Occupy Albany – Smooth Sailing So Far

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At the final planning meeting on Sunday, October 16, the movement was strong in both numbers (I estimated about 500) and enthusiasm.  An eager and hopeful community spirit permeated the conduct of business and respectful discussions.  Plans for the location and logistics of Occupy Albany were carefully laid, with the advice of committees that had been working to make sure no important detail was overlooked.

Later that day, the word went out: the Occupation would take place at Academy Park, a small downtown park just below and across the street from the Capitol, and it would begin at noon on Friday, October 21, with a general assembly scheduled for 5:00 pm.

(Participants play music and chant during Occupy Albany on Friday, Oct. 21, 2011, at Academy Park in Albany, N.Y.  –  Cindy Schultz / Times Union)

Occupy Albany has been front page news in Albany’s Times Union ever since.  Saturday’s article,  Protest rolls past curfew, reported:

Occupy Albany — which at times swelled to up to 300 or more participants — continued its presence in the city’s Academy Park beyond an 11 p.m. curfew Friday — with several diehards chanting into the morning or hunkering down in tents.

The night air was filled with sign-bearing protesters and the sounds of drum circles and songs. During the day, many held banners with phrases such as “I love N.Y. I hate greed” and cheered as cars driving down State Street honked at them.  Others chanted “we are the 99 percent” and “they got bail outs we got sold out.”  The local rally is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street protests that participants say aim to eradicate economic inequality. 

In other cities, arrests have been made. But Albany’s protest has been peaceful. Some in the park said they were prepared to be arrested and close to two dozen tents were set up. But in the minutes after 11 p.m., no city police officers could be seen, though here and there a patrol car drove by slowly but did not stop.

There had been concern about what would happen when the 11:00 curfew arrived.  According to this article, police originally decided not to interfere with peaceful protesters who wanted to remain overnight.  However, “Gov. Andrew Cuomo‘s top secretary (Larry S. Schwartz) urged Mayor Jerry Jennings on Friday to instruct city police to remove protesters . . . if they tried to remain there after 11 p.m.”  Mayor Jennings was reportedly told that State Police would remove protestors who did not comply with the curfew.

No one, however, was arrested or removed from the park Friday or Saturday night, due to the somewhat quirky factor that the western end of the park is under the jurisdiction of the state, while the eastern end is controlled by the city.  The Times Union later reported (Quiet protest in 2nd night):

The most significant development was that Albany police allowed the protesters to camp overnight Friday and Saturday despite the city park’s 11 p.m. curfew. * * * [W]hile troopers ensured that no protesters strayed onto the adjacent state-owned Lafayette Park, Albany police left those encamped in the city park undisturbed.

Police spokesman James Miller on Saturday said that the protest “proceeded through the night peacefully,” and that “[p]rotesters stayed on the sidewalk on the edge of the parks and were respectful.”

(Protesters wave at an Albany Aqua Ducks tour as it passes by Occupy Albany’s second day of occupation at Academy Park on Saturday, October 22, 2011 – The Schenectady Gazette, Photo Gallery)

The protest continued in an upbeat and respectful manner on Saturday.  Sunday’s Times Union report of Saturday’s activities, Quiet Protest in Second Night, was devoid of drama:

On Saturday afternoon, 10 to 15 people stood along Washington Avenue with signs that read “Come Together 99%,” “End Corporate Greed” and “Tax the Rich.” Many drivers honked, apparently sounding their support.

Other demonstrators sipped coffee, ate doughnuts, talked in small groups, straightened up around their tents and lounged on blankets.  One strummed a guitar. Two tapped on drums.

Things remained calm into the evening:

Protesters prevailed again Saturday evening as the Occupy Albany demonstrators spent a second night in Academy Park undisturbed by police, even after an 11 p.m. curfew.

A drum circle continued providing background percussion for the protest well past 11 p.m. Those in the encampment chanted and cheered as cars drove by, and some of the drivers honked their horns and waved in support.

The crowd was noticeably smaller than that of Friday night. About 150 people remained as temperatures were forecast to fall into the 30s overnight. 

Sunday morning was cool and quiet.

Many of those who stayed overnight vowed that they would not be leaving the camp anytime soon. “I think this has to go on indefinitely,” said Chris Scully, 23, an engineer from Troy, as he wrote on a sign “Our Way Of Life is Dying.” “I think we’ll wait and keep going until everything is better.”

The protest is meant to echo those going on in Manhattan and nationwide, a battle cry for those who feel big business and the wealthy have gotten too much power in this country.

Some people sat in chairs on Washington Avenue making the peace sign toward passing cars, many of the drivers beeping their horns in solidarity.

Homemade signs were propped up against tents reading, “Dear U.S. System, I Want A Divorce,” and “People Not Profits.”

It was warmer when I arrived around 11:30 am Sunday.  I held up a sign while chatting with fellow protestors and waving to passing motorists.  Later, I roamed the encampment chatting with overnight occupiers. People were open and chatty, and enjoying the comradeship and community spirit.  I made an ice run for the camp a few hours later, then returned home to collect my thoughts.

Yesterday (Monday) evening, I was pleasantly surprised that Keith Olberman, on his Countdown show on Current TV, reported on Occupy Albany.  In contrast to many of the Occupy movements around the country, there have been no arrests, and things are running smoothly:  Olberman, in an interview with Albany District Attorney David Soares, jokingly congratulated Albany for “making news by not making news.”

Soares explained that he was satisfied with the way the protest is being handled, and that he felt the situation could get out of hand if the police started making arrests.  “The protesters have been fine,” Soares said.  “We’ve been maintaining a great dialogue with the organizers and for the most part a lot of credit should go to the organizers for maintaining a wonderful protest.  There’s been no violence, there’s been no reports of any kind of mishap — we’re fine with it.”

This position has pitted Soares, along with Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff, against the reported wishes of Governor Cuomo and Mayor Jennings.  In Police defy order from Mayor, NY Gov, to shut down and arrest Occupy Albany , Red Green and Blue is highly critical of Governor Cuomo.  They also provide more details on the positions of Soares and the Albany police: “We don’t have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble,” a police official is quoted as saying. “The bottom line is the police know policing, not the governor and not the mayor.”  And Soares’ position is further explained:

Soares said protests at the state Capitol are common, and historically anyone arrested for trespassing generally faces a low-level charge that’s later dismissed.

“Our official policy with peaceful protesters is that unless there is property damage or injuries to law enforcement, we don’t prosecute people protesting,” Soares said. “If law enforcement engaged in a pre-emptive strike and started arresting people I believe it would lead to calamitous results, and the people protesting so far are peaceful.”

Similarly, the Times Union’s strongly-worded editorial  Occupy Albany’s Right to Protest (October 25, 2011) strongly supported Krokoff and Soares:

Credit Albany Police Chief Steven Krokoff, perhaps emboldened by a hiring process that now allows Albany chiefs to be independent of the mayor, for not being so rash [as to enforce the curfew].  Credit, too, Albany County District Attorney David Soares for refusing to prosecute peaceful protesters. Maybe they recall their oath of office better than the governor and the mayor do theirs. First and foremost, they swore to uphold the Constitution — a reminder to not abuse their power. * * *

Leave the protesters alone, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Jennings. Don’t you two have more important things to do than arresting peaceful demonstrators?

*    *    *    *    *

There is an eerie contrast between the calm, picnic-like atmosphere of this gathering, and the deadly serious messages protesters are conveying.   As reported by the Times Union, for example:

Trudy Quaif, 58, of Delmar, said she planned on spending a few hours there every day as long as the protest continues.  She held a sign that on one side read “10 Years of War in Afghanistan … How Many More?” and on the other side read “Tax the Rich.” She said that she fears the country, by spending so much on wars and by not adequately taxing the rich, is losing its middle class; and    

Kayla Heater, 21, who works in fast food, said she wants to stay with the protest into the winter, but probably can’t sleep outside for health reasons. “This is my group, I’m the 99 percent,” said Heater, referring to the Occupy Wall Street movement’s mantra that 99 percent of the country struggles with money, jobs, health insurance, food and shelter. 

This is all very serious stuff, and it appears that all of the serious stuff we face as Americans and as people are potentially folded into this new Occupy movement.  It is no wonder that so many feel compelled to “occupy,” to camp out, and to stay for as long as possible.

On Sunday, while I roamed the Occupy Albany site, I found one young man at his tent, playing a penny whistle, and playing it quite well.  The man, Patrick Boonacore, had been there from the beginning on Friday, and said he had taken a week off from work and would camp out every night.

He was thoughtful and informed, and when I asked him why he was doing this, he had an elegant answer.  When I asked him if I could quote him on my blog, he said he’d already written it down.  So he pulled a page from his notebook, and handed it to me.  This is what Patrick wrote:

Occupation sites are free spaces, and within these locations labor is given freely, never demanded or expected.  Our occupation community will serve as a tangible demonstration that a society based not upon greed and competition, but rather upon charity and cooperation, is imminently possible.

Occupation sites are safe places for the exchange of ideas.  We are united in the belief that a mere 1% of the population are systematically exploiting the rest of us.  We create safe space and process for the orderly, open, frank and thoughtful discussion of the causes of and solution to our collective problem.

Occupation sites are not affiliated with any political party.  The 1% and their corporations have hijacked the party system and manipulate our government for their benefit.  Race, gender, sexuality and creed are tools of division used to keep the 99% fragmented and weak.  Remembering that while composed of many creeds, colors, and cultures humanity is united by a common exploiter allows us to transcend partisanism and progress closer to a truly free world.

Well said.   Thank you, Patrick.

JMH – 10/25/11

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