Moose isn’t his real name, but it suits him. He’s more than six-feet-tall. Big. Bearded. Bald. He’s in charge of security at Occupy New Haven, an encampment of more than 200 on the city’s historic Green, and one of the last remaining public outposts of the burgeoning movement against economic injustice and corporate power that began in downtown New York earlier this fall and quickly spread to the rest of the country.
In recent weeks, police officers in eighteen different cities — from Atlanta to Oakland to New York City — have used pepper spray, batons, and even sonic grenades to drive out Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots from public parks. The encampment in Los Angeles was the latest to go last week, when more than a thousand uniformed officers deployed to arrest 300 peaceful protestors.
But the occupiers in New Haven have been able to avoid the chaos of riot gear and pre-dawn raids. City departments have provided supplies, the police have offered advice — and even expressed support for the cause. The crowd, still going strong, represents the 99 percent — and then some.
“We want everyone to be involved,” Moose said. “Even the 1 percent. To me, 1 percent is a mentality, not a bunch of bad people.”
In the beginning of Occupy New Haven, there were 30 tents. Now there are 70. It has more than 4,000 Facebook “friends,” a larder of canned goods and a cash account at a credit union. Free sandwiches are provided daily by a coffee shop. In a pinch, occupiers have access to sympathetic and free legal counsel.
“I can get an army of lawyers,” said Irving Pinsky, a local attorney. “Fortunately, we haven’t had any incidents.”
New Haven’s occupation started after a thousand marchers circumnavigated the Green in solidarity with OWS. In the fantasia of signs expressing outrage that day was a harbinger of things to come.
The sign read, in big red letters: “Thank You New Haven Police.”
It’s often noted that police officers, unionized and vulnerable to government cutbacks, are natural allies of the 99 percent, but New Haven — where the force was rocked by layoffs this past winter — is one of the few places where you can see the affinity in action. The city has a long-standing tradition in which political protesters work with police to reduce headaches during demonstrations. The arrangement has been so amicable over the years that arrests are sometimes planned in advance. The hard lines between working-class cops and well-heeled protesters are softened by this history.
“They know what it’s like to be this close to standing on the unemployment line,” said Josh Heltke, an activist who joined Moose in giving me a tour when I recently visited the camp.
In a unique inversion, Heltke and the other New Haven campers also have a first-hand knowledge of how difficult the jobs of police can be, as they’ve tried to address issues of public order in a way that Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan — with its failure to address the drum circles and random vagabonds who swarmed the park over time — was never able to.
The first test came four days into the occupation. Police told organizers they could smell marijuana, but instead of using drug use as pretext for a raid, they gave occupiers a choice: Handle it or have it handled, according to the New Haven Independent.
The smokers were evicted and a zero-tolerance policy was enacted. Heltke said police now trust them to police themselves. There are limits, though. Last week Moose, whose real name is Broderick Lee, was arrested for breach of peace.
Here’s video of the small protest that broke out after the arrest, with signs declaring “Let Moose Go,” that appeared on the local evening news:
According to a police notice, Moose got into a fight with a man who entered the encampment screaming about the upside down American flag on the grounds (the flag was a symbol of a country in duress, occupiers say). Even so, Irving Pinsky, the attorney, said police presence has been greatly reduced since the beginning.
“They are watching, but not so obviously,” he said.
Perhaps the most important factor is the Green itsef; a private group called the Proprietors of the Green has governed it since Puritan times. Ultimate authority lies with five members, whose terms span decades. Unlike the owners of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, whose board members include Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s girlfriend, the Proprietors of the Green have not pressured City Hall to take action. That, in turn, has given police the leeway to make their own judgments. Heltke says he has tried to contact the proprietors, but so far no one has replied. Indeed, my own attempts to reach them have failed.
The proprietors’ tacit approval and the occupiers’ good relations with police mean there’s no telling how long Occupy New Haven can go. Police have said on record that they have no plans to set a time limit. It also means, according to one point of view, that the movement has no teeth: If you’re not fighting against something, then you’re just camping out.
Yet presence is a kind of activism. The Green is the center of the city. Thousands of cars and pedestrians pass by daily. They often take pictures. These are no doubt shared on Facebook and other social media networks with countless others, sparking conversations unheard of six months ago about money, power and the role of good government.
Even Yale students, those future leaders of America, have taken note. The occupiers’ tents are right across the street from Yale’s first-year dormitories. Recently, a group of students protested a recruitment seminar hosted by Morgan Stanley. Taking a cue from the Occupation, they railed against the Wall Street firm’s hiring away of “the best and brightest” from a country that needs their talent and drive.
Gainfully employed, with a fiancée who owes tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Moose knows how important the camp is — and how its presence can inspire others. When asked about the occupation’s supporters, his eyes welled up with emotion.
Dozens of visitors were ambling around the encampment on a recent day. They dropped by with hot soup, fresh coffee or just an encouraging word. Many appeared to be middle class. Some brought children, even babies in strollers. And some, like the man with bad teeth and leathery skin who interrupted Moose’s interview with an $8 cash donation, gave even when it appeared that they couldn’t spare much.
Moose recalled the day when a woman visiting the settlement apologized that she couldn’t stay the night with them because of her age. She was 93 years old. “It was a reminder of the big picture,” he said.