Occupy Newark protesters in Military Park gained a new roommate Monday night – one that packs a political punch.
Arriving at 7:30 p.m. with a sleeping bag and Coleman tent, Newark Councilman Ras Baraka made good on a promise he had made a week ago to stay overnight in support of the social movement. Protesters have been camping out between Broad Street and Park Place since Saturday night, defying a city ordinance that requires the park to close at 9 p.m.
Demonstrators Monday night played Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'" and beat on a snare drum before a group of roughly 50 people amassed in Military Park for the hours-long forum discussion. Baraka, Newark residents and members from community activist groups People's Organization for Progress, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and the New Black Panther Party were among the crowd.
The forum, which outlined Occupy Newark's objectives and brainstormed new initiatives, was a way to introduce occupants to each other and share individuals styles of activism, according to Angela, one of the movement's many organizers who refused to give her last name. But the conversation was also rife with civic debate.
"All that stuff you've got on the wall, that's abstraction," said Amiri Baraka, referring to hand-painted signs reading "Stop the Greed" and "Eat the Rich."
Amiri Baraka, the award-winning American poet and father to Ras Baraka, was one of a handful of Newarkers who called on Occupy Newark to create tangible changes instead of talking about doing so.
"We'll see what they do because talking is the easiest part," he said.
Echoing his father's sentiments, Ras Baraka said he'd like to see Occupy Newark draft clear-cut, long-term and short-term demands, a move organizers said they won't make. He said the group should be targeting corporations like the Prudential Center, which he claimed hasn't paid taxes in more than 30 years.
"People aren't going to sit out here with no demands. They want to know why they're here," he said. "After the romanticism goes away and it has to be protracted in the long haul, people are going to want to know, 'Why am I doing this?'
"You might know it theoretically but what is it materially?" he added.
Tobias A. Fox, an Occupy Newark organizer who lives in Brick City, chalked Monday's heated debate up to a difference of opinion between groups. Newark residents and Occupy Newark organizers often went head-to-head on an array of issues, from the movement's overall goal to showing each other respect when speaking.
"Not everyone that's in Occupy Newark is exposed to all those cultural groups and they don't know how to approach (them)," Fox said. "Most of the conflict we're having here today is the lack of understanding of the perspective of those cultural groups."
Occupy Newark, a leaderless offshoot of the two month-long Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City, kicked off Nov. 18 and has since attracted a small, yet consistent, group of participants.
Organizers have been embroiled in a battle with city officials over use of the park since occupation began. Protesters have lobbied at recent council meetings to suspend the 9 p.m. curfew, even garnering the support of Councilwoman-at-Large Mildred C. Crump, who was at Military Park Monday evening. The council will discuss suspending the ordinance during a special meeting Tuesday at 10 a.m.
"I told the police chief (Sheilah A. Coley), we're not asking to suspend it 'til the end of time, but we want to respect the First Amendment rights that they have to protest … and have it be peaceful," said Crump.
On the first night of occupation, Coley visited the crowd and waived the permit required to demonstrate in the park, a move city officials have supported in exchange that protesters "abide by the laws of our city," according to Anne Torres, city spokesperson.
"We are not requiring that the occupy participants obtain the requisite special event permit given the spontaneous nature of this event and remain willing to be as flexible as possible up to a point," said Torres in an email. "We hope to be able to support their efforts as well as not diminish police protection for our residents in our neighborhoods, particularly during the weekend hours."
A two-and-a-half minute YouTube video taken Saturday night shows two Newark police officers disassembling three tents in Military Park. Still, six demonstrators spent Sunday night sleeping in the amphitheater outside the PSE&G building on Park Place. They retreated back to Military Park after "kindly" being asked to move by a security guard at 6 a.m., according to Fox.
But at 10:30 p.m. Monday night, four tents – including Ras Baraka's – remained upright, the strobing of red and blue lights several feet away the only sign of police presence.
"Overall, the city itself has been embracing (Occupy Newark)," said Fox. "But we have to do more outreach. This (was) an attempt to communicate with members of different activist groups, along with the councilman, who can help us spread the word."