Just before noon at City Hall in Manhattan, protesters were handing out plastic cups. Six hours earlier, the NYPD had arrived, several layers deep in riot gear, apparently to intimidate protesters. Twelve hours before, hundreds watched as the City Council met a midnight deadline to vote for a would-be $1 billion budget cut to the NYPD, a move quickly dismissed as a “disingenuous illusion” that merely reshuffled the department’s money.
Still, by noon, someone had brought several bottles of Champagne. One of the organizers made a toast: “To Black joy!” It looked like a celebration, even in a self-declared defeat for the City Hall protest encampment, itself a culmination of more than a month’s worth of protests in New York.
With more NYPD officers looking on not far away, it felt like an act of defiance.
“We wanted to close out the action in celebration. I think we deserve it,” said Jonathan Lykes, who hasn’t left the area in nine days. “I’m probably running on 12 hours of sleep from the last nine days. It’s been an adrenaline rush.” Along with the other organizers, he knew the occupation was temporary, meant to apply pressure on the City Council to redirect the NYPD funds toward local mental health and education programs. He isn’t satisfied at all with how the vote went down. “It’s a sham,” he said. “They found other ways to pay the police. The bill is full of contradictions.” One protester called it “smoke and mirrors and fuzzy math.” “It looks a little like money laundering,” said another.
After the toast, most people went back to being busy. Volunteers went to operate their pavilions, like the free library, recycling, and compost stations, and distributing free food. Off to the side, sitting atop the Citi Bike stations completely covered with protest materials, Jawanza James Williams, 30, was sitting quietly. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done,” he said of the extended protest. He was one of the key organizers who pitched the idea to occupy the park.
Like many, he isn’t satisfied with the City Council vote; he called it “gaslighting.” But he concedes that now that the vote has happened, it’s time to change the strategy. “It’s about accountability now,” he said. “They are pretending to do what we want, but we demonstrated massive amounts of power here. And their actions are going to implore us to escalate. Next time, we probably won’t stop at a public space. If this wasn’t enough—perhaps we’ll take it to the halls of power and make it our own.”
I talked to many of the protesters there, who have held strong as other protests in the city have persisted but thinned since they broke out in late May. None was eager to pack up and move on.
Still, by consensus, the occupation was changing over. “We are ending the occupation demand as is,” said Nelini Stamp, 32, a veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement. She envisions the space continuing to exist as a home base for further actions and gatherings. “We built in a day what took us two months to build at Occupy Wall Street. We had food stations, medics.” She was present for the several aggressive attempts by police to end the occupation, as happened at Occupy Wall Street, and is proud of how the protesters maintained their autonomy this time.
But the crowds here too have thinned out. At the time of our conversation, the park couldn’t have been occupied by more than 50 people. But the organizations dismissed the idea that they were losing energy. “Here’s the thing. Movements expand and contract. They’re messy,” Stamp said. “New York’s protests were dwindling a little bit, and this space gave it energy with people coming to this park. So we’re still encouraging people to take to the streets, because the budget that passed was bullshit. That’s not what the people demanded across the city.”
“The City Council members who voted yes can stand their BLM signs, get their photo shoot,” Stamp said. “But budgets are the moral conscience of elected officials. It’s how you show what side you are on. And for those who voted yes for the budget, they are not on the side of freedom.”
Everyone agreed that the space needed to transition. “It doesn’t need to be a 24-hour occupation, but we definitely want to make sure that this becomes a place where we can have radical relationships with each other,” Lykes said, “a central organizing ground so we can be strategical and organize more protests.”
Stamp is helping with the transition, too. “The original conveners were here just for the budget, but the goal is abolition. We know that tactics change,” she said. “That group has to make a new set of demands, a new vision. Those of us who have been doing work will continue to do our work. Protesting, elections, doing all the things that put pressure.”
For Williams, the biggest success was demonstrating that space can maintain itself without policing. But he isn’t very confident that he will see the change he wants to see in his lifetime. He instead wants to focus on helping other activists get in touch with each other. “Sometimes all it takes is to plant a seed. You can’t imagine something until someone offers a framework,” he said. “And we offered one.”