As Occupy protesters downstate were being forcibly evicted from Zuccotti Park this week, local occupiers also were facing off with state police over real estate here in Albany. At the urging of the administration of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state troopers had arrested 62 people between Saturday and press time for attempting to remain in the state-owned Lafayette Park on Washington Avenue past the 11 PM curfew. Despite warnings that the arrests will continue, many protesters maintain that publicly owned land—local, state or federal—is space where the freedoms of speech and assembly should be inviolable.
Occupy protesters have been camping peacefully in the adjacent city-owned Academy Park since the Albany Police Department refused to make arrests ordered by Mayor Jerry Jennings last month. “There were some liability issues if we proceeded to make arrests,” said APD Officer James Miller, “And, really, everything has been peaceful so far. We haven’t really had any issues with the protesters.” In Lafayette Park, according to state police, the issue is with an 11 PM state-imposed curfew; they say that violators are being arrested as trespassers. According to protesters such as Marlon Anderson, however, no such curfew has ever been on the books.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares has maintained that his office will not prosecute the peaceful protesters, an action which prompted local GOP Committee Chairman Don Clarey to hold a press conference on Tuesday calling for Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor willing to handle the curfew violators. “We have a district attorney who absolutely refuses to uphold a perfectly good law,” Clarey told cameras and reporters.
The press conference, which was held at Academy Park, culminated in a heated exchange between Clarey and several angry protesters. Protesters called Clarey “overprivileged,” asked why he wanted to prosecute peaceful demonstrators, and shouted him down with slogans. Clarey called the protesters “hypocrites,” made several suggestions that they were uneducated, and even called one man “sonny boy.”
When Anderson and others confronted Clarey with the assertion that no curfew had ever existed, his only response was, “I can’t argue with you folks.”
In fact, the curfew was set by the commissioner of the state Office of General Services in mid-October, under the direction of Cuomo and in response to the Occupy protests on Wall Street. State officials say that the curfew was originally set for 7 PM, although there was never any signage or documentation to that effect. According to OGS, it is not legally necessary to document such changes.
It might seem unclear why some protesters would risk arrest by pitching their tents on state-owned lands when they have a safe place to camp right next door.
“I’m not even camping out,” said Chris Anderson, a 35-year-old former psychology professor, on Tuesday night as three protesters were taken away in handcuffs. “I’m here to support the folks that are getting arrested and to take some documentation, make sure everything stays honest.” (It seems that the troopers had the same idea; they brought their own cameraman that evening to film the arrests.)
“The issue is that state land is public property,” said Anderson. “It’s our land, it’s the commons. People should be allowed to dissent, and the fact that the governor is trying to silence that dissent means we need to stand up and be louder. It’s symbolic, really. We need to reclaim as much of the commons as we can—this park represents our air and our water.”
“I would like to know what Cuomo is trying to gain by all of this,” Anderson continued. “He wants to appear to be a leader, but he’s not presenting a good image of being responsive to the people.”
A call to Cuomo’s office on Wednesday revealed that no response had yet been prepared; his staff seemed little aware of Clarey’s appeal at all.
Reiterating his stance on Wednesday, Soares released a statement saying, “My office has taken a posture from the beginning of this movement to not prosecute peaceful protesters in Albany. My decision was not politically motivated nor should this be viewed as a passive stance on law enforcement. So long as we have no violence that is being perpetrated against law enforcement and no damage to state property, there’s room for peaceful coexistence here. I support the right of all parties to assemble peacefully and express their points of view.”
“People need to speak out about their rights,” insisted 19-year-old protester Seneca Kennedy after the troopers and television cameras had dispersed on Tuesday night. “Our rights are being violated by the government and people don’t even know it, nobody talks about it. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We want to talk about it.”
Clarey apparently doesn’t want to talk about it. Calls to his office went unreturned.