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BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Ratcheting up the pressure on Trinity Wall Street to let Occupy Wall Street use its vacant lot at Canal St. and Sixth Ave., O.W.S. made its strongest push for the lot yet, briefly occupying the space Saturday afternoon before police quickly responded and made dozens of arrests.
Afterward, the occupiers then marched north, intending to protest outside Trinity Rector James Cooper’s house, but police had sealed off the street with a mass of officers holding orange nets.
Also, in a big boost for the Occupy effort, Desmond Tutu on Dec. 15 wrote a letter of support, with a plea to Trinity to let the protesters use the Duarte Square space. “You are the answer,” Tutu told O.W.S.
“I know of your own challenges and of this appeal to Trinity Church for the shelter of a new home and I am with you! May God bless this appeal of yours and may the good people of that noble parish heed your plea,” the Nobel Peace Prize-winning archbishop wrote.
“Yours is a voice for the world not just the neighborhood of Duarte Park,” Tutu said. “Injustice, unfairness and the stranglehold of greed which has beset humanity in our times must be answered with a resounding, ‘No!’ You are that answer. I write this to you not many miles away from the houses of the poor in my country. … You see, the heartbeat of what you are asking for — that those who have too much must wake up to the cries of their brothers and sisters who have so little — beats in me and all South Africans who believe in justice.
“Trinity Church is an esteemed and valued old friend of mine; from the earliest days when I was a young deacon,” Tutu continued. “Theirs was the consistent and supportive voice I heard when no one else supported me or our beloved brother Nelson Mandela. That is why it is especially painful for me to hear of the impasse you are experiencing with the parish. I appeal to them to find a way to help you. I appeal to them to embrace the higher calling of Our Lord Jesus Christ — which they live so well in all other ways — but now to do so in this instance…can we not rearrange our affairs for justice sake? Just as history watched as South Africa was reborn in promise and fairness, so it is watching you now.”
However, in a post the following day, Tutu added: “I also now challenge those who disagree with Trinity. My statement is not to be used to justify breaking the law. In a country where all people can vote and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property. … My deep prayer is that people can work together and I look forward to that conversation.”
Stairway to Occupy
Things started out at noon on Saturday with what was billed as a “three-month anniversary party” at Duarte Square for the “99 percent” movement that has gone global. But a few hours later, a wooden staircase was suddenly thrown up against the chain-link fence on the lot’s northern side. Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard was the first to scramble up the steps, tumbling down inside the gravel-covered space. Others followed, as the crowd chanted, “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” Among those entering the lot were other clergy, plus two hunger strikers who had been forgoing food for two weeks in hopes of swaying Trinity. Another set of stairs was added inside the lot, making it easier on the way down, as the protesters scampered in. Others yanked the base of the chain-link fence out of the ground, allowing more people to come in from underneath. But police responded quickly, making about 50 arrests and clearing the lot.
Speaking shortly after the lot had been secured by police, John Murdock, a board of directors member of the Yippie Cafe on Bleecker St., said he had earlier seen O.W.S. members drawing up plans for the “taking of the lot,” and had expressed skepticism.
“I said, ‘So, of course, this is where we all get arrested, right?’” he said, noting that they had looked at him with some annoyance. “‘Until Trinity lets us in, they’re not going to let us get in,’” he said he told them.
The attempt to take the Trinity lot is being dubbed “Occupy 2.0,” as in, the hoped-for second home base for Occupy after their eviction from Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan last month.
As the crowd was still milling around in Duarte Square Saturday afternoon after the failed occupation bid, a long white banner was unfurled from the top of the Trinity-owned building at 75 Varick St. It might have said “Occupy” something, but no one could really read it. Nevertheless, everyone cheered. An O.W.S. spokesperson later said no one knew who did it, but that it’s the kind of autonomous act emblematic of Occupy.
“A aqui — aqui capitalista — a!” the crowd hurled at the Trinity lot (Spanish for “Here is capitalism”).
City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents Washington Heights, was among the crowd, wearing a hoodie against the cold. A strong O.W.S. supporter, he had been arrested on Nov. 15 after the Zuccotti Park eviction.
Rodriguez said he was there this past Saturday as a legal observer.
“I want to be sure that we protect our First Amendment rights, and that we do celebrate this beautiful and peaceful movement that has become the voice of the working class and middle class,” he said. As for the failure of the occupiers to hold the Trinity lot, he said, “This movement is about more than one park — it’s about affordable housing, quality education and jobs.”
‘Go! March! March!’
A man with an electric bullhorn jumped atop the pedestal of the Duarte statue and said of Trinity Rector Cooper, “He kicked us out of our park — but he lives three minutes away! … Go! March! March! March!” he exhorted the protesters.
They marched across Watts St., then up Varick St., chanting, “We are the 99 percent!” and “Bloomberg, beware! Zuccotti Park is everywhere!” As the occupiers passed the Trump Soho condo hotel, police officers stood guard in front of the swank hotel’s plate-glass lobby windows. At the next corner, which has a Starbucks, the protesters got louder, reprising their “A aqui — aqui capitalista a!” chant. A window of the multinational coffee chain was later broken, allegedly by a protester who hurled a brick.
However, police had sealed off the block of Charlton St. between Varick St. and Sixth Ave. where Cooper lives. As the protesters approached either end of the block they were met by a wall of officers in riot helmets, standing silently, holding an orange net up like a fence.
Laura Gottesdiener, an O.W.S. organizer, later said, “Their plan was to just nonviolently protest outside the house.”
Giving up on that idea, they kept marching north.
As they passed through the Village, the demonstrators got reactions, mostly positive. On King St., a man flashed them a peace sign through his townhouse window as his young daughter looked on curiously. A white man standing in front of a building on Bedford St., wearing a blue stocking cap and a white T-shirt, shouted at them, “F— Obama! He’s the guy that bailed out the banks!” But a black woman standing on Seventh Ave. South in front of a jazz club said, “Occupy! All right, baby!” and shook their hands.
At 12th St. and Seventh Ave., police arrested a man near a crosswalk — possibly for marching in the street. He was small, but struggled against being handcuffed, and it took them sometime to restrain him, as the crowd chanted angrily.
Some of the O.W.S. demonstrators headed on up to Times Square where they held a General Assembly speak-out, following a number of more arrests along the way during their march.
After O.W.S.’s failed effort to hold the lot, Cooper issued a statement, which said, in part: “We are saddened that O.W.S. protesters chose to ignore yesterday’s messages from Archbishop Tutu [to not forcibly break into property], from the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and from Bishop of New York Mark S. Sisk.
Shchori, the Episcopal Church’s national leader, said: “Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it is necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property… . I would urge all concerned to stand down and seek justice in ways that do not further alienate potential allies.”
Sisk said: “The movement should not be used to justify breaking the law nor is it necessary to break into property for the movement to continue.”
In his statement, Cooper said, “The protesters say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours. The vacant lot has no facilities to sustain a winter encampment. In good conscience and faith, we strongly believe to do so would be wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious. We will continue to provide places of refuge and the responsible use of our facilities in the Wall St. area.”
O.W.S. bishop ‘sad’ too
Retired Bishop Packard, a friend of Cooper’s, had been acting as O.W.S.’s go-between with him — that is, at least up until last Saturday.
“We’re not talking now, I don’t think, after I popped into his property,” Packard said. “I’m just sad. We called Trinity out to make a statement and they just acted like a corporate church.”
Packard, 67, said that in his conversations with the rector, “He would always say Duarte Park is off the table — it’s nonnegotiable. He said, ‘George, this is just a splinter group.’ I said, ‘Jim, if this is a splinter group, it’s a pretty damn big splinter group — at least talk to them.’ ”
Packard said it was a breakthrough when Cooper recently agreed to meet with a handful of O.W.S. members who were on a hunger strike to compel Trinity to give them the lot. According to Gottesdiener, Cooper had not met with O.W.S. since Nov. 15 when they made their first failed attempt to take over the “LentSpace” lot after they were evicted from Zuccotti earlier that morning.
Artists for Occupy
Two main groups are helping Occupy put pressure on Trinity — Occupy Faith NYC, a group of progressive churches, and Occupy Art NYC, a coalition of artists. More than 500 local artists have signed a petition asking that the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, which is currently leasing the Trinity lot, allow the protesters access to the space. Among the petition signers are performance artist Laurie Anderson, who is on L.M.C.C.’s advisory board; her husband, rocker Lou Reed; novelist Salman Rushdie; journalist Laura Flanders; performance artist Jana Haimsohn; arts organizer and environmentalist Paul Bartlett; John Zorn, who owns the Stone music club on Avenue C; Steven Englander, director of ABC No Rio; performance artist Penny Arcade; actress Parker Posey; Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth; and poet John Ashbery.
Haimsohn, who lives nearby on Canal St., said, “We’re still talking to L.M.C.C., and O.W.S. people are talking to Trinity. But who knows who the decision makers are? Is it Bloomberg?
“L.M.C.C. has no plans to use the space until the spring again, so it’s quite vacant now,” Haimsohn said. “There are people at L.M.C.C. who are interested in this. Word on the street is the resistance is coming from Trinity’s board. Trinity keeps trying to hide behind L.M.C.C., saying they have the lease.”
A veteran of many protest movements, Haimsohn said she occasionally cooked for the occupiers and brought food down to them when they were at Zuccotti Park and also worked in the O.W.S. kitchen there.
“I feel it would be wonderful to have a gathering space again,” she said. “Things can happen online or in small gatherings, but it’s another thing to have a central space where people can share ideas and have collaborations with not just artists but environmentalists, too. It would be a perfect collaboration with what L.M.C.C.’s mission statement is for ‘LentSpace’ — its Web site talks about it being an urban model for use of vacant space. They are trying to create a space for artists, and this movement has a lot of incredibly creative young people.”
Trinity has final say
Lloyd Kaplan, a P.R. spokesperson for Trinity, said that Trinity has licensed “LentSpace” for use by L.M.C.C. The latter is curating the temporary exhibits there, but Trinity has approval of these, he said.
“It would have to meet their standards,” he explained of L.M.C.C. and any potential use for the space, “and then it would have to be approved by Trinity.”
The original agreement may have been silent on the space being closed for the winter, he noted, though he believed this was added well in advance of O.W.S. However, he said, “There was always an assumption that this [‘LentSpace’] was not going to happen in the winter because it would get too cold.”
What if L.M.C.C. decided to invite O.W.S. to occupy the lot?
“It is unlikely to happen where they say yes and we say no — but it’s possible,” Kaplan said. However, he added, “The way the license reads, they curate and we approve.”
The cultural organization’s lease for the property was recently renewed through April 2013, he said.
Asked whether L.M.C.C. supported O.W.S. using the space, a spokesperson didn’t specifically answer that question. Instead, she provided the following statement, saying she wanted to clarify what the organization’s agreement is with Trinity for the lot.
“L.M.C.C.’s Artist Residencies and Public Programs are designed to support artists’ creative practice. This goal is realized through securing and adapting temporarily vacant space Downtown into artist studios and performance and exhibition spaces through the generosity of real estate owners. L.M.C.C. has been contacted by Occupy Art NYC regarding the use of ‘LentSpace,’ the larger enclosed portion of Duarte Square. It is private space owned by Trinity Wall Street, and is currently licensed for use to L.M.C.C. for art installations. Our agreement allows us to provide artistic programming between May and October, during weekday lunchtimes. Our agreement does not allow us to use this space between November and April. As is the case with all of our real estate arrangements, we welcome artistic proposals, and we provide a range of artists and arts organizations with access to the space as per our agreement with the property owner.”
O.W.S. has already drawn up plans showing how they would program the site. There would be a collection of communal tents for use by working groups to organize the lot’s operations — such as first-aid, sanitation and food. There would be a main circular gathering area in the center for General Assemblies, teach-ins and community-based events. Port-a-potty facilities would be located in the space’s corners.
Board 2’s role
Occupy is also looking to Community Board 2 for assistance — and the board’s chairperson and some of its leading members, notably Keen Berger and Sean Sweeney, have given positive signs.
“There is a strong support on C.B. 2 for O.W.S.’s freedom of speech and the work they are doing on the profound issue of economic inequality in our city and country,” said Brad Hoylman, the board’s chairperson. “We would strongly encourage Trinity Church and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to engage with O.W.S. in a serious way to see if some agreement might be worked out among the parties for use of the empty lot — but C.B. 2 doesn’t have an official position at this point. Some of C.B. 2’s committee chairpersons have expressed interest in hearing from O.W.S. at a public hearing, which would be the first step in C.B. 2 drafting a resolution on the subject. But, of course, at this juncture we don’t know what the specifics of such a resolution would say.”
Last week at an informal “O.W.S. Holiday Party” with members of Board 2 and the community, Sweeney indignantly said that Trinity has some nerve to deny the lot to the protesters, since the church got all its copious real estate holdings from the Queen of England for an annual rent of just one peppercorn. Sweeney indicated that Board 2 might be able to use its clout to help Occupy get the lot, since Trinity is seeking a rezoning for the entire Hudson Square neighborhood, which includes the lot at Duarte Square, where Trinity hopes to build a residential tower with a public school in the bottom floors. This rezoning application will come before Board 2 for its approval.
Asked about that dynamic, Hoylman said, “C.B. 2 reviews each zoning application on its own merits, but certainly an applicant’s reputation and standing in the community has an impact on whether the board would be supportive or not. On the other hand, we’re unlikely to see any zoning proposals for Hudson Square until early spring, so it would be premature to suggest how the board would vote on this project.”