An unseasonable plunge in temperatures and blanket of wet snow fell on the Occupy Albany encampment at Academy Park, situated across from the New York State Capitol, on Thursday night. But the daunting weather did little to dampen the protestors' collective spirit of resolve. With the tacit authorization of city and state police and Albany County District Attorney General David Soarez, occupiers held firm, warmed by the outpouring of support they have received from the community, unions, and even law enforcement officials. Despite direct orders issued last Friday by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings to enforce the City's 11 p.m. curfew and arrest anyone who refused to vacate, both city and state police have so far refused to comply.
While Academy Park is located on city property, contiguous Lafayette Park sits on state land, with no discernible boundary dividing the two. It is noteworthy that Lafayette Park- named for General Marquis de Lafayette of American and French Revolutionary fame - was unanimously chosen as the main occupation site by the General Assembly at its meeting two weeks ago. One speaker advocating for the site invoked its revolutionary significance, replete with a grand statue of the revolutionary leader of France's National Guard to watch over the occupation camp.
But last Friday evening it appeared certain the protestors would be evicted. Frantic calls were issued across Facebook and Twitter for people to come down and take a stand against the eviction order before the 11 p.m. curfew, which the mayor vowed to enforce earlier that day.
Supporters were further urged to call both the mayor and governor to protest the planned eviction. A state police unit was mobilized at the edge of Lafayette Park ready to clear the grounds, but the encampment moved over the boundary to city property just before 11:00 to avoid the governor's direct jurisdiction. Anxiety was high as hundreds of protestors awaited the curfew and threatened eviction. But the strategic decision to move over the line to city property worked in their favor and no arrests occurred.
Sources from New York state and Albany city police gave several reasons for their non-compliance with the directive to evict and arrest the occupiers. An overall consensus was reached by state and local officials that there were simply no legitimate grounds for removing what was by all accounts a peaceful protest, a weekly feature of the downtown Capitol District. Furthermore, the city lacked the resources to process so many people on low-level trespassing charges that would only be dismissed.
Statements issued by police in both jurisdictions and the Albany County District Attorney's office also stressed the risks of a heavy-handed response. Officials feared that eviction and mass arrests might backfire by drawing an even larger crowd from the many area colleges, and would likely elicit an angry response from the community, as one officer pointed out, damaging "good community relations that have taken years to rebuild."
The presence of many elderly people and families with young children was also cited as a focus of concern. One officer noted that "There was a lot of discussion about how it would look if we started pulling people away from their kids and arresting them ... and then what do we do with the children?"
Albany County District Attorney David Soares, in support of police, confirmed Sunday that "Our official policy with peaceful protesters is that unless there is property damage or injuries to law enforcement, we don't prosecute people protesting." He added that it would be reckless to take pre-emptive action and carry out mass arrests, which might "lead to calamitous results"
The Working Families Party of New York circulated a petition this week proclaiming "Albany is not Oakland" and thanking Mr. Soares for standing up for the constitutional rights of public assembly and peaceful protest. To be sure, the official statements from state and Albany city police do not voice explicit support for the goals of the Occupy movement, though it was rumored that last Friday night protestors chanted to police "we are fighting for your pensions" in the hours before the curfew was to be imposed.
Occupy Albany has attracted national attention and was featured on Democracy now! for the strikingly tolerant approach of law enforcement compared to the violent reactions of officials in other cities across the nation, most notoriously Oakland.
On Thursday, close to 100 protestors gathered in the War Room outside the Governor's chambers in the State Capitol building to protest Governor Cuomo's plan to let the state "millionaire's tax" expire at the end of the year. A contingent of protestors gathered outside City Hall to protest a symbolic veto by Mayor Jennings of a ban on hydrofracking in Albany passed by the city council.
In Albany, the only immediate challenge faced by resilient protestors is currently the weather.
Sunday was designated "Occupy Albany Clean-up Day," to ensure proper maintenance of the occupation site.
Photo: Occupy Albany