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

John Penley, by Paul DeRienzo
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:

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

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:

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

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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