Interesting developments with Occupy Albany.
First, the encampment is growing, contrary to my expectations. Three weeks ago when I visited I counted 40 tents. Yesterday I counted 68, not including the large communal tents for food, sanitation, library and so forth.
Second, as you have no doubt heard, some of the more feisty campers have challenged the state’s somewhat mysterious curfew on the neighboring turf called Lafayette Park, immediately adjacent to and indistinguishable from the city-owned Academy Park. Gov. Cuomo called out the state police to arrest those campers, which the police duly did, but District Attorney David Soares says he will not prosecute them, so when they show up in court to answer charges of trespassing, the charges will be dismissed.
I talked to Soares a few days ago about his position, and he told me he has two kids, and he teaches them about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and the power of nonviolence. He said, “How can I teach them all that and then go and prosecute these people for protesting peacefully?”
So he’s not going to do it. The governor can order the state police to make all the arrests he wants, but they won’t mean a thing if the prosecutor refuses to prosecute. The police will gently and politely take curfew-breaking protesters to a meeting room in the Concourse of Empire State Plaza, in what the protesters calls string handcuffs, issue them appearance tickets, and then politely let them go, which is what happened over the weekend.
A few campers I talked to yesterday said they will continue taking a stand in Lafayette Park and risking arrest, just on principle, though I’m not really sure what the principle is.
Jennifer Kotary, age 24, one of those who was arrested Saturday night (and released 15 minutes later) told me she was taking a stand for “the right to open dialogue,” but as for addressing economic inequities, she said, “It’s their job to come up with solutions,” referring to lawmakers.
Joe Seeman, an aging lefty activist who is a supporter but not a camper himself, said he thinks that walking a few steps into state-owned parkland just to force an issue and get arrested is a “distraction.” He thinks the demonstrators ought to stay focused on economic issues, but then again, he conceded, “That’s democracy.”
My own impression is that the encampment in Academy Park, across the street from both City Hall and the state Capitol, is becoming its own message, apart from any slogan or program or list of demands. It’s what you might call an alternative community, admittedly of the hippy-dippy anarchistic variety, but still an alternative community. No leaders, no coercion. Everything done voluntarily, from the picking up of trash to the dishing out of food.
And best of all, everything is free, just as an earlier generation of hippies envisioned.
What do you need? A cup of herbal tea? A blanket? A recharge for your cellphone? A book? A winter coat? A tent? A plate of baked eggplant? It’s all there for the taking, or for the asking.
Go to the “comfort tent,” and there you will find free coats and blankets and tents.
Go to the food tent, and there you will find free vegan food supplied by “Food Not Bombs.”
Go to the library tent, the sanitation tent, the solar-panel tent, the sign tent, and your needs will be met.
The stuff does not fall from the sky, but it might as well. Supporters and sympathizers come by and drop the stuff off at the “donations tent,” whence it gets distributed to the other tents.
In fact so much gets dropped off that a sign now hangs in the donations tent saying, thank you very much for your generosity, but, “We have gotten so many donations we don’t know what to do with it all! Until further notice, we will no longer be accepting the following items: storemade bread or baked goods, peanut butter, plastic utensils, disposable plates.”
Yes, enough already, you wistful anti-capitalists living vicariously through us. We’re up to our ears in peanut butter — though we could always use some blankets, what with winter coming on.
I asked a few people how they planned to handle snow and freezing weather, and they all expressed confidence. “We’re thinking about it every day,” one said, and not just thinking but preparing. Tents are being fortified with extra tarps on the outside and extra blankets on the inside. A large pole-mounted heater has been set up that runs off some kind of fuel I could not determine, and on cold nights people will be able to gather around that as our cave-dwelling ancestors would have gathered around a bonfire. Two generators will power portable electric heaters, which cannot, however, be used inside tents.
Then too, when all is said and done, most of the campers are local, to judge by those I have talked to, so when the going gets too frigid and their buns too frozen, they can do what Commodore Perry could never do and simply go home. Walk or catch a bus to their apartment, spend a night in a warm bed, get a hot bath and a change of long underwear, and come back the next morning refreshed.
With that for an option and with the preparations they have already made, I don’t see why they can’t stick it out through the winter.
Several of them told me approximately 100 people are spending nights there now, which seems a reasonable population for 68 tents, and if they rotate in and out during the hard weather, they can probably endure.
What for? you might ask. What does any of this have to do with the over-enrichment of 1 percent of the population, or unemployment, or the mortgage crisis or the subservience of government to big money?
I don’t believe I can answer that. Maybe it has nothing to do with it.
The occupiers are demonstrating a utopian way to live, everyone equal, everything free, which was the ideal of classical anarchists, and maybe that’s the beginning and end of it. A counter-example to capitalism.
It’s already coming apart in other cities under the twin pressures of the police on one side and antisocial interlopers on the other, but in Albany, with the indulgence of a sympathetic police department and district attorney and with only minor intrusions by antisocial interlopers, it survives.
If you have utopian fantasies of your own that you would like to see other people live out, by all means drop them off a blanket or a winter coat. As long as you don’t expect the world to change as a result.