The Occupy Wall Street movement has now come to New Paltz, where a half-dozen tents and approximately 30 occupiers have set up camp. And they have no plans of leaving, even as the temperatures drop. “I’ve been here every night,” said SUNY-New Paltz student Jackie Wolozin, 21, originally of Boston. “I wanted to learn about the Occupy movement and began going to the Poughkeepsie Occupy movement,” where, she said, she finally summoned up the courage to sleep over. That was “the night the camp was raided and forced to leave,” she said, referring to the 51st-night activists logged in at Hulme Park before city police moved them out.
She, along with several other SUNY-New Paltz students, refugees from the Poughkeepsie movement and activists of all ages from New Paltz were given a warm reception by village mayor Jason West. West said that it was a “First Amendment issue,” and that they had the “right under the First Amendment to assemble, protest and speak out against their government…as long as they remain respectful of the park and those using it, they’re welcome to stay.”
Soon after that warm welcome, the New Paltz Police Department (NPPD) reported the arrest of Christopher Andrews, 28 of Kalamazoo, Michigan, who was part of the Poughkeepsie and then the New Paltz Occupy movement, for two counts of “Sexual Abuse in the Second degree.” According to the NPPD, the police received complaints that Andrews had subjected two separate male individuals with “unwanted sexual contact” while they were asleep in their tents at Hasbrouck Park. Shortly after the complaints were received, the NPPD located Andrews, a registered sex offender, and arrested him. He was arraigned by Town of New Paltz justice James Bacon and remanded to the Ulster County Jail in lieu of $20,000 bail. He is scheduled to return to the Town Court on Dec. 21 at 6 p.m.
When Mayor West and the Village Board were questioned as to this development at the encampment, the Mayor said, “I received the same press release that you did, and it is very disturbing,” he said. “But this is someone who was going from one Occupy encampment to another, and I’m proud that those who were victims of his abuse reported it and that our police department caught him.”
Mayor West received the support of his board when it passed a resolution last Wednesday night, with more than a half-dozen Occupiers present, allowing them to utilize the park until such time as “an issue may arise,” like public safety, public health or any number of things, when they would, if necessary, “revisit the park permit.”
He explained that he had heard rumor of an Occupy New Paltz, as they’d had several General Assembly meetings, and by last Friday morning had received “confirmation” that a movement was planned to encamp at Hasbrouck Park. “I honestly didn’t know what we should do or not do about this, so I met with our attorney that afternoon. And although I did not have the authority alone to allow them to use the park, I also did not have the authority to deny them the right to assembly and free speech under our Constitution. I told the group that as long as they respected park rules — no alcohol, no public intoxication, no dogs off leashes, etc. — that I believed they had the right to stay.”
All five board members concurred that the protestors were protected by the First Amendment. Trustee Ariana Basco said that she personally was “in total support of the movement,” and welcomed the Occupiers.
While he agreed they had the right to assemble and protest, trustee Stewart Glenn simply questioned whether or not “their message will have an impact in the Village of New Paltz; because Wall Street is not here, we have no major corporations and our government — at least I hope — is not part of the larger national and global issues they’re protesting. We are all part of the 99 percent here.”
Trustee Sally Rhoads, a neighbor to the park, strongly concurred that the protesters had every right to set up camp. Trustee Brian Kimbiz said that, while he supported the movement and had been following it, the “issues raised are ones I think about every day.” He had some concerns about any potential financial impact that the encampment could have on local taxpayers. “Our taxpayers are also part of the 99 percent, and we don’t want to burden them any further. But at the same time, I don’t see any excess costs at this point, and we did take an oath of office when we were elected to obey the Constitution.”
A New Paltz resident and Occupy movement member spoke up during the public comment period, saying, “I was an activist probably before many of my fellow members were even born.” That said, he felt “rejuvenated by these young people and the Occupy movement, which is born out of great darkness. Homes of working Americans are being foreclosed on; millions are without health insurance; those that are pay more than half their paycheck for the limited insurance they receive, which includes increasingly high co-pays and deductibles that they can’t afford. We’re seeing extreme layoffs, corporations paying off politicians to continue practices that endanger public health and our water and air. They are a ray of light shining into that darkness, and I support them.”
He was echoed by local activist Rosalyn Cherry, who said that she wanted to voice her “support of the Occupy movement,” and was “proud” that it had come to New Paltz and of “what they’re doing: putting themselves out there in the cold, putting these critical issues in the forefront of the dialogue. They are changing the conversation and I welcome them.”
This past Sunday, several members of the Occupy New Paltz movement held a “Community Craft Fair and Free Store,” whereby they invited the community to pick up toys, books and clothing that they might need, as well as to drop off items. One of those who showed up with items to give to the Free Store, as well as some food for the occupiers, was Julie Wegener, the president of Arts for Peace in New Paltz. She laid down a Degas art book, a blanket, a tarp, food and “just some items I thought might be helpful to them,” she said. “I support them because they’re looking for a new way to build a more just society, one that champions equality, and it’s an opportunity for us to learn from them.”
When asking the Occupiers what they hoped to achieve in the small hamlet of New Paltz, they said, “Awareness, starting conversations with those that come to the park and ask us what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” said Josh Fuhrman. “The Wall Street Occupation lit the fire and the conversation was started. We just want it to continue and to inspire other people and to let our government know that this is not a just society when less than one percent of the people own almost all of the wealth!”
They said that while it is getting cold, they plan to stay through the winter. “You learn a lot about gratitude and being neighborly and kind to each other and how close any of us are to being homeless and what that feels like. And it’s one thing to choose it as a protest; it’s a very different thing not to choose it — to lose a job, have kids, lose your house or apartment and have nowhere to go,” said Wolozin, as her fellow Occupiers hung a pine-strung wreath above the Gazebo.
To learn more about the movement, log onto www.occupywallst.org or go to a General Assembly meeting every night at the park and on Thursday evenings at the New Paltz Village Hall on Plattekill Avenue. ++