New York City’s rich history of occupations and protests

The Occupy City Hall protestors camped out in front of City Hall for nearly a month demanding that the NYPD be defunded.
The Occupy City Hall protestors camped out in front of City Hall for nearly a month demanding that the NYPD be defunded.
Anna Kristiana Dave/Shutterstock
The Occupy City Hall protestors camped out in front of City Hall for nearly a month demanding that the NYPD be defunded.

New York City’s rich history of occupations and protests

Many movements over the years echo the experiences of Occupy City Hall protesters.
July 23, 2020

It’s not hard to see how recent protesters occupying City Hall this summer harken back to a similar movement nearly a decade ago. Although participants in Occupy Wall Street in 2011 were focused on income inequality rather than police brutality and NYPD budget cuts, both protests made having a 24/7 presence in parts of New York City a prominent part of their strategies. And both eventually were cleared out overnight by police officers, with Mayor Bill de Blasio and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg saying the encampments presented health and safety concerns.

But these aren’t the only examples of how occupations, protests and civil unrest have fused together in New York, often with the backdrop of economic insecurity and police confrontations. City & State took a look back at other similar historical movements and events.

Occupy City Hall (2020)

Since Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in late May, protests against systemic racism and police brutality have been raging for weeks in New York City before Occupy City Hall gained traction. A group of activists and organizers began camping out in front of City Hall on June 23, a week before New York City’s budget deadline, to press lawmakers – who were otherwise not actually in City Hall due to the coronavirus pandemic – to cut the NYPD’s budget by at least $1 billion and shift that funding to social services.

After the vote, most protesters returned home. But those who remained transformed Occupy City Hall into “Abolition Park:” a mixture of a protest in favor of abolishing policing and a commitment to help the homeless people who joined the protesters at the encampment. All hadn’t been peaceful there, however, with fights breaking out and allegations of sexual harassment. The occupation ended early in the morning on Wednesday when police descended on the camp, pushing the protesters out, removing tents and cleaning graffiti.

Cooper Union occupation (2013)

Leadership at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art announced in April 2013 that undergraduates would have to pay tuition for the first time in more than a century rather than continuing to cover their education with full scholarships. Backlash quickly followed among the school’s students, who were pursuing degrees in architecture, fine arts and engineering. Rather than taking their protest outside, students took over the president’s office for two months. College officials told students to vacate, bathrooms and water foundations were boarded up, and armed guards stood around the building. But eventually the space was conceded to students, with the college’s president, Jamshed Bharucha, forced to work remotely. The protests succeeded in making the college reconsider charging tuition. Two years later, Bharucha resigned, still plagued by the decision that led to the occupation.

Occupy Wall Street (2011)

Emerging from what was then one of the worst financial recessions in modern history, Occupy Wall Street represented growing frustrations about income inequality. The movement – which spread to 80 countries – grew in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan’s Financial District, landing occupiers close to the offices of Wall Street executives. Thousands gathered in the park and throughout the city for about two months calling for economic equity, which coined the distinction between the 1% of the country’s wealthiest residents with the remaining 99%. Though the movement dissolved with little concrete policy results, Occupy Wall Street also laid some of the groundwork for the burgeoning progressive energy in New York City.

Tompkins Square Park (1988)

In 1988, Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan’s East Village became a symbol of New York City’s growing inequality. It became the site of homeless encampments, drug users and other New Yorkers pushed to the fringes while wealthier residents began to move into the neighborhood. Eventually, the city Parks and Recreation Department instituted a 1 a.m. curfew to tamp down on the people that had begun to occupy the park overnight. But that decision further inflamed tensions between the area’s more destitute residents and their richer neighbors. Activists and homeless people gathered in the park on August 6, 1988, to fight back against the curfew – declaring “Gentrification is Class War” – but what ensued was a violent confrontation with police officers. NYPD officials and media outlets lambasted officers for instigating the violence and beatings, often while covering up their badges – not unlike what happened during the protests this year – but few were disciplined in the aftermath. Although the curfew was removed soon after the conflict, the city cleared all the homeless people from the park three years later.

Columbia University anti-war occupation (1968)

Sentiment against the Vietnam War during the 1960s fueled protests throughout the county. That energy, in part, generates a historic level of activism and occupation at Columbia University.

Students had two concerns. Many denounced the university’s ties to a government-affiliated think tank involved in military research. Others were concerned about Columbia’s decision to build a gym in Morningside Park that would largely exclude the neighborhood’s predominantly Black residents, with the backdrop that the university’s expansion had pushed many in the community from their homes. Black students with the Student Afro-American Society began to speak out on behalf of Harlem residents, eventually intertwining their energy with the first group of majority-white students focused on anti-war activism – though their differing goals also led to tensions.

In response, students occupied five buildings on campus for a week. University administrators were reluctant to use force out of fear of inciting riots in the neighborhood, especially given that the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. happened just weeks before. Eventually, 1,000 police officers stormed the university, making 700 arrests and injuring more than 100 students. But the protests succeeded in stopping the gym’s development, giving greater voice to Black students and faculty and leading the university to end its relationship with the think tank.

Central Park Hoovervilles (1931-1933)

While many occupations in New York City’s history stem from a desire to protest, the Hoovervilles that arose during the 1930s were a result of enormous economic distress. Dubbed after then-President Herbert Hoover, shanty towns of homeless families proliferated across the United States amid the widespread homelessness of the Great Depression.

Central Park became the site of one notable Hooverville, as about 2,000 New Yorkers became homeless. People began to occupy an empty reservoir in Central Park that would eventually become the Great Lawn, occasionally facing run-ins with police, though the charges were typically quickly dismissed. The city eventually cleared the area in 1933 with just 10 days’ notice to resume work on the reservoir.

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Kay Dervishi
is a staff reporter at City & State.
20200926