A Night with Occupy City Hall

Organizers want to redirect one-sixth of the N.Y.P.D.’s operating budget—about a billion dollars—and invest it in underfunded communities.Photograph by Jelani Rice

About twenty-four hours into its existence, a little before nine in the evening on Wednesday, Occupy City Hall held its first assembly, with about a thousand people in attendance. The organizers had set up tables and marked them clearly: the welcome table, the supplies table, the P.P.E. table, tables with food and water, a charging station, and an area with donated sleeping bags and blankets. The leaders had also formed committees: the Care Bear team, which is responsible for de-escalating any conflicts between the activists and the police or among activists; the medics; the welcome committee, which orients newcomers to the place and the issues; the vibe committee, responsible for music, teach-ins, and good energy; and the art committee. Everyone, they said, was responsible for volunteering for table shifts or cleanup, and for outreach—for texting their friends to make sure they joined, too. “This is direct action—this is not your college lawn,” one of the speakers reminded the very young, predominantly white crowd.

The organizers’ plan is to camp out in front of City Hall until the City Council finishes deliberating the budget—which it is scheduled to take up next Tuesday—and the mayor has signed it. The goal is to reduce the amount allocated to the N.Y.P.D. by at least a billion dollars—about one-sixth of the current operating budget for the department—and to insure that that money is invested, instead, in underfunded communities.

Most of the leaders of Occupy City Hall—more than a dozen black activists—have day jobs in the nonprofit world. Their idea for the new action, which started after more than three weeks of Black Lives Matter marches in the city, was strategic and straightforward. “Since the beginning of the uprising, people have taken a broader issue and made it local,” Charles Khan, who is thirty-one and a professional organizer by day, told me; he was referring to cities that have announced major reductions in police budgets, and to activists who have called for defunding their local police forces. “We have the biggest police force in the world,” Khan added. “This is a microcosm of the entire rebellion. We are occupying this space because City Hall is supposed to be the center of our democracy.” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has proposed cutting the police budget by more than a billion dollars; Mayor Bill de Blasio has also pledged to reduce the police budget, but he hasn’t committed to a specific amount.

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As Khan and I talked, next to the police barrier that now stands on the sidewalk in front of City Hall, a young white man led a procession of several dozen people up Centre Street, away from the encampment. What looked like a march was, in fact, a trip to a bathroom in a church a few blocks away. During the day, protesters use bathrooms in nearby businesses—McDonald’s, coffee shops, a deli (locations and hours of operation are posted on a piece of cardboard on the welcome table)—but, at night, they go in groups that depart a couple of times an hour.

Several of the organizers were involved in Occupy Wall Street, an encampment that lasted for two months in 2011. They have brought their expertise—which may explain why Occupy City Hall had a shape and virtually everything it needed to function within twenty-four hours of starting—and clear ideas about what to avoid in an occupation. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, this encampment is not run entirely by consensus—the core group of black leaders plans to continue making key decisions—nor is it an open-ended social experiment. “We are here to take action to an end,” Nelini Stamp, who is thirty-two and works as the director of strategy for the Working Families Party, said. “We are not going to build an alternative society”—or, rather, they are, but not all at once in front of City Hall.

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Sign-making was one of the first orders of business for the encampment.Photograph by Jelani Rice

Just then, a young white woman, carrying a broom in one hand and a large black garbage bag in the other, and with a flashlight stuck through the band of her backward baseball cap, came by to sweep the sidewalk clean of cigarette butts. Stamp, who had just stubbed out her own cigarette, thanked her. “If we win on budget, we will continue organizing,” Stamp continued. “We still have to get cops out of schools, we still have to pass a law banning walking-while-trans arrests”—a reference to the police practice of arresting transgender women on the assumption that they are engaging in sex work.

As the clock struck midnight, a young black woman in a red silk dress, holding a large pan-African flag, stood near a closed subway entrance—decorated with signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “Abolish the Prison-Industrial Complex”—and addressed the crowd through a megaphone. “Today would have been Tamir Rice’s eighteenth birthday!” she said, and called for a moment of silence. The crowd kept rumbling. “I said a moment of silence!” she shouted in frustration. Two other young black people, now armed with two megaphones that they could aim at different parts of the crowd, came to her aid. “Mike check!” they shouted. This time the occupiers fell silent for a minute, some standing, some sitting, all with one fist raised in the air.

Then the music resumed, from a sound system mounted on a cargo bike. “It’s a space of joy,” Bianca Cunningham, a thirty-five-year-old organizer of Occupy City Hall, told me. Street musicians who have lost their usual income from playing in the subway now come to play at the encampment instead. Other programming includes teach-ins: they planned several for Thursday, Cunningham said, on rent cancellation, abolishing the police, and immigration as a black issue. Cunningham is a labor organizer by day and one of the founders of the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus of the Democratic Socialists of America. She told me that, by the end of the first day of the encampment, the Occupy City Hall Instagram account had garnered seven thousand followers, and its Venmo account had received fifteen thousand dollars in donations—triple the goal set by the organizers.

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At the art station, a dozen people sat on the ground making signs, near a notice that said, “Please disinfect art supplies after use.” A young white woman was writing, “ ‘I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change—I am changing the things I cannot accept.’ –Angela Davis.” Sign-making was one of the first orders of business for the encampment: within a day, the entire perimeter and, it seemed, every other available surface was adorned with signs that signalled the meaning of the protest to the drivers of passing cars and the police patrolling the area. They ranged from “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice no peace,” portraits of George Floyd, and lists of black people killed by police, to more specific slogans, such as “Refund the people,” “6B is just the operating budget!,” and a blackboard with a list of eight demands:

1. Defund the police!!!
2. Demilitarize communities
3. Remove cops from schools
4. Free people from prison and jails!
5. Repeal laws criminalizing survival!
6. Invest in community self-governance!
7. Provide safe, accessible, and affordable housing
8. Fully invest in care! Not cops!

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