Episcopal clergy arrested after entering Trinity Church property

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Dec 18, 2011

Retired Episcopal bishop George E. Packard (purple robe) and other protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are detained after climbing a ladder to trespass on a privately-owned piece of land near Juan Pablo Duarte Square during a march in New York December 17, 2011. Hundreds of anti-Wall Street protesters took to the New York streets on Saturday in an attempt to establish a new encampment, with a number arrested as they tried to move onto land owned by Trinity Church, Wall Street. Photo/REUTERS/Andrew Burton

[Episcopal News Service] Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested Dec. 17 after they entered a fenced property — owned by Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street — in Duarte Square in Lower Manhattan as part of Occupy Wall Street‘s “D17 Take Back the Commons” event to celebrate three months since the movement’s launch.

Bishop George Packard climbs over a fence surrounding the Duarte Square property in lower Manhattan owned by Trinity Wall Street in a Dec. 17 effort to open the area to Occupy Wall Street protesters. Photo/REUTERS/Andrew Burton

Livestream video showed the former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence at about 3:30 p.m. and dropping to the ground inside the property. Packard was the first to enter the site. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island.

Soon after, police entered the area and arrested at least 50 people. Merz reportedly was arrested with Packard. Sniffen was conducting a telephone interview with ENS that ended abruptly. At 11 p.m., he confirmed that he subsequently had been arrested. Just before midnight, Packard’s wife, Brook, told ENS via e-mail that her husband had been released and was on his way home.

OWS had been lobbying Trinity to use the property for a winter encampment, following the movement’s Nov. 15 eviction from Zuccotti Park near the church. Trinity had refused, citing a lack of facilities at the site and its lease agreement allowing the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to use it for periodic art installations. Packard had been trying to mediate an agreement between OWS members and Trinity.

“Trinity Wall Street would not meet with Occupy Wall Street. They refused,” said Brook Packard in a telephone interview shortly after 7 p.m. Dec. 17. “When Trinity closed its ears and refused to negotiate, the path of civil disobedience was clear.”

On Dec. 17, OWS had invited protesters to attend a “Block Party and Re-Occupation” at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, site of the Trinity-owned property near the Holland Tunnel, beginning at noon. The event was scheduled to include on-site entertainment plus performances broadcast by WBAI radio: “From the airwaves to the subterranean let us assemble once again to say we’re here to liberate space and we’re not going away.”

Sniffen told ENS he entered the park with Packard and other Episcopal and interfaith clergy. Over the phone, the sounds of people singing “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” could be heard in the background.

Sniffen said he was concerned about getting arrested and didn’t know until the last moment whether he would enter the fenced area.

“As a matter of conscience and discernment, I felt that I had to enter … in solidarity with these people who I’ve been supporting from the beginning and who are taking an enormous risk to force a conversation to happen about social and economic justice,” he said. “As a priest of all the people, I felt that it was important to be with the people rather than looking at them through the fence as they take this great risk.”

A moment later, he reported, “There are a lot of people exiting the park” and then, “I’ve got to go.”

Livestream video of one portion of the fence showed protesters pushing it inward and police officers pushing it outward. Cameraman Tim Pool reported that police pushed their clubs through the fence to move protesters away.

“The people outside the fence who were not breaking the law were in much more danger than the people inside. I thought I was going to lose my life,” said Brook Packard, who also described her experience on her husband’s blog. “We were sitting outside the fence. The cops came, and they started pushing the fence down on us and pushing the people that were standing.”

“A cop looked me in the eye and kneed me in the chest,” she said. She asked him to stop and “he kneed me two more times. I was pushed to the ground, and then I was picked up and thrown on top of other people.”

“I was not alone,” she added. “That’s nothing compared to what the protesters have encountered in terms of violence as they try and get this movement moving.”

Inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations that sparked political change in the Middle East, the Occupy movement protesting greed and economic inequality has spread to more than 2,500 locations across the country and the world. Officials in many cities have dismantled encampments, including New York’s original site at Zuccotti Park. At an Advent event in New York on Dec. 3, at which Packard delivered the invocation, an OWS member named Laura read a “proposed national call to reoccupy” on Dec. 17.

“We call on displaced occupations across the nation to reoccupy outdoor places,” she said.

Said Brook Packard, “There are two things that can kill this movement: violence and not having a home. And they need a home.”

Members of an OWS working group she attended discussed how, in seeking to use Trinity’s property, “they didn’t want to make it against religion or people of faith” and wanted to make it clear that “the end goal was not to occupy this area,” she said. “The end result was to get a home, so that from there they could occupy foreclosed homes for homeless people instead of banks” and take other actions.

Faith leaders have differed on whether Trinity – which has allowed use of other facilities for OWS meeting space and respite – should permit an encampment on the Duarte Square site and whether protesters should “occupy” the space without permission.

The Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church, one of the leaders in an interfaith group supporting OWS, wrote in an e-mailed notice to supporters Dec. 16: “Occupy Faith NYC has always supported the OWS ask of Trinity, and will continue to do so, but there is no clear consensus on actions like civil disobedience. Without this consensus, we will not be endorsing such actions, and individual faith leaders who may choose to go this route will be doing so autonomously. That said, I encourage all of you to join us tomorrow for this event.”

Also on Dec. 16, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Episcopal Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk each issued statements criticizing OWS attempts to occupy the Trinity property without permission.

“The Trinity congregation has decided that the property known as Duarte Park is not appropriate for use by the Occupy movement, and that property remains closed,” Jefferts Schori wrote. “Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property.”

Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued two statements. The first praised OWS members as “a voice for the world.”

“Trinity Church is an esteemed and valued old friend of mine … That is why it is especially painful for me to hear of the impasse you are experiencing with the parish. I appeal to them to find a way to help you,” he said.

The second statement discouraged attempts to occupy the property. “My statement is not to be used to justify breaking the law,” Tutu said. “In a country where all people can vote and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property. Nor is it to reinforce or build higher the barriers between people of faith who seek peace and justice. My deep prayer is that people can work together and I look forward to that conversation.”

Brook Packard, however, said Trinity, despite repeated OWS requests, had not been willing to dialogue directly with OWS members beyond a recent meeting with hunger strikers seeking to get Trinity to permit OWS use of the property.

“The real story is, why did Trinity not engage in dialogue?” she asked. “Trinity more than anyone should know its own history, particularly with its support of Desmond Tutu, that laws must be broken in order for justice to reign.”

In a Dec. 17 statement, Trinity’s rector, the Rev. James Cooper, said the church was “saddened that OWS protestors chose to ignore yesterday’s messages” from Jefferts Schori, Tutu and Sisk.

“OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years,” he wrote. “The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours. The vacant lot has no facilities to sustain a winter encampment. In good conscience and faith, we strongly believe to do so would be wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious. We will continue to provide places of refuge and the responsible use of our facilities in the Wall Street area.”

After the arrests at Duarte Square, OWS participants began another march. Videographer Pool reported they were headed toward Cooper’s home, but police blocked the street. Marchers then took to the streets, snarling evening traffic on Seventh Avenue and, after temporarily being blocked by police, walking to Times Square.

Before attending the Dec. 17 event, Brook Packard said, “We had agreed that [George] would be arrested and I would be home.”

“After that really terrifying moment of having the fence crush me and having the police throwing me around,” she said, she was able to walk to another location and sang a song to let her husband know she was there. He later called her from the police “paddy wagon.”

Reflecting on the OWS participants, she said, “We love these people. They are remarkable. They have been misrepresented in the media. They are young and vital and brilliant. There are some hangers-on, but that happens.”

“This is the wind of the Spirit blowing forcefully into our lives,” she said. “This could have been an amazing opportunity for Trinity and an amazing moment for the entire church, but they chose private property over people and principles.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (18)

  1. Wiley Kendrick says:

    The most “amazing” thing in this article is that Ms. Packard has been reduced to a mouthpiece for an organization who’s interpretation of justice is not representative of the Spirit. The spirit blowing forcefully into Ms. Packard’s life is one of poor judgement and political evil. If Ms. Packard and others like her want a political movement, which is what this is, then take it to the polls, as Bishop Tutu suggests, and let the people decide what to do with it. I am not at all convinced that this movement is anything other than a quest for power and confiscation. So OWS wins, what then? Who decides what is just, this group? Show us, please Ms. Packard, a single place in the world where such movements have not lead to murder, oppression and an eventual accumulation of wealth by the people who control the movement. Then, please convince me that this movement is different.

    1. Brian Smith says:

      Convincing someone of what is in front of them? Dust your sandals off and move on. Haven’t you been listening to who owns the ballot boxes?

    2. Jess Parmer says:

      I hope Ms. Packard will forgive me for speaking up for her in reply to Kendrick, who misuses rhetorical flourish in several attempts here to deprive any who answer of a voice either rational or historical. The one example is: the American Revolution. True enough, it led to slavery’s institutionalization for roughly ninety years after the Constitution was adopted, but that ended in abolition, didn’t it? Ms. Packard feels the Spirit blowing over the shoulders of riot-geared, jack-booted, and faceless “liberators” of a trivial piece of property, as they sling her body around. Does Kendrick suggest she misread this wind? Look at Kendrick’s name calling: she is a “mouthpiece;” she is associated with “poor judgement and political evil” without the slightest effort of proof. Such rhetorical dust has already settled for me: It is Kendrick who must answer for the baseless falsehoods implied in this diatribe.

    3. Charles W. Daily, Jr. says:

      Tsk, tsk,tsk…name calling and demonizing Wild Wiley. Now go and wash your mouth out with soap. Per your sainted mother.

  2. This is a remarkably accurate statement of an extraordinarily fluid situation. Thank you for writing with such objectivity and so much nuance.

  3. Dr. Gene Bourquin says:

    Blessings to Ms. Packard. Social justice is our work. Respectfully, I do not think there is a ‘win’ or lose for OWS. It’s the message more than the messenger; there is no doubt of the growing inequities in our country.

  4. Leonardo Ricardo says:

    Bravo to the Packards, the Bishop and the Bishopress (as our Global South friends would say down Desmond Tutu way)…it´s true, the spirit is blowing and it won´t blow the integrity of fellow human beings down–as for the oppressors, you´re on your own (which is probably your favorite position anyway) the battle has been won but not the war chest that you adore.

  5. John D. Andrews says:

    To speak against the Packards is to speak against history. We celebrate Desmond Tutu for his civil disobedience. We celebrate Martin Luther King for his civil disobedience. We celebrate those who took part in the Arab Spring. But, when it happens in our own church some speak against it. To me that is being a hypocrite. Too many Episcopal churches have become settled churches, perhaps TEC has too. They have become comfortable and do not want to be bothered with discerning God’s Spirit, acting in concert with what the Spirit is doing in the world. Too many see piety as the goal instead of working with the Holy Spirit to bring justice to the world. Trinity Wall Street and TEC had an opportunity to work for justice in this very public arena; they chose not to. People, especially young people, are looking for churches that practice authentic Christianity. Rightly or wrongly they will most likely form the opinion that Episcopalians do not practice authentic Christianity, but are hypocrites.

    1. Suzanne Smith says:

      Beautifully articulated.

  6. Stan Chaz says:

    You don’t need to be religious to understand -and embrace- the idea that “Whatsoever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” But the 1%, in their blind greed and schemes, have forgotten and closed their eyes to what the word “society” should really mean. Because of Occupy Wall Street, we are finally talking less about CUTS and more about BLEEDING. Instead of demanding m-o-r-e budget cuts -to be borne by the middle class and poor- we are FINALLY focusing on the shameful bleeding that the poor and middle class has endured for all too long. Instead of talking about even m-o-r-e cuts in the taxes of millionaires….we are now talking about fairness and justice – about an economy and a political system that is increasingly run for the rich, and by the rich. Instead of talking about LESS government, we are talking about a government that WORKS FOR ALL OF US, not just a favored few. Thank you OWS, for reminding us that people -ordinary working people- really DO matter, and for helping open our eyes to what’s really going on in this country. Trinity Church should look deep into its collective soul, and at its ultimate mission. It should do the right thing, and help OWS. For I would bet my life, that if He were physically with us today…as He was 2000 years ago, He himself would be among the FIRST to climb those fences, and occupy Trinity’s Duarte Square. Of this I am certain.

    1. Tom Haven says:

      I’m sorry, but where in the Bible does it say Jesus led mobs in ransacking the homes of the Pharisees or in stealing the offerings from the Temple? The Jews of His time were looking for a Messiah just like the one you’re describing and they were so disappointed that Jesus wasn’t the one leading them to “climb those fences” that they crucified Him. Of course, this doesn’t really matter for Episcopalians any more as the Bible is merely an historical document about which they’re occasionally embarrassed when it doesn’t happen to agree with their ideas of “social justice.”

      1. Jess Parmer says:

        How off-topic can you get? Who climbed the fence first?–an Episcopal bishop. What mobs were there ransacking homes or stealing?–none. You seem to assume the Zealots and other radicals crucified Jesus–a proposition that you must prove, though I doubt you’ll find much evidence. The Bible IS an historical document, and we are all better off for seeing it that way, so that our social justice can be grafted onto it. Remember, it was only about 1.5 centuries ago that the Bible used in your sense was also used to justify slavery. Time to take off the biblical inerrancy blinders and use the perfectly good brain God gave you.

  7. Suzanne Smith says:

    What an embarrassment for Trinity Wall Street (which is ridiculously rich anyway) and shame on our Presiding Bishop – to be on the side of corporate greed and “art” and respectability – at the expense of the marginalized and those whose lives have been upended during this financial crisis. Thank God for the Packards! They are true voices of faith and love in our church. Maybe it is time for mainstream churches like ECUSA to fade away. We’ve become too respectable and lost touch with the Gospels and Jesus’ radical message of love and charity.

  8. The Rev. P Joshua Griffin says:

    I am grateful to Bishop Packard, Rev. Merz, and Rev. Sniffen for saving our Church from shame this weekend. There are many compelling reasons for our Church to join with OWS. I offer my opinion in depth, here: http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/parishes/occupy_wall_street_and_the_epi.php

  9. Peter Jenks says:

    This is a remarkable time, with very challenging situations. It is important for me to be still and see if this is of God, then it will transform our lives, if not it will be a flash in the pan of news notes.

    If the injustices of financial and political activity is exposed and confronted than “thanks be to God’. If individual egos are simply being fed, then they will discover the struggles of such a path.

    This is a time to be prayerful, to be open to the working of the Holy Spirit and to listen to all the various voices, perhaps we will be converted again to a deeper faith and love.

  10. Anne Beal says:

    Seizing privately owned property is a Marxist ideal. Seizing privately owned church property is even better. What really takes the cake here is the idea that the protestors are entitled to somebody else’s property by virtue of their moral superiority over the lawful owners. Vladimir Lenin would be so proud!

    1. Elaine Jenkins says:

      From the first the Church’s response to the Good News of Christ was communal-in your terms, Marxist. Check out Acts 4:32 to 5:11. Lenin was not opposed to the values and ethics found in the Gospels, he was opposed to the oppression of human beings. There are two additions in the new Church Calander that you might want to check out. They are celebrated on October 8th-William Dwight Porter Bliss and Richard Theodore Ely. They believed that the Church was to call for economic justice and that the Gospels supported that goal. The wrote and preached against economic oppression in the United States 100 years ago. Perhaps Trinity Episcopal Church should have a Bible Study centered around the call for economic justice in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and read the essays and sermons of these men before they side with those who oppress others for personal gain.

  11. J. H. Shumaker says:

    I thought that the Bishop was wearing a purple cassock, rather than a purple robe?

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