“At 5:10, there will be a teach-in on rent strikes and tenant organizing at the library tent,” announces an occupier to the crowd of people talking, playing chess, reading books, and grabbing Gatorades and early dinner in the middle of the occupation outside City Hall. It’s Sunday evening, June 28, and we’re in lower Manhattan — the City Hall subway station in the middle of the encampment is closed, the entrance draped in “Abolish the Police” banners, DEFUND NYPD graffiti chalked onto the gate.
The occupier announcing the teach-in walks further through the encampment, toward a couple playing guitar and violin next to a chalked memorial of people killed by the New York Police Department (NYPD). Akai Gurley, his likeness sketched wearing a baseball cap, is beside Eric Garner. Shantel Davis is below Garner, and Ramarley Graham is beside Davis. “Rest in Power NYC,” reads the sidewalk memorial. A bouquet of white roses rests on the ground next to the memorial; a few prayer candles sit among the portraits.
The occupation at City Hall has one very specific demand: cut the NYPD budget by $1 billion and reallocate that money. The current budget for the NYPD is around $6 billion, making this a moderate demand, albeit one that many city councilors and the mayor oppose. (The demand among some groups at the occupation is to push for a greater cut, up to 50 percent.)
“People need to understand that we’re meeting the city council where they’re at by demanding $1 billion,” says Nelini Stamp, a member of the collective of black activists that launched the occupation. “But the long-term goal is abolition and black liberation, the long-term goal is to destroy capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy.”
“This is how policy works,” says Brandon West, another member of the organizing collective.
By day, Stamp is the director of strategy for the Working Families Party. Several of the collective’s members hold day jobs at nonprofits or unions — the originator of the encampment works for VOCAL-NY — and distinguished their activity in the occupation from that work.
Asked why the collective decided to launch an occupation, organizers spoke of the demobilization they felt was happening after weeks of mass marches sparked by the murder of forty-two-year-old George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
“We wanted to find a way to escalate,” says West. “The idea was to create this space as an organic place for organizing and mobilization.”
Judging by the time I spent there, they’ve succeeded. There were simultaneous teach-ins taking place throughout the park. When an anti–police brutality march arrived at the park at 6 p.m., occupiers stood up and cheered, greeting it with chants of “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter.” I spotted a familiar face from Occupy Wall Street, talking with what looked to be younger activists in a corner of the occupation.
What remains unclear is if the city council will be pressured to reallocate the $1 billion when they take up the city’s budget today. Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed cutting a much lesser amount from the police budget — including an illusory reallocation of some of the budget toward the public schools in the guise of safety officers, i.e., police — but organizers emphasize that this is insufficient.
“It’s surprising to me that someone who could be such a proud surrogate of Senator Sanders now can’t do what needs to be done,” says Bianca Cunningham, another member of the organizing collective and of the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Of city councilors who won’t accede to the demand, Cunningham is direct: “They’re playing politics over the safety and lives of people.”
“We have a lot of electeds, including black electeds, who are saying one thing and doing another,” says West.
“Some black city council members have said that anyone pressuring black members are gentrifiers. And as someone born and raised in this city — blood in, blood out, this is my city — it’s really offensive to hear that’s what the focus is on,” says Stamp.
As we talk, Stamp eyes the police, gathering across the street from the courthouse steps where we sit. There were reports of marchers getting pepper sprayed an hour or two earlier, and some occupiers are on edge. But as fellow occupiers pass on the sidewalk, “see you tomorrows” and “stay safes” are exchanged, and the optimism of the occupation peeks through despite a darkening sky. (After I leave the park, a biblical downpour drenches Manhattan. Later, I see videos of occupiers, decked out in raincoats, dancing in the rain.)
“This is step one,” says Stamp. “We need a win.”