Since being evicted from Liberty Square just over a month ago, Occupy Wall Street has been asking itself how it can move forward without its very foundation—an occupation. OWS now finds itself fighting a two-pronged battle: their original fight for economic justice, as well as a new one that many Occupiers have strong feelings about—the fight for the right to protest, on Occupy’s terms.
Liberty Square was strategically useful to the movement in many ways. It offered a place where new and veteran activists could meet and share information, it attracted daily press attention and it facilitated a spirit of cooperation and solidarity. But the park’s maintenance also consumed enormous amounts of time, energy and resources. Many Occupiers perceived the end of the occupation as the beginning of “Phase 2” of Occupy—and what that phase will be is the current question at hand inside the movement.
But many Occupiers who are now homeless and sleeping in churches or fast-food restaurants, as well as those who lament not being able to meet with their working groups in a public space, see a physical occupation as crucial to the movement’s future.
On December 17 (D17), about thirty OWS protesters were arrested trying to occupy a fenced-in section of a Duarte Park, which is owned by Trinity Episcopal Church. At the intersection of Sixth Avenue and Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, the park is not in the Financial District, but it still holds connections to power. Like Liberty Square, a privately owned public park, Duarte Square’s ownership is complicated. The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council held the park’s lease until December 2011, at which point it was taken by Trinity Church, who is simply holding the property until April 2012, when construction of a high-rise building will begin.
Many Occupiers are grateful to Trinity for allowing them to use a workspace in its basement. But the church, despite its generosity toward OWS, is also an institution where capital and power coincide. It is the third-largest landowner in New York City, holding 6 million square feet of real estate, in part because of a land grant given to the church by the Queen of England in 1705. Trinity’s board members include leaders of companies like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Brookfield Properties (owners of Liberty Square).
Ever since Occupy set its eyes on Duarte Square as a potential occupation site, it has been in negotiations with Trinity, sometimes involving the local community board. Key in those negotiations is Occupy Faith, a national group of about 1,400 leaders of faith-based communities who support Occupy Wall Street. In addition, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a letter in support of OWS, urging Trinity Church to allow the movement to occupy its property—but he also, later, wrote a letter discouraging a forceful occupation of Trinity’s space, which the church posted on its website, saying it regretted that protesters had not heeded Tutu’s warning.
Michael Sniffen, an Episcopal priest in Brooklyn, has been heavily involved in Occupy Faith. “We see ourselves as part of the movement,” he said of Occupy Faith, while marching around Duarte Park on December 17. “Many of us have been working for years on the exact sort of issues as Occupy Wall Street—economic and social justice, and related issues like environmental justice, homelessness—and also talking about nonviolence and the best ways to have an effective resistance to corporate greed.”