Protestors urge Trinity to open property to encampment

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Dec 5, 2011
Duarte Square

On the morning of Dec. 5 Duarte Square, a City of New York park at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street stood empty save for a single woman sitting on a park bench and an NYPD van parked opposite a bronze statute of Juan Pablo Duarte. ENS Photo/Lynette Wilson

[Episcopal News Service] Supported by members of the faith community, Occupy Wall Street is calling upon Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street, in New York to allow protestors to establish a winter camp at property it owns at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, about a mile north of the movement’s original encampment at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.

Trinity released a statement on its website offering its continued support of the movement – including providing meeting space at church buildings – but not the use of its enclosed vacant lot at the city-owned Duarte Square that it leases to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. The property, Trinity said, is unsuitable “for large-scale assemblies or encampments.”

On Dec. 5 Duarte Square stood empty save for a single woman sitting on a park bench and an NYPD van parked opposite a bronze statute of Juan Pablo Duarte, who led the Dominican Republic in its 19th-century struggle for independence from Haiti.

One day earlier, three OWS participants staging an overnight protest and hunger strike aimed at pressuring the church to let the Occupy movement set up camp on its property, were arrested, released and later returned to the area, according to news reports.

George Packard, retired Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, has been mediating between OWS representatives and Trinity staff.

Packard said he would like to see Trinity make the space available during the winter for the protestors, who say they need to a space to “occupy” in order to build their community and carry their movement forward.

Negotiations are complicated by past events, including the arrest of protestors who broke into the locked and fenced space at the square Nov. 15 while other OWS members were meeting with Trinity about possible use of the space, Packard said. “I’m trying to get one group to acknowledge the other and put salve on hurt feelings and re-establish relationships.”

Trinity is concerned about its lease arrangements for this site and others, he said. “They’ve got some pride in being honorable, and I think they feel that they are trying to do the best by the lease-holders that they are in relationship with,” said Packard.

In its statement, Trinity affirmed “the right of peaceful protest” and noted that it had “provided meeting and gathering spaces as well as a tranquil place at church facilities in and around Wall Street.

“Thousands of protesters use these facilities every week,” it said. “However, the enclosed lot at Duarte Square is not available nor is it suitable for large-scale assemblies or encampments. It has no facilities and is licensed to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for interim outdoor art exhibits which will resume in the spring.

“Trinity supports the vigorous engagement of the issues Occupy Wall Street has raised. However, we do not condone breaking the law. We will continue to extend our hospitality to protesters and all who come to our church properties during open hours.”

OWS protestors and some religious leaders have urged the church to reconsider.

Trinity “helped us from the beginning,” OWS member Zak Solomon said at a Dec. 3 rally, citing the church’s provision of Charlotte’s Place and other Trinity building facilities for respite, bathroom facilities and meeting space. “They’ve been nice. We want more. They say, ‘Ask and you shall receive.’ I’m asking you. Receive me. … We need that space.”

“We need this space, too,” he said, referring to Zuccotti Park, start of the movement’s formal launch Sept. 17, from which protesters were evicted Nov. 15 and subsequently forbidden from staying overnight.

Solomon, along with Packard and Pulitzer prize-winning author and journalist Chris Hedges, were among the speakers at an event at Zuccotti Park – referred to as “Liberty Square” – to “rally around Occupy Wall Street’s immediate need for spaces to continue organizing for social and economic justice,” according to a Dec. 2 press release from Occupy Faith NYC, an interfaith coalition of faith leaders, including Episcopalians, supporting OWS. The event also celebrated the launch of Tidal, “a journal of occupation theory from the Occupy Movement.”

A video showing the Trinity property and scenes from the rally can be seen here.

Packard’s first contact with OWS was periodically providing jugs of water from Costco for protestors. Late one night, he was wearing his clerical collar and dropping off water for the kitchen “working group” at Zuccotti Park when a police officer detained and nearly arrested him. In that moment, he said, “I was converted from a casual observer to a committed supporter of this movement. I think these young people are onto something. I think there is an anger in all of this for justice, that aches for some justice.”

“Something clicked in me” that night, he said. “These kids aren’t being heard. … This is no unemployed bunch of deadbeats. These are folks who are focused about the lack of fairness and equity and the ache for justice.”

Packard subsequently became involved with the movement’s direct action working group and began fostering negotiations between protestors and Trinity about the Duarte Square property. He also agreed to speak at the Dec. 3 event, scheduled as an Advent service.

One of the challenges of working with the movement, he noted, is that it is organized into working groups but lacks a traditional formal leadership structure. Events can be changed by group consensus. So he and the Rev. Michael Ellick, an Occupy Faith leader and a minister at Judson Memorial Baptist Church, only learned about the planned hunger strike the morning of Dec. 3. After meeting the strikers, Packard said, “I definitely got the impression that this was kind of an impromptu thought.”

Within Occupy Faith, there were differences of opinion about the hunger strike, said the Rev. Donna Schaper, senior minister at Judson.

During the live-streamed rally, she quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from the Birmingham Jail: “Too many clergy hide behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.”

“Boy, does that ring true today, because there are religious institutions all over this city who could open the spaces they hold sacred and dear, and some of them even hold empty spaces,” said Schaper. She spoke of a hope “that every one of our religious institutions, including mine, including yours, open up.

“There is no security hiding behind stained-glass windows or phony security,” she said. “Our only security is in the world beyond surveillance, beyond injustice, after democracy returns to our political economy. Let’s open up.”

Schaper’s church housed protestors for five nights after the Nov. 15 evictions but then stopped, although its board will re-evaluate that decision Tuesday night, she said in a Dec. 5 interview with ENS. The church lacks a kitchen, and “the policing and the cleaning were overwhelming,” she said. “At the moment, we are open all day long, and we have occupiers on every plug.” Their 500-seat meeting room also is “used constantly.”

“We have taken the position that we’re better off being a day shelter,” she said.

“I think a lot of churches are discussing” whether and how to open their spaces to the movement, she said.

As she outlined in a Religion Dispatches column, Schaper has changed her view on the need for OWS to “occupy” outdoor space.

“The Occupy movement is saying that it wants outdoor space where everybody can be together, and we [in Occupy Faith] are supporting that request. We are urging, especially, Trinity to open that space,” she said. OWS is “arguing that one of the effects of the unjust economy is that there’s no public spaces, that more and more space has been privatized … They are really making the argument that their larger claims of economic justice are directly related to privatized space.”

“The movement is really saying, ‘We need space to develop our community’ – their language is ‘appear’ to each other – and I think it’s really important,” she said.

At the same time, she and other members of Occupy Faith are collecting signatures – 150 so far by the afternoon of Dec. 5 – for a letter calling on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to extend a “millionaires tax” in the state. According to a New York Times report, Cuomo has “called for ‘comprehensive reform’ of New York’s tax code that would mean higher tax rates for the wealthy and a tax cut for the middle class” and is expected to call the state legislature back into session to consider the plan.

“This is the first political victory, just getting him to open it up … You just don’t call the New York State Legislature back in December,” Schaper said. “We have a lot of people jumping on that bandwagon. … I don’t think it would be happening without Occupy. It’s just been great that Occupy has created energy that wasn’t there before.”

Inspired by the Arab Spring movement, OWS protests against greed and economic inequality have spread to more than 2,500 locations across the country and around the world. In recent weeks, officials in many cities have moved to dismantle protest encampments.

“A lot of occupiers all across the world want their spaces back and want new spaces,” said a protestor named Laura who read a “proposed national call to reoccupy” during the Dec. 3 rally, her comments passed back through the crowd in OWS’ “human mic” process.

On Dec. 17, she read, “we call on displaced occupations across the nation to reoccupy outdoor places.

“The Occupy Movement is more powerful than ever. Despite a violent and systematic wave of eviction enacted by mayors who fear the power – our power – of open and visible dissent, public occupation, free speech and open assembly are the greatest threats to the increasingly repressive and unjust status quo. Therefore, we call on occupiers to establish new occupations in parks, in plazas, in public spaces around the country to show the world a visible alternative to the economic and social justices of our current society.”

—Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent. Lynette Wilson, ENS editor and reporter, contributed to this article.


Comments (6)

  1. Jacquelyn Judd says:

    I would urge the Episcopal church to help the Occupiers everywhere in any way it can. I say this as a disabled senior citizen in Missouri. I think that the Occupiers are the only people representing me and my peers across the United States. Our government certainly is not, from the President down to the local officials. Who do you think Jesus would support?

  2. I disagree with Packard, this OWS thing has gone on long enough, it has raised the cost of doing business in NYC to the point no one either wants to do business or businesses are forced to not open when the OWS people come into their area. In Poughkeepsie, NY there is a form of OWS that has taken over a park there, and it is a mess and the Police are powerless to do anything.

    If Packard is so gung ho for OWS he would buy land someplace and let them sit on it instead…

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  3. The Rev. Al Minor says:

    As an old man now and one who was actively and pastorally involved in the local protests of the 1960s in Knoxville, Tennessee, and as one who was raised in the segregated south (Georgia) I cheer the OWS movement because it is raising the issue of injustice in the economic and political landscape. Its message is being heard and has gained wide support. If it can hold on, it will have profound effect upon the nation’s ways of doing things.
    It is the “floor workers” who have built the vast wealth of the nation, and the benefits of such wealth, in my mind, should be shared by those whose lives have been exploited for the sake of the advantaged wealthy. The wealthy always have and presently should come to the aid of their country by supporting some much fairer pattern of behavior and benefits.
    I have pondered the matter a lot and entertain in my head some “What ifs” as some ideas toward some principles that are worthy of much discussion in this matter. This is based on an earlier reality that “when I was a boy” situations. Back in the 50s I understand that the general manager of a factor usually made about 80 times that of a floor worker. Of course that was a long time ago, now, but WHAT IF:
    (1) Top executives could not receive as salaried compensation more than 150 times that of the lowest worker in their industry: (2) Their pay would have an established high level cap; (3) industry bonuses could not be more than 25% of their regular salaries: (4) 90% of the profits of any industry or business was to be provided for the stockholders after a moderate and acceptable reserve for facing difficult times.
    Taxes to run the country would have to be decided by Congress, but all of that would be manageable with careful and thoughtful decisions. I am in favor of graduated taxes to every level of income, a higher Social Security cap, closing the tax loop holds, and the social welfare services, with limits over certain income levels.
    The rich would not get rich as quickly, the income of those of lower resources would be much better off and healthier, and widespread public programs could be supported for the benefit and greater health of all. This is not socialism. It is capitalism at its best.
    Just food for thought. It could provide some clear principles for an important movement that has just begun, and gets beyond the slogans into the meat of the problems.

    Al Minor

    1. The Rev. Christopher S. Martin says:

      Al, I couldn’t have said it better or more lucidly. This nation is in trouble, and we need change!

  4. shirley E. Viall says:

    This would be a wonderful opportunity to say to Occupy WallStreet (OWS) protestors that the
    message is getting lost by allowing detractors who bring violence and
    disruption to ordinary people going to and from work, to union members, to
    everyone who is not involved in the bank and economic debacle. The church
    has an opportunity to help the legitimate protestors by assisting them in
    staying focused and staying the course to bring the disparity between the haves and have nots to the consciousness of all Americans and the world, for that matter.

    Our Seattle OWS has turned into a sometimes violent, sometimes destructive
    demonstration and the message is being thwarted by anarchists who simply
    want to strike and destroy. This a chance for the church to help maintain the image of
    protest used by Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

    Shirley E. Viall

  5. Lisa Dunn says:

    A big thank you to Episcopal News Service and the reporters for this article for more light on the issues and this situation in New York City. This is the kind of information and discussion we need in the church so we can decide together how to proceed toward peace and prosperity for more, and hopefully all, of us.

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