New York City’s Newest Neighborhood: Abolition Park

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Above image: Illustration by Leia-lee Doran.

At the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall Park lies in a cold-stone land where law and order rule. The area is defined by French Renaissance-style courthouses and municipal buildings. The NYPD’s headquarters is across the street and the Manhattan Detention Complex, colloquially referred to as “the Tombs” by many, is a short walk away.  

While the park provides one of the only green spaces in the concrete-scape of Lower Manhattan, it does not have a laid-back, community ambiance the way that many smaller New York parks do. 

Historically, City Hall Park has been frequented by government workers taking lunch or smoke breaks and tourists milling around the historical buildings. But in the past three weeks, the park has undergone a change. The northeast corner, situated between City Hall, the Tweed Courthouse, the Surrogate’s Court and the Manhattan Municipal Building, is now home to a new neighborhood of the most unlikely sort. The location is ideal, all social services are free and property values show no sign of going up.

On June 23, a week before the city’s 2021 budget was to be decided by the City Council, Black Lives Matter activists, largely organized by racial and economic justice advocates with VOCAL-NY, began camping in the park, demanding the city defund the NYPD at least $1 billion. Throughout the first week of the occupation, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people filed in. They attended teach-ins, watched film screenings, took off on marches and participated in discussion groups and assemblies. 

Police constantly lurked (and still do) around the perimeter of the encampment, but police-protester altercations only escalated a handful of times, the peak of which was marked by two early mornings when protesters barricaded off the intersection of Centre and Chambers Streets and police tried to break up the encampment. 

Between June 30 and July 1, three people were arrested, one of whom was pepper-sprayed. Since then the police have largely taken a hands-off approach, though the surrounding public buildings are now covered in Black Lives Matter graffiti and police barricades have been repurposed to wall off the cops from the park. 

Although many occupiers left in the first couple days of July after the City Council failed to make the meaningful cuts activists had demanded, a core group of about a hundred overnighters have stayed with the goal of making the park a more permanent autonomous zone dedicated to the abolition of the police and the capitalist structure that profits from policing and the promotion Black liberation.  

What was born as Occupy City Hall is now known as Abolition Park. 

To the random passer-by, the encampment’s previous iteration, with its jovial atmosphere and tables offering food and literature might have seemed like a temporary carnival or market. 

Now, the encampment is more established. 

Tarps made into tent-like structures provide shelter from the heavy downpours and sweltering humidity that mark New York summers. The park is covered in abolitionist art. Painted on the slabs of the concrete grounds are murals of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others who have lost their lives at the hands of the police. In addition to “ACAB” (all cops are bastards), “FTP” (fuck the police) and “Death 2 America,” neighborhood graffiti declares that “[Franz] Fanon lives,” “Racism is not getting worse: it’s getting filmed,” and “Cancel rent: None are free until all are free.”

While some of the original supply stations have shrunk in size, food, water, PPE, clothing and personal hygiene necessities are still provided. There are tents dedicated to mental and physical health needs. 

“There’s an engineer here that’s getting supplies to make a reliable shower,” says Ryan, who, like all of the Abolition Park denizens interviewed for this article, declined to provide his last name for fear of reprisal from law enforcement. “Cleanliness and hygiene is safety at the end of the day and we’re here to keep people safe. Someone already tried to deliver port-a-potties but the cops told him they would arrest him and confiscate his truck and the pots, so he left.”

Locals are also in conversations with an architect to upzone their neighborhood by rendering the tent structures more fortified and permanent. Regular democratic assemblies are what pass for community board meetings at Abolition Park.

“The community meetings are open to everyone,” Victoria, a central organizer who facilitates the assemblies, tells The Indypendent. “They’re focused on building consensus around the community culture, community agreement and community accountability, and also getting people to take responsibility for the ongoing maintenance of this space. Over the course of the three or four meetings, we ended up with 14 community agreements that we all agree to be holding ourselves accountable to.”

“We are here for Black liberation,” reads Abolition Park’s statement of purpose. “We are building a world free of oppression, abolishing white supremacy, normalizing a system of mutual aid and solidarity, and giving all power to all people by centering, listening to, respecting, and learning from Black women and Black voices.”

The protests and educational activities that were initially organized in a daily play-by-by agenda are beginning to become a natural part of the rhythm of living in the park. Readings, screenings and political discussions about how to lay the ground for a better future continually occur. 

The park represents a cross-section of New Yorkers. Artists and thinkers of all kinds, scholars, lawyers, architects, unemployed restaurant workers and the like convene to ponder and plan, to unlearn and rebuild. “A lot of people see this as an educational space, a place for making connections and a place for building relationships with other organizers, other people in the movement, sharing ideas and resources,” says Victoria. “We are collectively engaging in live-action abolitionist practices.”

The camp is home to a number of homeless people, quite a few of whom have helped with its organization, as they are more familiar with how to live on the streets. There are many shelters in New York City that might provide more protection from the elements than City Hall Park, but the homeless at the camp have chosen to be a part of the encampment’s conscious community. 

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.

In addition to a logistical transition, a theoretical transition is taking place. 

“What do we mean by abolition?” says Cassie, who helps run the neighborhood’s library. “We don’t just mean taking police off the streets and breaking people out of cages, although we do mean that. We mean a world in which everybody has what they need. We mean care, not cops. We are trying to amplify that tendency within the camp.” 

At Abolition Park’s library there are discussions focused on “Black liberation, police and prison abolition, the history of Black radicalism, indigenous struggles and relating these to other struggles of the present,” she says. 

The occupiers have agreed upon an all-encompassing framework that centers Black lives in its goal of abolishing the police and de-colonizing housing, education and healthcare systems. What felt like an immediate need to “burn it down” during the first week of occupation is in the works of being replaced by a more substantive plan to build up and create a prototype for a world free of chains. 

The current period of change has been marked by some difficult moments. There have been instances of physical fights and sexual harassment. Addressing these conflicts is an issue that has been brought up and voted upon at assemblies. Initially, de-escalation teams dealt with disagreements but occupiers decided this tactic mimicked policing. Now a strategy of communal accountability has been adopted, with campers independently stepping in to deescalate situations that might become dangerous. 

“Once you have created a police-free zone and you are committed to maintaining it as a police-free zone, then you have to come up with lasting alternatives to all of the conflicts that the police were originally expected to address,” says Victoria.

Heated theoretical and organizational debates often occur at Abolition Park as well, which organizers see as necessary for forwarding community growth. Creating, in real-time, a blueprint for what a cop-free world will look like is a substantial feat, considering that many residents of Abolition Park are still reeling from recent traumatic violence visited upon them by the police during the protests that have roiled New York since May. 

“I do hope that once we demonstrate that safety, health, community and compassion don’t have to exclude all of the people of our society that we’ve been so comfortable excluding from those things, that once we can include and incorporate and value everybody and still provide a place where the most vulnerable feel safe, then I hope it spreads,” said Victoria. “I hope it becomes a model for other people and other places. I hope it becomes a model for New York City. I’m not an anarchist. I believe in structure. I believe in the capacity of humans to collectively organize. What we just need are better models.”

Infrastructure to establish future occupations and autonomous zones have been born out of Abolition Park, while similar efforts have simultaneously blossomed in different parts of the city. 

Since the outbreak of the pandemic, A New World in Our Hearts, an anarchist network, has supplied fifteen free refrigerators around the city. On First Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets, Radio Bonita has established the “Free Crib at the People’s Space,” where they offer workshops led by community members, water and food, to-go protest and living supply kits and a place of rest. At 1214 Dean Street, where Crown Heights Tenants Union and Equality for Flatbush led an eviction defense until last Saturday, a supply and resource table was quickly erected for protesters who stayed overnight to protect tenants from landlord harassment. 

Pat Rough contributed to this article.

  • Patricia P. Tursi

    i read France Fanon in the sixties. I marched with MLK in the sixties and went on to fight for other justice causes such as ending the Vietnam War, Women’s liberation and then the fight for health freedom and against Monsanto, etc. I am now forced to move my politics to the right as the BLM movement is making the justice movements a racial issue. This is wrong and will not build a better and more just country but will destroy the unity which we had as citizens …..not as one race over another. Abolition? Abolition of what? Of police? Of rules against urination in public? Against the defacement of public properties? I don’t want BLM painted on streets and buildings. Race is not the issue we should be focusing on. How millions of people are not unemployed and dependent upon the gov for survival because of a faked planned-demic? We are targeted for elimination and even worse for transhumanism or for death. Wake up people. Our food supply is in danger. Our lives are in danger. Many of us will not survive in the near future and The Controllers are manipulating us big time. How many people have been banned from the internet because they are not PC? Discus has identified me as spam…thanks to FB. I don’t follow the PC propaganda. But will this post also be banned because it isn’t PC? Liberty and justice depends upon our rights the First Amendment. Freedom of speech is essential and fourth estate is essential. Free Assange.

  • Bill Rood

    It’s built on “Neo-Marxist” theories — critical theory and critical race theory — that have little to do with Marx, who called for the unity of workers, the proletariat. The ideology has led to the redefinition of the word “racism” to exclude hateful actions of powerless people toward those they assume to have power, and it’s assumed that POC are powerless and therefore incapable of racism. Left unaddressed are situations where blacks and other POC do in fact have power, such as when a group of the “oppressed” encounter an individual with physical characteristics they associate with the power structure, or when a POC has attained a position within an hierarchy, a power differential, where they can “lord it over” individuals with characteristics they associate with the overall societal power structure.

    IMHO, such political philosophies are self destructive because they alienate people who have in the past been committed to non-discrimination like you and me, as well as deeply offending powerless people of the proletariat who previously did not themselves practice discrimination but were oblivious to discriminatory actions of the power structure, and who are now beginning to feel oppressed and even violated by these Neo-Marxists. To be sure, there are issues of minorities needing the agency to find their own way to combat racism. Whites should not white-splain to minorities what is best for them in situations where it doesn’t affect the whites themselves. But I fail to see how whites encouraging rioting empowers POC, especially when the rioting does not destroy the property of the white elites who are encouraging the riots. Just yesterday saw videos of black residents of Englewood in Chicago counter-demonstrating against BLM and telling them to go home. So there is hope.

  • The two comments below — Ms. Tursi’s and Mr. Rood’s — illustrate perfectly the mechanisms by which the cradle-to-grave Ayn Randification to which we USians are all subjected weaponizes self-obsessed me-first egotism into an anti-solidarity toxin that makes revolution or even reform permanently impossible.

    Which means our “education” system and the Mainstream Media Propaganda Machine — the world’s first privately-owned, for-profit equivalent of Josef Goebbels Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda — are each functioning at Maximum Evil, exactly as our Masters intend.

    Don’t bother arguing with me about this, because I have witnessed the same obscene dynamic — the carefully conditioned, invariably petulant (as below), not infrequently violent self-obsession of the (mostly) white bourgeois — as it sandbagged every humanitarian movement that has managed to arise in this hopelessly enslaved nation since 1940, the year of my birth.

    The New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the Counterculture (i.e., the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, the Feminist Movement, the Environmental Movement and the Back to the Land Movement), were all destroyed by the run-amok selfishness of a Moronic Majority composed of “rugged (Ayn Rand) individualists” so venomously self-centered there is absolutely NO possibility — now or ever — of achieving the collective, inter-racial “popular-front” solidarity essential to force humanitarian governance on what from its beginning is and always will be the predatory slave-state its founders intended.

  • No one is “forced” to move their politics right. That is purely a self interested choice and you are sure eagerly taking your place promoting right wing propaganda here.

    Beyond dripping elitism, your post here rings hollow, Patricia.

  • Yikes. The right wing talking points just flow from you like water, Bill. Gross.

    Excuse me; I need to take a shower.

  • Well said.

  • Thank you!

  • Patricia P. Tursi

    There’s nothing like the self righteousness of someone who bleeds for others and lives for self. What our nation needs is unity, not division. The Art of War understood that and I have watched the deliberate use of racism to further this divide. As a psychologist, I have watched the fomenting of the destruction of the fabric of our society. I was born during the great depression. I recall the people coming to our back door and eating in our kitchen. My folks barely had enough to feed ourselves but always shared. With this faux-planned-demic and with 40 million people without a job, and with the deliberate destruction of our farms and the interruption of our food supply, we will soon learn to put our efforts where they are needed instead of into old, tired rhetoric. Our country is about to learn what’s it’s like with all our small businesses destroyed and small businesses are our primary employers…not corporations which need to be eliminated. But while they are looking at years of hard work mindlessly destroyed, the people who are breaking windows and stealing because “they deserve to do this” will soon be on the begging end. The message that all whites have it “privileged” and don’t struggle is a clever way to divide us and you, my friend have fallen for it, or you are born into the privileged. At 84, I ride a bike, don’t own a car and live as close to having no footprint as I can. i grieve for my children and grandchildren and the people who will be eliminated because they are fighting windmills while their destruction slowly creeps upon them. I move to the right only because the left is participating in our destruction and it has nothing little to do with politics and everything to do with greed and the hunger for power. We need to be focused on our survival, avoid vaccinations which have harmed so many and fight against the plan to redo nature and rewrite our DNA and make us part machines. The survival of Humans and many species depends upon it. The plan to eliminate most of earth’s humans is real. See the Georgia Guide Stones.

  • Patricia P. Tursi

    when there is nothing but corruption and the participation in our destruction, there is only one way to move…away from the Democratic party. What in my posting was right wing propaganda….other than your blanket labeling?

  • Patricia P. Tursi

    Bill Rood: Thank you for your observations. They are keenly observant. Neo-Marxist and neo-Liberals disgust me more than the right probably because I have wasted a life on the principles. I was brought up to be non-discriminatory and lived in the deep South where I experienced more sharing than in the North. I have had the Klan call my house and my children answer and hear they are to be killed. It is sad to hear nothing but accusations and phrases like “right-wing talking points.” Rhetoric always uses phrases wielded like a sword to strike down the enemy, rather than join in agreement where agreement can be reached. This plays right into the hands of those who are going for a “One World Order”. Jim Marrs’ book The New Fourth Reich” was a great history about how we got to where we are. We are in a fascist-corporate system and it is using the left as it did in Germany. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

  • When there is nothing but corruption and participation on our destruction the LAST place to move is “right” – in support of ruling class interests.