Occupiers Shut Down Northampton City Council: Video
With help from touring Occupy Wall Street activists, local protestors disrupted a City Council meeting with chants and demands for “conversation” — then seemed confused when Council President Bill Dwight asked them to set a date to meet.
By MARY SERREZE
NORTHAMPTON — The Occupy Wall Street Northeast Road Trip rolled into town Wednesday on a biodiesel bus for two days of events. The bus, which originated in Brooklyn, is transporting more than a dozen activists from Zuccotti Park on a five-week, 15-city tour.
Occupiers convened around the city for various workshops, potluck meals, a dance, and a showing of #occupy-related short films. On Thursday afternoon, a rally in Pulaski Park was followed by a 200-strong downtown parade that stopped to protest at the doors of the group’s four featured targets: a Bank of America branch, Verizon offices, ServiceNet headquarters, and the Dunkin’ Donuts on King Street..
At 6 p.m., the group reconvened in the basement of the Unitarian Society for what was billed as the Western Massachusetts General Assembly.
Video produced by Northampton Community Television (NCTV); clip edit by Northampton Media
Occupying the City Council Meeting
Three hours later, only steps away in the Puchalski Municipal Building, Mayor David Narkewicz and the nine-member City Council were finishing up a soporific but important meeting that featured discussion about the city’s bond rating, classroom collaboration between the Clarke School for the Deaf and the Leeds Elementary School, and the finances of decommissioning the city’s landfill.
At about 9:30 p.m., Public Works Director Edward “Ned” Huntley stepped to the podium to deliver his yearly plea for permission to deficit-spend on snow and ice removal.
The DPW chief, with his back to the room, didn’t notice the two dozen occupiers as they filed into the council chambers. Mayor David Narkewicz, with a glance toward the door, revealed what he saw, but quietly continued the business of the council until shouts shut down the meeting.
“Mic Check!” yelled a young man, initiating a ten-minute, high-decibel call-and-response performance where the occupiers issued a laundry list of vague demands.
“We are occupying the Northampton City Council,” one woman yelled.
Chant leaders said they wanted “community-supported agriculture,” “education,” and an end to any city support for the “military-industrial complex.” Joel Saxe, a downtown resident who hosts the “Bread and Roses” show on Valley Free Radio, said that Smith College should devote some of its properties to “the community” and stated inaccurately that Smith College pays no taxes to the city. (Smith College is indeed the city’s largest taxpayer, contributing more than a half million dollars last year.)
One voice was heard protesting a “four-story, $20-million prison” being built in Northampton, apparently a reference to the new $17 million police station being built downtown. Spending for the new police station was approved last year at the ballot box — after a lengthy public discussion and months of work by an appointed public committee — by a 60-40 margin.
A Demonstration To demand a Conversation
Oddly, most of the issues raised by the crowd (affordable housing, quality education, public space, and tax breaks for economic development) are tackled on a regular basis by the City Council or other municipal boards in open sessions; and the city’s commitment to community-supported agriculture is among the strongest in the state.
“We do have rules of decorum that we ask people to observe when they’re here,” Narkewicz offered the crowd, before being shouted down again.
“Are we allowed to participate in your conversation?” yelled one young man, as Narkewicz tried to call the council meeting back to business.
The mayor told the protesters they were welcome to speak their minds in the public comment session held before every council meeting, an invitation which only elicited more shouting.
Even as the mayor was being heckled, he continued to calmly chair the meeting, recognizing City Council President William “Bill” Dwight, who directly addressed the protesters.
“I understand that this is a demonstration (and) not necessarily what we would call a ‘conversation’,” said Dwight, “But I don’t think you’ll find a single person in here who is not open to a ‘conversation,’ particularly about the issues you raise.”
As Dwight spoke, the group became silent until local union organizer Rose Bookbinder finally stood and proposed to the group that they demand Dwight schedule a forum with the occupiers to “have a real conversation about ‘this.’ ”
Not pressing Bookbinder for a definition of the word ‘this,’ Dwight called her bluff. “Call up your Google calendar,” he said. “Give me a date.”
After Bookbinder engaged the group in a laborious discussion about who among them should be the point person for communication with city government, Dwight peacefully got up from his seat and stepped into the crowd to hand out his email address.
Meanwhile, Narkewicz called for a vote on the snow removal measure (which passed unanimously), Huntley left the meeting after being thanked by the mayor, and the protesters filed from the room chanting “We are the 99 percent.”
Narkewicz and the council, making no mention of the disruption, then picked up where they had left off, falling into the familiar rhythms of Roberts Rules of Order to complete the evening’s business.
© 2011 Northampton Media
Mary Serreze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org