It’s been three days since Occupy City Hall took over the park facing the seat of our local government, demanding a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s annual budget (their budget last year was $6 billion). The action is timed with the city’s overall budget deadline coming up on June 30th. Occupy City Hall is the latest in a national protest movement for police reform, after George Floyd was suffocated by a police officer in Minneapolis on May 25th.
“We’re asking the movement to occupy this space, because we don’t want them to get away with the fact that we’re distracted by the number of crises that we’re experiencing,” says Jawanza James Williams, organizing director of VOCAL-NY.
From a few dozen protesters on Tuesday night, Occupy City Hall’s ranks grew to many hundreds by the following evening. A couple dozen cops hold a loose perimeter around the occupied area, observing from a distance. The atmosphere is festive and hopeful, musical acts performing next to teach-ins and discussions on systemic racism. Every so often a group of protesters will separate from the core area and do lap protesting around the park. Around 10 pm organizers give a lesson on how to form a human blockade in the event of a confrontation with the police.
The City Council has, up to this point, been responsive to the national movement to reform policing. Last week they passed laws compelling officers to keep their badge numbers visible at all times, and forming a supervising body to oversee the surveillance technologies of the NYPD. They have even been receptive to the specific demands of this protest, proposing a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s budget, which is being negotiated with Mayor Bill de Blasio and must be passed by June 30th. All positive signs for the movement, but what if the budget comes and goes with no tangible reforms?
“The plan is to hold them accountable. What that means is find out why the budget wasn’t passed, find out who we need to vote out,” says Kareem, an organizer with VOCAL-NY. “We will definitely be speaking – our leadership, our membership – about the next steps in actions and demonstrations to let them know that we’re not just going to give up after the 30th.”
The strategy of staying in place over an extended period of time presents logistical challenges, but organizers of Occupy City Hall have so far been able to meet their needs. A row of volunteers stands behind tables with useful items for protesters – protective masks, sunscreen, toiletries – handing them out and answering newcomers’ questions. Bigger items (e.g. sleeping bags) and a stockpile of snacks and water stands impressively tall despite the crowd and the heat. The supplies are all donations coordinated through the organizers’ online supporter networks. By Wednesday afternoon, a message goes on Occupy City Hall’s Instagram to thank donors and let them know they are well stocked for the time being. “If we stay here, we have control of the narrative,” says Jawanza. “New York is uniquely special. In a lot of cities around the world, a lot of folks look to us. They look here to be inspired. They look here to be terrified as well. If we the people, that are so politically active New York City, don’t have the power to challenge even just a mayor, what are we gonna do about Donald Trump?”