For weeks, Occupy Wall Street has been talking about occupying a vacant lot next to Duarte Square in SoHo. On Saturday, it walked the talk. At about 3:30 p.m, several hundred marchers left the square along with two large wooden ladders concealed beneath banners. They circled the block and converged at the lot's northwest corner, where they hoisted one of the ladders up to a tall chain-link fence. The first person over was retired Bishop George Packard, who writes at Occupied Bishop. Here's a video of him entering the lot:
After Packard tumbled over the fence, he climbed onto a wooden bench and waved for the crowd to follow. Other priests mounted the ladder while the the crowd yanked up the base of the fence to make a large opening. Someone cut the lock on a gate, and dozens of people streamed inside, talking, dancing to rap music from a boom box, and urging the rest of the crowd to join them. But the party couldn't last. The police, taken off guard at first, came pouring through the gate with flex cuffs and arrested everyone who didn't flee, including Packard. The New York Daily Newsreported that about 30 occupiers were loaded into police vans. Here's my video of the first arrests:
Here's Packard discussing it all with fellow occupiers while riding to jail in a paddy wagon:
That morning, things had gotten off to an ominous start when police detained and arrested Zach, one of the organizers, while he was walking across a nearby public park. Witnesses said that Zach has just delivered some t-shirts to the park and wasn't doing anything illegal, or even protesting. Police told a Democracy Now reporter that Zach was arrested on a warrant, suggesting that they're targeting key organizers for their role in planning new occupations.
Occupy Wall Street had a variety of motivations for occupying the lot, which is owned by Trinity Church but not currently being used for anything. Many occupiers desperately want to establish another physical occupation, believing that it will give them a better platform for outreach and organizing. The Trinity lot is one of the few unused parcels remotely near Wall Street, and the occupiers hoped that letters of support from prominent clergymen such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu might sway the church to their side. They've also leaned on the church by highlighting its ties to Wall Street interests.
Organizers chose December 17th to move on the lot because it marks the one-year anniversary of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi--the Tunisian fruit vendor who is credited with sparking the Arab Spring--and the three-month anniversary of OWS. Organizers told me that it's likely to be their last major occupation attempt until the spring, and the whole thing felt nostalgic even before it was over. "I left my heart in Zuccotti Park," one sign said. After marching through the streets to Times Square--and getting kettled along the way--some organizers gathered at a popular OWS meeting spot in TriBeCa to watch video clips from the movement's early days.
"It was really incredibly optimistic of us to think that we were going to take that space and hold it," tactical team member George Machado told me afterwards. But for a moment it seemed possible: "We got the clergy in first, and we had that space, and I thought for a second that we might be able to do it."
At first glance, Occupy Wall Street's plan to take over a gravel lot in SoHo tomorrow seems a bit strange. After all, the property isn't all that close to Wall Street. It's owned by Trinity Church, which hardly seems like the kind of symbolic target that OWS found in Brookfield Office Properties, the politically connected owner of Zuccotti Park. And the occupiers have already gotten free food and meeting spaces from Trinity; they now risk the appearance of biting the hand that feeds them.
Of course, organizers behind #D17, as the occupation attempt is known on Twitter, see things differently. Trinity Church is one of the city's largest landowners and strongly tethered to the 1 percent: Five of the 20 members of its vestry, or church parliament, for example, hail from high-ranking roles at financial firms such as Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, and others come from the insurance behemoth AIG, a market research firm for energy investors, and even Brookfield. The church's two wardens, the men directly below the rector who are responsible for its assets, run an investment bank and group of mutual funds.
"We are not against the church," says #D17 organizer Shawn Carrie. "We are against the church aligning itself with Wall Street."
The Trinity Church parcel, which sits along Canal Street next to the publicly owned Duarte Plaza, has been slated for occupation by OWS even before the eviction from Zuccotti Park. Though the parcel is several subway stops from Wall Street, OWS organizers now see it as their best shot for re-establishing the kind physical presence that many occupiers still consider vital to the movement. But with the church dug in against the idea, claiming that the site is reserved for a future school, organizers have been forced to get creative. In late November, they marched to the lot along with sympathetic clergy members and civil rights leaders to hold a candlelight vigil. They've also reached out to local politicians.
"Our community needs more people who volunteer in community service--and that is what Occupy Wall Street pledges to do," said Keen Berger, the area's Democratic District Leader, in a statement emailed to me by OWS. "Trinity and the Community Board 2 should welcome them at the Canal Street site with two provisos: That they help the local community, and that they leave when construction of the new school begins."
Still, it's far from clear how tomorrow's occupation will play with the public. "I think it's a good idea from OWS' point of view because it will continue the conversation," said Manhattan Community Board 2 member Robert Riccobono. Though he felt that the board was generally supportive of OWS' message, he would not go so far as to endorse the occupation: "You can see why Trinity is concerned. I would be too if I owned that space," he said. "So you have two opposing positions that are both understandable in many ways."
Cathy O'Neil, a participant in the Alternative Banking Group
High up in a Manhattan conference room on Sunday, a group of investment gurus discussed Occupy Wall Street. Should they support a set of tough-sounding financial reforms just proposed on the campaign trail by presidential candidate Jon Huntsman? Or was it reasonable to demand even deeper reforms? "This isn't enough," argued Cathy O'Neil, a former hedge fund quant who organizes the group, a branch of Occupy Wall Street known as the Alternative Banking Group. She proposed that the gathering of financial experts come up with improvements to Huntsman's plan and present them to Occupy Wall Street's General Assembly. Another OWS supporter, whose day job involves consulting for private equity firms, looked up from his laptop and smiled. "That's an excellent idea!"
As unlikely as it may have seemed when protesters first descended on New York's financial center this fall, an increasing number of Wall Street insiders are now returning the favor, you might say, by occupying Occupy Wall Street. Sympathetic to the movement's critiques of the banking system, they've been quietly lending their expertise to Occupy efforts to develop real ideas for revamping the industry.
"What I want is to influence the conversation," says O'Neil, who worked for two years with Lawrence Summers, the former US treasury secretary, at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw.* "It's about education and outreach and just the message that the financial system is too complicated—that you are not dreaming this."
Founded in early October by former British diplomat Carne Ross, the 60-person Alternative Banking Group has become a repository for OWS-friendly financial insiders. It includes current and former investment bankers, traders, and lawyers for the securities industry, but also many laymen—including housewives, people who used to sleep in Zuccotti Park, and guys with piercings who wear Che Guevara T-shirts. The group shares Occupy Wall Street's website, its nonhierarchical structure, and its distaste for partisan politics. "I'd say the one thing that everybody agrees on is that the system isn't working," O'Neil says. "And there is nothing about being a Republican or a Democrat in that statement."
On Thursday night, protesters in Washington, DC, staked out a holiday shindig at the US Chamber of Commerce building where business and political leaders, including House Speaker John Boehner, were said to be in attendance. The protest was organized by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Chamber Watch, and various occupy groups, and some of the participants said they were out of work or lacked enough work to get by comfortably. Huddling under a red "99%" carpet, they invited the guests to tread on them.
Standing on the street near the entrance to the gauntlet (watch below) was Bruce Josten, a Chamber VP who is basically the business group's chief lobbyist. He's the one wearing a three-piece pinstripe suit and tassle loafers, greeting people and encouraging them to brave the crowd. "Hey Greg, how are ya?" I heard him say to one guest, shaking the man's hand. "This is great. Go on in."
"This is Bruce Josten's let-them-eat-cake moment," commented Christie Setzer of Chamber Watch. I urged her to go talk to Josten, whom she had never met, but she didn't want to.
Among the people under the carpet was 55-year-old Michelle McDonnell, an Arizona resident whom SEIU paid to fly out and join the week's protests. McDonnell told me she'd badly injured her ankle two years ago, requiring surgery. She lost her job as licensed therapist because she couldn't be on her feet, and could not find work in any other field. For a while, she was on food stamps and Access, an Arizona program, but the benefits ran out, and she nearly lost her home to foreclosure by Bank of America. What finally saved her was getting married to a man with an income.
"We are here because of Boehner," she said. "We want him to stop listening to just the 1 percent and do something that works for all people. We have a lot of people who need jobs, and they are talking about creating jobs, but they are taking jobs away." Specifically, she wants Boehner to extend unemployment, further reform the healthcare system. "We're here because we are sick and tired. They are up there eating and having a wonderful party. And we are all here unemployed and don't know where our next meal is going to come from."
It's straight out of a Don DeLillo novel: A few hours after television producers set up a replica of Occupy Wall Street for the filming of a new episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the real Occupy Wall Street announced plans to occupy the fake one. At 11:30 p.m. the call to occupy the set went out on Twitter with the hash tag #Mockupy. Located at nearby Foley Square, the fake camp includes a replica of the OWS kitchen and library as well as numerous tarps, tents, and signs. "They've delivered us this perfectly wrapped Christmas present with a bow on top: They rebuilt our camp," OWS organizer Jake DeGroot told me shortly before the announcement went out. "How could we not go and take it?"
Here's video of the fake Zuccotti Park being occupied by the real occupiers:
As of about 1:00 a.m., the police had begun to push protesters out of the park and dismantle the set. "NYPD does not respect Law and Order," the crowd chanted cheekily. At one point, an occupier asked an officer, "Are these real barricades, or a set piece?"
Within about an hour police had cleared out the protesters, which was less time than it took clear the real Zuccotti, but probably more than they'd need on a TV show. "You guys just cleared a fake Zuccotti Park," the tweeter @NewYorkist told a police officer, who countered that they'd done no such thing: "We didn't clear a fake Zuccotti," he insisted. "They're taking the set down."
A few minutes later, the occupiers regrouped on a nearby set of steps for an impromptu general assembly. "This is beautiful, and this points out to us a more clever way to fight the struggle," someone said, echoed by the people's mic.