Protesters at Perseverance Park waited eagerly in the morning cold on Wednesday, Jan. 18, for flashing lights and sirens. The sun rose over the Merrill Lynch offices across the street as a group of roughly two dozen Occupy Syracuse activists laughed, sang, smoked and voiced their ongoing tirade against, well, everything. They made plans for what to do during and after the impending police raid. They chose who would be arrested and who would remain behind. They debated over what phrase to chant while the police carted them away. They even made post-arrest arrangements for the camp pet: a Siberian husky named Furbitz. For a group facing eviction and arrest, Occupy Syracuse was remarkably giddy.
After months of patience and even veiled praise for the outpost of permanent protesters, Mayor Stephanie Miner had dropped the hammer on Occupy Syracuse. A fire inspection on Jan. 8 found a number of propane heaters in the encampment—a violation of Miner’s cardinal safety rules outlined to the group during a personal appearance in November. After ensuing inspections revealed repeat infractions, Miner decided to act. She ordered their eviction on Tuesday, Jan. 17, giving the protesters until 8 a.m. the next day to remove their temporary home.Miner’s threat generated a frenzy at the campsite Wednesday morning. The ranks swelled as casual participants and interested observers turned out to show support or simply witness a confrontation. Occupiers strutted the grounds proudly, legitimized suddenly by the flood of attention. Irritated commuters elbowed their way through the mob of media and malcontents toward the Salina Street bus stop. Supportive drivers honked and waved as they whizzed by.
“I’m excited,” said Kaitlyn Shanahan, a bright-eyed 20-year-old who has been with Occupy Syracuse since they began on Oct. 3. “I’ve never been arrested before. But after we get arrested, we multiply.”
Some protesters were less enthusiastic about the prospect of arrest, Shanahan said, either because they had kids at home or (in a few cases) an outstanding warrant. Others, like Josh Wilcox, 22, of Syracuse, showed up with the sole intent of being booked. He arrived early Wednesday morning wearing a sport coat and his finest black tie. “If I’m going to be arrested, I should at least look my best,” he said.
The 8 a.m. deadline came and went, however, and police never showed. The protesters were, for lack of a better word, disappointed. Miner had denied them their moment of martyrdom. She had deprived the salivating “breaking news” media its images of peaceful citizens in handcuffs and bulldozers knocking down nylon shelters. And in doing so, she and her administration sidestepped a major PR landmine.
“This is just another thing she’s recanted on,” griped Wilcox after the deadline passed. “She can’t follow through on anything.”
Just more than 19 hours later, however, Miner acquiesced to the protesters’ wishes: She had them arrested. At 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 19, roughly 30 Syracuse badges arrived along with fire crews and Public Works staffers to enforce the mayor’s order. Wednesday morning’s fervor had subsided and police were met with yawns and shivers rather than cameras and chanting masses. They bulldozed the makeshift shelters and removed the protesters. Most personal items were salvaged but the tents were hauled off to the dump. In all, seven protesters were arrested. That’s about .005 percent of the population of Syracuse.
“This whole thing is just a hiccup in the long run,” Shanahan said Wednesday morning. “We’ll be back out here even after they arrest us. We will continue protesting until the government begins responding to its citizens.” Shanahan was among the seven arrested Thursday morning.
A Miner Inconvenience
A Miner Inconvenience
Miner’s sudden change of heart regarding the eviction has been a hot-button issue among the protesters. They were accustomed to a tolerant, even friendly, reception from her administration for most of their 110-day occupation.
In published reports, Miner called the protesters “cordial and polite,” adding, “With these kinds of things it’s always a balancing act between allowing people to exercise their First Amendment rights, and you want to make sure as a government that you don’t overreact.”
Jon Grey, better known around the camp as “Brother Jon,” read these and other quotes by Miner to the amassed Occupiers and onlookers Wednesday morning. Perhaps the group’s most recognizable spokesman, Grey, a long-haired 35-year-old, stomped around angrily, quoting Miner from last month. “The group’s behavior keeps them welcome,” he read. “So why, now, are we being asked to leave?” He received applause and cheers from the crowd.
Miner had met with the group several times and Brother Jon said she was receptive to their cause at first. The city allowed the encampment to install a port-a-potty on site. They said nothing when protesters erected a carport and a few Army tents in early November. She did tell protesters, however, that electric or gas heaters would not be tolerated. After more than three months of allowing the temporary structures, Miner gave just 24 hours’ notice before having protesters arrested on charges of erecting structures without a permit.
John Tall transferred to Occupy Syracuse in late November from a similar movement in Dayton, Ohio. “I came to Syracuse because I heard this was a city where the government was supportive of the Occupy movement,” he said. “Then two months later I’m being stuffed into a squad car.”
Tall was one of the seven Occupy protesters arrested Thursday. Despite his discontent, he emphasized how kindly the police treated the group. “We were cracking jokes and discussing politics with them during the arrests,” he said. “They were very friendly.”
Based on the charges against those arrested, Miner had the authority to remove the protesters as soon as tents went up on Nov. 3, if not before. She waited nearly three months, however, to play that card. She has cited safety concerns as the primary reason for eviction, but protesters have another theory.
“They said no open flames, so we got propane heaters. Then we got rid of the propane tanks per their request,” explained Brother Jon. The protesters removed their heating devices and a fire department inspection late Tuesday night showed the camp was in compliance with safety codes. The protesters did, however, violate the no-structures rule, giving Miner the excuse she apparently needed to kick them out.“Occupy members are free to continue to exercise their First Amendment rights at Perseverance Park or any other lawful site,” Miner wrote in an email to the press. “However, they have forfeited the privilege of having structures at Perseverance Park due to their actions, which put their safety and the public’s safety in harm’s way.” Miner had said back in November that she would allow the tents if no heating devices were used.
Brother Jon, who was also arrested Thursday, feels eviction has been Miner’s plan all along. “It’s not a safety concern, she just wants us gone,” he said. “She figured the winter would freeze us out, but it hasn’t, so she’s finding another way to get rid of us.”
Determined to prove their dedication, a handful of protesters continued to occupy Perseverance Park following the arrests. Three brave souls spent the night in sleeping bags on the sidewalk Thursday night, as temperatures dipped into the low teens. “A lot of us are used to spending time in the outdoors,” Brother Jon noted. “It’s just a little tougher when you don’t have a tent.”
Despite freshly erected signs reading “Park closed dusk to dawn,” Sgt. Tom Connellan of the Syracuse Police Department said he’s willing to let the overnighters stay for now. “Arresting anyone is a last resort,” he explained. “If more people start sleeping there, it might come to that. But right now, it’s not worth forcibly removing them.”
Who Are the 99 Percent?
Following Miner’s initial inaction Wednesday morning, a group of Occupiers marched to City Hall. They stormed into the building waving an American flag and chanting their notorious catchphrase, “We are the 99 percent!” The mayor’s head of security, George Hack, met them at the top of the stairs and demanded to know who was in charge.
“No one!” the group roared in unison, sporting self-amused grins. Hack’s visible irritation with the response mirrored that of many Syracusans who have been following the Occupy drama. The protesters are commonly portrayed as a group of unemployed post-modern hippies with no clear mission, organization or leadership. While the latter is somewhat accurate, the Occupy movement, as a whole, has been mischaracterized.
The majority of protesters are employed or are full-time students. Protesting occupies free time, but they work or study eight or nine hours a day. “About 85 percent of us are employed or going to school,” says Tall, the transplanted Ohioan. “A lot of us have families, too. There’s a pregnant woman and her husband out here protesting all the time.”
Ryan O’Hara, one of the group’s unofficial spokesmen, is an auto parts warehouse manager in Weedsport. Brother Jon works in construction. Kaitlyn Shanahan is a student at Onondaga Community College. All three were arrested Thursday morning.
No one lives at the site 24 hours a day. Protesters are encouraged to go home, shower, sleep and warm up. By taking shifts, the group ensured the park could remain occupied 24 hours a day without any individual burning out. Jan Kent, an active member of Occupy Syracuse, said the protesters occupying Salina Street are just the tip of the iceberg. “They’re the young people who can handle the cold, but there are many more of us you don’t see every day.”
The group is also surprisingly organized—or at least they were, prior to the destruction of their headquarters. An information tent held books, newspapers and literature about Occupy Syracuse and the national movement, which has slowly seen the dismantling of many of the larger cities’ encampments. A network of volunteers brings food and supplies regularly to the camp. They still hold regular meetings and maintain their website and Facebook page.
Notable among the group, however, is a lack of defined leadership. Some members, such as Tall and Brother Jon, are more vocal and articulate than others, but the group intentionally has no hierarchal command. Kent said this allows everyone to be a leader at different times. Action, however, sometimes results from spontaneous decisions, like the impromptu march to City Hall Wednesday morning. Lacking any cogent plan, the protesters simply stood awkwardly in the lobby after Hack refused them an audience with Miner.
The protesters’ lack of clarity is their greatest flaw. No one knows exactly what they stand for. Signs around the site condemn everything from hydrofracking to Miner to corporate banking or the impact of Citizens United—a 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing for unlimited corporate campaign donations. Members rally against anything and everything, including Internet regulation, big banks, governmental corruption and the locals’ favorite: a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser dinner being held Saturday, Jan. 28, for Miner.
The group has no mission statement or defined objectives. Individual reasons for joining the movement vary from wanting to change the world to seeking an end to big oil’s influence in Washington. Behind the scenes, however, exists a sort of organized chaos that keeps the movement strong. Occupy members hold general assemblies to make decisions by consensus about future plans and logistics. Members discuss topics like meetings with city officials and organizing meals for protesters. They adhere to a strict democratic process where everyone’s voice is heard and every issue comes to a vote.
According to Tall, the lack of a clear message is essential because the meaning of Occupy differs for each protester. “Occupy is a way of life,” he explained. “This isn’t some weekend trip for us. We’re all out here fighting to change the world.”And they intend to continue that fight. Despite the deterioration of relations with the city, Occupy Syracuse plans to persevere. Tall and Brother Jon are leaving to begin filming a documentary featuring Occupy movements across the country. Protesters will continue to occupy Perseverance Park and are looking into city laws and mandates that outline what is and is not allowed on the premises. They’re also searching for office space to house a permanent headquarters downtown. They currently have no plans for further discussions with the mayor.
See more Occupy photos here.