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Benjamin Shepard

Benjamin Shepard

Posted: August 9, 2010 11:43 AM

When Paul Revere sounded his bell to announce to Lexington Mass, all he had was his voice and his bell to sound the alarm: "The Patriots are coming!" In the case of the July 29, 2010, Paul Revere bike ride organized by Times Up!, a two-decade-old direct action environmental group, the group was aided by modern media -- the internet, email, text messages, and a newspaper announcing the action. The point of the action was to sound the alarm about the city of New York's new rules to eliminate protective status and endanger hundreds of community gardens. The new rules would replace the 2002 Preservation Agreement, expiring September 17, 2010, that have allowed gardens throughout the city to grow over the last decade. "This comprehensive agreement benefits all New York City residents," said Mayor Bloomberg stated in a press-release dated September 18, 2002. "It allows much-needed affordable housing development to move forward... In addition, we are providing permanent protection to hundreds of community gardens throughout New York City, and establishing a fair process for reviewing future proposals to develop other garden properties." Yet, somehow this concept of "permanent protection" was lost over the ensuing eight years. The following is a short dispatch of a burst of activism to sound the alarm about the plight of the gardens.

The day of the action, members of Times Up! as well as garden and public space activists city wide planned to draw attention to the risk of the gardens being bulldozed by dressing up as Paul Revere and sounding the alarm, "the developers are coming." Cyclists planned to ride "horse cycles" -- bicycles with cardboard horse heads attached to the front -- to several Lower East Side Gardens, before heading up to Mayor Bloomberg's house where we planned to bring flowers, cucumbers and greens from endangered community gardens.

"We'll bring vegetables from gardens to Bloomberg's house to remind him that community gardens are precious resources for us all to treasure," I explained in a Times Up! press release. "My kids love the gardens as a much needed space to play and explore outside of the asphalt of the concrete jungle of New York City."

"This is an opportunity for Bloomberg to demonstrate he appreciates green space as a resource for global cooling and community development," explained Times Up! Director Bill DiPaulo. "Why would the mayor sell this space off to developers when there is such an opportunity to create a different kind of green, more forward leaning New York?"

The outreach was so successful that not only was the media calling before the event, but so was the NYPD. The day of the ride, the NYPD phoned me to get my take on the action, to find out what we planned to do, and find out our route. "I'm a lover not a fighter," I explained over and over again. It was going to be a peaceful ride, but I had no idea what our route was going to be. And I was most certainly not a coordinator for the group. The police must have called back a dozen times that afternoon asking the same questions, making the same point over and over: they were watching.

By the time, I arrived on my "horse bike" at Tompkins Square Park, three police came over to me to review and enforce their point that they needed a clear route and that I was to serve as a liaison for the group. "I am not a leader," I explained again. "We do not have a route. The ride evolves." As I was speaking to the police, I could see frustration on their faces. I slipped away. They seemed to have a hard time understanding that we really mean that there are no leaders. Rather, everyone who works on a campaign -- from those who bring paint to create banners, to those who help design flyers, to those who do media or just show up to ride - is considered a leader. In this way, the group thrives as an experiment in direct democracy. It is the Ella Baker model. Those in the group, the social body make the decisions, especially about group rides. "No gods, no masters." This anti-authoritarian disposition helps direct action groups such as Times Up! thrive. The police seemed to recoil at the idea of horizontal position which spreads leadership wide and ride, in complete contrast to the formal organizational culture of the NYPD.

The part of the explanation of the ride which seemed to frustrate them most was that we were going to do outreach to community gardens along the way to Mayor's house. "Now, you didn't say that to me on the phone," one explained to me. "Yes, I did. Its democracy-building." That part seemed to go over their heads. They may not have heard it, but community building was part of our goal. That is what gardens are about -- the mix of people and ideas, plants and flowers, problems and conversations, cultures and contexts -- all of which thrive in green spaces such as gardens. The Paul Revere ride was principally about a fight for gardens as democracy building spaces. Such a concept, of course, often feels in short supply in a town chalk full of power brokers and financial institutions, yet it is still a part of the pulse of the city. When the Mayor strove to overturn the permits law in 2008, a group of us brought a banner reading: 'BLOOMBERG TO DEMOCRACY: DROP DEAD!!!' to one of the hearings. Bloomberg's credibility as a supporter of different points of view, especially of things such as term limits, gardens, or group bike rides is less than noteworthy.

All of these forces came to a head during the bike ride as the police vehicles trailed the moving amoeba of bikes. Through the streets of the East Village, notions of democracy took shape as a context between points of view, expression vs. repression, the fluid motion of bikes vs. the push for control of public space by the NYPD. As we zigged and zagged from Generation X to Paradiso to La Plaza Cultural Community Gardens, the police came to see there was less of a route than a path between various gardens identified on the spot. Outside, La Plaza the police insisted that we could not play our sound bike, strapped to the back of a bike, which had been amplifying dance tunes from the Clash, David Bowie, and the like. They wanted a solid route up to the Mayor's house. A group of woman walked up to the officers to negotiate, insisting, "No sound, no route." And the police made a concession. And eventually, the route moved toward Children's Magical Garden for a little see-sawing and play in the endangered garden. And the group eventually turned to bike north toward Bloomberg's.

As we rode up toward Bloomberg's, the police remained concerned about the sound. "Can you get your friends to turn off the sound when you ride up to the next precinct?" one asked me. "What about cars with loud stereos?" I noted. "I'm just following orders," the policeman retorted. "But if you want to see your wife and kids tonight, you should do as we say." Heading the heavy-handed order, we turned down the stereo as we crossed through the East 60s moving toward 79th Street, and turned it back on once we'd safely entered the next precinct.

Arriving at Bloomberg's townhouse on East 79th Street, a wall of the top brass of the police in white shirts, walked toward the group of riders. It felt like a scene from the movie, Shoot-out at O.K. Corral. Rather than wait or be told to stop what we were going, we rode past them. Walking straight up to the mayor's door, a group of us delivered the flowers and a sign asking the mayor and the city to please live up to his call to make this a green city. "Bloomberg, please make the community gardens permanent for our children's children." All that sound and fury about a simple of bike ride. And that was it, the whole ride was a simple exercise in the ability of people to peaceably assemble to petition their government for a redress of grievances, direct action style.

That Saturday, the group would take its playful revolution along a tour of the publically financed bonus plazas and fountains of New York City, where riders enjoyed a splash through the fountains. Afterward, members of the group rode to Generation X Garden on East 4th Street in the East Village for a BBQ and speak-out about the gardens. It was all in preparation for Monday's Harvest Day action.

Enter Jessica Sunflower

The following Monday, the group continued its push to highlight the plight of the gardens. The plan was to echo one of the iconic gestures from the garden movement. In 1999, Matt Power donned a sunflower hat and occupied a tree which he said he would not leave until Giuliani firmly committed to preserving the endangered community gardens. In 2010, the Sunflower returned with a similar message. At 10 AM on August 2, 2010 Jessica Sunflower climbed a similar tree in a similar park to call for the city to preserve the community gardens. Sunflower was surrounded by gardeners and garden supporters with vegetables from the community gardens as well as signs declaring: "Support the Gardens" and "Make the Gardens Permanent." Sunflower's gesture of direct action to affirm the need for community gardens harkened back to decades of non-violent civil disobedience, from Ghandi's Salt Sarataya to the Civil Rights era 'sit-ins' to ACT UP's campaigns against drug companies. The action garnered media attention city wide.

Garden activists are willing to use a range of creative tactics to make sure the city of New York preserves the community gardens. "If activists are willing to get arrested before the new Parks rules are in place, just imagine how creative and disruptive garden activists will be when the new rules give lease to the city to transfer, bulldoze, and develop precious gardens one by one," I explained in one of the interviews after the action.

Sunflower would spent the next 26 hours in jail. During arraignment, the lawyers read from Sunflower's argument that she would not leave the garden until Bloomberg read came down to commit to saving the gardens. And she was eventually released on charges of disorderly conduct. As we left the "Tombs", the nickname for Central Booking at 100 Center Streets in downtown, Manhattan, Sunflower Jess said she felt fantastic. She shared a statement about her 26-hour ordeal in custody and why she climbed the tree 8/2 during the Time's Up! Harvest Day Action for the Community Gardens.

"I was extremely anxious when the arresting officer & arresting documentation stated my charges included D Felony, Reckless Endangerment and Misdemeanor, Obstruction of Government Administration and. It wasn't until twenty-six hours later that my lawyer told me I was misled and the charge was Disorderly Conduct, a violation.

Speaking to her fans waiting for outside the courthouse when she was released, she noted:

"The community gardens are an essential component of the city. It brings together the fabric of the community. Neighbors of different classes, ethnic background and ages that might not normally interact come together in a green, non-commercial space. The gardens provides forum for the neighborhood life where people in the neighborhood can freely interact, do some work, plant some cucumbers, or just hang out and talk. In a nutshell, gardens are about democracy. Gardens also provide green space, which is critical component in cooling down an increasingly hot city. I demand that the mayor live up to his self-proclaimed title of "Green Mayor" and does not sell off and privatize these precious spaces.

"Heartening was being handed the NY Times editorial against the new rules when I walked out of the courthouse. The NY Times editorial seemed to echo our argument about the new parks rules, "The changes are troubling. The new rules talk mostly about transferring gardens -- making them available for sale or development -- and they remove the section of the 2002 agreement that creates a process for offering gardens to the city... We urge the city to reconsider these rules and we urge the community gardeners to make their voices heard," (quoted from 8/3/2010 NY Times Editorial, Keeping the Gardens Green."


The Times editorial literally echoed the argument of activists. The city was starting to lose control of the story. People around the city want the gardens to be permanent and they want the city to write protections for gardens into the new parks rules.

"I am very proud to take part in making our collective voice heard," Jess concluded. We are all proud of Jess, as well as the many gardeners, bikers, and public space activists who've used direct action to push the city to reconsider its position on the new parks rules.

The New York Garden Coalition held a press conference two days later. By that time, the city was saying it might be interested in shifting its position. We hope they do. It is no use negotiating with a brick wall. Next stop public hearings for the new park rules August 10th at 11:00am, at the Chelsea Recreation Center located at 430 West 25th Street, New York, New York 10010.

Keep the gardens permanent, that is our message. And we are going to use every tool in the toolbox, to keep them that way.

See Video & Photos of 7/29 Time's Up! Paul Revere Ride to Save the Community Gardens:


NY Times article and press release with more details on the ride & what's at stake for these precious community gardens:

See video and media for Jessica Sunflower Action

Jess speaking to fans after leaving jail.

The last three photos of this set is of her in front of the courthouse after her release.

NY Times Editorial on the Community Gardens

Short history of the community garden movement in New York City.

Times Up Fountain Ride Video

Benjamin Shepard, PhD, is a volunteer with Times UP! He is the author of six books, including Queer Politics and Political Performance: Play, Pleasure and Social Movements. His writing can be found at http://www.benjaminheimshepard.com/.