Occupy Sunset Park: Seeking Change in Many Languages

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Occupy Sunset Park has reached out to speakers of English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese languages.

Photo by: Zach Campbell

Occupy Sunset Park has reached out to speakers of English, Spanish, Arabic and Chinese languages.

Around the same time that Occupy Wall Street protesters were clashing with the the NYPD in Manhattan last month, two dozen activists met in the quiet back room of a church in Sunset Park to find common ground and plan a movement. This was a different kind of occupation.

Where the nationally known OWS movement focused on large-scale economic issues and massive actions, a like-minded general assembly in Sunset Park held community dinners and movie nights. Where one seeks to radically reorganize political and economic systems to empower the disenfranchised, the other has reached for more modest goals that would better serve the neighborhood they call home.

The Sunset Park general assembly started about a month after OWS protesters first took Zuccotti Park last fall. Many of the people who launched the local effort had also been involved with OWS, but expressed interest in starting a movement that would work on a more local level. Many didn’t have the time or the resources to make the grueling six-hour general assemblies or camp out in the increasingly cold weather, and wanted to focus their energy on issues that were closer to home.

They were also seeking a movement that better represented their neighborhood.

“We thought the greater Occupy movement didn’t really reflect the diversity of the city, especially in terms of the involvement of people of color,” explains David Galarza, who helped organize some of the first general assemblies in Sunset Park.

There were also linguistic considerations for Occupy Sunset Park — the neighborhood, one of New York’s most diverse, is home to Brooklyn’s largest Chinese and Spanish-speaking communities. The group has gone to great lengths to translate all printed material into as many languages as possible.

Borrowing from a wider movement

Occupy Sunset Park has adopted some of the larger movement’s tools. “Facilitation,” the moderation of general assemblies that has been the crux of Occupy’s success in carrying a conversation among large groups, has at times been conducted in Sunset Park in at least two languages simultaneously. Meetings have begun with a conscious decision as to which language to use, with bilingual members of the group volunteering to interpret.

All this has led Occupy Sunset Park to carry on its own identity, as they put it, in solidarity with, but distinct from, the larger movement.

“We took on a very separate identity because of the nature of the work were doing in Sunset Park,” Galarza explains, adding that one of the group’s goals has been to involve Sunset Park’s immigrant communities as much as possible, particularly through organizing around the neighborhood’s churches and schools.

The group has concentrated on immigrants’ rights, neighborhood violence and gentrification. “We need to focus on the issues we have in this neighborhood,” Maritza Arrastia, another organizer, says. On a billboard across the street from the church where OSP meets is written, in Spanish, “Jesus, too, was an immigrant.”

One of the largest initiatives for the Sunset Park GA has been around issues of education. They began organizing after a Head Start program was moved out of the area, and have sought to create an independent organization for parents nearby. More recently, the group has sought to prevent funding cuts slated for two Beacon after-school programs in the area, and to generally expand city funding of schools in Sunset Park.

“What’s going on with respect to education in Sunset Park is really crucial. What we’re trying to support is parent organizing,” Arrastia explained. “We’d love to see an independent parent organization so they have their own voice.

At a recent GA, plans were also formed to ramp up protest efforts against the closure of a middle school in the heart of Sunset Park, I.S. 136 Charles O. Dewey. The school and 22 others were voted closed at a February meeting of the Department of Education’s Panel for Educational Policy, a move that drew widespread protest from teachers, students and the greater Occupy movement.

Days later, the Department of Education bowed to public pressure and resolved to keep Dewey open. It’s hard to say what impact the Sunset Park GA had on that decision. Where Occupy Wall Street has organized events drawing thousands and leading to multiple massive NYPD crackdowns, Occupy Sunset Park has taken a much smaller-scale approach. Their events, often involving community meals or movies viewings, have been low-key. Attendees frequently mentioned the advantages of smaller, local meetings that allow participants to have more direct conversations about their community concerns. Marches, speak-outs and other actions are also organized, but more infrequently.

A local focus

At Unity Day, an event organized by the general assembly to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, another idea was proposed to organize the community around the reclamation of a public space. Organizers have since been calling for the conversion of the Sunset Park courthouse, located on 4th Avenue and 42nd Street, into a space that better serves the community. The building currently houses a meeting space for Community Board 7, as well as the NYPD division that selects applicants for jobs in the department. The GA says it’s been contacted by people interested in establishing pro-Bono legal, health, and educational services in the building, modeled after the Bronx nonprofit The Point.

“It’s a public building, on 4th Avenue in the heart of sunset park, that once was entirely in the public service, and now it’s not,” said one attendee of the general assembly, suggesting that the NYPD relocate their operation to a nearby city warehouse.

The general assemblies are held weekly, during two hours on Saturday in the back room of a Lutheran church.

It’s hard to estimate how much support the group has in the neighborhood. Meetings so far have attracted 20-50 people, but organizers—many of whom work for or with existing community organizations—expect attendance to increase as the weather warms. But challenges abound: in a neighborhood of immigrants, some families have little free time, and finding a setting that appeals to all the neighborhood’s groups can be difficult. The current meeting site, a predominantly Puerto Rican church, might not strike Mexican or Chinese residents as welcoming.

At the last meeting, one attendee, Paul, argued the importance of multilingual meetings, and of moving the meetings to Sunset Park, the neighborhood’s namesake, explaining that the it would be a central location more inclusive to the area’s diverse groups.

As the group plans for upcoming May Day events, another person at the GA, Elaine, emphasized the importance of keeping the meetings inclusive and local.

“We’re not trying to change the world,” she said, “but we can make an impact on our little corner of the universe.”