We Keep Us Safe

On Monday night, my second shift, we handed out 200 kale salads, 300 meals of dumplings and chicken, more pizzas than I can count, and cups and cups and cups of hot ramen. It was two days before the City Council vote, and hot and steamy with thunderstorms. A jazz combo had arrived with the AfroSocialist march, and had now set up in the street to play. People danced. People ate, and had seconds, and then came back to our station for coffee and cupcakes. A couple, their belongings piled next to them on a bench, embraced.

Serving food at Abolition Park

Photograph by Josh Pacheco.

The rules of food station are these:

  • Always wear your mask over your nose and mouth
  • Don’t touch food or clean utensils without gloves on
  • We serve EVERYONE, as long as they are wearing a mask
  • Our only enemies are the police, and we love our allies
  • We stay organized and we stay amped because we’re ready
  • Whatever is going on outside of food station stays outside of food station

Tonight, the food station runs nine tables long on the sidewalk closest to Chambers Street, so we are the first to see the marchers crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to arrive at the week-long occupation of Manhattan’s City Hall, which was begun by the grassroots community activist group VOCAL-NY but has quickly coalesced into an ecology of its own. We’re here until the NYPD is defunded, and we’re here until black lives matter, and we’re here until abolition. We’re here.

Every day that I go to volunteer, the food station has to be organized anew. Our food station is a marvel of logistics: feeding thousands each day at a protest encampment under constant siege by New York’s Finest in the midst of a global pandemic in the largest city in the country is no small thing. Hot meal donations are taken at the intake table, labeled with the time and date (maximum storage for fresh food is four hours), and stored on back shelves or served immediately; serving tables run from coffee and desserts at the north end past the all-vegan table through to snack bars, fresh fruit, and a phalanx of coolers for water and sports drinks. We have plastic bins labeled for plates and napkins, trash bags, serving utensils, and clean dishes. This is thunderstorm weather, and tarp shelters cover the pantry, the hot food area, and the supply station. During one thunderstorm, I hold a tarp shelter together in the winds with outstretched arms while water gushes over my shoes and down the grate. Look, the volunteer next to me says, and pulls the tarp aside so I can see the sun breaking through the storm and filtering through the trees.

My first favorite thing to do is to hand out bottled drinks to incoming protesters, because then I get to dance, and chant, and delight people by handing them free Gatorade. My second favorite thing to do is to wash dishes, because then I get to talk to my new occupation pal, who is my age, late thirties—wondrous thing here among the young organizers. Our dish station, three large tubs next to the subway grate for draining, also allows for a good view of the encampment and of the oncoming traffic in front of the Municipal Building, so we can always see what’s going on. I have come to think of it as our food station, not the food station, which is one of the many small transubstantiations of the occupation.

The occupation itself is a transubstantiation of the movement for black lives that has, once again—as it has since, really, enslavement—lit the entire country. I am not, in this movement, an organizer or a leader, even if the language is that we are all leaders; I’m not engaged in the tactical or theoretical debates; I have no affiliation with any group, just a loose crew of friends I’ve been marching with; and I haven’t stayed overnight at the occupation, just worked daytime and evening shifts. But I have, from the beginning, found myself wanting to be in this movement in a way I haven’t for a long time, because I wanted to feel, viscerally, the force of it: the heat of the cement streets; the way kids poured out onto fire escapes and older people onto stoops to cheer on the neighborhood marches; the twilit moment when something shifts and you have to make a choice between leaving safely or risking arrest.

Where we are is a not really a park at all; it’s more like a neoliberal dystopia of a park, an impoverished triangle of trees and scrubby grass in a glorified sidewalk that makes a small plaza catty-corner to the Dinkins Municipal Building, the gracious winged tower you can see in the New York skyline. The real park and actual City Hall are behind a black wrought-iron gate, painted and formally imposing like the one that guards Buckingham Palace. Behind the gate, the grass is rich and dark green, the large trees are gracious and shady, the hydrangeas are in bloom, and there are small ponds and fountains with white ducks in them. There’s been a constant police presence in this guarded park, and the cops stand around in the shady greenery, mostly bored. At night they bring in mobile floodlights, and one night when I walked past, two cops, younger than I am, looked out from under the harsh light at me, quizzical, and slightly unsure.

The New York City Parks Department website tells me that the western edge of City Hall Park, now West Broadway, was once a Lenape trail, and that the park itself, after the building of the colonial settlement, was a “commons”—that is, open pasture land for all colonists. It also variously held an almshouse, a debtors’ prison (the building now, somewhat ominously, converted into the City Hall of Records), an execution site, a post office, Union soldiers’ barracks during the Civil War, and served throughout the nineteenth century as a public meeting place and occasional site of protest. Now, it holds us.

I first visited the occupation on a Thursday. I spent the afternoon helping friends pack up and transport eight boxes of books to donate to the encampment’s nascent library. As we opened the boxes and laid the books out on a hastily constructed particle board table, a crowd formed. An earnest young woman asked if we had any mythology. “I wish,” I said truthfully. My coworker sent me pictures over the next few days, as the library gained first signage (“The People’s Library”), then structure (milk crate shelves, organized by genre: “Black Feminism,” “Poetry,” “Philosophy”). I returned on Sunday to find the Abolition Library Commons, fully equipped with a tarp shelter, carpet and armchair reading area, a constantly refreshed zine shelf, daily reading groups (Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Frantz Fanon), a manifesto (“Who and What Is the Library For?”) and a place to write letters to incarcerated people.

When I returned on Sunday hoping to volunteer, the library didn’t need any more staff, but I was told that the food station always did. At the food station, I learned the rules; made myself a nametag with a sharpie and some duct tape, listing my pronouns; and was given a length of fluorescent climbing rope to tie around me so I could be identified easily as a volunteer. Food station was large and complex and was working at maximum capacity that day, which meant that everyone had a specific job. Mine was water, which meant refilling coolers with ice and bottled water, sports drinks, juice, and seltzer; and being available to help carry pallets of water, trays of food, and coolers of ice from cars that pulled up at the main entrance to the camp to donate. It was nearly 90 degrees and blazingly sunny, so everyone was thirsty and I was busy.

That afternoon was the Queer Liberation March, on the fifty-first anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, the fiftieth annual pride march in New York City. The march—more radical now that corporate pride was cancelled for Covid-19, and explicitly allied to the black lives matter movement, which is itself led by black queer and trans activists—started with a rally at Foley Square, two blocks away from camp. I volunteered to help staff the satellite support station there, which offered prepackaged snacks, cold drinks, PPE, and sunscreen to protesters. One of the other food volunteers helped me ferry giant coolers of water and drinks through the crowd from our main food station to the satellite. It felt like the labor of Sisyphus, because as soon as we’d arrive with coolers full of coconut water and Gatorade, the tables at the satellite would send us back with the old coolers, now empty. My fellow volunteer and I looked like twins, or worker ants, partially because we kept doing the same thing over and over again and partially because, hilariously unplanned, we were dressed exactly the same: brown ponytail, baseball cap, black shorts, and Black Trans Lives Matter! t-shirt.

We knew the march was starting when the giant puppets of Bayard Rustin and Janelle Monae started to head from the fountain sculpture in Foley Square toward the street. We loaded up the coolers one more time and then handed out drinks at the main entrance to the occupation, at the beginning of the march route. I wanted to dance, and I wanted to chant, but also—handing water to people wearing rainbow-feathered wings, to queens in dresses of white roses and drag kings in debonair skinny ties, to thirsty marchers who looked like they had attended the march for decades, to people carrying likenesses of Marsha P. Johnson, the black trans activist who had led the Stonewall Rebellion, and herself the patron saint of both movements—this felt like a job that I could do, and do well, and one that helped, in some small way, to make the movement possible.

Once the march had shoved off, we moved our satellite to Washington Square Park, where the march ended, and set up a more elaborate station to serve fresh meals. When the police incited a small riot and started pepper-spraying protesters, we also had medical kits, water bottles, and ice packs. One young man, handsome like a ballet dancer, sat behind our table after the medics flushed his eyes, ice pack pressed to his reddened face. I hadn’t met any of the volunteers before, but when I left in the evening, I said a heartfelt goodbye to everyone and one of the satellite organizers spontaneously gave me a hug.

When I got home I realized that I had given myself heat exhaustion and also sunburned a long strip of my back. I was hooked. I headed to camp for a second shift the next day.

On Monday night, my second shift, we handed out 200 kale salads, 300 meals of dumplings and chicken, more pizzas than I can count, and cups and cups and cups of hot ramen. It was two days before the City Council vote, and hot and steamy with thunderstorms. A jazz combo had arrived with the AfroSocialist march, and had now set up in the street to play. People danced. People ate, and had seconds, and then came back to our station for coffee and cupcakes. A couple, their belongings piled next to them on a bench, embraced.

It was Occupy Wall Street when we met, my dear friend texted me from Melbourne. Do you remember?

Oh yes, I replied, thinking about how old that makes us both. I just ate a free chocolate cupcake under the moon in the tarp kitchen while people ran a teach-in on police abolition. I’m just saying.

These are the lyric days of 2020, he wrote back.

Back home after midnight, I couldn’t sleep, and so I listened to the video of the violin vigil held in Washington Square Park the night before for Elijah McClain, the twenty-three-year-old killed by police while walking home last August in Aurora, Colorado. Elijah had spent his free time playing violin at animal shelters for the dogs and cats, and across the country violin vigils were being held in his honor. A call went out in New York for a pickup orchestra, and they played “Ave Maria” and “Amazing Grace” and “We Shall Overcome” as night fell, to the large crowd filling the square usually thronged with tourists and pigeons. In my living room, I clutched my phone and cried and thought: the parks have become real parks again.

At the dish station during my third shift, Tuesday night, my volunteer pal is telling me about the DIY punk scene in his hometown of Minneapolis. When he asks me about my earlier activism, I talk about the antiwar movements in the 2000s, and then add, “And I was in this Trotskyist group.” “Cool!” he says. “Sort of,” I say doubtfully.

The organization I was part of had put a premium on knowing what to say about any given situation, to developing “an analysis,” to always having answers. I was good at it then. But now it feels like a luxury to not have answers, to not know. It feels like a luxury but it might just be survival, because it’s based on trust in my fellow protesters and an acceptance that what we’re trying to make is something that none of us can know in advance. It’s what’s required for any of us to thrive in a world where survival has, for some, become a luxury not a right; it’s just solidarity.

That evening, as the New York City Council voted on the budget that framed “defunding the NYPD” as redirecting funds for “school safety agents” to the Department of Education, I worked the dish station through dinner hour. The mood was expectant, and two or three marches had converged in front of City Hall, barricaded the streets around the encampment to keep it safe, and stood now in the intersection with locked arms, tender inside elbow to tender inside elbow, facing out toward the police. One of the food volunteers listened to the livestream of the council meeting and tallied the votes on a paper plate, a white middle-aged provocateur set off fireworks across the street, our head organizer sat at a table and rested her tired voice, a team of musicians played night beats on a synthesizer, the floodlights on the roof of the Municipal Building lit up the Beaux Arts cupola bright white and gold, the waxing moon shone bright. In a lull I watched the servers feeding people, all different kinds of New Yorkers, and the intake folks label incoming trays of food and stacks of pizza boxes, and the protesters holding down the intersection, and I didn’t have to know more, right then, than that.

A food volunteer with a clipboard stopped by. “Do you need anything at dish station?” he asked. “We’re doing a Target run.”

“Just abolition,” I said, “we’re good on soap.” He laughed. “Awesome, great, I’ll put that on the list.”

At home late that night and in the early morning, I watched the live videos streaming from the @OccupyCityHall Instagram feed, of organizers inside the intersection. On the videos, a young woman, long braids waving behind her resolute profile, speaks prophecy into the bullhorn: We are gonna move from the darkness into the light. These are the contractions of the new world’s birth. She’s right around the corner. A man freestyles to a beat laid by improvised drums, half flowing and half crooning songs much older than this movement: What side are you on my people what side are you on? (We on the freedom side!)

Organizers describe, to the camera, our purpose—justice, and keeping our community safe. You can feel the moment, even through the video, the way it is when things get bone on bone and a shared purpose becomes electric. Who keeps us safe? asks the speaker. We keep us safe! everyone replies, and it’s not just a chant—it never was—but a finely wrought tactic, a politics, and the only real hold our vulnerable bodies have against hard cement and pepper spray and batons. This is what I mean by the relief of not knowing: I don’t trust myself alone—my rabbit heart scares easily, and I’m not particularly brave—but I do trust us.

By Wednesday morning, the camp had sustained two nights of police stand-offs and early morning raids. I worked for a few hours on Wednesday afternoon, my fourth shift, trying to reorganize one of the supply tables after the raids. Things had been shoved aside or thrown hastily under tarps as the police pushed against the barricades, and thunderstorms and water drainage from the sloping plaza had gotten water into everything. I helped a few people, most of whom I assumed usually slept on the streets, put together supply kits they could take with them, tailored to their preferences and needs: Tylenol not Ibuprofen, black masks not blue surgical ones, Tums not allergy medicine, large green tarps not smaller blue ones, scented shampoo rather than body wash.

Sorting through soggy boxes of garbage bags and tampons, pouring water out of the box that held medications and first aid supplies, and trying to coax pooled rainwater off the jumbled blue tarps, I found artifacts from the previous night’s stand-off: face shields, construction helmets, a board with handles duct-taped on to hold up against the barricades. It felt dispiriting, even though camp was still intact, like cleaning up after a party you hadn’t actually attended. The feeling of loss that I had—even though I knew the camp was by nature ephemeral—startled me.

Later that day, on Wednesday night, as police massed around camp, food and supplies crews packed up everything but a small operation and skeleton crew, aiming to protect the thousands of dollars’ worth of donations for future movement use. I was at home, but watched it unfold in the message system, and tried to help by looking up resources remotely. I headed into camp around 8:30 the next morning for my fifth shift, and everything was different. The night had been peaceful, but camp was much smaller and in disarray, supplies thrown quickly under tarps or loaded into a rented U-Haul van. The food station was two tables when I arrived, serving hot breakfast to everyone who had stayed the night—mostly people who had no other home to go to, or exhausted organizers pushing 16 and 20-hour shifts. Over the course of the day, we built the food station back up to six tables, and served 500 burritos, stacks of pizzas, several hundred chicken wraps, 100 dumplings, two homemade quiches and a tray of focaccia sandwiches, and bags and bags of fresh produce. A call had gone out on social media for donations, and people stopped by on foot or by bike and pulled bags of tangerines and Gatorade and snack bars out of their backpacks. Someone in rainbow-striped pants brought a portable cooler of popsicles. “I have a gift card,” a young woman told me at intake, and asked “when is a good time to come by with fifty bbq wings?” I rebuilt the dish station.

In the afternoon, a jazz combo set up, and people start dancing. A woman in white with a drum strapped to her back and cowrie-shell jewelry shakes a wooden rattle and chants “life is just a cycle!” My friend texts me that he’s at the FedEx store on Duane Street making zines and will be there in an hour. Nonetheless, the occupation feels different, the mood is changing, and organizers are thinking about how we might keep the ethos of food station—caring for community, serving the movement—going, beyond this piece of sidewalk at City Hall.

The occupation encampment is one block away from the African Burial Ground, a seventeenth-century graveyard for enslaved and free blacks in the colony of New Amsterdam. Some people of African descent had arrived as free sailors, but overwhelmingly, they arrived enslaved, through the auspices of Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s much-beloved Dutch West India Company. Black slaves built the small European-style town of New Amsterdam, broadened the native trails to create Broadway, built the wall that Wall Street is known for, and created the first highway to the settlement of New Haarlem to the north. When the English took over and renamed the settlement New York, they restricted free blacks’ privileges and inaugurated a slave market on the pier at Wall Street and the East River, where today you can catch the East River ferry. Prevented from burial in city churchyards, as many as 20,000 black people, both free and enslaved, were buried here. In 1795, the land was leveled and sold off as property lots, and—at least to city planners—forgotten, until developers unearthed the site in 1991.

The language of prophecy, of ghosts and ancestors, is one that pervades this movement in ways I have not seen before, in my own experience or in the histories and archives of modern American social movements. The ones who have been out here for fifty years, speakers on the @OccupyCityHall livestream video say, we feel your spirits here. A call goes out on social media for sage, and people are directed to take it to the press table, where someone livestreams a video of it burning for morning blessing. A painted mural of the “Justice” tarot card appears, with a black woman holding the scales and upright sword rather than the blond white man of the iconic Ryder-Waite deck (itself designed and drawn by Pamela Colman Smith, a half-Jamaican Englishwoman): this is the card for the virtues of truth and equality, accountability and congruence. When it appears reversed, it means that justice needs to be meted out.

That New York’s civic center is built on the dead bodies of black people, that enslaved people built the city but could not be buried within its churchyards, and that, today, a protest encampment has emerged exactly on this site to insist that black lives matter and demand that the city disinvest from its history of violence—none of this is coincidence, nor even metaphor. Activists are now painting BLACK LIVES MATTER on Centre Street, leading to the encampment, directly on top of the burial ground. In a time when the city is reckoning with how to mourn its dead during the epidemic, what the movement is insisting on is that our mourning be directed toward future repair. I can imagine no more fitting memorial for the thousands of people in the African Burial Ground than the protests that have been staged in the last month over their graves. We built this town, we’ll tear it down, goes a protest chant, and this is right. Those buried here are the true ancestors of the city we want to rebuild, and this occupation is how we care for them. This is our New York, and we keep us safe.

The author fee for this essay was donated to NourishNYC (Venmo: @nourishnyc) and the Saint Supper Collective (@occupyfoodnyc), who led the occupation’s food station for the first two weeks and are continuing to feed and sustain the movement.

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