The mood was hopeful at the Occupy Albany rally held Saturday afternoon in Academy Park. The large, colorful crowd came equipped with signs, costumes and conviction to keep the movement alive, despite no longer having a 24-hour presence in the park.
City workers removed tents Dec. 22, after the encampment’s special use permit expired. The eviction, which the city said was to ensure health and safety, turned confrontational when protesters tried to return one tent to the park. A handful of people were pepper-sprayed by police, and four protestors were arrested.
Saturday’s crowd numbered close to 100 around 4 p.m. No police presence was apparent.
Some of Saturday’s protesters voiced bitterness about the eviction, but group members were not dissuaded.
“Today is about healing and moving on and going on in the future to keep on carrying out the work of trying to change our society,” said Lesley Tabor, 74, of East Schodack, who was slated to play her drum to help lead a march Saturday.
“We had a little bit of rapids that we had to go through, but we are definitely moving on,” she said.
Tabor is part of the movement’s political strategies working group. Occupy Albany has formed several groups to focus on issues, including housing, which deals with foreclosures and homelessness, and an environmental justice group that’s discussing hydrofracking.
The Occupy movement has been criticized for not having a clear mission, but that’s changing, Tabor said.
“We’re trying to bring some focus and not scatter everywhere, and it takes some doing,” she admitted. “The analogy has been 'herding cats,’ but these cats are at some level herdable.”
A yellow “Occupy Albany” banner made from the last tent to be removed from the park was held above the crowd, which congregated under partly sunny skies on an unseasonably mild January day. With one voice, the group parroted back the words of Colin Donnaruma, a member of Occupy Albany’s legal working group:
“The powers-that-be thought they had to come in and attempt to silence our movement by removing our tents and attacking us with pepper spray, billy clubs and horses,” Donnaruma shouted. “What they did not realize was, you cannot evict an idea whose time has come.”
Marina Shpirt of Albany held up a sign that read: “Congress is a forum for legalized bribery. Enact real campaign finance reform.” The 73-year-old native of Russia has been involved with Occupy Albany since the group began. She admits she is financially stable and is often questioned about why she bothers to be a part of the movement.
“It’s because of empathy, because of love of fairness and because I see how people are suffering and I can’t stand it,” she said.
Akhtab Fardan Nassir, 53, of Albany, planned to speak for Albany’s poor at Saturday’s rally.
“We are like totally downtrodden and totally overcome by oppression, and there’s a need for people to come forward and drive the message through the powers-that-be that we have the right to exist,” he said. “We have a right to be a part of the economic base that governs the state of New York.”
Bradley Russell, 39, of Albany, could be seen from quite a distance thanks to the multicolored pup tent he wore. His 7-year-old daughter, Sonia, scampered through the park carrying her own little tent-turned-outfit.
“I think it’s going to be all the rage in Paris this spring,” Russell joked, but the sign he carried made it clear that his agenda was serious. On it were pictures of his face before and after he was pepper-sprayed by police Dec. 22.
He, his wife and daughter camped in Academy Park regularly on weekends until the eviction. Russell said he believes officials are threatened by the power of the movement.
“The Occupy movement at this point represents essentially a third power base in Albany politics,” he asserted. “You’ve got City Hall right here, you’ve got the Capitol right there and they threw us out of this space because they knew we represented that kind of a power base. They knew we had a voice that was being listened to and they wanted us the hell out. And we’ll never surrender this park.”