Occupy Union Square: The Evolution Of A New Protest Camp

OccupyUnionSq1.jpg
Occupy's new outpost in Union Square.
When the NYPD again forcefully evicted Occupy Wall Street from Zuccotti Park more than a week ago, many of those who weren't arrested marched north, leading police on a winding course that finally ended at around 2 a.m. in Union Square.

Most of the protesters went home after that, but a handful stayed the night, launching what has become, over the past eight days, a new encampment for the Occupy movement.

For the occupiers, Union Square offers a number of advantages over Zuccotti Park, where they spent last fall. It's much larger, with an open layout in a heavily trafficked location that lends itself to street outreach. Union Square also boasts a proud history as the center of labor, communist and anarchist rallies going back more than a century.

It's a city park subject to city rules, unlike Zuccotti, whose private owners had their own interests to protect. Union Square also has the advantage, theoretically at least, of tolerance for overnight stays. Though the park officially closes at midnight, the city has historically allowed people to sleep in the park in small groups.

That tolerance has ended with the arrival of Occupy Wall Street however, with police fielding massive numbers to push the occupation out of the park each night, erecting metal barricades around the park's southern border and lining them with double ranks of officers from midnight until the park re-opens at 6 a.m.

This brute force approach to the occupation has produced nightly arrests and stirred angry opposition among the protesters.

Police have done little to de-escalate the nightly conflict with the occupiers, and have even taken to harassing the press. Luke Rudkowski, whose live-stream is one of the most reliable and engaging records of Occupy Wall Street actions, says police have repeatedly blinded his camera with their flashlights as he's attempted to document the Union Square occupation over the last week.

The harassment began Wednesday with Lieutenant Konstantinidis, as shown in Rudkowski's footage below:

But it hasn't stopped there: Rudkowski says in the days since, junior officers -- so called "blue-shirts" -- have continued to try to prevent him from documenting events at the square by shining their flashlights into his camera.

"I think maybe because they saw the white-shirt do it, they figure it's okay," Rudkowski said. I keep telling them, 'The camera isn't your enemy. You should be happy -- it's live, unedited, the only way you're going to look bad is if you act bad.'"

But as the nightly conflicts with police wore on through the week, some occupiers became concerned that the constant conflict with police might not be serving the goals of the movement, exhausting the protesters and muddying their message.

"We're here to talk about social and economic justice," said Aaron Black, a participant in Occupy Wall Street. "With the constant standoff with police in Union Square, we run the risk of losing that message. We're not an organization that's here to battle the police department, we just want to peaceably assemble. Rather than screaming insults at the police on a nightly basis, we want to let them know why we're here and explain what our issues are."

With an eye towards changing the dynamic of the nightly park closures, occupiers have adopted a new tactic on recent nights, instead mounting a theatrical and comedic response to highlight the disproportionate and heavy-handed police garrison of the park.

Friday, shortly before the wall of police uniforms moved in for the midnight eviction, protesters set up a "people's barricade" made of cardboard just outside the park, chanting"Protect the neighborhood! Keep the cops in!'"

OccupyUnionSq2.jpg
Scores -- sometimes hundreds -- of police are spending each night making sure Union Square stays empty.
Friday also saw the inaugural People's Rap/Song/Dance Battle, as occupiers lined up opposite the ranks of police, challenging them to round after round of rap battles and performance contests. (The police forfeited.)

"We want to take the legitimate anger that everyone feels, and instead of playing it out on a battlefield where they're always arrested and beat up, where they always lose, instead set up a dynamic where we're always going to win," says Austin Guest, who's been helping to orchestrate the more light-hearted response. "We sing a song for the police, and invite them to respond, and they don't. Okay, well -- that's what we're about, and that's what you're about."

Guest says the occupiers have plans to expand the spectacle, inviting high-profile hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Immortal Technique and M-1 of Dead Prez to compete in the next rap battle against the police this Friday.

At the end of the night, shortly before the park is due to open and another nightly standoff comes to an end, the occupiers have taken to lining up on the other side of the barricades and parading past the ranks of police, hands out for a high-five that never comes, saying "Good game, good game."

"It's just another way of pointing up how ridiculous and unnecessary and expensive this show of force is," Guest says. "But it's also a way of humanizing us. Last night, for the first time, one of the officers said 'good game' back."

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[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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Payton_vege
Payton_vege

Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

hankD
hankD

Yuck. I hate the OWS movement. They have done absolutely nothing productive. They have burdened the city resources and funds. They have hurt small businesses in the areas and even made things dangerous for children in the areas they've "occupied" and more difficult for these children to get to school. I am a liberal that believes things were done wrong as well. I changed careers and now teach Special Education in the Bronx. I teach kids to be better. To have the skills to be successful. It's embarrassing that this leaderless pathetic movement feels that laying around a park or stopping traffic or dumping their waste or leaving their trash around, rendering some of the parks and green space in the greatest city in the world useless is helping anything. GO f-yourselves. Grow up. Be a solution, not yet another cause. This movement doesn't even come close to representing those that need it. You want to help, go into parts of the city that need help and do something. Leave your goddamn drums in your mom's basement. 

hankD
hankD

Yuck. I hate the OWS movement. They have done absolutely nothing productive. They have burdened the city resources and funds. They have hurt small businesses in the areas and even made things dangerous for children in the areas they've "occupied" and more difficult for these children to get to school. I am a liberal that believes things were done wrong as well. I changed careers and now teach Special Education in the Bronx. I teach kids to be better. To have the skills to be successful. It's embarrassing that this leaderless pathetic movement feels that laying around a park or stopping traffic or dumping their waste or leaving their trash around, rendering some of the parks and green space in the greatest city in the world useless is helping anything. GO f-yourselves. Grow up. Be a solution, not yet another cause. This movement doesn't even come close to representing those that need it. You want to help, go into parts of the city that need help and do something. Leave your goddamn drums in your mom's basement.

John Penley
John Penley

Sometimes Occupy Wall Street acts like an 800 pound gorilla that makes a move and affects both people and the surrounding area with little planning or consideration to how their actions may cause change things for better or worse. In the case of Union Square and I know this because I hung out there many nights since Tompkins Square Park was closed many poor, homeless people and disadvantaged youth were able to use the front of the park 24-7 with no enforcement of a curfew by the NYPD. Now that has been changed probably for good by the OWS Occupation.Also, many street performers and others traditionally used that area of the park to make money and they were able to do it for many years. Skateboard kids and BMXers as well. I am not so sure this move was good and as the summer arrives and the ecology of Union Square has been probably permanently altered by OWS I hope those who have lost some of the freedom they had at Union Square, and it was unique for 24-7 access as far as city parks go, will not be angry at Occupy for changing things for the worse there. I have left NYC now because I had no income and in my travels I have discovered that homeless people are now being arrested because of new laws that have been put in place by other cities because of OWS and that is not good. I am afraid OWS does not want to address this or what has happened at Union Square either and that is BAD. I have become concerned that OWS, like an 800 pound gorilla, seems not to for whatever reason debate its actions and have much concern for possible side effects.I hope this changes as I still support the movement, but I am not going to turn a blind eye to things I think may not be good for the 99% and especially the homeless and poor.

Matt
Matt

Understandable concern, but, I believe, misdirected concern.  These problems are not due to OWS, but, rather, the NYPD. 

None
None

Most of these city homeless laws have been in place long before OWS, I get your point, but that's actually a huge battle many other occupations are fighting, the criminalization of homelessness. I know here in the Midwest, we are constantly aware of these laws that infringe upon the homeless and do not allow for them to get the resources they need.

truck
truck

Police alleged misconduct on the video appears to be quite benign - - with the film maker over reacting or exaggerating same.

nygrump
nygrump

Does the NYPD have to start gassing people to death for us to understand this is naked fascism?  Corporatism is fascism. Classical italian fascism.

red emma
red emma

well I hope you're down there on the streets fighting it then....

lacolo
lacolo

Unfortunately, "It's a city park subject to city rules, unlike Zuccotti, whose private owners had their own interests to protect." is not true. Union Square is run by Union Square Partnership, so there is perhaps even more complexity as to its rules. http://unionsquarenyc.org/

Jen
Jen

while the occupy movement has sharpened public discourse about income inequality, and the seemingly arbitrary nature of taxation, little change has been made to the system.

most americans want and need to see changes now.

taxKilla is a free protest tool which limits the amount of money given to the government via income tax.

using taxkilla all citizens can play a decisive role in the occupy movement. 

www.taxkilla.com

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