For protesters at Zuccotti Park, keeping the neighbors from screaming (for now) is a talisman against shutdown
6:04 pm Oct. 21, 2011
A little over a week ago, the Occupy Wall Street protesters were contemplating a confrontation with police trying, they thought, to evict them from Zuccotti Park.
Last night representatives from the protest were hammering out a formal agreement on drumming hours with lower Manhattan neighbors.
A few hundred protesters, residents, and elected officials gathered at a meeting of the local community board's Financial District and Quality of Life committees, one of many that have been happening over the last couple of weeks.
At points during the two-hour meeting, things got heated. Multiple reports had it that the relationship was reaching the boil based on the things that were said last night.
But that obfuscates the fact that meetings like this are leading toward a ratified agreement between protesters and the community board, setting rules for the encampment.
If that goal is reached the protests are likely, if only for the time being, to be inoculated from claims coming from the city or from Brookfield that the protest must shut down to mollify residents of lower Manhattan. (This is increasingly a familiar strategy at Zuccotti Park.)
With this meeting Occupy Wall Street got a step closer to that agreement. And those involved count on two hands the meetings that culminated in last night's big show, revealing a hard-fought, somewhat delicate truce between protesters and lower Manhattan residents that is likely as powerful a protection for the protests if it can succeed as it would be a disaster for the protests if it fails.
That's not to say that local residents, particularly those living in the 33-story Liberty Tower and other buildings especially close to the park, don't have complaints to air. Last night, there were several.
The committees heard about noisy drumming, reports of public defecation, allegations of verbal harassment, the inconvenience of the extensive police barricading, the loss of one of the few open spaces on the tip of Manhattan, and the necessity of changing routes to school and work.
But mostly it was just the drumming.
One harried neighbor described it as "unbearable" for her and her family.
This is what democracy sounds like, Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer seemed to suggest.
"That is how we roll in New York City," he said. "The role of a community board is to bring people together to resolve these issues—to recognize people's constitutional rights and to also recognize that people need a good night's sleep."
Community Board member Diane Lapson first announced herself a fervent defender of First Amendment rights before adding, "if my daughter were drumming in my house for fourteen hours, I'd murder her."
Han Shan, described in his Huffington Post biography as an activist and filmmaker with roots in the Free Tibet movement, was there as a representative of Occupy Wall Street, and he discussed the needs and wants of the community, and the drumming in particular.
"There's a growing consensus that this is a critical issue," he admitted.
Last week, protesters and residents established what they are calling the Good Neighbor Policy, which was finally voted up by the General Assembly, the consensus-driven group that is—well, as Shan later in the meeting, "The General Assembly is whoever shows up at General Assembly."
The Good Neighbor Policy limited the drumming to just two hours a day, both of which must take place between the hours of 11 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Shan admitted that the agreement was hard to keep up on the protesters' end: it was impossible to police in a setting as fluid as Zuccotti Park.
"[The drummers] don't know if anyone has drummed before, or if anyone is going to drum later," Shan explained.
But Patricia L. Moore, head of the Quality of Life committee, said that other provisions in the Good Neighbor Policy—which includes bans on drugs, violence, verbal abuse, and property abuse, as well as an agreement to have a community relations representative on-site at all times and to work toward setting up port-a-potties—weren't being adhered to either.
A side constraint on the complaints seemed to be an overall sympathy with the protesters' point of view.
"I don't think there's any ideological clash here at all, which is going to save us a lot of time," said Edward "Ro" Scheffe, chair of the Financial District Committee. "Anyone who is a member of the 1 percent, please raise your hand," he added to loud applause.
("They're here, they're just going to raise their hands" muttered one person in attendance.)
Another board member, Jeff Erlich, framed his remarks by saying, "I'm not going to vote for any amendment that impinges upon your First Amendment rights, let's get that clear."
There, too, it's not clear what rights under the First Amendment the protesters are exercising, in strict legal terms—or, at least, how kicking the protesters out would violate them in the eyes of the law.
One resident had the legal language pretty close at hand.
"Freedom of speech can have time, manner, and place restrictions," he said. And the time, at least, if not also the manner and place were becoming increasingly problematic for his neighborhood.
Nevertheless, the draft resolution before the committees last night included the protest-friendly line, "Whereas CB #1 has previously been on record twice as supporting the extension of the millionaire's tax to offset cuts to education, an issue that has been raised by many in OWS ..."
At one point in the evening, Sheffe suggested that the protesters might nail down pre-ordained protest routes leaving the park. An audience member shouted back, "This is a protest!"
"This is a neighborhood!" responded some other attendees.
Perhaps the occupation needn't be a sleepover? That was one idea floated by a board member. Maybe the protesters could return home at night and come back in the morning?
"It's a movement," came the response.
"We have to fight for what's best for this country," said protester Nysheva-Starr last night, "even if one neighborhood in this country might not like it."
THE FACT THAT THE NEIGHBORHOOD HAS HAD TO PUT UP WITH LOTS of disruption over the last decade or more—terrorist attacks and reconstruction only heightened security concerns that had long been a part of life in the neighborhood that houses a gold repository in the form of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, many of the world's largest financial institutions, the New York Stock Exchange and more—is often cited as a reason that protesters should be especially respectful, the city forbearing of locals' complaints.
But more to the point is that these are residents who are prepared for these kinds of negotiations with landlords, large institutions, the city and the New York Police Department to a degree that few other neighborhoods are.
In the spring of 2010, Community Board One found itself at the center of another global debate—the one over the building of the so-called "Ground Zero mosque." There were grumbles in the audience that, knowing of this new bout of attention, the board is engaging in a bit of grandstanding.
"We're a local community that's at the center of the world," said State Senator Dan Squadron at yesterday's meeting, "and that's something that this community is prepared for."
Whether Shan can continue to move the General Assembly in the direction of negotiation, though, is the essential question.
But as always, once the grandstanding had ended, talk ultimately returned to the specifics of the resolution on the table.
The community board members settled on a draft that calls on the protesters to enforce a limit on drums and other instruments to two hours at midday, arrange bathrooms "to eliminate use of retail shop and residential doorways," abide by the Good Neighbor Policy, work with small business to address the impact of the protests on their affairs, and move toward a removal of some of the many barricades erected by the New York City Policy Department at the site.
The resolution passed both committees, and heads now to the full community board for approval.
Now, the General Assembly must ensure protesters abide by the agreement, lest powers less inclined to produce resolutions supporting the spirit of the protest while issuing noise complaints become involved.
After the meeting wrapped up, Paul Beban, a local resident who had spoken out against the current state of affairs during the meeting, offered his assessment.
"I want the world to be a better place, too, and I think if there was a way to engage with this movement, people would be totally into it. I'm all for experimental democracy," he said. "But this isn't working."
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