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Protesting Budget Austerity in New York's Contested Public Spaces

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Throughout the weeks spent planning for the anti-austerity protest planned for May 12, I wondered how the ambitious plans, including teach-ins, unpermitted marches and mass civil disobedience, would play out in the streets of New York City. Immigrant groups planned to march, joined by housing and public health nonprofits, labor unions of teachers and service employees, students and peace activists. Education would move South from City Hall, while Human Services would march west from South Shore Seaport, with Youth, Transportation, Immigration and Housing marching east to converge with the Peace and Jobs blocks at Wall Street. Each agreed to collaborate "in a spirit of cooperation, respect, solidarity" and non-violence. I was pulled into the organizing by a group of AIDS activists from Health Gap and ACT UP who called to ask if Times UP!, the group I work with, could coordinate a roving bike-block/communications team to report on the conditions of the labyrinthine streets of Lower Manhattan, as we had done during the convergence actions of global justice movement's peak years and continue to do the last Friday of every month during Critical Mass. While teachers marching downtown from City Hall had a permit, the same was not true of the other groups who intended to converge on Wall Street to push the bankers to pay their fair share. Using walkie-talkies and a text message loop, we hoped to help everyone know which streets were blocked off and which tributaries remained open.

Our message was simple: we were there to challenge the assertion that the city was broke. Restore the city budget cuts to schools, CUNY, seniors, child care, human services, homeless housing and HIV/AIDS programs. In the same way the city had used the fiscal crisis of the 1970s to gut New York's social democratic public sector, we recognized the political uses of crises to justify balancing budgets on the backs of the poor. This was a shock doctrine attack on the unions of public sector workers. As Barbara Bowen of my union, the Professional Staff Congress argues, there is another narrative to "we're broke." But to move that alternative story forward, activists would have to push back. From Madison to Albany, we'd being doing so with marches, rallies, lobby days, and gestures of direct action, for months now.

As we rode to meet activists from VOCALand the other human services providers at South Shore Seaport, a number of questions ran throughout my head. Whose city would take shape in the streets -- the one which recognized the calls of AIDS activists carrying banners declaring: "Homelessness = Death, AIDS Housing Saves Lives" or the one controlled by the NYPD and their parade pens? Whose stories would find an audience in the media or the streets? Would events resemble August 2004 during the Republican National Convention when the NYPD started its assault on Critical Mass and pulled out nets to preemptively arrest activists who planned to participate in civil disobedience, during the largest single day of convention arrests in US history? Eighteen hundred people were arrested that short week. Or would it resemble February 15th, 2003, when the federal government issued terror alerts the same week as an internally organized anti-war rally, and the NYPD cordoned off protesters as Midtown descended into chaos? Or would it resemble protests in the late nineties, when activists converged on Wall Street only to face mass arrests? Or would it look and feel like the city on April 25th, 1995, when two thousand activists successfully blocked bridges and tunnels coming into Manhattan during a Seattle-style blockade over budget cuts? What was in store was yet another skirmish in a decades-long struggle over New York City's contested public spaces. On the one side, a do-it-yourself movement aimed at liberating public space and by extension a public sector for the people; on the other a police force as large as a small army ready to protect and preserve business as usual in the financial sector.

Chants of "Make Wall Street Pay!" echoed through the financial district as the simultaneous rallies began. "Their chants and pleas were echoing into every nook and cranny a bond trader could hide," a member of Times Up! bike block later reflected. "An amazing gathering of unions, nonprofits, and advocacy groups. With one goal in mind: Make Wall Street pay their fair share, so that the weakest and neediest aren't taking the brunt of the economic collapse Wall Street caused in the first place." "Education is a Right, Fight, Fight, Fight!" screamed hoards of students, watching tuitions rise along with class size, their futures jeopardized by the austerity program. "Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out!" group after group roared throughout the cavernous pre-automotive corridors of Lower Manhattan, in a crescendo as the police scrambled to pen off intersecting streets as the branches of protesters joined each other. And for a while there, Wall Street was the people's street. As they poured down and out of the tight corridor, activists were greeted by stilt walkers and the Rude Mechanical Orchestra blaring "We're Not Going to Take It" amidst a sea of people. Eventually, people careened west to Battery Park where 10,000 turned the southernmost tip of Manhattan into our Tahrir Square, our public commons for a post-rally celebration.

Much of the debate about the streets extends into a debate over the meaning of the public sector, unions, and the public sphere. These and many other similar themes are addressed the forthcoming book The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York's Public Spaces, co-written by myself and Greg Smithsimon. Throughout the text, we highlight the social context of the current austerity programs. Our work begins with a discussion of 1975, when the city used a similar crisis to assault the public sector. "This amounted to a coup by the financial institutions against the democratically elected government of New York City, and it was every bit as effective as the military coup that had earlier occurred in Chile," argues David Harvey in his Brief History of Neoliberalism. Within this new battle, wealth moved from the middle classes back into the hands of elites. And the world learned a simple, brutal lesson from New York's experience: that what happened here could happen to them. Over the next four decades, in many cases it did. "The management of the New York fiscal crisis pioneered the way for neoliberal practices both domestically under Reagan and internationally through the IMF in the 1980s," Harvey explains. "It established the principle that in the event of a conflict between the integrity of financial institutions and bondholders' returns, on the one hand, and the well-being of citizens on the other, the former was to be privileged." This moment resonates with the current moment in any number of ways. Already the city is talking about closing fire houses. Greg Smithsimon has argued that the fires of 1977, when "the Bronx [was] burning," were very much the consequence of these reductions in public sector services. Hopefully, we do not repeat this error.

Yet, a larger pattern is taking shape. "Make no mistake: the current attack on the public sector, teachers, students, and services, is paramount to a war on the poor," notes Mike Fabricant, of the PSC. With the public sphere threatened on all sides, the streets of New York represent a space for countless narratives of contestation and resistance. "The struggle over who controls informal public space is one of the most important front lines in waging a counter offensive to the present blitzkrieg on public services and unions," notes Fabricant. It is a struggle taking place every day in countless ways throughout the corridors of New York's contested public spaces.