Reporters React: Chris Hooks on the Failed Occupation in SoHo
With occupation fever taking hold of New York, it seems only natural that students would try to replicate their relative success at the all-city student occupation at 90 Fifth Ave. by branching off and claiming a second building to occupy. So it was that I joined around 50 people gathered at the corner of Chrystie and Stanton, in Roosevelt Park, at 4 p.m. on the afternoon of November 21.
The group, made up mostly of current and recent college students, gave their contact information to a volunteer in case of arrest — preparation which, in this case, turned out to be overly optimistic — and set off for an undisclosed location in small groups.
I assumed that the group would be setting off for one of the well-defended NYU buildings to the north, or even to nearby Baruch, the location of one of the day’s largest demonstrations. But instead, we set off for the heart of SoHo. Passing boutiques and overpriced coffeeshops, we arrived at a nondescript brick building at 233 Mott St., formerly the Old St. Patrick’s Convent and Girls School.
The building, nearly two centuries old, was once an orphan asylum before it became a parochial school, closing in 2010 due to low enrollment. Still owned by the Catholic Church, the space is now leased to outside groups, primarily to the Performa Institute, part of a biennial art exhibition centered around the theme of Russian Constructivism. House music played in the lobby. The young employees wore the sort of clothing sold in neighboring boutiques.
I left briefly to go get coffee across the street. The blend of the day: ‘The Leftist.’
Returning, I watched as the protesters wandered around the old school. Still unclear as to why the protestors had chosen this location, I asked Race, a student who had travelled from Utah to take part in OWS, why the group hadn’t decided to occupy a school building.
“I thought we were going to a school, too,” he said. “I know about as much as you do. I’m just along for the ride.”
As some protesters got a feel for the layout, others passed time writing on chalkboards in empty rooms.
“We live in an orphan-age,” read one example of the chalked graffiti. Another implored the Catholic church to give its gold to Africa.
Still unnoticed by the Performa Institute staff, the group slowly made its way to a room on the third floor to meet. The occupation was to begin when the building closed at 6 p.m. But some had mistakenly thought it was open until 7 p.m., so that by the time the General Assembly met around 5:30 p.m., there was little time to plan for a successful occupation. It appeared that almost no groundwork had been laid.
The GA got off to a bad start. Several of the protesters expressed surprise that the building had so many entrances, and said that it was not as defensible as they had previously believed. Others opined that a map of the fire exits should be found or made, although such an action was never undertaken.
For the rest of the GA, the protesters argued back and forth about the wisdom of barricading the doors, and when it would make the most sense to do so. Several had brought locks and chains to control the building’s entrances, but no decision was ever made by the GA.
Furthermore, none of the protesters had brought supplies for the night. Several offered to go get food and water, but action was again forestalled until the matter of the barricades was resolved.
Several other issues were raised and then abandoned in turn. One stumbling block was the presence of a youth choir practicing in a room downstairs; the protesters had been unaware that the building was still used for classes.
Not wanting to bar children from using the space, one protester suggested that once the occupation was established, the occupiers should learn which classes were offered and then allow classes they approved of to continue.
By the time the building closed and the building staff became aware that something was happening upstairs, the GA had made essentially no progress. It was then that things came to a head. Some of the protesters were quite hostile to the Performa employees, who were unthreatening, unassuming, and younger than many of the occupiers.
One of the protesters, a strident blonde woman with a European accent, attacked Performa for giving the Catholic church money to “put on a crappy art show,” which brought immediate rebuke from those that wanted to take a more diplomatic approach. When one of the building staff members, a petite, cardigan-wearing woman, was falsely accused of taking pictures of the group, a protester leaped to his feet and pinned her to the wall, demanding she let him delete the pictures himself.
He was strongly criticized by most of the protesters, but the physical confrontation marked the point at which the would-be occupation started to unravel. One protester addressed the group, and said that while he loved the space, his instinct was to leave, given the tone of the GA and the lack of evident preparation.
When one of the leaders asked who would be staying the night, less than a third raised their hands. Some were leaving to take part in the all-student GA at 90 Fifth Ave., but others simply seemed disenchanted with the idea of occupying.
By the time the Performa Institute employees announced that they were calling security, only a handful of would-be occupiers remained.
Several of the Performa staff said they supported OWS generally, but were extremely annoyed with the behavior and attitude of the protesters. One building employee told the General Assembly that Performa, a non-profit art foundation, would be the only one to lose financially if an occupation was successful, as they were liable for the building while leasing it.
“Ask Bloomberg for money, then,” said a protester.
“Well, Bloomberg doesn’t give us any money,” came the reply.
Matthew Varvil, one of the Performa employees, said that the occupiers were hitting wide off the mark.
“These people don’t even know who they want to talk to or what they want,” he said. “They’re shooting themselves in the foot.”
By the time private security guards came to lock up the building, the remaining members of the GA had apparently given up and filtered out into the courtyard, where they stood around smoking until they were ushered, docile, out the exit. In the end, they went quietly. It’s not fair to say that the occupation was over as soon as it began: it never even started.
On my way out, one of the occupiers tried to trip me, as if my presence was to blame for the way the night’s events unfolded.
Still trying to get some of the leaders of the would-be occupation to speak for themselves, I approached one of the more outspoken participants of the GA and asked him and his friends for comment.
“Are you kidding me? No,” he said. “You need to get the fuck out of here right now.”