Surrounded by police barricades and NYPD officers, hundreds of protesters gathered in City Hall Park yesterday in an effort to shift the public conversation about police violence away from reform, with a more radical suggestion: abolish the police altogether.
“You cannot reform a system that is not broken,” said Nabil Hassein, 27, a member of Millions March, which organized the protest. “Police are supposed to be a violent, cruel and racist institution. The only end that we will to see to police violence and police brutality is the end of the police.”
The protest is awkward for Mayor Bill de Blasio. Even as the mayor invoked Occupy Wall Street yesterday in discussing the political forces that carried him into office, a new occupation had sprung up in City Hall’s front yard, explicitly condemning the policing policy he has built his mayorality on. “Rather than contributing to the safety, health and vitality of our communities, broken Windows policing threatens our lives every day,” said Cynthia Malone, a member of the Black Youth Project 100, addressing protesters yesterday.
Along with defunding of the NYPD and rededicating its budget to public services in black and brown neighborhoods, the protesters demanded that the city fire Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, disavow the “Broken-Windows” theory of policing he espouses, and pay reparations to victims of police violence. They promised to occupy City Hall Park until the demands were met.
The occupation was called for early Monday morning, and the NYPD was certainly prepared for it. City Hall Park, as well as much of downtown Manhattan, from Foley Square down to Zuccotti Park, was ringed in steel police barricades. By the time speakers began addressing the crowd at 6 p.m., it had grown to several hundred.
The numbers were considerably short of the thousand-plus predicted by organizers, but given that they were inviting people to break curfew in a public park in support of police abolition, maybe not surprising.
“The state has made it clear that this racist system will never hold itself accountable,” said Vienna Rye, a member of Millions March. “We must build power and not representation. We want liberation and not assimilation.”
If the protesters’ demands are indeed radical in comparison reforms being contemplated by lawmakers, like increased use of body cameras and improved training. But they’re not so different from the platform released yesterday by 30 unrelated organizations through the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table, which is being hailed as a new stage in the Black Lives Matter movement. Like the protesters in City Hall Park, the Movement for Black Lives platform calls for reparations for victims of police violence, and for reallocating police funds to education and health services.
The protesters agenda and coalition were broadly intersectional: Speakers from the Navajo Nation, Students for Justice in Palestine, Bash Back, and the Party for Justice and Liberation all told the crowd that the fight against racism and police violence is inextricable from their own struggles. Nicholas Heyward Sr., spoke about his 22-year battle to secure an investigation into the killing of his 13-year-old son by a police officer in 1994. Hortencia Peterson told a similar story about her frustrations that the police officer who killed her nephew, Akai Gurley, in Brooklyn two years ago, was sentenced only to community service.
After nearly two hours of speakers, the rally ended, but protesters remained in the park, serving dinner from a makeshift kitchen. As the evening drew on, police gathered near the southern end of the park, and those who were willing to be arrested massed at the gate to meet them behind a banner that read “Black Lives Matter.” But when police gave notice of the impending curfew shortly before 11 p.m., organizers gave a signal, and the remaining protesters – perhaps 100 – flooded out the east exit. They regrouped a few blocks away, in West Plaza at 8 Spruce Street, a Privately Owned Public Space at the bottom of the Frank-Gehry-designed tower near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Privately Owned Public Spaces, or POPS, are a distinct legal category in New York created half a century ago, often offer greater protections to protesters than public parks, which usually have curfews and are under direct government control. POPS are generally open to the public 24 hours a day, so unless occupants are violating the posted guidelines of the space, it’s difficult for the property owner, or the police, to remove them. Five years ago, Occupy Wall Street used this legal environment to its advantage in Zuccotti Park, another Privately Owned Public Space in lower Manhattan.
At West Plaza, the posted restrictions forbid camping, lying down, and the erection of shelter structures, but protesters were able to stay there all night. As the hour grew late, some did lie down, but they did so outside of the plaza, on the sidewalk, where legal precedent allows people to sleep if they allow room for pedestrian traffic.
Early this morning, protesters were back in City Hall Park.