Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Court Battle Over Liberty Plaza

Beginning around 1am on Tuesday, November 15, New York City police raided Liberty Plaza, a.k.a Zuccotti Park, confiscating protesters' belongings and ordering them to leave. Those who stayed were arrested, along with several reporters covering the story. At an 8am press conference, Mayor Bloomberg said the raid had been in response to health and safety concerns associated with the camp. By the time he spoke, protest organizers had already filed an injunction against the city's action, and were waiting for a judge to rule on the case.

Some of the protesters went a few blocs away to Foley Square. Others travelled further to a lot at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, but were soon cleared out by police. By the time I visited Liberty Plaza around 1pm, they had returned and were massed around the edges of the park, which was now blocked off by metal police barriers.

The eviction had created a strange inversion; before the park was full of protesters and ringed by police, now it was full of sparse groups of police and ringed by crowds of protesters, with another perimeter of police, some in riot gear, standing beyond them. There was a steady stream of bystanders staring as they passed, tourists on the west side of the park near the hotels and Ground Zero, office workers running the gauntlet between cops and protesters along Broadway on the east. A long line of TV news vans was stationed along the south side of the park and around the corner for more than a block south down Trinity Place.

Some people milled around with belongings from the encampment, like the woman in a knit ski hat who was pushing a shopping cart piled with a suitcase, a giant cardboard box and a couple of handbags. Others slept along the sidewalk. A man and woman sat along the west side of the park with a giant Statue of Liberty puppet, the paper mache head lying on the sidewalk detached from the cloth-draped body. A tired-looking young blond guy was sitting near the curb panhandling for money to get to the protest in Washington D.C. A cardboard sign propped up next to him said, "Lost everything: Medication, wallet, money, identification, dog food." A small black pit bull puppy was curled up on a sweatshirt behind him.

A couple of grey-haired men in glasses circled the park with a procession of a few other people, accompanying "We Shall Not Be Moved" on an accordion and a sticker-covered guitar. Two younger, bearded men were playing a ukulele and a tambourine. Nearby, a guy in a black sweatshirt and straw hat was was leaning against the barricades, reading a newspaper and stopping to yell about the police every couple minutes.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

I saw Jimmy McMillan at the Occupy Wall Street protest in Liberty Plaza. Plenty of people there recognized him--suit, beard, muttonchops and long silver hair--from his fringe candidacy in the 2010 New York Governor's race, and remembered his rent-activist slogan. Most didn't remember his name, so they called him "the 'rent is too damn high' guy."

A small crowd gathered around McMillan at the edge of the protesters' mattresses and tarps on the south side of the plaza. He said he was here to see how it was going, but "this is Ron Paul stuff." The supposed presence of libertarian Ron Paul supporters alongside anarchists, union members and other leftists at Occupy Wall Street had become a kind of metaphor in the media for how ideologically disorganized the movement was. McMillan said the protesters needed to vote instead, to elect a governor and attorney general who would put real pressure on the financial industry to stay in line. "In America, I don't come out here. I voted for you, you come out here."

"Don't let Rona Paul sucker y'all into coming out here and wasting your time," he said.

People from the crowd sparred with him. A grey-haired guy in business clothes said the protest highlighted the need for alternative energy job creation. Another guy said they were feeding the homeless. A British backpacker said voting was futile because "It's not a democracy, it's a fucking plutocracy." McMillan refused to give an inch. At some point, he said, "I know when I've hit a wall of Ron Paul" and made a dramatic exit, only to start a fresh harangue when somebody else approached him a few yards away.

With McMillan gone, the crowd kept arguing among itself, and that was how I met Sage. He was a youngish guy in a baggy green sweatshirt with black hair shaved close along the sides. He looked tired and had a hoarse voice but seemed to have a kind of intense energy pulling him along. He said people were out here because of oppression by "college debt, general malaise, a discontinuing of the democratic process, drug addiction."

Sage got here early in the protest, meaning a couple weeks ago. There were pizzas, water bottles and a media team, broadcasting online interviews with protesters. Sage said that for him, the living conditions weren't that much of an adjustment. "I was sleeping on the street already, so I just bedded down, lay down my head."

Sage had complaints about some of the college-educated activists at the protest, who he said lacked self- sufficiency skills like knowing when to secure a place to sleep at night. "They're gonna create a bureaucracy because they can't handle accountability."

"I'm a smack you upside the head kind of confrontationist," he said. "I'm never gonna get very far networking in academia."

Standing around the Liberty Plaza protest site at dusk, Sage told me an allegory in the form of a story about The Simpsons. At around eleven years old, he said, Bart Simpson finds Jesus, the Jesus who attacked the money lenders at the temple. He sees through everything, becomes a nonconformist, gets into trouble. But the other kids fool him. "Everyone tells Bart, we hate school too, but while they're saying that, they're going home and studying."

While he was talking, a young guy rolled around on the ground nearby and yelled at passersby to give him a dollar "or I'm gonna go crazy." "Man, there's free food and water here," Sage said to him, and there was a brief, tense exchange with the guy and his friend, who had oversized sunglasses and long, bright green hair. Later, a white guy with black dreads came over and gave Sage and another man plastic cups that he filled with water from a Poland Spring bottle.


On October 5, a crowd numbering in the thousands gathered in Foley Square and marched south toward Liberty Plaza and Wall Street. There might at any given time be a few hundred protesters in the plaza, so the Foley Square crowd was gigantic in comparison. One reason was the members of various unions, like the United Auto Workers, the United Federation of Teachers and the Service Employees International, that had aligned themselves with the movement. Another was the students from colleges around the city who had taken off early from class to attend. The size of the gathering and the narrow chokepoints the police manned between barricades meant that the crowd drained out of Foley Square slowly, like sand flowing through a massive hourglass. Near me at the south end of the square, cameramen took turns climbing onto a lamp post to grab wide shots, while a helicopter hovered tiny and motionless above the forty-story Manhattan Municipal Building.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Monte's Venetian Room

Monte's, formerly Monte's Venetian Room, is one of the oldest Italian restaurants in Brooklyn, and possibly the oldest. I wrote this article on its history for the Carroll Gardens edition of