At 3:45 AM on Wednesday morning, cops with riot gear descended on the few dozen people living and sleeping at the City Hall Encampment (CHE) in New York City. While people slept, over a hundred cops surrounded city hall, holding batons and demanding that everyone leave. Unhoused families including children were among the people living in the space. The NYPD did this under the cover of night so that less people would need to see the police violently evicting families peacefully sleeping. The cops promised that people would be able to come back to retrieve their belongings — but as usual, the pigs lied. The belongings of the people occupying the space were thrown out.
The police swarmed the space in riot gear making seven arrests and tearing down the tents that had become a home to many people over the past month, and had become a space for for continued political education. These tents were tossed away like trash as the cops continued tearing down the space.
Nene Thompkins, a 19-year-old unhoused woman living at the camp describes the scene: “They tried to run us over with bikes. They told us we couldn’t be on the sidewalk so walk on the street, then as soon as we got on the street they ambushed us.” She described the violent arrests of people who were not resisting at all. “They held my brother down,” she said, “he wasn’t resisting, they was all on top of him. There was like 30 cops on him, they were all manhandling him.”
Yessenia Benitez, a 29-year-old social worker described the raid as traumatizing. “There are families here,” Benitez said. “There are individuals here who this is their only safe space. We provide them with free mental health resources, free hot meals, free clothing…the police came in, they didn’t give a warning and they started throwing people’s items.”
By 8 AM, cleaning crews arrived to scrub clean the buildings which had been redecorated with art and slogans saying “Black Lives Matter”, “ACAB” (All Cops Are Bastards), “We have nothing to lose but our chains”, FTP (Fuck the police) and more.
This eviction comes at a time when fewer people are taking the streets over the past weeks, and while the Trump administration promises to send federal troops to the city, like in Portland and Chicago. Mayor de Blasio clearly wants to show that the NYPD has the situation under control — that “law and order” can be established under the Democrats.
20-year-old Romeo Thibou, who had stayed at the camp for the last month said, “It feels like I’m homeless again…it’s like a sense of comfort is gone.”
About the City Hall Encampment
In late June, after a month of daily protests, an encampment was set up in front of City Hall in New York City. It became the hub of the protests, with thousands passing through. The non-profit who organized the encampment, VOCAL-NY planned to use the encampment as pressure for the members of City Council to vote a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget, which stood at over $6 billion. Yet, many in the encampment were dissatisfied with the demand: while some wanted the NYPD budget to be cut by half, many more wanted to defund the police to zero.
As a space for protesters fighting against racist and police violence, the encampment became a center of political education, with teach-ins about everything from prison abolition to trainings on de-arresting. It served free food and drinks, offered PPE and gallons of hand sanitizer. New activists mingled with older activists and unhoused people who came to the space not only for politics, but also for a safe place to eat and sleep.
Despite the pressure in the streets, the City Council made empty promises: their initial promise to defund the police by $1 billion was just a smokescreen. The city budget passed on June 30 maintained most of the funding for the NYPD, while education and public services were met with austerity measures.
After the vote, VOCAL and other groups decided to leave the space, while many activists remained. The encampment slowly transformed into a combination of political education space with mutual aid for the city’s unhoused population — the people who are unhoused precisely because of the kind of budget cuts in the last NYC budget.
The eviction of the City Hall encampment comes at a time when protests across the country are shrinking in size and the repression against protesters who are still in the streets is amping up. In Portland, where protests remain quite large, Trump sent federal agents to repress the protests. They have gassed, beaten, and kidnapped protesters. This week, Trump has announced his intention to send federal troops to other cities, including Chicago and New York City. He tweeted, “The Radical Left Democrats, who totally control Biden, will destroy our Country as we know it. Unimaginably bad things would happen to America. Look at Portland, where the pols are just fine with 50 days of anarchy. We sent in help. Look at New York, Chicago, Philadelphia. NO!”, and claimed that federal law enforcement was necessary.
It seems clear that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to evict the protesters outside of city hall is in line with a larger strategy of cracking down on the remaining protesters, now that the movement is slowing down and, largely, only a vanguard remains in the streets. It is an attempt to show that Democrats can “get a handle” on the situation without federal troops — that the Democrats are also in favor of “law and order.”
This maneuver comes in the midst of an election year that increasingly looks challenging for Trump. By increasing the repression on protesters, he is attempting to rally his base by, once again, defaulting to thumping on about “law and order.” As his first campaign speech since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis indicated, is framing the current uprisings as a phenomenon that is primarily happening in cities controlled by Democrats and, therefore, a Democrat problem.
For their part, the Democratic mayors and governors are having to play a balancing act. On the one hand, they want to come across as a friend to social movements so they can co-opt them once November comes, but they also have unleashed brutal and violent repression of protesters on the streets. The eviction of the City Hall encampment is a part of a larger strategy of de Blasio to spare himself attacks from the right and “regain control of the city”. This is only made clearer when one sees the repression unleashed by the NYPD last week to put down a counterprotest of a Blue Lives Matter March.
Where To Now for the Movement?
While the movement on the streets may be slowing down, the crisis is far from over. The economic crisis sparked by the coronavirus has (like both the pandemic and police violence) disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people. While Democrats and their cronies in union bureaucracies and non-profits try to get the movement to leave the streets and head to the polls, the crisis across the country is deepening. As eviction moratoriums and the increased unemployment expire, it seems likely that there will be another flare up of uprisings around evictions. As a small taste of this, hundreds of protesters rushed to the defense of tenants in Brooklyn who were facing an illegal eviction just a few weeks ago. These types of anti-eviction organizing will be key to continue the movement past the current moment.
The workplace also needs to become a locus of struggle. As the Strike for Black Lives action on June 20 showed us, some workers are already making key connections between labor struggle, exploitation and Black struggle and are mobilizing from their place of strength. Further, with capitalists pre-maturely and dangerously re-opening the economy — even in states where cases of coronavirus are still rising — these connected struggles will continue to take centerplace and it is likely that we will see more sickouts and strikes. As we approach the fall, Trump is threatening to cut funding from any public school that does not reopen in person, putting countless students, teachers, and other education workers at risk. Workplace struggles have the power to disrupt capitalist profit and prevent workers from dying for the economy. It is key that the activists who took up the City Hall Encampment take up solidarity with workers struggles as well.
For almost a month, the City Hall encampment stood in downtown New York, at times becoming the center of the whole movement city-wide. The early-morning eviction is an attempt at demobilizing and demoralizing the protesters. Both the Democrats and the Republicans want people off the streets so that they can contain the movement. But in the midst of the economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic and the consistent state violence against Black people, anger and activism is unlikely to dissipate. While the physical encampment may be no more, the fight isn’t going anywhere. The movement that birthed it is still very much in existence and the fight against police violence and the racist and violent system of capitalism is far from over.