Yesterday morning Duarte Square seemed like a perfect backup for Zuccotti Park’s displaced Occupy Wall Street occupiers. It’s a roomy open space just a mile from Zuccotti, with good access to public transit, local shops, and City Hall. Best of all, half of the empty square is owned by Trinity Church, an Episcopalian congregation that’s been supportive of OWS in the past. (The other half is city property.)
So when OWS organizers gathered at Foley Plaza after the late-night raid on the Zuccotti Park encampment and proposed a march to Duarte, it made a hell of a lot of sense. Several hundred people, including myself, made that march. We arrived not long after nine o’clock and gathered in the city-owned half of the plaza, on the other side of a locked fence from the Trinity-owned area.
Before the march left Foley Square word had gone out that a judge had ordered the police to allow OWS back into Zuccotti, though, and there had already been some sentiment in favor of marching back there. That sentiment grew after we arrived at Duarte, but organizers told the group that a delegation of interfaith leaders was on their way to meet us, and that prospects were good for Trinity Church to give permission to occupy. A significant part of the crowd peeled off to head back to Zuccotti to test the court order, but most of the group remained.
After a while the interfaith group arrived, and one of their members reiterated that discussions with Trinity were underway. He gave no indication of how those talks were going, though, or when they were likely to end.
At about eleven o’clock I left to recharge my phone, and while I was gone a gate in the fence was broken open. It’s not clear whether the folks who breached the fence knew that they were crossing from city-owned land into Trinity’s property — that distinction had not been made clear in any of the announcements I heard — or exactly how the decision came about, though a report in the New York Times suggests that it was an extemporaneous decision by a few people acting on their own initiative.
By the time I returned to Duarte a little while later cops were massing and a few dozen people were on Trinity property. Far more remained on the outside of the fence, or straddling it. Confusion persisted as to the status of the church negotiations, with some reports on twitter suggesting that permission to occupy had already been granted.
Ultimately police announced that permission had been denied, and moved in to make arrests in the enclosed space. Some occupiers scrambled over the fence to safety, while a dozen or so (and a few journalists) did not. Even as the arrests were beginning, OWS people were still attempting to secure a reprieve from Trinity.
So what happened here, and why?
It’s not at all clear. Trinity Church has released two statements saying that they never granted OWS permission to enter their property, but neither of those statements specifies whether arrests were made at their request. It is possible that Trinity informed the NYPD that OWS was on their property without authorization, and NYPD conducted the arrests on their own initiative.
But it also remains unclear why OWS was in Duarte Square at all yesterday morning.
If the hope was to convince Trinity Church to agree, on a friendly basis, to allow OWS to set up camp, the breaching of the fence couldn’t have helped that process along. And once we were in Duarte, the breaching of the fence was a predictable event — you put a bunch of bored OWS folks next to a chained-off open space for long enough, and someone’s going to make a move to liberate it.
If, on the other hand, the plan was to establish the occupation of Duarte as a fact on the ground in hope that Trinity would assent … well, that just doesn’t seem likely. The vast majority of the crowd stayed outside the fence yesterday, including all of the interfaith dignitaries. Only one gate was opened up by the occupying group, and their actions gave very little evidence of a coordinated plan.
Right now Zuccotti is open to demonstrators, a magnet for public gatherings, but hostile to permanent encampments. If it stays that way in the coming weeks and months, the occupation of a space like Duarte Square would be a huge boon to OWS. Duarte, or someplace like it, could serve as a home, a kitchen, a retreat, a staging area — as infrastructure for the front-of-the-house setup at Zuccotti. But for that to happen, for a private entity to allow OWS to set up camp, they’ll have to be wooed. And wooing involves building mutual confidence, establishing trustworthiness.
Which is why yesterday leaves me so confused.
November 26 Update | This piece from Josh Harkinson clarifies things a bit. Harkinson says that OWS had been negotiating with Trinity for use of the space, but that those negotiations had broken down. The hope was that Trinity would, faced with the fact of an occupation, reconsider its objections.
Harkinson also confirms that the Duarte Square occupation had been planned for that morning days in advance of the Zuccotti eviction, which explains some of the sense of confusion I picked up on that morning. An action that had been conceived in one context was executed in another, and though the new circumstances actually gave the the original idea new urgency, it also altered the situation enough that various elements of it had to be reassessed on the fly.