Occupy East New York: From Wall St. to the Hood

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NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 06:  Community activists and over two hundred members of the Occupy Wall Street movement march in the impoverished community of East New York to draw attention to foreclosed homes in the community on December 6, 2011 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The group said they would occupy a home and would hand the property over to a homeless family. In what organizers are describing as a "new frontier" for the movement, thousands of other Occupy Wall street protesters around the country participated in similar actions. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Photo: Spencer Platt/2011 Getty Images

It’s likely that there were more white people deliberately heading towards the Pennsylvania Avenue 3 train stop on Monday afternoon than there had been in several decades. One stop short of their destination, the conductor announced that the train was going express to New Lots Avenue, and the passengers – Occupy Wall Street demonstrators who came to East New York to protest in front of foreclosed homes – started to chatter about a conspiracy. “Why are they doing this to us?” one man asked the crowd. “Fuck the MTA!” an anarchist shouted, getting instant props from his comrades.

“Mic check!” belted another guy. “The meeting point is only five minutes away. Let’s walk!”  The protesters began to shuffle down the stairs of the elevated platform. “Mic check!” yelled another protester, pointing down the platform. “There’s another train coming right now. Let’s get on!”

There was a light rain falling on East New York, birthplace of the Gershwin brothers, Tony Danza, and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. It has since become one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, flipping from Italian and Jewish to largely Hispanic and African-American. On Monday, hemp-wearing hippies and middle-age liberals in L.L. Bean raincoats walked past bulletproof Chinese takeout windows and bodegas selling loosie cigarettes. They congregated in front of a boarded-up townhouse with peeling yellow paint and a sign that read: “First Time Home Buyers. $1,000 Down.” They wrapped the house in yellow “Occupy” tape, chanted for a while, and moved onto the next foreclosed home.

There were approximately 500 people on the street, including a Japanese camera crew. As the throng moved down the block, residents watched from windows and snapped cell phone pictures from their stoops.

Occupy Our Homes was one of the biggest coordinated actions the Occupy Wall Street movement has taken since the raid on Zuccotti, with the event in East New York only one of more than twenty cities staging coordinated demonstrations. It's notable that the Occupiers are moving from a broad, demand-free ideology to a concrete, targeted campaign. Even more striking: There are a few hundred white people in East New York and many of them are having conversations with the black and Hispanic people who live here. 

A 25-year-old East New York resident named Erica Chapman emerged from a house next to a foreclosure site. “A lot of the black and Spanish people from here thought Occupy Wall Street was a white thing. Me and my friends went out to Manhattan to visit [Zuccotti] park, but no one’s ever come here,” said Erica. “Seeing all these people coming to the quote unquote hood it makes a difference, makes me feel so much more connected. I’m ecstatic.”

“I’m glad they’re here,” agreed Randy Davidson, 32. “People on Wall Street are getting bonuses and city bosses are getting promoted, but nothing’s changing in East New York. They say, ‘If you apply yourselves, you’ll succeed.’ We are applying ourselves and people are still out here struggling. I hope they come back here, because the system needs to change.”

The day was not without its dissonant moments. As Occupiers moved on to another foreclosed home, they chanted “Whose streets? Our streets," drawing befuddled looks from residents.

As the Occupiers arrived at a new foreclosed house, across the street a group of six or seven young men were hanging out on a stoop behind a white steel fence, filming the scene with their iPhones. “Wall Street: Smoke weed!” one of them yelled, over and over.

 “Mic check!” a man standing in front of the abandoned brownstone called out. “We’re here in East New York … ”

 One of the guys behind the fence hollered back, “East New YORK!”

 A documentary filmmaker tried to start an earnest conversation with one of the men, who replied: “We just like to smoke weed and enjoy ourselves. That’s all I got to say.”

 A volunteer walked by, passing out banana bread to Occupiers. “Yo,” one of the young stoners shouted, “pass that over here!”

 The longer the march lasted, though, the more residents joined in. 

At one point, the march stopped at a home across the street from Thomas Jefferson High School. The school, whose notable alumni include Danny Kaye and Howard Zinn, was closed in 2007 because of low graduation rates before re-opening as four smaller schools. Several students poked their heads out of the windows and waved. The crowd waved back. The chant from the Occupy crowd began: “We are the 99 percent!” More windows started opening. The kids chanted back, pumping their fists out the windows in unison. From four stories down, it was difficult to tell what they were shouting, but everyone seemed to be having an extremely good time.