You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

A Radical Movement to Take Back Our Cities

Protest encampments across the country are forcing questions about housing, public space, and who our neighborhoods are really for.

Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

The New York City subway system makes an announcement at every stop: “Please step aside, and let the customers off the train first.” The public transit riders, the city insists, are customers before they are New Yorkers; they have a right to the train because they have paid $2.75 for their tickets. Every few minutes, the message chimes again, a reminder that public services are not really public at all.

Before dawn on July 22, nearly a month after the creation of Abolition Park—a radical experiment in a makeshift neighborhood camped outside City Hall—New York City police officers in riot gear charged the encampment and evicted its residents. They tossed their tents and signs into garbage trucks and arrested seven people. Within a few hours, a cleaning crew had arrived to begin a $17,000 scrub of the park.

A protest is a living organism; it is constantly breathing and growing. Every cell of it does not perform the same function or necessarily communicate directly with every other cell. When VOCAL-NY, which serves low-income and unhoused people particularly impacted by HIV/AIDS, organized the first iteration of the protest encampment at City Hall in late June, it was called Occupy City Hall. Its commonly understood demand was a $1 billion budget cut to the New York Police Department, or NYPD. After the budget was finally passed on July 1 with little more than semantic gestures remaking the police budget, the encampment went through a change in organizing leadership; its message became bigger and in some ways more theoretical, and it changed its name to Abolition Park. On any given day there would be equal parts art, political education and teach-ins, domestic and logistical work, snack-eating, and a general sense of ease, care, and fun.

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio justified the eviction, he made sure to clarify that he believed it was “an American value to respect the right to protest” but also that “we don’t allow encampments around this city.” The City Hall encampment became “less and less about protests,” he said, “more and more, it became an area where homeless folks are gathering.” This distinction between the protest and the encampment is really a distinction between the customer and the New Yorker, between the deserving and the undeserving—the moral and the immoral—user of public space. But there is no such legitimate distinction in a truly public space. The idea that homeless encampments and those experiencing homelessness are absent a politic is a rhetorical trick that politicians use to dehumanize and dilute the actions and messaging of unhoused protesters, particularly at a moment when national uprisings pose urgent questions about who gets to exist in public, who has a right to the city and its streets, and who is allowed to partake in the shared sense of urban belonging.

In mid-July, The Indypendent reported that many of the unhoused residents of the encampment said they consciously chose it over the city’s shelter system. “The homeless at the camp have chosen to be a part of the encampment’s conscious community,” Amba Guerguerian wrote. “Housing is at the forefront of most residents’ minds when they consider the systematized racism prevalent in New York and the wider United States, especially during a summer when the threat of eviction looms for so many. Many occupiers see providing resources at Abolition Park as a step in the direction of a world free of housing crises.”

Since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, protest encampments have sprung up all over the country, physical spaces that call attention to the dual crises of police brutality and housing insecurity in the midst of a pandemic. Those displaced by the unrest in Minneapolis began setting up tents in Powderhorn Park—near the site of Floyd’s murder—in June, partly to protest the condition of the city’s shelters. The local residents initially made the collective decision to keep the site police-free. Volunteers and residents collaborated with American Indian Movement organizers and various nonprofits to help maintain it. The site grew to about 500 tents before it was cleared on July 20.

In Seattle, the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, or CHOP, demanded the city cut its police budget by half. Protesters rallied around the East Precinct until it was abandoned by the police on June 8, after which they occupied it and declared it a no-cop zone. Seattle has the third-largest homeless population in the country; the city had already, earlier in the pandemic, evicted a homeless encampment despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly urging against it. One of the volunteers estimated that over half the residents of the encampment were otherwise homeless. CHOP was cleared on July 1 after incidents of gun violence in which two people were killed.

These encampments weren’t any kind of utopia. They saw crime, overdoses, and violence. They were perhaps mundane in that way. But evicting encampments does nothing to resolve violence or need; these are all public health crises that the residents are in danger of even after the city removes them. CHOP residents acknowledged to a CNN reporter that the gang members involved in the shootings in Seattle were “victims of the same system” of white supremacy and capitalism as were the protesters. “Violence is not born out of what CHOP did,” said a member of the encampment’s security team. “Violence moved to CHOP.”

In our increasingly commodified cities, where the sanctity of private property reigns (conditions that are only more deeply entrenched by the pandemic), it has become more and more urgent to question the meaning of public space: those it can really belong to, those it is given to, and those who are forced to take it. The last few months have shown us that public space can be reconfigured as private property and can exclude those whom cities deem unworthy. At the same time, though, the movement to reclaim public space has grown, drawing on radical history and building new solidarities. Then as now, these are the spaces and relationships where radical communities have been formed, where revolution has been imagined, where new worlds have been glimpsed.

Squatting’s history is long and political, the cursed child of the marriage between police brutality and the housing crisis. In the 1970s, New York City saw a wave of housing activism led by squatters after the city’s deep debt launched a new “crisis regime” and a rollback of municipal services in minority neighborhoods. In his nonfiction account The Autonomous City: A History of Urban Squatting, Alexander Vasudevan notes the “new forms of systems analysis and management whose origins were firmly rooted in military operations and civil defense planning” that took over certain public services in the city; they ended up cutting the number of fire stations in poor neighborhoods, and entire blocks burnt to the ground. By 1980, almost 8 percent of the entire Bronx had been lost to this “epidemic of conflagration.”

In the midst of this rampant crisis, coupled with the AIDS epidemic and worsening anti-homeless surveillance with the subway sanitization, squatters occupied and rehabilitated buildings that would otherwise have been demolished. In the summer of 1985, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, occupied 25 buildings in East New York, part of their long and sustained protest against the federal Urban Homesteading program. The city took out a restraining order on ACORN but, amid growing local support, eventually allowed the squatters financial assistance and access to 58 buildings that couldn’t be resold for profit.

In June 1988, in response to the growing number of people living in Tompkins Square Park, the city’s Parks Department instituted a 1 a.m. curfew on the park. Furious, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in the park that August chanting, “It’s our fucking park, you don’t live here” and brandishing signs that read “Gentrification is class war, fight back.” What followed was a police riot. New York Police Department officers concealing their badges entered the park, backed up by more police on horseback and sharpshooters on neighboring roofs, and began beating and attacking not only the residents of the park but confused residents of the surrounding streets as well.

But many of the squatters flatly refused to be fully evicted, remaining in the park as “both an encampment for the homeless and as a ‘firewall’ of sorts that would protect and immunize the neighborhood against further gentrification,” Vasudevan writes. Following the Tompkins Square Park riot, many people returned; by 1989 there were about 300 people living in the park. It wasn’t until 1991 that the park was cleared entirely, locked up and guarded by 50 permanently stationed cops for the next two years. A series of “not-so-mysterious” fires destroyed several of the surrounding Lower East Side squats as well.

In 1994 and 1995, the city finally managed to order five squats to be vacated for conversion to low-income housing, falsely claiming that the buildings suffered from “buckling walls, sagging floors, and disintegrating window lintels.” The eventual eviction cost the city millions of dollars and involved SWAT teams, helicopters, and a tank that had been used in the Korean War. “It’s just absolutely surreal,” Vasudevan told me. “It seems completely disproportionate to what’s actually taking place. But there is this profound anxiety about people’s ability to articulate alternative forms of shared living, which the state is reluctant to, in any way, condone.”

This carried forward into the Quality of Life campaign of the mid- to late 1990s, which primarily targeted homeless people. Under the mayoral administration of Rudy Giuliani, homeless task forces doubled down on shepherding unhoused people into shelters and issuing thousands of summonses for loitering, public urination, and noise. “Streets do not exist in civilized society for the purpose of people sleeping there,” Giuliani remarked. “Bedrooms are for sleeping.”

This is just a more tactless articulation of the same belief system our cities operate on today. Homelessness, and the occupation of public space, has always been political. The 1995 eviction, according to Peter Spagnuolo, a poet and former squatter, “was a wake-up call for everyone to take organizing seriously. You couldn’t be an ‘a-political’ squatter: the radical essence of squatting could no longer be denied by anyone, and slacking on the politics could be fatal.”

Jawanza Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, understands this intimately. “These encampments are being destroyed the way they are because people are making visible the underbelly of capitalism, the housing insecurity crisis, police violence. [They’re] reminders that our system is not working and that capitalism fails us every single day.”

The movements for racial justice and housing justice share enormous political meaning and profound overlap. The attempt to depoliticize both is also a part of New York’s history; Bill de Blasio’s language this past July echoes the rhetoric used during the eviction of Tompkins Square Park, distinguishing the appropriate protest from the status and way of life of the unhoused.

The surveillance of the latter makes strong claims about the value of property and who is allowed to exist in public space. To truly be allowed to exist in public space, we are constantly told, we must strictly delineate our bodies and our activities along the very clear line between private and public so as to remain appropriate; then we must retreat when the city requires us to so that the space remains pristine and available for seemly behavior. Please step aside, and let the customers off the train first. To exist in public space, we must purchase the ticket of access to private space.

Williams’s demand included the less frequently quoted second half to the more widely publicized call to defund the NYPD by $1 billion: to invest that $1 billion in housing, education, and social services. NYPD is not the point, he noted; policing is the point. The new budget removed $1 billion from the NYPD but—by moving it into school security technically under the Department of Education—kept it circulating within policing.

“People didn’t become homeless to join an encampment,” he said. “They were already experiencing homelessness so they joined the encampment to seek refuge and community.” For Williams, Occupy City Hall and its protest of police brutality was intimately tied to the drug war. The rationale behind the police who broke into Breonna Taylor’s home is the no-knock warrant, a drug war policy; the police who murdered George Floyd asked him if he was “on anything” and told the prosecutor that there was foam on the edges of his mouth. The drug war has for decades served as a disguise for the suppression of the anti-war left, the radical Black left, and the poor.

VOCAL-NY also organizes the New York City Homeless Union. “The whole idea behind it is people experiencing homelessness are politically activated and understand homelessness is a political crisis,” Williams said. For the last several months, the organization has been working to force the city to rehouse people living in the shelter system into their own single room occupancies or hotel rooms to flatten the curve of Covid-19. “We should be outraged that people are being displaced from a park and experiencing homelessness, and there’s no plans to house them. Or, the only plan is to put them in shelters, when we’ve established that shelters are not viable places when you’re trying to end a pandemic. Even without the pandemic, the shelters are not housing. They are crisis facilities, for moments. Not for living.”

Weeks after the evictions of New York’s City Hall, Minneapolis’s Powderhorn Park, and Seattle’s East Precinct, two protest encampments still persist in Philadelphia. Set up on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway outside the Philadelphia Housing Authority and organized by activists from the Workers Revolutionary Collective, the Black and Brown Workers Co-op, and Occupy PHA, these encampments have been declared police-free and, according to organizer Sterling Johnson, almost every resident is otherwise homeless. Police are the primary brutalizers of those experiencing homelessness, Johnson says; they “wouldn’t be fighting if they had enough resources … this is an intersection between racism, gun violence, and housing.”

“The problem is that folks refuse to recognize that the homeless are organizers,” one of the residents, Tara Taylor, told a reporter at Shadowproof. “These are the demands that were put together by the organizers of this homeless encampment, which is the homeless.” The organizers have already moved over 50 unhoused families into empty publicly owned properties. The protesters have said they have no plans to leave until all the residents are housed.

These encampments were organized before George Floyd’s murder and were set up earlier than planned once the protests erupted in late May and early June; but there doesn’t seem to be a conflict here. “BLM” and “HOUSING NOW” signs hang side-by-side over the tents. “Make no mistake, this is a homeless encampment, this is a protest,” organizer Jennifer Bennetech from Occupy PHA told the local PBS and NPR member station, WHYY. “But this is really a civil war between the poor and Black citizens of Philadelphia, and the city.”

Vasudevan suggests that in lieu of a consistent, clear policy goal, such encampments engage in something more like “collective world-making.” What de Blasio wrote off as simply “an area where homeless folks are gathering” was really a radical process in real time, a space where something new was constantly being created with every moment and gesture, with every successfully organized meal or teach-in or collective clean up, with every piece of art, with every new dawn that smelled like the sage incense that one resident took it upon herself to waft over every sleeping body like a blessing. “The political emerges in the messiness of the encounters of these spaces,” Vasudevan told me. “It may not always lead to politics with a capital ‘P’ but it certainly shifts the ways we think about what it means to live in cities.”