Over the past two months, the nation has been watching Lower Manhattan as hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of protesters claimed Zuccotti Park to make their voices heard. During the first days of the protest, we saw an influx of young people with laptops looking for Wi-Fi and power. It was a gentle upsweep for a week while the protest secured its hold on the park. We went from 50-80 guests/day to 80 to 100. Exciting but manageable.
Then the floods began. After a couple of weeks we were seeing 200-300 guests/day and that number hasn’t slacked since. What shifts most from week-to-week is the make-up of that population in a symbiotic ebb and flow with the events in the park. Until the raid on the park, we saw hundreds of laptops streaming in looking for outlets (I jokingly referred to this as Snakes on a Plane) and began to expand our offerings, the number of available outlets, and our commitment to keeping the space open to all without favoring any particular agenda.
How did we do this? We asked that all meetings over 5 people happen in the CP conference room (which was scheduled continuously throughout the day.) We asked our new friends to invite others to share their table and keep the chairs faced to tables as opposed to scattered about the space at random. How did we come up with these things? One of us—me, Molly, or a volunteer—would simply ask ourselves what it would be like to walk through the door for the first time. Does it feel friendly? Could I easily find a place to sit? Did someone say hello to me?
Beautiful offerings began to line up. Community organizers from OWS began volunteering in the space to greet newcomers, orient people to our mission (unconditional welcome! Everything free! Be nice!), and help keep the bathrooms clean. Josh Tysinger, from Church of the Advocate in Asheville, NC, flew up to New York to experience OWS and volunteer at Charlotte’s Place. He offered pastoral care, perspective, a friendly face, and made great connections with our existing staff of volunteers. Although exhausting, the flow was still manageable and allowed us to test our mettle against sheer, raw numbers.
I also noticed how long it takes folks to adjust to our ethic. Very often, guests would come in angry (Occupiers who’d had a bad morning, neighbors who were tired of the protest, kids who missed the space to spread out.) Over and over, I see how hard we are on one another, on our resources, on the patience and love of those who care for us. But these same angry guests (who would occasionally yell at me “who are you to tell me to move my chair!”, “kick this guy out, he smells!”, “There should be more, outlets, food, space, chairs, etc.”) would come in later and apologize or help someone else in the space understand how to care for a gift freely given.
And then Zuccotti Park was raided. There were controversies and recriminations and tears and trauma.
For a week, we stepped back from some usual rules. We allowed sleeping in the space and offered the kitchen as a way to get food to people who had come to count on the Kitchen Working Group. It was a rough week. I broke up a fight on the sidewalk, fielded concerns from our neighbors, and debriefed with exhausted volunteers. But we were okay. Many volunteers surfaced to help us keep the peace and friends we’d made in the movement helped keep me informed of why we were seeing the fallout—young people who’d left their precarious situations at home far away to take part in OWS without a way to return home, some who had been pepper-sprayed and beaten, some struggling to maintain their health against the coming winter.
That, too, shifted. Last week, we decided to pull in the reins a bit. Clear the floors. Bring some balance back to the space. It was a noble effort that was not well received by our 100 guests who were exhausted, hungry, angry, and wounded. More and more people came into the space to give “mic checks” (which is not part of our culture at CP) and scuffles were continually breaking out over the public computers. In a controversial move, I closed the space early on Tuesday, 11/22 and remained closed for the holiday.
So why did Charlotte's close for the holiday? What was different on Tuesday from the past two months?
If you have ever spent a few hours at CP, you may have noticed how the energy of two or three people can change the tone of the space. Normally, people can be brought back from an aggressive entrance or disrespectful stance. But Tuesday brought a volume of ire and stress we couldn’t calm. I went so far as to ask a few people to leave so they could collect themselves and calm down. They all refused. I had two options, close the space or call the police. I would rather calmly ask people to leave than potentially put everyone in harm’s way.
Charlotte's has received an outpouring of support from friends at OWS in mediation, info, and ethics and spirituality (one of these days I’ll make myself a flow chart of the working groups.) Today, we opened again. I believe in what we’re trying to do: offer safe space for unconditional welcome and foster an environment where people can step outside their comfort zones.
Challenge is how we grow.
Unconditional love does not just happen. It is like trying to get a breath at the bottom of the ocean. It only exists if we put it there ourselves. The culture of ease and welcome at Charlotte’s Place will only continue if we put it there ourselves.
Author: Jennifer Chinn
Created: March 29, 2011
Charlotte’s Place is a free gathering space open to anyone in Lower Manhattan. At Charlotte’s Place, you make the space with whatever you want to do. Come draw on the wall, water the plants, eat your lunch, attend an art workshop, listen to music, read a book, use the free wi-fi, watch a movie, or whatever else comes to mind. Charlotte’s Place is open to all and free to use. This blog is managed by Jenn Chinn, program manager at Charlotte’s Place, with contributions from the Charlotte’s Place community.
Charlotte's Place is located at 109 Greenwich Street, between Rector and Carlisle Streets. It is open from 12-2pm Monday-Friday (bring your lunch!) and for events.
Want to share your recent experience at Charlotte's Place? E-mail Jenn at firstname.lastname@example.org
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