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Occupy Union Square: The Evolution Of A New Protest Camp

Occupy's new outpost in Union Square.
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!'"

Scores -- sometimes hundreds -- of police are spending each night making sure Union Square stays empty.
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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