MANHATTAN — More than 100 protesters camped out overnight next to City Hall on Tuesday, demanding a billion-dollar cut to the New York Police Department budget.
The protest, dubbed Occupy City Hall, comes ahead of the June 30 deadline to finalize New York City’s budget for the next fiscal year. It was organized by Vocal New York, a 20-year-old grassroots organization focusing on issues including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, and drug policy.
“We wanted to make sure that the whole world knew that if you’re calling to defund the NYPD, that you need to be here to make sure those folks in the building behind us know what’s happening,” Jawanza James Williams, the 30-year-old director of organizing for Vocal, told BuzzFeed News.
This protest comes amid nationwide calls to “defund the police,” a movement that sprung up following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and other Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Activists are organizing not to reform police departments, which they see as an institution beyond repair, but instead to reduce their budgets and reallocate those funds to social services they believe could better aid communities.
Drawing inspiration from the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, participants in Manhattan are now vowing to eat, sleep, and protest on a patch of grass outside City Hall until they convince officials to reduce the police budget and reallocate those funds towards housing, education, and other social services.
“At the end of the day, we’re here to talk about budgets, at least this action,” Williams said. “Because if you look at any budget, where they spend their money, you’ll know exactly what they care about, who they care about, and what they prioritize. So if the city of New York is going to give the NYPD $6 billion a year, why can’t they do the same to end poverty?”
After the group announced their plans to occupy the space on Tuesday night, New Yorkers came out in droves to provide support and supplies, said organizer Hani B., who declined to use her last name.
“Once we realized we were occupying, literally within an hour, people were sending pizza, like 12 boxes, and we all had Korean food last night,” Hani said.
“It was just amazing — the amount of support was just like that,” she said, with a snap of her fingers.
On Wednesday morning, the protesters at the makeshift campsite continued their calls to defund the police.
Spaced apart from each other on towels and sleeping bags as best as they could to maintain social distancing, many said they’d only slept an hour or two the night before. Awake for much of the night, they sang songs, read poetry, and shared stories about what brought them there.
Though they were sleep-deprived, protesters said Wednesday they felt energized by the movement’s momentum and the hope that real change could come in less than a week.
“I just want to stay out here for these people,” said Dreanna, a 17-year-old who just graduated high school and who also declined to give her last name. “Even though it’s exhausting, it’s resting for the soul.”
Lined up along the fence, there were towers of toilet paper, face masks, sunscreen, blankets, hand sanitizer, tampons, umbrellas, Gatorade, disposable gloves, and more.
Protesters munched on a breakfast of bagels, donuts, apples, and bananas. They used the bathrooms of a nearby McDonald’s and a theater, and some took breaks to shower in the homes of demonstrators who live in the area.
Though Occupy City Hall has a different target than Occupy Wall Street, Williams said they fundamentally share the same fight against “the runaway inequality we’re experiencing in this country.”
“Policing is just the institution we’re pointing to today, instead of the stock market or Wall Street,” Williams said. “But we understand that capitalism and racism are interconnected. To understand capitalism, you have to understand racism.”