Taking Pages From OWS Playbook, Occupy Sunset Park Thinks Local

Organizers of Occupy Sunset Park have distributed pamphlets in various languages to reach out to their diverse community. (Photo by Zach Campbell/Brooklyn Bureau)

While the Occupy Wall Street movement has been relatively quiet recently, a group of Sunset Park residents hope to create some noise with an activist group that serves the interests of their immigrant-rich neighborhood, The Brooklyn Bureau reported.

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.

Occupy Sunset Park has been in existence since last fall, when OWS protestors camped in Zuccotti Park and demanded economic changes.

“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,” explained David Galarza, who helped organize some of the first general assemblies in Sunset Park.

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.

Some of the local activists were involved with OWS, and say they were inspired by the movement. Though their group is significantly smaller than the one that spread across the country last year, organizers say their agenda and efforts better reflect the interests of the community. The group has zeroed in on education, working to prevent funding cuts for after-school programs and expand funding to schools in the area.

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

At a recent [general assembly], 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.

Occupy Sunset Park has also argued for a 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.

Though the local movement has made some progress overall, it still involves a relatively small group of people. And some worry that as it tries to address the needs of its diverse constituency, Occupy Sunset Park may alienate some ethnic groups.

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 communities can be difficult. The current meeting site, a predominantly Puerto Rican church, might not strike Mexican or Chinese residents as welcoming.


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