid they were sure was coming later that morning.
Overwhelmingly, the protesters voted to stay at the encampment—at least another day—to guard the plaza and their project in abolition from police destruction. They came up with an organized plan to form a human wall to keep the cops out. Front-line protesters were given helmets and eyewear, medics took their positions, and when what appeared to be hundreds of riot cops came to tear away barricades just a couple hours later, the protesters held their lines and successfully pushed them away after violent instigation. When the cops left, the energy was electric; despite negative results in the City Council, the encampment knew that they had seized momentum for their movement.
Though it’s still going strong, protesters—now mostly grassroots-organized but still Black-led—are taking the question of the future of the encampment day by day. It could become a semi-permanent fixture in New York City’s movement. Or protesters could decide one day that it would be strategically best to pack up and find another place to occupy, or another tactic to forward the movement’s momentum. Or police could break through with more violent attacks and evict everybody. Or, unlike with marches, Covid-19 could come into play, and protesters could be forced to find another form of outdoor escalation and community building.
Whatever the case, the City Hall encampment seems to have generated a new sense of community and commitment among protesters. Said the Abolition Library Commons organizer: “This isn’t stopping anytime soon.”