A new opposition in the shadows of City Hall

June 22, 2011

A broad coalition of left groups in New York City has organized an ongoing sidewalk encampment in the shadow of City Hall to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's harsh cuts to social services and layoffs of city workers. Named after the billionaire mayor himself, Bloombegville is entering its second week as home to a shifting group of New York City workers, students, community members and homeless activists.

Bloombergville was aimed at providing an expression for the anger of many New Yorkers at Bloomberg's austerity agenda. The city's budget is supposed to be finalized by the end of the month, and during the budget debate in preceding weeks, tens of thousands of workers, students, and community members have participated in different anti-cuts actions.

The peak of the protests so far took place on June 15, when 15,000 workers from building trades unions ended their march to City Hall by taking the streets. With chants ranging from "Union!" to "USA!" to "Wall Street, fuck you!" the demonstrators battled police for control of the streets and largely halted traffic on Broadway in downtown Manhattan for half an hour.

While inspired by mass protests in Egypt, Spain, Greece and Wisconsin, Bloombergville has been much smaller. The crowds at the encampment rarely exceed 150, with between 30 and 50 people sleeping over. But organizers believe this an important step in rebuilding left struggle in New York City.

The encampment has served as a focal point of various anti-cuts actions and also drawn attention to ways to fix the budget crisis, similar to those proposed in a recent SocialistWorker.org article: "Bloomberg could end tax breaks and subsidies worth $1.5 billion that go to Wall Street...[New York Gov. Andrew] Cuomo's budget allowed for the expiration of the so-called "millionaire's tax"--a surcharge on New Yorkers who earn more than $200,000 a year. Continuing the tax would have brought in between $4 billion and $5 billion more in state revenues."

The stories from Bloombergville are familiar from the larger protests in Egypt, Madison and elsewhere. Various unions have brought food--AFSCME DC 37 came on day two with sandwiches and water for 130, and the Professional Staff Congress union for faculty and staff at City University of New York campuses arrived on day four with 25 pizzas. Many others have brought coffee, donuts, pillows, blankets or air mattresses.

"I didn't know anyone here, but now I feel like I know them so well," said Calha Rahman, a 15-year-old organizing with the coalition. "We're all fighting for one thing, for building solidarity. People are afraid to resist, but we're trying to make this a friendly place, like the world we want to see. People have donated food. We have people performing. We're treated as equals."

The encampment is allowed to continue on the sidewalk under First Amendment protection, but there have been difficulties in securing a location. Police were able to bounce Bloombergville between several locations on the first day, and rain and sun forced another move to a sidewalk with scaffolding overhead.

The need to deal with these considerations had prevented larger political questions from being raised among the group. Instead of discussing how Bloombergville fits into the larger fight against the budget cuts, and how that should inform its actions, most discussions in the early days have revolved around whether or not to peacefully comply with police demands.

Under these circumstances, some hostilities emerged among activists and a few key organizers left. But Bloombergville has found a consistent home, and a decision-making structure and calender has evolved. General assemblies meet each day at 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., and public rallies happen at noon and 6 p.m. every day--bringing new faces into the encampment and reinvigorating regular Bloombergville residents. This has allowed for democratic political discussions and decision-making to emerge and encouraged new people to take on leadership roles.

Unfortunately, despite the material support Bloombergville residents have received from some unions, the major focus for union officials after their rallies last week was to return to the negotiating table behind closed doors. No major union has related to Bloombergville directly, or encouraged the large numbers at each rally to participate. Had this been the case, Bloombergville might have been propelled from a first step into an action that could begin to seriously challenge the proposed budget cuts.

This could still change, however. During a National Nurses United protest on Wednesday, June 22, thousands are again expected to flood the streets of downtown New York City--and organizers, impressed with Bloombergville, have decided to encourage members to participate and offered speaking time on stage to two Bloombergville organizers.

Jason Farbman talked to three of the many organizers in New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, the central planning coalition behind Bloombergville. Participants in the roundtable are Larry Hales, who organizes with Worker's World and Bail Out the People Movement; Yotam Marom, general secretary of Organization for a Free Society; and Doug Singsen, a member of the International Socialist Organization.

THERE HAVE been a large number of protests surrounding the proposed budget. Why was the decision made to plan an event like Bloombergville?

Larry: I think the time for rallies that last 45 minutes or whatever, where people are penned up in cages and then sent home is over. We have to move beyond that to actions that are designed to bring people into the streets. We have to be a bit creative, and this is one of the ways of pointing people towards new actions we need.

Yotam: Part of the reason is that we wanted to reclaim some space--to use it as a launching pad for continued struggle, to provide people with a means to plug in over a sustained period of time, and to create an open space for people to meet each other and deepen their understanding of what's going on. And also, hopefully, to become more militant and dedicated, and be in a position to do something about the budget.

Doug: We think protests by themselves are not going to be enough to stop the attacks. This is part of a global austerity program. It's happening on every level, and it's an absolutely massive attack on the public sector of the working class. One-off protests are not enough to deter something of that magnitude.

Demonstrators on the march against austerity in New York City
Demonstrators on the march against austerity in New York City

It's going to take tactics that are equal to the scale of the attack. That's going to require mass mobilizations over an extended period of time. While this is not a mass mobilization, it is meant to be a model for what that could look like--to show that it's possible.

THERE HAVE been a wide range of groups involved in the planning of Bloombergville. Has that worked?

Larry: One of the biggest things about Bloombergville is there are a lot of leftist tendencies working together, which has historically been very difficult. People who have different ideologies and political perspectives on international questions as well as internal ones.

But we can come together around points of unity and an understanding that this is a class-wide attack. So there needs to be unity. And the broader left needs to see a movement with unity. There's also different community groups coming together from across the five boroughs--even Staten Island--which is in itself a big step forward.

Yotam: It's been really interesting to see a lot of groups work together in a way they don't usually. It's been a radicalizing experience for a lot of people for whom this is their first event. While the immediate results may not be in the budget that's passed, the real results will show over time in whether this is the beginning of building a long-term movement, and part of rebuilding the left.

What you can do

Keep up with ongoing news from the encampment at the Bloomberg Now website. Also, you can follow Bloombergville on twitter at #bloombergville.

Please leave solidarity messages at the Bloombergville Facebook page.

Doug: Some of these are groups have worked together in the past and have established relationships. Some are new groups. There's a pretty wide range of political tendencies represented here.

There have been bumps and disagreements. Some have been pretty serious, but I think we've handled them well and remained mostly united. Some people have left because of political disagreements, but the ones who remained are determined to stay as long as we need to.

IT'S OFTEN difficult to get media coverage for protests and other events on the left. For example, an antiwar march in April of thousands was largely ignored. Has that been the case with Bloombergville?

Larry: On March 24, we had a huge protest, with unions participating, and we got no media coverage. Bloombergville has gotten a lot of coverage. It's a different type of protest, and that's probably the reason why.

Yotam: I don't feel so ignored. We're on the CNN website, we were on Democracy Now!, Channel 2, Channel 11 and the New York Times blog. I was kind of shocked that we got picked up at all. They don't want to cover this stuff, but in general, the media has been sympathetic, presenting us a group of people who are committed and not really willing to go home.

We've gotten a surprising amount of media coverage, and we know the city council is talking about us in their meetings. So it affecting the way they're deliberating in one way or another.

Doug: We aren't huge. In general, the media is always reluctant to cover protest. They would never have covered a rally of 100 people by itself. The only reason we've gotten coverage is because of the tactic we chose.

HOW DO you balance the desire for some activists to wage small, splashy events to gain media attention versus the goal of building larger actions?

Larry: This is movement building. Adventurist stunts don't necessarily lead to movement building, and in fact can work against it. This was designed to be more inclusive. We wanted to build a community, and make an important political statement at the same time.

IT'S BEEN hard to ignore the presence of the police at every stage of Bloombergville. Can you talk about this, and other challenges?

Yotam: They forced us to move around a lot, and I think that's a demoralizing thing in general. That's why they're doing it, as part of a strategy to break people and make them feel haggard. But they don't know quite what to make of us. They don't usually contend with people who are going to sleep on a New York City sidewalk. That's a big deal.

The material conditions are tough. It's tough to sleep on the street. People have to go home and take a break, and this doesn't stop. It does mean that you don't always have a critical mass. There are a lot of different people here, with different levels of experience, different levels of commitment and different expectations of what this might be.

I think for the most part, we're doing a really good job dealing with that, but another thing that makes that hard is a lack of consistency. Although you don't always have the same group, Bloombergville has served as a home base for organizing.

Doug: We had been planning Bloombergville for about five or six weeks. We had been negotiating with some liberal groups and nonprofits to do this with us, and we spent about three weeks negotiating with them. That really shortened the amount of planning time we had. And then they wound up pulling out in the last week before it happened--some even in the last hours before the protest. We lost some significant support there, such as office and bathroom space, which we really had to scramble to deal with.

GOING FORWARD, how do you think we should orient towards less radical groups?

Larry: Some of these NGOs are in on the budget negotiations. Whether or not they get something from it is something else, and some organizations are just doing it to have a seat at the table.

In a lot of cases, these organizations can have their funding pulled if they are involved in anything too radical. But even though they can't have their name on it, some of them will show support in other ways. Some of them have brought food and supplies, even though they can't be visibly with us. We have to have an understanding of their circumstances, even though it's frustrating at times.

WHAT ARE the next steps in fighting budget cuts in New York City?

Larry: I think the next move is to show people that these attacks aren't going to go away any time soon. We need to formulate a people's movement that puts forward its own agenda, and to have an understanding that we need people's power. I think that's the direction we need to move toward.

Everyone is aware of protests in Egypt, Greece, Spain and Madison. Even at the union rallies, the union leadership talks about these things. We have many things to contend with in the U.S. that are different, but I think people are looking at those events and very much wishing for them to come here.

Yotam: Every year, they're going to cut more. This is a concerted effort to take everything public, and make it private and profitable for a few people. Fighting for restoration of the millionaire's tax will be one step we can take to battle back.

In the same way, Bloombergville is one step in building a movement against austerity. The fight against austerity is part of a growing battle for all oppressed people to stand up--for working people to fight back, whether it's in defense of Planned Parenthood or against war.

These movements have to fight together. We've got our backs against the wall. Part of the struggle is to get off the defensive and begin making demands. In the near future, we'll hopefully be able to demand a society that we actually get a say in, and an economy that we have a part in running.

Doug: The first step is to have a New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts meeting to bring together all of the people working on Bloombergville--many of whom we've never worked with before. We have to try to integrate people into the coalition, to keep building its size and capacities.

Personally, I think we should organize around the millionaire's tax, which was not renewed by the state legislature, but can be renewed any time between now and December, when it's set to expire. There's very broad support for the millionaire's tax, so I think that is something with a lot of potential to draw people in and organize around.

Also, most of our actions have been downtown. We want to continue to build stronger bases in the boroughs where people live so it's easier for people to participate.

Lastly, one group that has become involved with Bloombergville is ¡Democracy Real YA!, which is the group that spearheaded the occupations in Spain. There is a group of Spainards in New York City who are inspired by what happened in Spain and who came out to Bloombergville because they wanted to be involved with building something like that here. They're planning an international day of action against austerity on October 15 that includes various European groups organizing protests there, as well as in the Middle East, Puerto Rico and South America.

That's absolutely what we wanted to achieve. We wanted to create a base where people fighting around the same issues could link up and begin to build a bigger struggle.

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