What Does East Village Resistance to Occupy Tompkins Square Park Mean for the East Village?

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John Penley, by Paul DeRienzo
For about a week now, there have been plans to occupy Tompkins Square Park, led largely by East Villager John Penley, who has a Facebook page set up for the event, which was scheduled to begin on Saturday with a noontime picnic. In the wake of last night's announcement by Mayor Bloomberg that protesters at Zuccotti Park would have to move so that the park could be cleaned, we wondered if there was any change in the plans for Tompkins -- an earlier start date, maybe? Penley told us there's "no change in our plans."

This may come as unpleasant news to a number of East Village locals, who, upon hearing of the planned Tompkins Square occupation, have been making their distaste for the effort known, particularly as commenters on EV Grieve's post about the event.

There are 108 comments on that post, many of them like this:

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And many of them, notably, anonymous (and possibly trolls). Which is not surprising. Commenters (sorry, guys) are often looking for trouble, and they often do it under the cloak of anonymity. But we wondered what the overwhelmingly negative, and, frankly, a bit surprising, reaction implies for the greater vibe and culture of the East Village. What does it mean for the struggle against this neighborhood becoming just another Starbucks, and for the anti-establishment values that used to seem quite dear to the hearts of locals?

It bears mentioning that there are some in favor:

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We talked to EV Grieve and to Rob Hollander, the man behind the blog Save the Lower East Side, both long-time East Villagers, to get their thoughts.

Why do you think people seem negative about the idea of occupying Tompkins Square Park, particularly given the history of the East Village (and the park), which, you'd imagine, would create a protest-friendly vibe?
EV Grieve:
I was a little surprised at the initial lack of support and enthusiasm for Occupy Tompkins Square Park, especially at a time in which the movement seems to be picking up momentum nationwide. The Park, of course, has a long history of protests -- peaceful and otherwise -- dating back to 1850. So it seems like the perfect setting, especially given Occupy Wall Street's first organizing meeting took place here back in August. So what gives? Some of it could be with the organizer, longtime East Village activist John Penley. He can be a polarizing figure. I like him, and appreciate all that he does. And certainly no one else is stepping up to organize like he has in recent years. Some of the 100-plus comments (and many that I didn't approve) on my post were personal attacks on John, with wishes that this whole thing fails.

But I do think this has more to do with Occupy Wall Street in general than this specific event in Tompkins Square Park. The mainstream media coverage is predictable and knee jerky. Dirty hippies! Drums! Tie-dye shirts! It becomes easy to lampoon all this. Few mainstream reporters are giving this any legitimacy. Without clear messaging from the organizers, too many people believe this is just a channel for generalized anger and frustrations. It's like people suddenly think that Tompkins Square Park will be transformed into Altamont Speedway in 1969. "We don't want those dirty hippies drumming in our neighborhood!"

What does something like this mean for the future of the East Village, both in terms of how it's changing and where it might go?
EV Grieve: I just don't think a lot of people give a shit anymore. Now that's quite a blanket statement. But I see the apathy here and elsewhere. Some of the newer residents seem to be more interested in finding the perfect drunk brunch, tweeting about cupcakes and going out and watching, say, the Oklahoma-Texas game in sweatshirts and jerseys. Social movements are for the history books.

What's your involvement been with Occupy Wall Street? Do you plan to join them in Tompkins?
Hollander: I've been following it since mid August when the GA meetings were held in TSP, and I comment occasionally on their listserv. I will definitely attend the occupation at TSP just to check it out, but my camping out days, or nights, are past. Actually, I never liked camping out. Anyway, I'll be there, at least for a while.

They've been successful at keeping momentum and visibility by holding new events each day or so. The occupation of TSP sounds like a useful part of that program. I don't see it as unduly disruptive. If OWS has the potential to shift the balance of politics in this country, issues of noise, garbage and crowding hardly seem significant. I mean, here is an opportunity to change the voice and profile of our polity, and the news media and the local residents are worried about garbage? What happened to their values? Are they so comfortable and jaded that they can't care about anything but their own comfort?

I am not so ironic as to view every honest effort as naive, silly, childish or risible. Irony is the privilege of the abstract, the distant, the uninvolved. It suits the comfortable, the secure, the indifferent. If we all regarded our polity with irony, there'd be no place for democracy at all. The OWS process is all about participatory democracy. It is so pure and purged of irony that its principled participation cannot close on its demands. That's one reason why it hasn't gotten involved with any party or against any party, why it hasn't projected any specific solutions. It is a movement discontented with our democracy. The only campaign poster I've seen at Liberty Plaza is for Ron Paul. Now, several of Grieve's commenters seemed to think that OWS should direct itself to the government rather than Wall Street. Well, that's Paul's message, and it's there at OWS, along with many other messages. You won't see any Obama posters there, that's for sure. So I think the commenters, as most ugly commenters are, uninformed and biased loudmouths. :-) The content of their comments are of little merit but of revelatory sociological curiosity. I take them very seriously, but not what they think.

What does the surge in negative commenters (about an Occupation of Tompkins, in particular) mean, in your opinion?
Hollander: Says more about who reads Grieve's blog and why. The new breed of Lower East Sider comes to enjoy a sense of faux authenticity: it feels like a hip neighborhood, it imagines itself to be hip, it has lots of youth who style themselves as hip, but in reality, they are just the children of wealth seeking $700 a month more hipness and authenticity than they would get in Queens. It's that oxymoronic measured thrill, just enough for them to congratulate themselves for not living in an undistinguished neighborhood like Kips Bay, but not too much to lose sleep over the noise of a late-night drum circle. The idea of being arrested for principles arouses such unconscious fear that they respond with political and personal disdain. Note how they fail to understand the OWS movement itself, and interpret it as whatever is conveniently not what they themselves believe in so that they don't have to be bothered with it. It is, if you forgive another oxymoron, aggressive apathy. Proactive apathy, to use one of their redundant and useless epithets.

I'd say more, but I have to run out to a memorial for a neighbor who lived here for twenty-five years. Grieve's readers consider themselves East Villager old-timers if they've lived for ten years. They have no conception of the significance and uniqueness of this place, not a clue. It is beyond their capacity to imagine let alone understand.

They read Grieve because reading some local restaurant blog would show themselves in the mirror as mere gentrifiers -- but Grieve is cool, Grieve is hip, Grieve is an insider, so they can feel insiders without ever getting inside anything of this place. That's who reads Grieve today. Bob [Arihood] died just in time. He'd have seen it as every good deed's punishment. Grieve is the entertainment of the gawkers of authenticity.

How do you see an Occupation of Tompkins actually going?
EV Grieve: I hope that there's a robust turnout. I think it will be good for the East Village's soul.

62 people are currently numbered as attending, via the event's Facebook page.

[JDoll / @thisisjendoll]

Go to Runnin' Scared for all our latest news coverage.

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7 comments
Bob
Bob

Too many rats in Tompkins sq. park. I wouldn't want to sleep there.

John Penley
John Penley

Since you called me last night I think it would have only been fair to ask me to comment on this. Part of the reason there are many negative comments [ I don't think you were fair because more comments supported it than were against it] are from neighborhood real estate developers, landlords and Antonio Pagan supporters who hate me because I have been rubbing shit in their greedy faces for years. Also, many of them post on anything EV Grieve puts up with my name they post multiple times with different names. Since none of the people who put up negative comments about Occupy Tompkins Square Park have the guts to put their names on their comments you have no idea whether your perceptions about the neighborhood's real support or non support for Occupy Tompkins Square Park really is. PS I had to leave the hood because I started a riot with the band Leftover Crack at the 9th Pct. and cops were threatening to kill me on the street. DIE YUPPIE SCUM !!!!! I suggest people go to the EV Grieve blog post and read the comments for themselves.

Mattan Ingram
Mattan Ingram

First off, even though TSP is considered the LES, there is still a big difference between the East Village/Alphabet City and LES south of Houston. Different atmosphere, different crowd.

I am a born and raised East Villager, and while I know and appreciate the history of protest here, particularly in TSP, that does not mean we automatically have to be gung-ho about a protest.In abstract I agree with OWS and many of their grievances. But when it comes to specifics there is very little I hear that is realistic, practical, or informed. Remember the millions of people who protested the Iraq war a few years back? Well how effective was that? And they had a very consistent and clear message, unlike OWS who have everyone from Libertarians to Socialists to Anarchists.

Also you will see just as much faux-authenticity hunting amongst the protestors as you will amongst those complaining about the protests. Faux-authenticity is something humans strive for in general, we just see it in different ways. Even Wall St. suits look for authenticity according to their own mini-culture.

What is the end-game here? Occupy parks until the squirrels get pissed off? This is not Egypt or Libya, this is not a revolution, there is no violence and no harm being done to Wall St, the government, or anyone really. Just clever signs and reinforcing of stereotypes on both sides.

abrod
abrod

I agree with this post heartily - just because Tompkins was the site of protests in the past does not mean that it should be the go-to place to protest. The name of the protest - "Occupy Wall Street" says it all.Maybe if there were a more clearly stated purpose behind the idea to "Occupy Tompkins Square Park" it wouldn't be met with such vitriol. Wall Street is the (perceived) source of the protestors' problems; what has Tompkins Square or the surrounding area done to merit a protest?Lastly, the OWS protest is rife with faux-authenticity seekers. Just like the recent "occupation" of NYU the other year, there is a large contingent of hangers-on who don't really have any problems to protest, but just "want to be a part of something."

rob
rob

Many good points. I hope that it won't be just reinforcing both sides, Mattan.

guest
guest

"That's one reason why it hasn't gotten involved with any party or against any party, why it hasn't projected any specific solutions. It is a movement discontented with our democracy. The only campaign poster I've seen at Liberty Plaza is for Ron Paul."Um, so I guess she missed all those Workers World Party and PSL(Party for Socialism and Liberalism) signs. 

And the reason it hasn't projected any specific solutions? That is supposed to be a positive, that you advertise that it has no solution?  Are you for real?

John Penley?  Didn't he throw a snit and say he was leaving in 2008? Google him to hear how he previously said he wants to "drive property values down" according to the local village news.  

rob
rob

Quite right, I was thinking only of campaigns within the major party structure. As for the solutions, if you'd take a moment to look into their efforts, you'll see that they are considering many solutions, beginning with bringing back Glass-Steagall, but they have not settled on any of their many tentative proposals. Solutions take time and thought and in a movement they are complicated by strategy as well. Several participants, I included, believe that narrowing in on specific solutions will narrow the appeal of the movement and limit the base. And this seems to be true, so far. It's not a union negotiation where the demands must be specified in detail. It intends to be a broad movement.

It is clear enough what they are targeting: excessive corporate influence on government at the expense of ordinary citizens, the muddying of American democracy. The most important component of a solution is the one they already proffer: the movement itself, people not sitting silently and passively, but getting active or ready for action. What action will follow?

It's only begun. This is a first step. The next step will see the reactions between the protesters and local administrations, the degree of violence and the consequences of that violence. Depending on the situation that that creates, the next step to look for is a shift in national politics as the election draws near. Also a lot depends on the non protesting public. If it plays out like the 60's, then it will just be a lot of noise and disruption, intermittent violence and polarization. But it needn't go that way.  

I happen to agree with Mr. Penley's views on property values, but that's a different discussion and one that not only requires a review of history but that also rests on fundamental differences regarding human values, so it's probably not a useful discussion here.

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