A month after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of the police sparked nationwide protests, demonstrations calling for racial justice in New York City have found a new routine as hundreds have started camping outside City Hall to demand police budget cuts.
The initiative began last week and has been named Occupy City Hall – after the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, when hundreds protested economic inequality blocks away in Zuccotti Park. The crowd has put up tents, chairs and signs outside the building in Lower Manhattan, vowing to continue the stakeout until the city council slashes at least $1 billion from the NYPD’s annual budget.
Jewish activists are part of the protests too. Last Friday, the group Jews for Racial & Economic Justice organized a Shabbat service at the campsite, reciting prayers and even passing challah among the crowd.
For Brooklyn resident David Tenenbaum, this was the first Shabbat service he had attended in months. Tenenbaum, 26, has a synagogue membership and usually attends services at least once a month. But he hadn’t been to one since February because of the coronavirus crisis. Friday night’s gathering was “really moving,” he said.
“It was really beautiful to finally be among the Jewish community and celebrating Shabbat. But to also be doing it while fighting for such an important cause was moving,” he told Haaretz in a phone interview.
Although he hasn’t camped overnight, Tenenbaum has been going to the sit-in since it began, offering help and donating items that campers need.
“Fundamentally, America has always been built on racism, genocide and all these horrible things, and it’s an injustice that continues. So I think everybody really has a duty to try and help out the oppressed,” he said.
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“Also, in a much more literal and immediate sense, the city needs to cut the NYPD budget because not only is it too big anyway, but we’re now – because of COVID-19 – facing all these potential other cuts in service for communities that we’re not investing enough in already,” Tenenbaum added. “We’re about to inflict massive amounts of pain on an already suffering city, and one way to sort of alleviate that would be to defund the NYPD.”
Leo Ferguson, community organizer at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, said Occupy City Hall was the “natural evolution from people being incredibly moved and just bringing their passion out into the streets, and then that passion being channeled into a really sustained campaign.”
That was the most amazing part for him, the 42-year-old said: “So often these things flare up and then people lose energy. And in this case, people were just fed up and they weren’t going to let that happen.”
By organizing a brief Shabbat service at the City Hall campsite, Ferguson said his organization had wanted to create a sense of community and to connect with its core mission.
“This is the power of what we do at JFREJ: connecting Jewish values, Jewish ritual and Jewish community to the fight for racial justice, and in particular to the needs of black Jews and other Jews of color in our community – who want their community to take action and support them,” Ferguson said.
For Tenenbaum too, the desire to get involved was influenced by his Jewish values. But he also felt the movement had “plenty” of justification. “It’s just fighting for a good cause, and I would hope that, Jewish or not, a decent person would care about that,” he said.
With New York City Council set to vote on a new annual budget on Tuesday, ahead of the new fiscal year starting Wednesday, protesters calling on the city to defund the police are feeling the pressure to make their voices heard.
“The methods that had been tried before were not working,” Ferguson said, “and so now it just became clear to so many people that this wasn’t a few bad apples [policemen]: this is a systemic problem and it’s time to do what many police reform advocates have been advocating for, for years – which is to cut the budget of the police departments and invest that money in communities.
“We show up proudly and loudly as Jews to say that black lives matter, and that we are New Yorkers and we want to fight alongside all of our allies to create the New York that we want to live in,” he added. “And that’s not a New York with a police department that is out of control and over budget.”