Occupy Albany roars back to life
ALBANY The chants and guitars and makeshift drums are back. The Guy Fawkes masks have reappeared, and the umbrellas marked with “Our Park,” “Economic justice” and “99 percent” are popping up out of crowds.
Occupy Albany is back.
At least, it’s back in the public eye in Lafayette Park, where the local movement’s encampment was torn down in December. Dozens of demonstrators filtered in and out of the park and marched downtown for the group’s return Tuesday, which was planned to coincide with international May Day protests.
The chant this time around: “We are the people. We are united. This occupation is not leaving.”
The mood at the park was one of rejuvenation to be outside again, even on the gray day marked by bouts of rainfall. A diverse coalition of working professionals, labor unions and organizations turned out on May Day to lament injustice in their fields.
State troopers kept a watchful eye on the diverse crowd following the morning arrest of three Occupiers. The individuals were charged with disorderly conduct and second-degree obstructing governmental administration — two men for erecting an canopy and a woman for setting up a table in the park.
State police said earlier this week they would enforce an 11 p.m. curfew on the state-owned park across from the state Capitol, but their word of warning appeared to mean little Tuesday evening to demonstrators who said they planned to stay in the park until at least midnight.
An issue echoed by many at the rally was that New York’s education system is failing its students.
“We’re getting really hit hard by the budget,” said Andrew Pallotta, executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, a 600,000-member union and umbrella group that lobbies for education policy. “The last three budgets have made it so that we’ve lost 30,000 members in the last three years. When we say members, we’re talking teachers, school aides, bus drivers. This is devastating to the schools.”
Urban schools are no longer the only ones suffering, said Pallotta. Rural and suburban schools are also feeling the budget cuts and pressure of the state’s two percent tax cap.
“We want to be competitive globally, but yet we don’t fund the schools in such a way to make them competitive,” he said. “Right here in Niskayuna, which is an affluent suburb, they’re cutting 40 people. For so many years it’s always been the cities that are hurting, and now you have suburban areas that cannot keep up.”
NYSUT faces many of the same issues that are at the heart of the Occupy movement, like economic and social justice, said Pallotta. He suspected that was why so many different workers turned out Tuesday.
“It’s a big mix, it really is,” he said. “And that makes me thrilled to see this kind of group here today. You have people talking about fracking, people talking about education worker’s rights. This is a good mix. Me personally, I’ll be yelling about program cuts.”
Mike Keenan — though 62, retired and well out of school — was at Tuesday’s demonstration primarily out of concern about the cost of college. He’s also a past president and current treasurer of the Troy Area Labor Council, a regional chapter of the AFL-CIO, and he’s rallied for many causes in his life, one time for an anti-Vietnam War rally in 1968 right in front of Lafayette Park.
But get him started on the current state of the country’s education system, and the rest falls by the wayside.
“I personally think education should be free,” said Keenan, of Grafton, who’s been to about a dozen Occupy rallies. “When I grew up in New York if you had basically decent grades you got to go to the City University of New York for free. Now, you’re basically forced to take any job you can find, as opposed to finding a job that you want. How many people are waitresses nowadays waiting for a good job?
His student loans totaled $1,500 when he graduated 40 years ago, and he had 20 years to pay them back at a 3 percent interest rate. It was nominal, then. And it’s ridiculous, he said, that students are now graduating with debt that rivals some people’s mortgages.
Keenan says the critics who say its students’ decisions to take out usurious loans are hardly realistic.
“Everyone should have an education,” he said.
Propped up against a statue in the park was a sign that read: “Another elitist snob for affordable education.”
Speakers didn’t hesitate to denounce state police for Tuesday’s arrests, calling it a violation of their rights born out of attempts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to silence the movement.
“Andrew Cuomo doesn’t want this kind of protest happening,” said Dr. Peter LaVenia, co-chair of the state’s Green Party. “He hasn’t wanted this kind of dialogue about taxes and about inequality in New York state.”
Nevertheless, he said now that the Occupy Albany movement has shown it can continue to exist even without the encampment — it moved to office space at 472 Madison Ave. over the winter — it should work to move beyond its association with Lafayette Park to a broader mass movement.
“I think this is symbolic,” he said. “We’re here, and we’re not going to be scared away. And I think that we’re here to stay, whether Occupy remains as an encampment or it is simply in the office or somewhere else. I think that this is a new movement of the 99 percent. I’m very hopeful that this is a beginning and not the end.”