Whose Park? Our Park.
I went to sleep last night pretty sure that Occupy Wall Street would be around today. Not just because they are organized, committed and willing to put their bodies on the line. Not just because they have the numbers. (The Brooklyn Bridge trap of two Sundays ago proved that the NYPD will not hesitate to perform mass arrests, if their power elite masters tell them too.)
No, I felt sure that the protest would continue because earlier in the evening a friend mailed me a copy of this letter from Occupy Wall Street's legal advisors to Brookfield Properties:
Dear Mr. Clark:
Attorneys associated with the National Lawyers-Guild-New York City Chapter have been asked to represent the Sanitation Working Group. One of several autonomous working groups formed and operated by people who have been occupying Liberty Park. We are in receipt of a copy of your letter to New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly requesting police intervention and outlining your concerns about cleaning and maintenance of Liberty Park.
The enforcement action you are requesting raises serious First Amendment and other legal concerns. Under the guise of cleaning the Park you are threatening fundamental constitutional rights. There is no basis in the law for your request for police intervention, nor have you cited any. Such police action without a prior court order would be unconstitutional and unlawful.
Zuccotti Park, as the NYT points out in an article yesterday, is a prime example of one of the big urban real estate boondoggles of the last thirty years: the "Privately Owned Public Space."
Brookfield Properties, the real estate development corporation, gave up this sliver of property in return for setback and height concessions on a nearby skyscraper. There are hundreds of strange, usually useless "POPS" throughout NYC, and urban areas around the world. You pass these spaces and hardly notice them: a gap between buildings with some hard steel chairs, or a wide windy concrete plinth with an ugly sculpture. They are a recurring feature of the late corporate urban landscape, which only reluctantly and under duress gives up any breathing room to actual, like, citizens.
(In HK, where I also live, the concept of POPS has reached amazing heights of sophistication--most HK private/public areas are hidden in buildings and courtyards, and kept secret so the public can't find them!)
Because POPS like Zuccotti Park weren't designed as actual parks for actual people, but rather as shiny tokens to keep citizens from complaining about the chipping away of urban zoning regulations that protect our rights to open air, sunshine, and a pleasant living environment, the legal status of POPS is ambiguous. Part of the deal is that they're required to be open to the public 24 hours a day (as compensation for the public space that's been given to the developer for his taller building). Otherwise, the rules are hazy.
That's why, when I read the lawyer's letter last night: "There is no basis in the law for your request for police intervention, nor have you cited any. Such police action without a prior court order would be unconstitutional and unlawful", I figured that Occupy Wall Street would not be taken down this morning. Because in the scramble to figure out loopholes that would give corporate developers like Brookfield the space to maximize their profits, the NYC government didn't bother to define what laws would apply to this new urban bastard child, the "Publicly Owned Private Space."
The lawyers for OWS are absolutely right. There is no legal basis for Brookfield Properties to ask the NYPD to intervene to eject the demonstrators. I am sure that Brookfield's lawyers were up until the wee hours trying to come up with one. And failing, because there isn't any. Certainly the fervor, organization and dedication of the thousands of people who turned out last night had a lot to do with saving the Occupation. The union members who showed, and the City Councilpersons who made phone calls helped, too. But I'm pretty sure the main reason Brookfield Properties "postponed" their "cleaning" is because they knew they would be opening themselves to a huge lawsuit. Which they would lose.
One more interesting thing. This is New York City, where power is incestuous. We already know about Bloomberg's girlfriend, Diana Taylor, who sits on the board of Brookfield Properties. But then there is the matter of the lawyers who drafted and signed the legal challenge that saved Occupy Wall Street last night:
Very truly yours,
Margaret Ratner Kunstler
Gideon Orion Oliver
Yetta G. Kurland
Martin R. Stolar
Bruce K. Bentley
Margaret Ratner Kunstler and Sarah Kunstler are, respectively, the widow and daughter of the famed civil rights fighter William Kuntsler.
But it is the name of Michael Ratner that caught my eye last night. For Ratner is not just the number one human rights legal activist in New York City, arguably the US. He is also the scion of a multi billion property development firm run by his brother, Bruce Ratner, who happens to be a crony/buddy of Michael Bloomberg. So much so that he got more than 100 million dollars of tax and price breaks from NYC to build--against community opposition--a boondoggle basketball stadium in Brooklyn.
(Oh, and besides being a crony of Bloomberg, guess what! Bruce Ratner was the real estate developer for the New York Times' shiny new skyscraper. Do you think the Atlantic Yards stadium boondoggle got much coverage in Izvestia?)
So while Michael Ratner's credentials as a legal rights activist are solid, his family/monetary connections (he was conspicuously silent in the community legal battle against his brother Bruce, and he owns shares in the Nets, Ratner's team) place him well inside the cozy embrace of New York's power elite.
The minute I saw his name at the bottom of the letter I knew we'd most likely won this battle.
Which all reveals yet more of the genius of OWS. Simply by the act of taking back--and legally holding--privately owned public space, they've exposed yet another rentier scam. Which, judging by the rapid response of Brookfield Properties, has sent the city's power elites into a tizzy.
And, genius on top of genius: We tend to overlook, as we focus on the invisible money shell games of Wall Street and the squeeze scams of the rentiers, something even more precious than money that's been stolen from us by the 1% in the last decades: space. This was brought home to me in a big way at the end of the big Brooklyn Bridge march a few weeks ago.
Our small group of 350 who managed to get across without being corralled and arrested ended up in a lovely old Brooklyn public space, created in 1945: the Walt Whitman Park. Open, filled with trees and covered with grass, the park was ringed with benches, and anchored by a statue of Whitman elevated on a broad stone platform that made a natural speaker's stage for our gathering.
Walt Whitman is a public space in the 19th/20th century sense--comfortable, inviting, and designed so that citizens from every walk of life might gather together there. It's a concept of public space--and public life!-- that's all but disappeared in the late corporate era.
Because, quite literally, our bodies and the space and air and life around them have been squeezed and constricted by corporate power. It has happened so gradually, that most of us now don't think twice about conforming to the restrictions placed on our bodies and movement by these controls.
It is only at those moments when we are suddenly freed of them that we remember. We step, together with hundreds of strangers, into an empty street. We stand, and burst into chant together in an empty park. Oh yes! This is what the world, our neighborhoods, our streets, used to be like. This is how life was lived. It is as exhilirating as being let out of a cage--because that is actually what is happening. The cry "Whose Streets? Our Streets?" [#7] isn't about hooliganism. It isn't about demands or even about protest. Taking back space is a liberation of the body and soul. The power and confidence it unleashes is truly awesome. No wonder the kings and their courtiers are scrambling.