New Haven, Conn (March 2012)
On a Friday mid-winter afternoon Occupy New Haven looked drear. The tents covered in blue plastic tarps spray painted with messages of anarchy, hope and encouragement. It had been raining for a couple of hours and the ground was muddy. Contents of many of the tents had spewed out of their open mouths and were lying in the mud like a trash pail overfull after a holiday celebration.
“Ajax, look it’s an occupation.”
“No, Dad, come on we don’t want to go there.”
“Ajax of course we do. This is Occupy New Haven. We’ve got to go see it.”
“Dad, I really don’t want to.”
“Ajax, what else do you have to do that is better than this?” We were walking around Hartford killing time between matches in his tournament. “Remember how much you enjoyed seeing Occupy Sheffield?”
“But it’s raining and it’s cold.”
“Come on Ajax, don’t be a wimp.”
“Fine but, Dad, in Sheffield you said we would just be there for a minute and you talked to that guy for an hour. If you talk to somebody here for an hour I am going to shoot you.”
“Come on Ajax, let’s go.”
* * *
We hadn’t gotten half way across the park square in front of the occupation before a large man in a beret with a plaid shirt spilling over his jeans called over to us. I waved and we started to walk towards him. He was standing in front of a can that looked to have been used to burn fires for warmth. He had a big smile and a couple of day’s growth on his face. He beamed as he came towards us his hand extended. I put my hand out but he was offering to shake Ajax’s hand, not mine. He was a 100% focused on Ajax.
“Young man”, he said, “I’m Mike, I wanted to come over and talk to you as I saw you coming across the square. I could see you all the way from over there with your father and I just want you to know that I could see from over there that you are a very lucky boy.”
Ajax gave him a quizzical look. He was prepared to believe he was lucky but he wasn’t sure what this fellow was going to think was the source of that good fortune.
“There’s going to be a day, probably won’t happen yet, probably isn’t going to happen for a couple of years…” He interrupted himself. “How old are you? 15?”
Ajax smiled uneasily. “I am 12.”
“Wow you look so old. You are growing up strong. You look as mature as a 15 year old.” He beamed and shook his head at the very wonder of it, and then he went back to his thought. “But, what I was going to say is that there is going to come a time when your father is going to tell you that you can’t do something that you really want to do and you are going to be really mad at him. But I just want you to know that he is your father. . .” Mike’s voice broke and he had to pause to finish the sentence, “. . .but it’s just because he loves you and he wants to keep you safe.”
Ajax smiled still somewhat uneasily but nodded his head that he agreed that that scenario might happen some day.
“So you just need to cut him some slack when that happens. Okay?”
Ajax gave a big smile showing his expensive orthodontia and agreed he would. Mike then shook Ajax’s hand for a second time and shook mine and congratulated us on spending time together as a father and son and wished us well.
* * *
Ajax and I walked to the encampment. I didn’t have my camera but I thought I would like to take some pictures. My iPhone was available and I got the photo of Occupy New Haven on a piece of wood.
“Ajax,” I said, “You’ve got to give respect to anybody that’s willing to camp out all winter in the northeast. It’s a lot different than occupying San Francisco or Oakland. It must have been cold and miserable this winter.”
Ajax nodded and was starting to respond when we were interrupted. Mike had come up behind us. For a large man in a red flannel shirt, he moved quietly. He stuck out his hand again and did another round of handshakes.
“I hope you don’t think I am pushy but seeing that you’re interested in the occupation I thought I could talk to you some more. You see I am the number one person who’s been at this occupation longest. I have been here since October. I have been here every night, except one.”
“I was just telling Ajax that you have to respect anyone who’s willing to move out here all winter.”
He said, “I wasn’t even interested in this. I used to come out here and feed the animals. You see I really like feeding the pigeons and I really like the squirrels. There is a squirrel out here that I feed every day who I call the Terrorist. In fact I feed a lot of the squirrels and I know all of their names.”
Ajax was unsure where this was going.
“You know why we call him the Terrorist?”
Ajax shook his head.
“Well one day I came out here with a bunch of peanut butter crackers and I opened the pack and I took one out and I broke it in half and I held out the half to him and he took a little nibble on it and then he looked over and he saw the pack with five crackers in it and he looked back and he saw the half of cracker that I was holding out to him and he really quickly darted over grabbed the pack with five crackers in it and ran off. So that’s why I always call him the Terrorist. He’s got markings to make it easy to tell who he is and I see him every day. And I feed all of them. And so I was out here feeding the animals and, by the way,” he said, pointing to the encampment, “there’s a lot of knuckleheads here. I shouldn’t call them knuckleheads but I’ve been around long enough to know when somebody’s a knucklehead. But, most of them are really sincere and the ideas that they are talking about, the things that the occupation is about, they’re real man. They’re totally real.”
Ajax was happy that we had left the squirrels behind.
“So let me tell you there is a federal judge that is in Bridgeport. I have been in court 4 days because they are trying to shut us down. But she knows that we are out here to express our ideas. She’s from Bridgeport but I can tell you,” and he leaned towards me and lowered his voice, “she’s a bitch. But she’s a great lady,” he said. “I worked as a federal marshal in that building, so I knew her and she’s a good judge. My dad worked in the federal building too.” His voice choked up again and he looked at Ajax, “but he died four years ago.”
Ajax muttered his sympathies.
“That’s why I came over to you when I saw you with your dad because it is a great thing to have a dad that you can be proud of.”
Ajax squirmed. He would have preferred to hear more about the squirrels.
“First time I saw her was the trial of Bobby Seale.” He looked at me as if he was not sure I would know who Bobby Seale was.
“He was on trial right here. He and another Black Panther. They kidnapped a guy who’d been in the Black Panthers and had gone to the police about them. They tortured him and they kidnapped a nurse too and they had the nurse there while they tortured him and her job was to keep him alive while they tortured him and when the jury came in they were acquitted.”
Ajax was startled.
“Yeah that’s how I felt at the time. I couldn’t believe it. But, you know what happened? Every day when the jurors came into court they lined them up in front of the jury box and the marshal gave their names before they sat down to listen to testimony. When that happened Bobby Seale looked at each juror and wrote down their names and looked at them in the eye so they knew that he knew who they were. And so I knew that no jury was going to convict him. He’s a preacher now.”
Ajax gave me a look that meant he would pay me a million dollars if we could leave. Luckily for him a younger man in a navy blue Occupy hoodie came up and began to talk with Mike about the fate of one of their colleagues who was in intensive care at the hospital in New Haven. I shook Mike’s hand and said that we were going to walk around a little bit more. We walked off into the encampment with Mike benevolently beaming good will at Ajax like a lighthouse.
“Dad, Dad didn’t that make you feel a little creepy? He seemed like a nice guy but I thought he was a little creepy.”
“Well, he did seem to like you a lot on relatively little information, but his opinions seemed sincere.”
“Yeah, but he’s really sort of creepy.”
“But you got to give him props for spending the winter living in an encampment in New Haven. There is a lot more commitment in it than those people occupying the Harvard Library.”
* * *
Walking around the encampment you could see the evidence of lots of late night vigiling. There was a high degree of bric-a-brac around the tents. Some of it used to make signs and posters, but much of it had that air of the back corner of a consignment store where long forgotten book shelves are filled with broken heads of dolls, Skippy peanut butter jars filled with safety pins and a plastic badges with the word “firefighter” on them.
“Dad, its just junk. Why don’t they throw it away?”
“I don’t know maybe it is part of their expression.”
“Dad, its just junk.”
* * *
Occupy New Haven has a website and while it is not elaborate I note that the home page has one of those counters that refreshes every time you visit and tells you exactly how many days, hours, minutes and seconds New Haven has been occupied. At this instant, it is 156, 18, 26 26, respectively. But that may be coming to an end. As Mike related, ONH had obtained a two week temporary restraining order from a Federal Judge in Bridgeport. But that injuction was only good until March 28th.
* * *
I check back in on Occupy New haven in mid-April. The counter is now at 179, 16, 47, 49. Legal maneuvering has kept the encampment in place. The papers report that Occupy New Haven is the only occupation in New England that has remained active throughout the winter. But now the District Court has ruled against the occupiers and, on April 10th, the city sent in the police to take back the green. The occupiers managed to get a last minute stay from the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. The stay was dramatic but it will only last until the court decides whether there is enough of an issue to put things in abeyance until full-blown arguments can be held. I don’t like Occupy New Haven’s odds at this point. I believe there is a high degree of likelihood that the encampment will be gone well before Yale’s graduation in May.
I check back later and the counter now shows 276, 0, 16, 12, but it is just processing time. Occupy New Haven was closed down by the New Haven Police on April 17, 2012, after the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit failed to extend an earlier stay. At the time of it demise as a physical occupation it was one of the longest running occupations in the country.
NBC interviewed Nick Wyllie, one of the Occupiers, after the protest was cleared. He said:
“This is not the end of activism. This is not the end of the organization. It’s not the end of the fight, if you want to call it that. I’ve already heard people say they’re going to come back here tomorrow, they’re going to come back here the next day.”
– Jay Duret