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New Yorkers Occupy Streets to Protest Budget Cuts
(Photo: Joseph Kolker / Flickr)

New Yorkers Occupy Streets to Protest Budget Cuts

(Photo: Joseph Kolker / Flickr)

They have taken over a strip of the sidewalk at Park Place and Broadway, handing out flyers to passersby and taping posters to the ground and to the metal crossbars of the scaffolding that shelters them from the rain.

They sleep here too, on the sidewalk, and hold assembly meetings twice daily for people to raise concerns and plan events. Their bottom line: no budget cuts.

Calling their takeover and sleep-in Bloombergville – an allusion to the infamous shanty towns known as Hoovervilles that sprung up during the Great Depression – they are New Yorkers Against the Budget Cuts (NYABC), a coalition of different groups and individuals united by their opposition to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed budget for next year and their determination to press the City Council not to adopt it.

Bloomberg, citing debt and decreases in state and federal aid, proposed to cut funding for public services including higher education, libraries, and child care as part of his approximately 65- billion-dollar budget for the fiscal year 2012 (Jul. 1, 2011 through Jun. 30, 2012). He also wants to eliminate jobs for over 6,000 teachers – 4,100 through lay-offs and 2,000 through attrition – and close 20 firehouses.

Negotiations on the mayor's proposal are ongoing in the City Council, which must adopt a budget by Jun. 30, although it “may change budget priorities and add 'terms and conditions' on the expenditure of appropriated city funds,” according to the City Council website.

Since Jun. 15, Bloombergville and NYABC have been staging their sleep-in or, as several participants deemed it, “occupation”, to protest the cuts and lay-offs and are currently in their sixth location, having moved due to rain and police.

Their assemblies usually average 30 to 50 people, and 70 people spent the first night.

“Bloombergville is an encampment to intensify and strengthen the struggle against austerity in New York City,” reads the Bloombergville Declaration. “We are in active solidarity with those refusing any and all cuts.”

During the day, members participate in rallies, marches, and other forms of public action to spread awareness of the budget issue and garner attention to their cause. In the mornings and evenings, they gather in assembly meetings to plan these events and to discuss issues that anyone might raise.

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“Definitely not enough people” are aware of the circumstances surrounding the budget cuts, Emily Turonis, the only member who has slept at the encampment every night, told IPS. She says people's involvement and awareness reflects how much they believe they'll be affected by the budget cuts. Moreover, “people don't know the severity” of the cuts, she added.

“Every basic social service in this city is going to get hit,” said Yotam Marom, one of the leaders of the coalition.

Turonis suggested ending tax cuts for the wealthy as a source of possible revenue, noting that the city has a three-billion-dollar surplus even as Bloomberg plans to cut funding for essential public services.

However, Ronnie Lowenstein, director of the nonpartisan Independent Budget Office, said in aninterview with WNYC that the term surplus was “misleading” because the amount has already been taken into account for next year's budget.

“You could use that three billion dollars for something else – you could use it for a tax cut – but you would have to do something else to bring next year into balance, and it's as simple as that,” he said.

Nevertheless, Bloombergville's short-term aim “isn't even radical”, Turonis said. Its participants simply want the city to “stop creating loopholes that allow gross profits” for the wealthy and for large corporations.

The coalition aims to enforce this point and “draw more people” to the cause, said Larry Hales, a founder of NYABC, by maintaining a “constant presence”.

“Bloombergville is yet another example of everyone approaching these budget negotiations with a spirit of 'shared sacrifice' except for Mayor Bloomberg,” Laura Banish, coordinator for the City Council Progressive Caucus, told IPS.

“We're facing some of the worst cuts in decades and being told that there's no other choice. That's simply not true. We have options, and cutting vital social services is not one of them,” she added, calling those who participated in the sleep-in inspiring.

A spokesperson for Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat, told IPS that Williams was “staunchly against” the budget cuts.

City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn and Finance Chair Domenic M. Recchia Jr. wrote in the Council's response to the preliminary budget that “further cuts in critical service areas endanger not only the progress we have made in many areas… but also the welfare and safety of New York City residents.”

In a statement, they also said that the Council had presented several alternate budget proposals that offered savings through cuts in contracts or cuts in city agencies different from what Bloomberg proposed.

But Hales remained sceptical of the steps the Council said it has taken or ideas it has put forward, dismissing it as political rhetoric and empty talk.

Though NYABC members hail from a variety of groups and backgrounds, some seem to share a common vision of what change needs to happen in New York and the United States as a whole, beyond the immediacy of the Bloombergville protests and the passing of next year's budget. They have infused the structure of Bloombergville with this vision.

The coalition envisioned “democracy in a public space”, said Turonis, and it created that democratic space to reflect the vision that protesters were demanding. The general assemblies provide that space – everyone gathers in a circle and has the chance to voice his or her opinions and ideas, on any matter.

Hales said, “What we need to do is build a people's movement” and consolidate the organisations with a common aim but varying approaches, while Marom offered a longer-term vision of a movement that would “reclaim space for working people and oppressed people”.

But even with these future visions and aims, ultimately, the budget that the Council will adopt remains to be seen.