A Proprietor Appears

Thomas MacMillan PhotoNew Haven Occupiers finally came face to face with the private power in charge of the New Haven Green, and took part in a public discussion—with consequences for the movement’s future—about what it means for people to freely enjoy the park.

The pow-wow came Wednesday afternoon in a City Hall meeting room, where members of Occupy New Haven sat down with city officials and Drew Days, the head of the 370-year-old group that controls the Green.

The group is called the Proprietors of the New Haven Green. Since 1641 the private self-perpetuating body has owned the public green space at the heart of New Haven.

That green space has, since October of last year, been the home of an encampment of protestors called Occupy New Haven. It’s one of the last remaining manifestations of the Occupy Wall Street movement which swept across the nation last fall. Occupiers have an amorphous anti-corporate agenda that includes an end to income inequality and the removal of money from politics.

While occupations elsewhere in the country have fizzled out or been run out by cops, Occupy New Haven is still going strong. That’s in part because New Haven city government and the city’s occupiers developed a cooperative relationship from the start.

Wednesday’s discussion—which followed a similar meeting last week—is part of a process that’s putting the relationship to the test.

At issue: Will the occupation last indefinitely on the Green? Will it—or should it—scale back to coexist with upcoming spring and summer events on the Green?

At the previous meeting, city officials and occupiers discussed moving the camp to another location in the city. They also spoke about the possibility of shrinking the camp’s footprint temporarily during times when other groups may want to use the Green.

Occupiers also asked to speak with a proprietor.

On Wednesday, occupiers returned to City Hall with a consensus that the occupation will not surrender the Green, but is willing to entertain whatever proposals the city may have.

And they got a chance to talk to a proprietor: Drew Days. He’s not your historic caricature of a Puritan-Descended Town Father Proprietor. Days is the group’s first-ever African-American member. (Yes, it took more than three centuries. Even women belong now, too.) He is a lifelong civil-rights activist and Yale law professor. He served as former President Clinton’s solicitor general and as assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Carter Administration.

A discussion ensued about the concept of free enjoyment of the Green that doesn’t impede other people’s free enjoyment.

That’s the baseline for deciding what activities are permitted on the Green, Drew Days said. Occupiers said their enjoyment is not exclusive, that theirs is a safe and friendly encampment. City Chief Administrative Officer Rob Smuts said that’s not necessarily the way everyone sees them.

The meeting ended with an agreement that the city, in consultation with the proprietors, will come up with a proposal for what should happen to the occupation. The occupiers will then consider the pitch and formulate a response. Smuts promised to have a proposal soon.

The meeting was preceded by a pre-parley pow-wow at Occupy New Haven. Some 20 occupiers circled in the center of the camp to decide on their strategy for the City Hall meeting.

One woman cautioned against taking an offer of other land from the city. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to take any offers from the 1 percent.”

“If we take land it’s going to split the camp, because I’m opposed,” said another woman.

“Fuck them!” urged a man.

No swearing in the official meeting, occupier Ray Neal reminded him.

After a few minutes, occupier Ina Staklo offered a summation. The consensus is “we want to keep this camp” but Occupy is willing to consider other land for expansion purposes, she said.

At noon, the group headed across the Green and climbed the steps of City Hall. Smuts met them at the door to a second-floor meeting room, where the group was joined by representatives from the parks department, the Yale and city police departments, the fire department, and Days.

Neal opened the meeting. “We are staying where we are,” he announced. To move would undermine the very definition of the protest, which is about holding public space until change is effected, he said.

“As it stands right now ... there’s an incompatibility,” Smuts said. The occupation as it is is not compatible with other uses of the Green. “But we respect that this is a political protest.”

“We’re in complete solidarity with the people of New Haven,” said Neal.

Even if your intent is to welcome everyone, “they don’t feel that,” said Smuts.

“I don’t feel comfortable walking down streets owned by Yale,” Neal said.

“The answer is not to turn the Green into a mirror image,” Smuts said. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

New Haven has hundreds of organizations that would love to have a permanent booth on the Green, Smuts said. “At some point it has to be common space for the people of New Haven.”

The Occupy movement “not just another non-profit” said occupier Yoni Miller (pictured). “It’s something that has captivated 80 countries across the world.”

Miller was one of several occupiers to stress that the Occupy movement comprises, by definition, all people who are not among the wealthiest 1 percent. “It’s a group not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. To talk about Occupy as separate from New Haven is a paradox.”

But New Haven has 130,000 people; not all of them are camping on the green, Smuts replied.

Asked for specific complaints, Smuts said people have said they don’t feel comfortable walking through the green with the occupation there. “They feel outnumbered by people they don’t know.” Others have complained that the camps doesn’t look “orderly” or safe. Merchants have griped about the occupation. “In some cases you hear, ‘When do we get our Green back,’” Smuts said.

“Where’s The Hill?

Some people could say, “We don’t feel comfortable walking through the Hill. Let’s evict the Hill,” remarked occupier Donald Montano.

“What’s the Hill?” asked another occupier.

“Somewhere you don’t want to go,” another replied.

The difference is that the Green is public space, Smuts responded.

A Record Encampment

Days, the head proprietor, spoke for the first time. “We see ourselves as holding the Green in trust for the citizens,” he said. Uses of the Green are limited only if they “interfere with other people’s enjoyment” of the space, he said.

Occupy’s enjoyment of the Green has lasted longer than any other group, Days said. The previous record was a one-week encampment organized to as a political statement about homelessness.

When someone wants to “sit on the bench” and “think great thoughts” about one’s life and family and career, with the occupation there, “it is an interference,” Days said.

It’s not because of Occupy’s agenda, Days stressed. The proprietors have no antagonism towards Occupy per se, he said. The Occupation is “making good points,” but “not to the extent that it prevents the full use of the Green.”

But people are free to go anywhere on the Green, including into the occupation, said David Elkin-Ginnetti. “We invite people to come in and join us.”

The First Amendment protects people’s right to speak freely, but it also means you can’t interfere with other people’s rights, like mobility, Days said. “You can say, ‘you can come and visit my tent,’ but that’s not part of being a free citizen of New Haven.”

Former Alderman Allan Brison raised what he called the “elephant in the room”: Yale will be “apoplectic” if the occupation is there come graduation. Smuts denied that Yale plays any part in the matter.

If Gandhi and Martin Luther King had stopped what they were doing because people felt uncomfortable, “nothing would have changed at all,” said Josh Heltke.

Ty Hailey said the occupation would work on being “more inviting.”

The meeting ended with a promise by Smuts to confer with the proprietors and come up with a proposal to submit to Occupy New Haven.

“We’re all waiting to hear what you really have to say,” Neal said.

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posted by: Pat from Westville on February 20, 2012  1:02pm

“It’s one of the last remaining manifestations of the Occupy Wall Street movement which swept across the nation last fall . . . While occupations elsewhere in the country have fizzled out or been run out by cops, Occupy New Haven is still going strong.”

This would seem to take the lack of coverage by the mainstream media of the Occupy movement as meaning that there is no continuing Occupy activity elsewhere in the country. But all you have to do is log onto Occupy Wall Street’s web site to see how wrong an idea that is. While Occupy Wall Street may not have a continuing encampment in Zuccotti Park, they have continued in various ongoing protest actions. Their eviction from Zuccotti Park led to the realization “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come”—that while the physical encampment was important, translating their ideas into action was equally important.

As for the immediate focus of the story, perhaps Occupy New Haven needs to ask itself how large does the encampment NEED to be to effectively get its message out and whether the time has come to add Occupy Wall Street’s type of direct actions to its agenda.

posted by: HhE on February 20, 2012  10:01pm

Well, I have admittedly mix feelings about the Occupy movement, but they have generally been positive towards the movement in general, and New Haven’s “cooperate and demonstrate” in particular.  I agree that there is systemic corruption the US, and that the disparity of wealth is a real and growing problem.  The Occupy movement has done a lot to bring focus and dialog to these issues, and deserves great credit for that.  But these two meetings have soured me towards them. 

When your lawyer announces you are going to break the law and cultivate marijuana is time to get a new lawyer, not cheer.  When your lawyer wants to sue a city already up to its eyes in debt and liabilities and a non profit group that has preserved a wonderful public space, you are not sticking it to the 1%.  Quiet the opposite.

I find a certain arrogance and contradiction in “Miller was one of several occupiers to stress that the Occupy movement comprises, by definition, all people who are not among the wealthiest 1 percent. “It’s a group not for the 99 percent, but of the 99 percent. To talk about Occupy as separate from New Haven is a paradox.”” As well as some of the other statements made above.

Proprietor Drew Days strikes me as a most reasonable and enlightened man.  I should like to meet him.

posted by: HhE on February 21, 2012  11:06am

P.S.  One time, when I was taking my four year olds to a Downtown/Wooster Square CMT, we passed a group of protesters who were objecting to Bank of America.  As I recall, they were part of the Occupy movement, but I may be wrong.  My children felt intimidated by the protesters, and I felt a bit of that too. 

When ones’ protest does more harm than good, perhaps it is time for a rethink.