Last Thursday in New York City, a soft-spoken man with a thick beard, whom I'll call Paul, casually approached a brick apartment building and broke off a padlock with a bolt cutter. A spotter called to say a squad car was on its way, but Paul didn't feel his phone vibrate; he was too busy jamming a crowbar in the door. "Fortunately, the cop car just drove up the street and turned," he recalls a few days later as he and his wife wait at a subway stop to meet up with members of his cleanup crew. He'd installed his own lock on the door, which led to a vacant unit where the crew hoped to install a family of squatters.
Paul has asked me not to publish the names of his crew, the location of the building, or too much detail about the single mother who wants to squat there with her two children. The family was evicted from its apartment two weeks ago after a city-subsidized housing program ran out of money. "The reason I am doing this," Paul told me, "is that there are people who are really hurting."
After three guys in work clothes showed up with brooms and a shovel, we headed through graffiti-sprayed streets to the building. Everyone would need to be as discreet as possible; a neighboring unit was still occupied by a legal tenant. "The idea is to go in very quickly and confidently, like we are supposed to be there," Paul tells the group, one of several crews connected to a new 200-member squatting organization known as Organizing for Occupation (O4O).
UPDATE:As the New York Observer, Capital New York, and Gothamist have pointed out, the NYPD's refusal to allow me into the "frozen zone" where OWS protesters were held last night comes just days after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent a memo to officers reminding them not to interfere with meda access during news coverage.
Outside a Manhattan fundraiser attended by President Barack Obama last night, the New York City Police Department deployed a new and legally questionable tactic against Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and the press. Starting at around 9:00 p.m., police barricaded a group of about 50 protesters into a small area on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street. These kinds of designated "free speech zones" have become routine at protests of high-level political events. But here's the twist: Protesters in the NYPD's free speech zone were trapped there. Not only could nobody enter after a certain point, but for about an hour and a half, nobody could leave.
When I arrived outside the Obama event, a $1000-a-head fundraiser at the Sheraton New York, I found that the police had cordoned off the sidewalk a block in all directions and were not admitting the press. Deeper inside this "frozen zone," as the police called it, were the kettled protesters, who occupied a sort of Faberge egg of dissent that was completely inaccessible to anyone not already there. From my vantage point I couldn't even read their signs.
On the sidewalk I ran into Andrew Katz, a Columbia journalism grad student who has gained a following covering OWS on Twitter. We noticed that cars driving down 7th Avenue were getting much closer to the kettled area than pedestrians and hatched a plan to ride a cab into the center of things. Here's the video I shot of hopping out and getting pushed away as I tried to interview trapped protesters:
To be sure, the crackdown on the protest can't help Democrats who want OWS to give them a boost at the ballot box. "Everybody just got really fucked constitutionally," said a woman in a black puffer, summing up the dominant sentiment in the crowd. A spokesman for the NYPD, who would only give his name as Officer Navarro, told me that he was unaware of the events at the Obama protest and could not comment on them.
Many who showed up outside the fundraiser said they'd just wanted to talk about the kind change that Obama had campaigned on. "It's funny that all of us supported Obama and we are now literally being held as prisoners 100 yards from where he'd giving a talk," said Chelsea, a young protester in from Essex County, New Jersey. She'd wanted to tell the president: "If you don't listen to corporate interests, you don't have to take millions of dollars from them. We would actually want to elect you."
Protesters occupy a Bank of America branch in downtown San Francisco, California. See the rest of Mother Jones photo editor Mark Murrman's photos of the incident here.
What will the evicted residents of Zuccotti Park occupy next? Will it be Duarte Plaza, a triangular patch of brick and gravel owned by Trinity Church in Tribeca? Foreclosed and abandoned buildings in Harlem and the Lower East Side? Nearby colleges or small towns? Or something less tangible?
At a 40-person meeting Saturday to discuss the issue, not everyone thought that retaking a public space would be worthwhile. "Not to sound like an asshole, but there's a lot of energy and resources that go into sustaining an occupation and feeding and clothing people," said Daniel Zeta, a respected former resident of the park. "If we are not careful, we are going to turn into a homeless shelter and food kitchen, and to be honest, that's not why I came here."
Others argued that OWS has a duty to revive the country's first and most symbolic occupation. "Having a space that is a show of force, that is big, that is in your face is really important," said a guy named Danny, clad in a red bandanna and plaid shirt. "And it's something that a lot of different occupations around the country are waiting for us to do."
Even before last week's police raid and eviction of campers from the park, the movement's organizers were working to set up satellite occupations around the city. On October 15, the night of a massive demonstration at Times Square, a delegation from Zuccotti held a 3,000-person rally at Washington Square Park near New York University, where they announced they would camp. But just before the park's midnight curfew, about 100 riot police dispersed the crowd and arrested 14 holdouts.
"The idea of an occupation is obviously to hold it and grow it," says Sandy Nurse.
"Washington Square is a hard case because it is a public space and there are laws that protect that space," says Sandy Nurse, a key organizer with the OWS Direct Action Working Group. "The idea of an occupation is obviously to hold it and grow it, and it can't help when you are constantly under threat from being evicted and beat up by the cops."
Duarte Plaza: Ask Now, Take Later?
After Washington Square, organizers began looking for other spots in Lower Manhattan that, like Zuccotti, were privately owned public spaces not subject to New York City's curfew laws and camping restrictions. About a week and a half ago, they began putting out feelers to Trinity Church, one of the city's largest private landowners, about occupying the vacant lot it owns at Duarte Plaza. Trinity had already given OWS free meeting spaces in its buildings near Wall Street, but church leaders drew the line at hosting a new encampment. After talks broke down, organizers decided to move ahead with the Duarte occupation anyway.
A date was set for Tuesday, November 15—the same day, it turned out, that police evicted the campers from Zuccotti. "And then it was like, 'Okay, let's go for it,'" Nurse recalls. A couple hundred people amassed at the plaza that afternoon along with supportive religious leaders from other churches. But Trinity wouldn't cave to the pressure. After occupiers cut into the chain-link fence around the lot, church leaders allowed the police to disperse the crowd, arresting about 10 people.
Three days later, OWS organizers began planning a different approach. They met with religious and civil rights leaders this past Sunday at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, and then peacefully marched to Duarte holding candles and illuminated tents bearing slogans, including: "You can't evict an idea whose time has come." They softly sang old labor and civil rights songs such as "We Shall Overcome" and "This Little Light of Mine."
"I think [OWS] represents maybe the greatest possibility that we've had in the past 20 years of making changes that are so desperately needed," says Rev. Nelson Johnson, a 1960s civil rights activist.
"We came to declare our solidarity with this movement," said Rev. Nelson Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina, an elder of the civil rights movement, as he marched down 6th Avenue. "I think it represents maybe the greatest possibility that we've had in the past 20 years of making some changes that are so desperately needed in our financial institutions, and in just the respect for the dignity and worth of life. All of the forces and factors that have pushed against that have to get changed."
When the march arrived at Duarte, activists covered the wall surrounding the Trinity lot with construction paper and wrote messages imploring the church to reconsider its stance on the occupation. "Trinity, please share your space with the rest of humanity," one message read. Another added: "Please contribute what you don't use to those who need it."
To be sure, Trinity has reason to balk at becoming OWS' new landlord. Zuccotti Park in its final days had become overstuffed with tents, beset by thieves and drug dealing, and overburdened by the need to clean up after itself and administer to a growing population of chronically homeless and mentally disabled. While the decision of OWS to welcome the poor was certainly Christian, it was controversial even within the movement. Many occupiers worried that OWS didn't have the resources to deal with the problems it attracted.
But Nurse and the would-be Duarte occupiers say they've learned from their mistakes. If Trinity allows the occupation, it will be protected from thieves by the surrounding fence. The only tents allowed inside will be large military versions that each sleep 18 people, allowing better oversight of campers and plenty of meeting spaces for daytime use. Anyone who wishes to join the occupation will be required to sign a pledge to actively participate, not use drugs, and keep the peace; those who don't comply will be removed. And the Duarte occupation will have its own General Assembly composed entirely of occupiers, giving it much better control of itself.
Near the top of an office building at a secret address on Broadway in Lower Manhattan there's a door hung with a yellow placard, reading, "This is a good sign." Open that door and you'll meet a man sitting at a folding table behind a Toshiba netbook. He's Occupy Wall Street's doorman. If somebody is expecting you, or if you're in his database of verified working-group members, he'll let you inside. And then you'll be in the closest thing the Occupy movement has to a new headquarters.
"It's obviously kind of a hub where information flows though," Nathan Stueve, a member of OWS' press team, tells me. Like everyone else in the office, he wears a numbered tag that says, "The Occupied Office." Stueve explains that there are 48 of these tags, corresponding to the space's fire capacity—the tags are a way of making sure that the activist hive doesn't run afoul of building management.