Friday, May 19, 1995
Squatters Meet the Commissioner
A "squat" in New York City is typically a broken-down and abandoned building in Alphabet City below 14th Street that has been taken over by a group of low- or no-income people who make it livable. Usually, a small starter group occupies the ground floor. They put in a locked front door. Ground floor windows come next, and then the redabilitation of the upper stories. The main task is replacing the rotted out stairs. That is done by organizing a party, to build forms of plywood and 2x4s, which are lined with plastic and set up with reinforcement bars ("rebars") across the metal step frame, which is usually still present. Then cement is mixed and poured into the frames, often a different color for each step. A staircase is cured in a day, and the forms are reused for the next story.
Once the stairs are in place, the squatters can repair the holes in the roof, by tearing off the old boards and paper and putting up new, as long as the rafters and joists are sound. By now the original group of three pioneers may have grown to 20, as more floors have been made accessible, and are being renovated. More people are neeeded, to share the work and the costs of rebars, plywood and roofing material. Electricity may be connected up, the mailboxes repaired, maybe even gas lines brought back in. Only water often remains unavailable, due to stolen pipes, and alliances with neighbors or access to water hydrants provide the daily necessary stuff for brushing teeth and making tea. Squats have existed without water for years.
Some of the squats are nice and some are not. Some are well managed and collect nominal rent, for repairs and expenses, with something put aside for eventual legal costs. Some squatters live decently, decorate their rooms, collect art and evict co-residents who are disorderly. Others drink or do drugs, within limits tolerated by their commune, but they are all fiercely independent and anti-authoritarian, even anarchistic.
When the city decided to enforce the law and to tear down some squatter buildings on East 13th Street as unsafe, it brought the squatters to their feet (there are probably some 70 such buildings in Manhattan.)
My guess is that they felt a demonstration was needed, and what better occasion than the time when Police Commissioner William F. Bratton makes his 2nd annual report to the 13th Precinct community, on the premises of the sanctuary of the Brotherhood Synagogue on 20th Street, West of 3rd Avenue, on Thursday, June 22.
This meeting was sponsored by Concerned Citizens Speak, a civic group led by John Bringmann and Alvin Doyle, who also bring political hopefuls at election times to the community, so that we can hear their words and get answers to our questions directly from the candidates.
Commissioner Bratton was much like a political candidate, extolling the gains in his 18 months of service, and offering more, with our help. The gains are solid, N.Y.City's crime rate is no longer in the top 50 percent of large cities in the USA, and a bow was made to the Safe Streets program initiated by Mayor Dinkins that put more police officers into the sidewalks of the city. The commissioner's intentions are to attack the quality of life issues, by raising our confidence and banishing excessive fear. He wants people not to be afraid to use the streets. The more people on the streets, the less crime. To do this, he has returned the power over local needs to the precincts. Local precinct people can now decide how to divide resources in such areas as robbery, pickpocket and drug control.
The topic of resources brought on statements and shouts from the squatter representatives about oppressive, bloated police troops, with tanks (an armored vehicle was used in evicting the occupants and tearing up their barricades on 13th Street). The police were accused of indiscriminate use of pepper gas in quelling student anti-budget-cut demonstrations. The Commissioner's answers (pepper gas is less harmful than billy clubs and guns in controlling unruly and explosive crowds) were shouted down - often, not always.
Commissioner Bratton was humble and admitted problems on part of his young force, such as excessive showing off, bad language and attmpted pickups of girls. It is hard to believe that cops' average age is down from 41 to 26, but then there has been a huge turnover as well as growth, from 31,000 to 38,000 since 1990. He has increased education requirements for recruits by requiring 60 college credits and a graduation score of 75 (curiously, this attracts more NYC minority recruits, who have CUNY credits). He also has instituted cleanup of language, and requires recruits' shoes to be shined - two difficult tasks for kids who have grown up in sneakers and with street language.
Discussions of street people drinking, urination, aggressive beggars and peddlers brought on more shouts from the protest group members, to which other members of the community, impassive before, started to respond to by applauding the Commissioner and Captain Michael Darby, commanding officer of the 13th Precinct, who was describing local remedies. The Commisioner remained imperturbed nearly throughout the proceedings, no doubt a result of exposure to protests as regular events in his day (he had two more meetings that night), and kept reminding the hecklers that they were unfair to the rest of the audience.
At the Commissioner's closing remarks the sporadic heckling broke out full force, and opposing local residents started to shout down the demonstrators. That resulted in the termination of the meeting, and Captain Darby, who was to continue the question-and-answer session, ended up having private conversations. The sympathy that the congregants and Stuyvesant/Gramercy residents may have had for the squatters struggling to make their lives was sorely tested by the intemperate shouts and ugly behavior of the demonstrators. Lack of respect for the sanctuary of a place of worship, and for the freedoms of others will not buy the demonstrators any sympathy. People who accuse the cops of repressing them should not themselves be guilty of repressing their neighbors and of breaking up their meeting.