Whither the Occupation?

Whither the Occupation?

As the D17 attempt to occupy Trinity Church’s Duarte Park showed, Occupy Wall Street is struggling to figure out if it needs a physical occupation—and if so, where.


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.”

Sniffen added that Trinity Church, unlike most faith-based institutions, is extremely affluent. He said that Occupy Faith felt that Trinity should use its resources to support OWS. Nevertheless, Occupy Faith had not come to the decision to support the action on D17—it wanted Trinity to help OWS, but didn’t like the idea of a forceful occupation. “Today is a difficult day,” Sniffen said, acknowledging that he and other faith leaders felt conflicted about the action.

On D17, Occupiers gathered in an open, public section of Duarte Square, where leaders from the faith community spoke through the human microphone about Occupy’s responsibility to continue fighting for economic justice. Then everybody marched through the streets, and finally made a U-turn back to Duarte Square. Nobody knew quite what to expect, but loud cheers arose when a ladder was suddenly hoisted over the park fence.

The first person to enter the prohibited space was George Packard, a retired bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries of the Episcopal Church (who blogs at Occupied Bishop). Packard, like Sniffen, had also been functioning as a liaison between Trinity Church and OWS, trying to convince Jim Cooper, Trinity’s rector, to let OWS occupy the unused park space. But, Packard said, Trinity was unable to comprehend the importance of occupation to the movement—it saw OWS people working calmly on computers in their basement and misinterpreted OWS as a “sedentary movement.” It couldn’t understand OWS’s dynamism, its “prophetic side”—and therefore, Packard felt, Trinity couldn’t understand the movement’s need for occupied space.  

On D17, Packard climbed the ladder in his purple minister’s robe and dropped down into the fenced-in area; one by one, the crowd followed. Enthusiasm raged on—they were going to re-occupy! There would be another chance to hold public forum for the whole world, to have a twenty-four hour protest—until, predictably, the NYPD entered the park and began slapping white plastic handcuffs on the Occupiers.

Soon, police were pushing the crowd back from the fence. The action was over quickly. The marchers went back around to the open side of the square, and danced in celebration of their action—but others felt that it had been, essentially, a waste of time.

The action had been planned by a small group within Occupy that had ties to the interfaith community, said Marisa Holmes, one of Occupy’s original organizers last summer. Holmes and other organizers agree that Occupy needs a public space, but felt that Trinity was a poorly chosen target.   

“I was not in favor of the action. I was vocally against it,” said Holmes. “Right now we need to be building relationships and our capacity as a movement. It’s just not a good time to start another occupation. And, targeting a church, even a wealthy one like Trinity, during the holiday season was a bad idea. We need to focus on Wall Street, on banks.” she added.  

Holmes and other organizers are less focused on actions at the moment and instead concentrating on movement-building through workshops—like the “Unoccupy” conference held on December 18 at Pace University. There, Occupiers engaged in various activities and thought experiments meant to generate a robust conversation around Occupy’s future. “I thought it was a good first step. We need to be having more of those kinds of discussions,” said Holmes of the Unoccupy conference.

Jim Cooper, Trinity Church’s rector, posted a letter on the church’s website in response to Saturday’s action. “OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years. The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours,” he wrote.

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