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About 12 minutes after Packard entered, a man wearing Ray-Bans and an orange-and-black scarf reached the top of the stairs. Pausing there for a moment — filled with a surge of renewed energy — Diego Ibanez looked around and surveyed the heady scene. He joyously flung his hands out in double peace signs, then entered the lot.
“When I was at the top of the fence, I turned around and cheered so hard,” he said. “When I was going down the stairs, I realized how tired I was.”
Dec. 17 was Day 15 for Ibanez’s hunger strike. A group of five O.W.S. members had begun the fast in an effort to persuade Trinity to let the movement use the enclosure, at Canal St. and Sixth Ave. The hope has been it would be their new home base, after being evicted from Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15.
As police quickly moved in to arrest the protesters on Dec. 17, Ibanez, 23, from Utah, and the sole other remaining hunger striker, Mallory Butler, 19, from Florida, locked arms and went to the center of the Trinity lot, huddling together there. Within 30 minutes, police had made 50 arrests and cleared the property.
A “victory cake” had been on its way to Ibanez and Butler, but never made it to them through the chaotic crowd of protesters and police.
Even though Occupy didn’t end up holding the lot, the two ended their hunger strike.
“In jail that night, I was able to break bread with my friends — it was beautiful,” Ibanez said.
The main idea behind the fast, he said, had been to get into the property, and they achieved that.
“That was our goal,” he said, speaking the week after the latest Duarte Square occupation attempt. “We had called attention to Trinity. We’ve had people in the faith community say they’re grateful that we’ve revealed Trinity is a corporation fronting as a church. We felt we had accomplished what we set out to do — the goal was to take the lot.”
After their arrest, Ibanez said he was inspired listening to Father Paul Mayer, who also entered the lot with Packard and the protesters. A member of Occupy Faith NYC, Mayer worked with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggle.
“He had gone on a hunger strike for 40 days during the Vietnam War,” Ibanez said of Mayer. “It was amazing to talk to him in jail.”
Ibanez and two other hunger strikers, Brian Udall and Shae Willes, began their protest on Sat., Dec. 3, camping out with sleeping bags just outside the fence enclosing the Trinity lot, but still on privately owned Trinity property. Police told them they couldn’t have the sleeping bags, but the hunger strikers kept them anyway. After spending the night there in the cold, they were arrested the following day. After being released, they returned to the site later that Sunday, this time sitting down in a disused roadway that cuts through Duarte Square. But police told them they couldn’t stay there, either, because it was a “fire lane,” and arrested them again. The three returned that Monday intending to try sitting down on the strip of gravel just outside the Trinity fence again — but Trinity had quickly erected an extension of the fence, sealing off the property entirely.
Nevertheless, the hunger strikers kept on forgoing food, shifting their protest to the sidewalk outside Trinity Church on lower Broadway.
A week into the hunger strike, Rector James Cooper, head of Trinity Church, called Ibanez and said he wanted to meet at Duarte Square. According to the activist, the rector asked that the meeting only include the hunger strikers — who had then been joined by a fourth member — but no one else from O.W.S. Rector and his wife, Octavia, walked down to meet them. Police officers were there as well, at Cooper’s request.
“It was a fascinating conversation for us,” Ibanez said. “It was an hour and a half.”
However, Cooper made it clear Trinity would not budge.
“He just kept on repeating that the space is not available, the space is not available,” the protester said. “It just didn’t seem like it was going anywhere after a while. He just didn’t want to talk about the space. So I said, ‘Let’s talk about ourselves and get to know each other better.’ He started to talk about Trinity. I said, ‘I want you to talk about yourself.’”
Cooper eventually did reveal some personal details about his life and, in particular, his concern for a family member’s health condition, Ibanez said.
Lloyd Kaplan, a spokesperson for Trinity, said of Cooper’s meeting with the hunger strikers, “Jim basically listened. Then he talked to them. Both sides described why they took the positions they did. They listened to each other and they agreed that they differed and they agreed to differ. It was cordial and calm and it was earnest.”
The next day, the hunger strikers went to Mass at Trinity Church to thank Cooper for meeting with them.
“I gave him a personal note, saying, ‘Saturday is coming and I’m worried about my comrades,’” Ibanez said. “‘There’s going to be a taking of the location. It’s going to look bad if you call the cops.’”
After the failed attempt to occupy the lot on Dec. 17, the protesters marched up to Charlton St., hoping to demonstrate outside the rector’s home, but police had sealed off the block.
The next day, Ibanez again attended Mass at Trinity. Again, there were police officers there. Again, Ibanez had a discussion with Cooper:
“I take the Communion and he looks at me and said, ‘Are you eating again?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I started eating again in jail.’ He said, ‘You know what? I didn’t sleep very well last night’ — and then I took the Eucharist.
“I said, ‘How can you arrest the priests?’ He said, ‘George knew what he was getting into.’”
According to Ibanez, Cooper also told him, “You can’t control the movement. You can’t control what your friends are doing.”
Packard and Cooper are friends and had been talking leading up to the Dec. 17 action. Serving as Occupy’s liaison, Packard had been imploring Cooper to let the protesters use the lot as their new organizing hub for the “99 percent” movement that has become a global phenomenon, but whose focal point has always been New York City.
Trinity’s position is that the lot isn’t appropriate for an encampment — much less one in winter — since it lacks facilities, plus is potentially dangerous because it’s near the Holland Tunnel.
As for the hunger strike experience itself, Ibanez said, he was reading Gandhi’s “The Way to God” and it helped him make it through the ordeal. Ibanez basically subsisted on hot water with honey, nothing else. Butler drank coffee, which Ibanez avoided — but, then again, she’s a ballerina, he noted.
“She was a warrior,” he said.
Ibanez is an organizer on immigrant rights in Utah, where he said he represents undocumented students and fights “xenophobic laws.”
Walking up subway stairs was when he really felt how physically drained he was, he said.
Thoughts of food were hard to repress.
“You pass the hot dog guy and the peanuts and you go crazy,” he said.
“That’s all we would talk about — basically, what our first meal would be. People would always be embarrassed to eat in front of us.”
The vision of a first meal in Ibanez’s mind was a dish he loved growing up in his native Bolivia, rice with eggs.
Among the bigger challenges, or so it seemed, came on Day 13 when a woman offered him not food, but some marijuana.
“To smoke pot during a hunger strike, I was so afraid I was going to get the munchies,” he said. But he took it and, under its influence, his hunger strike reached a new high, so to speak.
“It was amazing, the thoughts: You’re in this movement, and the movement’s place in the world — and in the universe,” he said, recalling that moment.
Another time, a passerby, saying he was a good Christian, offered Ibanez a hot dog while he was sitting outside Trinity Church. Apparently, there was a misunderstanding.
“He thought I was on a ‘hungry strike,’” the young occupier said.
After the grueling protest effort, Ibanez and Butler were recently staying at Judson Church on Washington Square South where they were recovering and building up their strength.
“I’ve got a lot of weight to recover,” he said, speaking a couple of weeks ago. “I can see the bones in the mirror — Mallory, too. Today, I ate some rice and little pieces of meat.”
As for the Duarte Square lot, Ibanez said, there might be another way for O.W.S. to be able to use it.
“I think, honestly, we might get that space anyway through Community Board 2’s support,” he said. “If Trinity wants to rezone the lot to build a skyscraper there, a prerequisite might be to let us use the space.”
Board 2 Chairperson Brad Hoylman and some leading C.B. 2 members have indicated they would like to see Occupy have use of the property.
“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,” Hoylman previously told this newspaper. “We would strongly encourage Trinity Church…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.
“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.”