Could Occupy New Haven's Eviction Reinvigorate the Movement?
An Occupy New Haven activist enters camp on the Green in New Haven, Connecticut, Wednesday, March 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
On April 18, three days after celebrating its six-month anniversary, Occupy New Haven was evicted from its encampment on the city's Green, marking the end of the last Occupy camp in New England. The third time was the charm, so to speak, as two previous attempts by City Hall to dislodge the neighbors it no longer wanted were stymied by last-minute court rulings related to free speech and to who actually had the authority to evict the Occupiers, since the Green is privately owned but managed by the city.
Mayor John DeStefano welcomed occupiers to camp on the Green without a permit beginning October 15, 2011, and the Proprietors (the private owners) did not object. Protesters stayed through the winter, but when spring came the city said it was time to go, to allow others to enjoy the Upper Green (which abuts the ivied walls of Yale University). In a written notice issued March 1, city officials asked them to depart by "mid-March" and wished them well.
Ultimately, a federal judge ruled that their presence on the Green, including the use of tents, was a form of speech, but concluded that they were in violation of the city's regulations and could express their speech somewhere else.
So, more than a month after the original deadline, ten occupiers linked arms and sat down in front of one of the few remaining tents under a banner that read, “You Can't Evict an Idea” and were escorted or carried off by police. Three others were arrested in the crowd. All were charged with disorderly conduct and/or interfering with police. The cops announced they’d come at 8 a.m. and they did. They used no tear gas or pepper spray, didn’t beat any heads, and didn’t shoot anyone – all in stark contrast to middle of the night evictions in New York City and Oakland, for example.
What was the value of a six-month encampment in the heart of the city? The original idea had been “a slow and steady Occupy," according to one of those who presented his vision at the original planning meeting for the camp, to show how a group of people could build their own version of the beloved community in recession-plagued, one percent-dominated America. And they succeeded to a large degree, holding twice- or thrice-weekly General Assemblies to hash out both housekeeping issues and action proposals, and building a strong relationship with the New Haven Police Department, largely due to the leadership of its downtown district manager.
So there was already a disincentive for direct action built into the concept of the camp, which had a more inward focus. This was different from many other occupations, which focused more on confronting symbols of economic oppression – like banks, corporations, and Wall Street itself – and often had to contend with militarized police forces.
A direct action committee – including both residents of the camp and non-residents – did plan and carry out various protests, but these efforts never amounted to anything like a mass movement. Occupiers also consistently participated in a local organization against police brutality and in a coalition to reopen a venerable youth services agency in the African American community.
Some long-time New Haven activists felt the mostly young Occupiers “don’t seem to acknowledge they’re standing on the shoulders of others,” says Mark Colville, who’s been arrested many times and served more than a year in prison for an anti-nuclear weapons action. “I don’t give a shit about that,” he adds. “I just want the country to change. I’m a little baffled by some of the complaints that come from people like me about what’s going on. I come at this as someone who’s been banging his head against the wall for most of my adult life. And here comes a movement that is spearheaded by a younger generation with a methodology and process that is more developed that what we were pursuing in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I think what we did has been built upon.”
Asked what their long-term presence on the Green accomplished, Ray Neal, a 50-something musician, responded, “The conversation is still going on. We’re on the front page of the newspaper, and we wouldn’t be if we’d packed up in November.” But the more media coverage focused on the legal fight to stay on the Green, the more negative the comments ran in the city’s print and on-line news sources. As it dragged on, even many who had earlier supported the occupation wanted it to end, calling it, as the mayor did, an eyesore.
John MacIver Gage is the pastor of United Church on the Green, and the encampment was in its back yard. He was part of Occupy from the beginning, and even camped out for several months. “My congregation has tried to be as supportive as we can of folks who are struggling for everyone’s civil rights in this country,” he said. Over the winter Occupiers held many General Assemblies at the church. He mused that the support from the city (including trash removal and servicing portable toilets) and the police and the lack of confrontation might have actually worked against the impact Occupy could have had in New Haven. “We didn’t have that kind of nudge to get outside of our comfort zones, and we focused on life at the camp, and not life in the community.”
Ina Staklo didn’t live on the Green but was involved “from Day One” on the direct action committee. She said the encampment was a great conversation starter. “Once this is gone it’ll be more difficult so we’ll have to do a lot more outreach,” she said. She acknowledged that other occupations have found it easier to organize once their encampments were shut down, since they could pour their energy outward instead of into maintaining and protecting the camp. On the other hand, she adds, “But they also lose a lot of their support base because the camp is gone, and the camp itself is an act of political protest, so when you lose that you lose a bit of momentum.”
As at other Occupy encampments around the country, homeless individuals became part of New Haven’s. But because it went on so long, political activists who are also homeless had a chance to build relationships with other homeless people who were already living on the Green or who were attracted by the opportunity to pitch a tent there. Sara Ferah and some other homeless advocates tried to initiate a dialogue with city officials to find another outdoor space where they can set up “an autonomous, empowered homeless encampment“ with the city’s blessing so they won’t face another eviction. She says the city declined to meet with them while the court case was going on, but she spoke with the mayor’s aide after the eviction and was told a meeting will be scheduled soon. She says the long-term accomplishment of New Haven’s occupation was that it brought people together from all sectors of the 99 percent. “We desegregated class.”
Occupiers said the work will go on without the encampment, as it has it other cities. They were back on the Green on the evening of eviction day for a General Assembly, discussing ways to stay in touch and to gear up their outreach and protests. Debbie Elkin, another long-time activist who participated with her teenage son, said the six-month encampment “called attention to the issues of inequality in our society and inspired people to work to make change. It inspired me to work to make change. “