Occupy and Space

Even before Liberty Plaza was raided, many of us were asking what was next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement, we said, was about more than holding a space, even one in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Occupation, I often heard, was a means, not an end; a tactic, not a target. The goal, from the beginning, was to do more than build an outdoor urban commune.

If Occupy Wall Street takes the wrong space it may end up as lost as if it had none at all.

Duarte Square
Duarte Square, New York, December 17

This piece first appeared in the third issue of the Occupy! Gazette, published December 14, 2011. It is now available as a free PDF download.

Even before Liberty Plaza was raided, many of us were asking what was next for Occupy Wall Street. The movement, we said, was about more than holding a space, even one in the heart of Manhattan’s financial district. Occupation, I often heard, was a means, not an end; a tactic, not a target. The goal, from the beginning, was to do more than build an outdoor urban commune supported by donations solicited over the internet. We wanted to discomfit the one percent, to interrupt their good times and impact their pocketbooks—or overthrow them entirely.

The dual threat of eviction and inclement weather meant next steps were never far from people’s minds. The camp can’t last forever, we’d say knowingly, while friends nodded in agreement. And yet, when the raid actually happened—when Bloomberg sent one thousand police officers dressed in riot gear, and paramilitary helicopters hovered overhead; when the entire encampment was hauled off to the garbage dump and half-asleep occupiers were dragged to jail, it was a shock. As I circled the police barricades that night, many of the faces I saw looked stunned; some people crumpled on the sidewalk and wept. The loss of Liberty Plaza was experienced as just that—a real loss, and possibly a profound one. By dawn photos began to circulate of the park, freshly power-washed, empty, and gleaming, almost as though we had never been there, though the police ringing the periphery and the newly-installed private security guards gave the scene away.

No one can really say what unique coincidence of events and factors caused OWS to break into mainstream consciousness when so many well-intentioned and smartly planned protests with similar messages fell flat in the months leading up to it, but certainly the encampments were crucial (crucial though not sufficient, since one protest that took place shortly before OWS also involved camping). By taking space and holding it, OWS has captivated America like no protest movement in recent memory. Yet the crackdowns on occupations across the country have shown it will be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain these bastions of resistance moving forward: we are simply outnumbered, outfunded, and outgunned. While some groups, like Occupy Oakland, have heroically, repeatedly attempted to reclaim the space from which they were ousted, they have been rebuffed each time by overwhelming force. (The authorities have used more wily tactics, too: at Oscar Grant Plaza, the original site of the Oakland camp, they reportedly kept the sprinklers on, turning the lawn into a soggy mess unfit for sleeping.)

Here in New York,  the raid on Liberty Plaza was the moment we had been waiting for, but we were still caught off guard. Most of us had no ready or clear answer to the question of how to move forward without the park. It turned out, though, that a small group had been secretly devising a plan to occupy a second space. They jumped into action, weaving through the crowd, instructing everyone to meet at Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. A few hours later, a couple hundred people amassed at a site called Duarte Square, a giant, empty lot not far from the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, owned by Trinity Church. Activists cut a hole in the fence surrounding the space and moved in, carrying large yellow signs, some attached to basic wooden frames alluding to shelter. OCCUPY. LIBERATE. The church had been, and still claims to be, supportive of OWS, offering office and meeting space and bathroom access to occupiers before and after the raid, but it did not appreciate the sudden invasion of property. By noon the police had been called, and clergy members watched impassively as protesters were beaten and dragged away.

Since that morning, Duarte Square has become a flashpoint of sorts, the quixotic focus of one of OWS’s most disciplined organizing campaigns. On the night of November 20th, I joined a candlelight procession following a small fleet of illuminated tents stenciled with the movement’s new slogan: “You cannot evict an idea whose time has come.” These tents, carried high on sticks, playfully reminded everyone we passed that Occupy was not over. Waiters smoking near staff entrances cheered us on as we paraded by, drivers honked their horns in support, and an angry woman outside a bar made the “loser” signal at us, her eyes locking briefly with mine. The march arrived at Duarte Square, where we covered long sheets of paper with pleas directed at church officials, and I felt conflicted. I have no doubt the space could be put to good use by the movement (right now it’s waiting to be developed into a 429 foot tall “residential tower”), but there was something odd about our appeals for sanctuary. If, by some miracle, the church granted us permission to stay there, would it even be an occupation?

In the weeks that followed, Trinity Church did not budge, and a core group of organizers showed no signs of relenting in their efforts to take the space, promising another attempt to “liberate” Duarte Square on December 17th. They imagine a new kind of occupation, better organized, more cohesive, and in some ways more exclusive, than the one at Liberty Plaza, and there is much to admire about their vision. In pursuit of it, they have circulated petitions, solicited op-eds, and rallied faith leaders to their cause, consistently highlighting the contradictions between Trinity Church’s scriptural duties and its status as New York City’s third-largest landholder. “In terms of them being a real estate company, their stance makes sense,” the reverend at Church of the Ascension in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, told the press. “In terms of them being a church, it makes no sense. The question is, where are their obligations?” Raising the stakes, a group of three young men, former occupiers, declared a hunger strike, demanding access to the vacant lot, which they sat down next to. The church quickly had them arrested for trespassing and, when they returned, had them arrested again, underscoring its inflexibility on the issue. Meanwhile, many movement sympathizers looked on in confusion. Given the various elements and issues at play—the eviction from Liberty Plaza, the lack of open space in which to peacefully protest in our city, the inequities of property ownership, the church’s ostensible sympathy towards OWS, the presence of hunger strikers, and the entreaties to religious figures who are also ruthless real estate moguls—the thread was getting hard to follow. Still, I signed the group’s latest petition, not wanting to lose faith.

So far, in New York at least, energy for protest has not waned. The movement can appear anywhere at any time. There are inventive demonstrations every day, too many for any one person to keep up with, and more in the works. Yet attempts to occupy and hold space beyond Liberty Plaza have has missed the mark more than they have hit it, from the ridiculous and ridiculed takeover of the nonprofit gallery Artists Space to the failed occupation of a student center at the New School, which initially had enormous promise but quickly devolved, despite the fact the building was secured with support from sympathetic faculty and administrators. Without a doubt, the most successful attempt to expand the concept of occupation so far was a national day of action on December 6. Occupy Our Homes was an attempt to refocus attention and outrage on the mortgage crisis, a crisis experts say is only half over: around six million homes have been seized since 2007, and over the next four years an estimated eight million more are predicted go into foreclosure. In Chicago, a homeless woman and her baby moved into a foreclosed home with the blessing of the previous owner and the help of more than forty supporters; in Atlanta, protesters made an appearance at foreclosure auctions in three counties; in Denver, activists collected garbage from abandoned properties and delivered it to the mayor; in Oakland, a mother of three reclaimed the townhouse she lost after becoming unemployed while another group held a barbecue at a property owned by Fannie Mae. “To occupy a house owned by Bank of America is to occupy Wall Street,” one activist told me. “We are literally occupying Wall Street in our own communities.”

In New York, Occupy worked with a variety of community organizations and allies to host a foreclosure tour and coordinate the reoccupation and renovation of a vacant, bank-owned property. When we reached our destination, a small house at 702 Vermont Street in Brooklyn, the new residents, a previously homeless family of four, were already inside, along with a veritable army of activists coordinating the event and scheduling rotating teams to guard against eviction. Tasha Glasgow, the mother, was almost too shy to speak but managed to express her sincere thanks to everyone assembled. Alfredo Carrasquillo, the father of her two children, including a 9-year-old daughter who is severely autistic, held back emotion as he addressed the crowd, making sure to acknowledge the NYPD who dotted the sidewalks and could be seen on the roofs of nearby buildings. “I’m just hoping they don’t wake me up in my bed at 2 AM,” he joked. As of this writing, almost a week later, the NYPD has not made any arrests at the house, though they have repeatedly intimidated the people staying there. The neighbors, by contrast, have welcomed the occupiers with open arms, inviting them over for tea and to baby showers. One woman, who lives a few doors down, said they could use her kitchen a few nights a week since the utilities in the occupied house aren’t hooked up.

Not only does the occupation of abandoned foreclosed homes connect the dots between Wall Street and Main Street, it also leads to swift and tangible victories, something movements desperately need to maintain their momentum. The banks, it seems, are softer targets than one might expect because so many foreclosure cases are rife with legal irregularities and outright criminality. It’s not uncommon for customers to be misled, crucial paperwork lost, and documents robo-signed. While the mortgage crisis involved credit default swaps and securities and other complex financial instruments, one thing that clued investigators in to the systemic fraud now known to have taken place at Countrywide (right before it merged with Bank Of America) was the extra Wite-Out on brokers’ desks, the tool of choice for low-fi chicanery: signatures were forged, paperwork faked, and numbers fudged, leaving countless people with subprime mortgages when they qualified for better ones. This duplicity is why banks often change their tune when threatened with serious scrutiny; they count on cases to go uncontested, as the vast majority do, because they often lose if actually taken to court. In Rochester, one bank called off an eviction when they got wind that a protest—a blockade and a press conference—was being planned.

It’s worth noting, given the glowing media coverage Occupy Our Homes received, that the action—billed as Occupy’s big leap forward—was not exactly innovative. Take Back the Land, which started in Miami, has been rehousing people in foreclosed properties since the mortgage crisis began. Going further back, the same techniques and rhetoric can be traced to the squatters campaigns that took off in New York City in the late seventies (indeed, some of the squatting pioneers are now mentoring a new generation of activists) and the largely forgotten poor people’s movements of the late eighties and early nineties. On May 1, 1990, in an effort remarkably similar to Occupy Our Homes, homeless activists in eight cities reclaimed dozens of government-owned properties, gaining control of many for good. Occupy, in other words, is not breaking new ground, but it is bringing public attention to the kind of civil disobedience that typically goes under the radar.

But what’s clear, and terrifying, looking back on the occupation efforts of decades past, is that the potential base of support today is far broader than previous generations of activists could ever have dreamed. With one in five homes facing foreclosure, and filings showing no sign of slowing down in the next few years, the number of people touched by the mortgage crisis—whether because they lost their homes or because their mortgages are underwater—truly boggles the mind.

Occupy Wall Street’s battle is nothing compared to what early civil rights advocates faced. Our predecessors had to convince their opponents to radically shift their worldview and abandon deeply held prejudices. Today, in contrast, public sentiment on economic issues broadly aligns with Occupy Wall Street. Americans are angry at the banks; they are angry about inequality; they are angry at politicians’ servility to corporate interests. The challenge, then, is convincing people that their anger is worth acting on, that something can be done. The path forward isn’t obvious. It’s difficult to organize against something as abstract as finance capital. How do you occupy something that is everywhere and nowhere?

Organizing around the mortgage crisis is a good step, because not only does it link seemingly arcane issues, like deregulation, to daily life and connect direct grassroots and legislative actions (like the state attorney generals stepping up their inquiries into illegal home seizures and other mortgage misdeeds), but it also promises small successes along the way, like offering shelter to a family that would otherwise be on the street. But not everyone is a struggling homeowner or already homeless; not everyone will identify with this particular struggle enough to join it.

Indeed, one problem facing many of Occupy’s early adopters is that, given high rates of student debt and unemployment, they may never have a chance to achieve that version of the American dream. As one of the big yellow signs at Duarte Square the morning after the eviction of Liberty Plaza put it: “I will never own a home in my life.” For these people, questions of space and where and how to occupy take a different shape. For individuals who are not part of a student body, or rooted in neighborhood, or part of a union, the need, first of all, is to make a community from scratch, to cohere with a group around a common identity and find common cause. A community in formation was part of what the experiment at Liberty Plaza promised. Liberty Plaza was a space to be together, a space to struggle in and over—a space that grounded and oriented the movement, however imperfectly at times.

Space matters for Occupy. But when we seize it—and whether it’s a sidewalk, street, park, plaza, port, house, or workplace—we must also claim the moral high ground so that others can be enticed to come and join us there. Occupy Our Homes made clear the connections between the domestic sphere and the financial sector: the occupation of abandoned, bank-owned properties is actually a reclamation, a taking back of what has been taken away, a recouping of something already paid for through other means (by unfairly ballooning monthly payments and the still-indeterminate government bailout, for example). The focus on Duarte Square, I fear, fails to draw the same kind of obvious, unswerving link to the urgent issues that Occupy Wall Street emerged to address. At a direct action meeting a few weeks ago a young man spoke up. “We just need to occupy something,” he said impatiently. “Anything!” But if Occupy Wall Street takes the wrong space—or fails to clearly articulate the reasons why it is taking the right one—it may end up as lost as if it had none at all.

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