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Lessons From NYC’s City Hall Encampment

The City Hall encampment was raided by the NYPD this morning. After participating in the encampment for almost a month, here are some thoughts about its positive aspects, limitations and the next steps to build an organization that challenges the capitalist system.

Luigi Morris

July 22, 2020
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Image credit: Luigi Morris

Thousands of protesters showed up at the City Hall encampment in New York City to create a space free from police. This vibrant space brought together people from across the city, and was filled with art, signs, and banners calling for the abolition of the police. There was music, speeches, fresh food, access to medics, laundry, bathrooms, and a people’s library filled with books on black struggle. Demonstrators held open meetings, small assemblies, teach-ins, debates, and trainings on defensive and offensive tactics. The encampment became one of the nuclei  of political activity in New York City. 

Thousands of young people were eager to discuss politics, theory, activism, and direct action, and to learn more about the structural problem of racism and the role of the police in the capitalist system. What’s the link between police and slavery? Can the police be reformed? Is reform enough? Should we fight for abolition? What will happen next? How can we abolish the prison industrial complex? These were some of the many questions brought to light at the encampment. It was full of political life that could have changed the dynamic of the initial goal of defunding the police by $1 billion and had a greater influence on the struggle against racist capitalism. 

That didn’t happen. After almost a month, the encampment was downsized and being held by less than 100 people. It continued to be a space for mutual aid and there were efforts to keep the space as a symbol of solidarity against cops and for Black liberation until this morning, when hundreds of cops in riot gear raided the encampment, dismantled all the structures and arrested seven protesters. 

The fight against racism and police brutality will continue under multiple forms. Despite mobilizing combative and radical activists, the encampment stopped short of becoming a bigger threat to the capitalist state. What were its limitations? 

The Limits From the Start

“Defund the Police by $1 Billion” was the main demand called by the non-profit VOCAL NY. The tactic was to sustain an encampment outside City Hall from Tuesday, June 23 until the New York City Council’s vote on a new city budget on June 30. In the midst of one of the largest movements in U.S. history, the fight for Black lives put the police in the center of the debate because of their violence, racism, and impunity, their origins in slave patrols, their role of protecting private property, and the exorbitant amount of money they receive every year.

The NYPD has the biggest police budget in the U.S. and the world: they received more than just the $5.6 billion that they were allocated, for an actual total of $10.9 billion spent (see the bottom of page 72E in New York City’s budget). In that context, the demand for a $1 billion cut fell far short, not only because it would still mean billions for the police, but because the budget as a whole was a clear pro-cop, anti-worker, racist, austerity budget that also contained cuts to healthcare and education.

From the encampment’s beginnings under VOCAL’s leadership, there was strong resistance to opening up dialogue about the demands, letting other voices use the megaphones, talking to the press, and creating democratic spaces for debating and voting on decisions. This behavior is linked to their strategy: nonprofits in general, despite the valuable assistance they provide to communities, only aim to put pressure on politicians to negotiate concessions or reforms. This leads to creating ties with politicians, especially Democrats, that then create the false expectation that they can solve our problems. In this case, the idea that an occupation alone would be enough to twist the arm of the City Council, merely because most of them are Democrats and many are people of color, demonstrates this ineffective nonprofit strategy.

The Need to Democratize and Expand the Demands

VOCAL NY’s strict control started showing cracks as the number of people at the encampment grew. The activists that were taking over the streets and protesting in the Black Lives Matter movement joined the encampment, eager to have debates and expand on their demands. The space started to become a point of attraction for the mobilizations happening in NYC and for young activists looking for a place to meet and share their thoughts.

The disputes over VOCAL’s leadership became more like fights among personalities instead of open debates with massive participation, agendas, resolutions, and freedom for different tendencies. For instance, many groups and individuals, even those who criticized VOCAL for having control over the announcement system, did not make an effort to democratize the use of the mic for the entire camp. Instead, they tried to make their voice heard by having their own mics or megaphones. 

In the face of this situation, the Radical People’s Assembly (a group of activists that wanted to create a democratic space where people could participate) and Left Voice members, among others, pushed for open meetings to democratically discuss next steps and broader demands. More than 180 people joined those open meetings, splitting into smaller working groups to share ideas around demands and points of unity we could agree on. 

The platform that we were trying to build included the following demands (among others):

In the middle of a pandemic and a social, economic, and housing crisis, it was vital to create unifying demands that would invite many sectors that have multiple reasons to protest against the budget. A specific call should have been made to working class sectors to participate with their strengths. The demand for cop outs of unions, schools, hospitals and other public institutions would open the opportunity to have teach-ins and debates with, and speeches to, workers fighting for these demands in their own workplaces.

After the Budget Vote

On June 30, the New York City Council overwhelmingly voted in favor of an austerity budget that not only failed to deliver on the meager $1 billion cut to the NYPD, but also made significant cuts to healthcare and education. After the vote, VOCAL-NY announced that their participation in the space was ending and that they would stop being responsible for many of the services provided (food, laundry, money, etc). Some of them stayed for a few days after the budget to work on a transition and work with other remaining organizations. 

The fact that an alternative leadership, focused on expanding and unifying the different sectors and goals of the encampment, couldn’t be organized from the beginning generated a power vacuum within the camp. Different organizations would argue from time to time, but not with the intention of broadening the influence of the space or reaching out to other sectors of activists in New York City. Rather, they fought for dominance of the camp. The most problematic role in this was played by NYC Marchers, who resorted to violence when people questioned their control in the encampment. This organization and its main leader, Zach Schaffer, have been questioned multiple times and accused of having links with the police. 

Members of the Democratic Socialist of America were also part of the encampment, with many DSA members playing roles in daily organizing, holding teach-ins, and participating in larger meetings and in a solidarity network. But at the same time, some of those members were also part of VOCAL-NY, Black Lives Matter of Greater New York, or going as individuals. For example, Jawanza Williams works as a Director of Organizing in VOCAL-NY and is also a member of DSA. This led to the “big tent” intervening with different political lines: Bianca Cunningham, an organizer of the encampment and former co-chair of the NYC chapter of the DSA, called for a $1 billion cut to the police budget, while others called for a $3 billion cut on the path to abolition. DSA is not only dealing with the pressure of participating in electoral politics within the Democratic Party instead of building an independent platform, but also with the pressure brought by nonprofits which, as previously mentioned, mainly focus on negotiating with Democrats for reforms. 

Many unhoused people remained in the space, as they considered it a safe space thanks to the hard work of activists who didn’t allow the police to harass them, tried to guarantee three meals per day, and prioritized the mental health and physical safety of the unhoused with more respect and dignity than the city system was able to provide. It was a small example of how we can relate to each other in a better way, showing that we can use the resources of society to put people before profits. We have seen how the state is failing those without housing, especially during the coronavirus crisis, and we stand in solidarity with them. After the raid by the NYPD, the city will not care what happens to the unhoused people that stayed a month in the encampment.

About Occupations in General

Like “Occupy Wall Street” in the U.S., the indignados movement took many squares around the Spanish State in 2011, with la Asamblea del Sol as one of the most influential that was able to put forward a list of demands. The Nuit Debout in France in 2016 was also known for assemblies where people voted as a directly democratic system. Another example is the occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt that had one strong demand: the fall of Mubarak. Taking over a public space is a tactic that often attracts sectors of society that are fighting on the front lines for certain demands.

In the cases of CHOP in Seattle and the encampment at City Hall, some people announced the creation of an autonomous zone, as if a new space was created outside the rules of capitalism and the control of the state. This often creates the illusion of a version of “communism here and now.” It is not hard to see, however, that the presence of the police was still strong throughout the park: from police patrolling the perimeter to undercover agents inside the park, with corporate media all the while reporting the police’s narrative. State repression was constantly on the borders, waiting for the moment to attack. Additionally, although the paid VOCAL-NY staff and unemployed could spend hours there, most people came in and out around their work schedules and while otherwise still participating in the capitalist economy.

Some arguments will go further and say that the police were abolished in those spaces, that there was no need to challenge the state, and that the focus should be developing new relationships within these kinds of spaces to defy the reality happening outside. This way of thinking would lead people to wrongly conclude that the police were defeated. Even though there were tactical triumphs, it was never only a matter of arming the resistance; it was also about the huge support that the Black Lives Matter movement had around the country and the growing distrust of the police forces among the population. The fight against repressive forces relies not only on physical confrontation but also on the support of the masses. The state can call in more police officers as backup, and the National Guard and military can be used when required. Portland is an example of how the state can be even more repressive than it showed itself to be against the New York encampment.

The case, however, of occupied factories is different. When factories are occupied, private property is challenged, and the means of production can be redirected to the people’s needs. This demonstrates a material resistance against layoffs and closures, and challenges the logic of capital, as it shows that factories can be run by workers’ assemblies without bosses or the capitalist thirst for profits. Nevertheless, these examples also have to deal with a capitalist framework, where multi-millionaire companies will compete against them and the workers will have to deal with capitalist relationships in many other aspects of their lives like housing, services, transportation, school, etc.

Capitalist democracy will allow and coexist with many occupations. Those occupations have two destinies: they will either defy capitalism and fight for power, or sooner or later be taken over by the capitalist state. When capitalists see that their hegemony and power are being threatened, and the regular system of repression is not enough, they will use violent repression, dictatorships, or fascist regimes. There is no half-way struggle against this system.

Occupation can be powerful and inspiring, and a way to create space for organizing broad sectors to take the fight to workplaces and other parts of society. But occupations have to be recognized in all their limitations and measured against the need to connect them with a greater fight against capitalism that challenges their main sources of power.

Any action that threatens capitalism hegemony and deepens its own self organization (assemblies, committees, councils, and self defense bodies), and that controls certain branches of the industry and territories, will face a reaction not only at local levels but also nationally. For example, after seizing the power through workers’ and peasants’ councils, the Russian Revolution of 1917 faced military aggression from fourteen nations. Socialism can’t exist in only one country, much less at local levels.

A Banner For The Youth

The potential of a youth movement that questions capitalism in moments of deep crisis is undeniable. However, the mobilization of the masses, even with great combativeness, makes evident the need to build a strong revolutionary workers’ party. This must be a party that has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans, and must not fight for socialism via the parliamentary agenda (which has been shown impossible through history). Instead, it should fight in every battle with a revolutionary program and strategy to defeat the capitalists and their governments.  

The working class is essential not just to stop the gears of capitalism, but also to organize a new society: a new system where production is not for the sake of profit, but for people’s needs; where decisions are made by the workers and the communities involved. To build our own democracy, we can’t coexist forever with the so-called democracy of the oppressors. 

The Black Lives Matter movement is considered the largest in U.S. history, with an important role played by Black leaders and youth, and with multiracial support. The youth at the head of this struggle has already lived through two economic crises, a pandemic, and the feeling that capitalism is undermining any hopes for a future. A lack of access to housing, education, and healthcare, when these things should be guaranteed for free, is among the top issues drawing the youth into the streets. The rage against racism and police brutality is also a common factor: millions of young people have taken to the streets, set police cars and stations on fire, fought for cop-free zones in Seattle, Minneapolis, and New York City, defied curfews, resisted repression, gone to jail, organized counter protests to defy conservatives and right wingers, toppled statues, built mutual aid networks, and resisted evictions in their fight against capitalism.

As Maryam, daughter of Iranian immigrants, pointed out in her speech in an international rally against racism and capitalism: 

Social movements alone will never be enough. Past uprisings such as the first spate of Black Lives Matter protests, Occupy Wall Street, and the anti-globalism protests of the 90s inspired us, but also taught us that we need to go further to meaningfully change this horrible system of global capitalism. If we want to avoid the co-optation, fatigue, or demoralization that so many other movements have experienced, we have to imagine the necessary steps for the movement to radicalize, spread, and embrace a revolutionary perspective beyond our autonomous zones. To this end, we must understand that, in order to win the fight against capitalism and imperialism, we must join our movement with the working class. They alone have the power to grind the gears of capitalist production to a halt.

The fight continues.

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Luigi Morris

Luigi is a freelance photographer, socialist journalist and videographer. He is an activist for immigrants' rights.

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