Ongoing OWS Protest Causing Trouble for Trinity Wall Street

The sidewalk is for sleeping as well as protest in front of Trinity Church and its graveyard.

Photos by Carl Glassman / Tribeca Trib

Four months after protesters set up camp in front of Trinity Church, relations between the Occupy Wall Street activists and the church—once a vocal supporter of the Occupy movement—is growing increasingly troubled.

The church is canceling its annual Halloween event out of safety concerns, after a protester assaulted one of its maintenance workers, according to a church spokeswoman.

“Cancelling a beloved family event is not a decision taken lightly,” Trinity’s rector, the Rev. James Cooper, wrote on the church’s website on Sunday. “However, we are deeply concerned about the escalating illegal and abusive activity the camp presents.”

The Occupy Trinity encampment began in June, after eight Occupy Wall Street protesters were convicted of trespassing and one was sentenced to 45 days in jail on related charges. The protesters had been arrested last year when the group tried to occupy a Trinity-owned lot on Canal Street after being evicted from  Zuccotti Park.

“This camp that has formed outside originally started as a protest against Trinity, but it seems to have devolved into a situation…which has attracted homeless people who are very resistant to housing placement,” Trinity spokeswoman Linda Hanick said.  

Protesters in front of the church on Tuesday said they plan to stay until Trinity’s leaders resign.

“[Trinity] is a corrupt organization,” protester Incendio Violento said. “It’s a real estate agency in disguise.”

The protesters camped at Trinity appear to vary from day to day. Last Friday during lunchtime, two protesters sat with signs, while about half a dozen people dozed in sleeping bags. On Monday afternoon, close to a dozen protesters sat with signs in front of the church, a few played drums and one protester had brought a suitcase of books to create a small makeshift “People’s Library.”

Some protesters acknowledge that there is a less “wholesome” element who may be attracted to the free food and sidewalk lodging. But the line between protesters and homeless is more fluid than Trinity would have people believe, said protester Judy Blanco.

“Even if they are homeless, they understand that this is the heart of Occupy Wall Street,” protester Judy Blanco said, sitting near the entrance of the church. “The [homeless] are a part of it, too. They are a bi-product of Wall Street.”

Blanco and other protesters said they are harassed by police in the night and throughout the day. Rules regarding the belongings they can have with them change constantly, she said.

Hanick said the church’s understanding is that as long as the protesters are not blocking passageways, they have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights on public property.

Monday afternoon police periodically stood outside the church, becoming, at times, the targets of verbal attacks from members of the group.  The officers disposed of cardboard that did not have a protester on it, but otherwise left the group’s materials and belongings alone. But several protesters said the police harass them and deliberately target protest materials.

“They try to delegitimize the protest,” Aaron McAuliffe said. “[Police] will try to take away our signs and pamphlets in order for our protest to have less meaning, so people will say, ‘Oh, they are just bums.’”

On Tuesday morning, a protester said police had confiscated the group’s pamphlets and signs during the night.

Trinity’s decision to cancel its Halloween event is the latest impact to the church since the encampment began. Trinity has closed its restrooms to the public because of issues with graffiti and garbage, installed security cameras on the sidewalk construction shed in front of the church to watch for illegal activity, and it has hired additional security workers, Hanick said.

“We are concerned for sanitation and safety,” Hanick said. “[The sidewalk] has a lot of debris and it smells.”

Problems caused by the protesters or homeless who have joined the encampment are also causing problems for the restaurant Suspenders, down the block from Trinity Wall Street.

Campers urinate in the restaurant’s doorway, harass customers, and have threatened the manager’s life during a recent altercation, owner Bill Ahearn told CB1’s Financial District Committee this month.

“Many of our customers come in complaining about being harassed,” Ahearn said. “On a number of occasions it is a health issue, because they have been using the lobby going into our building as a lavatory. Many days, the first thing my staff does when they come in is take a mop and bucket and clean what is left there.”

The church sends workers out to clean the sidewalk twice a day, at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Police are present to ensure the sidewalk is cleared. The Trinity maintenance worker was assaulted on Sunday when he tried to clean the sidewalk, Hanick said.

“One of the campers put an air horn right up to his ear and blasted it,” Hanick said.

Police arrested the man with the air horn, but as soon as he was released he returned to the sidewalk in front of Trinity, Hanick said. The church is looking into getting an order of protection against that protester, she said.

“We would like them to find another way to express their opinions and views on things and disband so we can have a safe and healthy environment again,” Hanick said.