Occupy Wall Street Escalates The Battle For Union Square

OccupyUnionSq2.jpg
The nightly showdown in Union Square.
The Battle for Union Square continues.

The branch of Occupy Wall Street protesters who have colonized Union Square for the past three weeks continue their nightly standoff with the New York Police Department, which each night deploys more than fifty officers to clear the park and stand guard along a wall of metal barricades to make sure no one gets in.

In recent weeks protesters have turned this nightly 12 a.m. ritual into an opportunity for street theater that points up the waste and absurdity of the NYPD's heavy-handed response. Friday nights, for example, they stage The People's Rap Battle, in which anyone can challenge an officer to hip-hop combat. As you might expect, the police invariably forfeit.

Over the last week, some protesters have adapted to the nightly eviction by trying to sleep in front of the retail outlets of some of the major banks the movement has long targeted, but police have thwarted those efforts, arresting some and forcing the rest to move.

Last night, the protesters undertook a new form of street theater, staging a teach-in to inform the assembled police officers about the state of the law.

David Graeber, an author who has been closely involved with the movement, read aloud from an enlarged copy of a 2000 federal court ruling that held sleeping on the sidewalk as a form of political protest was legal, as long as protesters don't take up more than half the sidewalk or otherwise act disorderly.

They then showed the ranks of officers a large map of the area, pointing out the bank locations outside of which they intended to sleep, and declared their intention to do so in a way that complied with the law. Austin Guest, one of the organizers of the event, called officer's attention to the numerous video cameras, legal observers, and members of the press that would be watching what went down.

The protesters walked across the street to the Bank of America, and started rolling out their sleeping bags. Police officers initially assured the campers "It's all good." Guest reported that around 3:30, two police officers roused protesters sleeping in front of a CitiBank location and forced them to stand. When protesters again read the officers the law, took their badge numbers, and threatened to report them to the Civilian Complaint Review Board, the officers left without making any arrests.

Not everyone in the movement is convinced that this standing conflict with the police is the best course of action. Some even criticize the Occupiers' focus on Union Square altogether.

"There's this whole circus every night surrounding the police and trying to be in the park overnight, but what's the point?" asked Dimitry Sheynin, who's been involved with the movement since it's days in Zuccotti Park. "Sure, you can make an argument that it's important to have a space for the movement here during the day, but if anyone tries to tell you that serious organizing happens at 4 a.m., they're fucking stupid."

Sheynin and others are particularly concerned that the presence of Occupy Wall Street has disrupted the community of homeless people who had been allowed to sleep in the park until the protest encampment led police to shut the park down entirely every night.

"I consider the entire scene at Union Square to be the opposite of what Occupy Wall Street represents," Sheynin said. "The day you arrived here, you displaced a community that had been here for 20 years. You came in in a way that affected other people, you didn't get their consent, and you didn't even try to talk to them."

Some who share that sentiment expressed concern at the decision to read the 2000 court ruling, which distinguishes sleeping on the street as a form of political speech (protected) from sleeping on the street for other reasons (not necessarily protected).

"When you read that ruling to the police, you're basically telling them 'If you want to bother people for sleeping on the sidewalk, don't do it to us protesters, do it to those smelly homeless people,'" said one disapproving OWS-er.

Graeber says he doesn't see it that way.

"Our position is that when homeless people are sleeping in the street, they're involved in a political protest too," he says.

And the movement needs to be able to stay in the park, Graeber says, not only because it serves as a space for discussion, community outreach, and symbolic dissent, but because protesters need somewhere to lay their heads.

"A lot of the people are are real occupiers," Graeber said. "They left their homes, they left their jobs. For a while we were able to give them shelter in churches, but now they're actually in need of a place to sleep. So this is fulfilling an immediate practical need; it's not just a symbol."

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[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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