hursday evening at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem, the first meeting of a new political group was occurring. A racially diverse gathering of fifty people sat in clusters throughout the pews of the dimly lit exposed brick sanctuary, surrounded by gothic arches and colorful swaths of fabric draped from the rafters. When a speaker began to get off topic, they would tent their fingers into a triangle. When a speaker said something they agreed with, they raised and waved their hands, wiggling their fingers.
To anyone who’s been following the localization of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it’s obvious this group is affiliated with them. Less obvious, but equally important is the new group’s narrow focus. They’re in Harlem and they take some of their cues from Occupy Harlem, but their focus is not Harlem. It’s West Harlem.
It’s a big deal for a movement that began in Zuccotti Park with scant involvement from black New Yorkers. Now, Occupy Wall Street isn’t just incorporating more of the city’s traditionally black communities, it is doing so on hyperlocal level.
“People aren’t going to live in a park forever, so how are you going to take this thing and make it last?” said Colby Hopkins, a 32-year-old white male and one of the facilitators of the general assembly, after the meeting. He was explaining the value of hyperlocalization. “Problems are different wherever you are, but there is an interconnectivity. You can’t take a model of anything — social, economic, or political — and expect it to work the same way everywhere.”
West Harlem General Assembly wants to remain autonomous of the broader movement, said a facilitator, who called herself Chanel, a 28-year-old, wearing red plastic-framed eyeglasses. But, members said they stand in solidarity with all of the Occupy movements, particularly Occupy Wall Street.
Their agenda that evening was loosely formulated around subjects raised at the October 28th Occupy Harlem meeting. And the group has accepted a small amount of money — less than $100 — from Occupy Wall Street.
“If it’s an issue up here, it’s an issue down there,” said Sumumba Sobukwe, 43, a tall, black man in black hipster eyeglass frames and a light-blue baseball cap.
Homeless off and on since January 2008, Sobukwe has been unable to camp out at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, since he would lose his bed in the Bronx shelter where he currently resides. He said he lost his West Harlem apartment four days before his fortieth birthday.
“I’ve never forgotten that,” he said.
Sobukwe participated in the housing and gentrification breakout group discussion — one of the West Harlem General Assembly’s four breakout groups. His group talked mostly about Columbia University’s expansion plan, a local issue that illustrates the rationale of forming an Occupy West Harlem group. “We are in a serious battle for the survival of this community,” a discussion group participant said.
Because Harlem is gentrifying, many of the people participating in West Harlem General Assembly were white, creating a multiracial and multi-class political coalition. Frances Villar is a 28-year-old black resident of West Harlem. Villar said that the group, which she described as mostly working class, fairly represented the changing demographics of the neighborhood.