On Wednesday, March 14, members of Occupy New Haven waited anxiously for the New Haven Police Department to march onto the Green and forcibly remove their encampment, the last of its kind in New England. But as the clock struck noon, the deadline set by City Hall for tents to be off the Green, the protestors found themselves still waiting.
Fifteen minutes later, protesters on the Green received an explanation in the form of a text message. Their attorney, Norm Pattis, had succeeded in a last-ditch lawsuit to protect the encampment from the city’s planned eviction — but only for the next two weeks.
Pattis argued that the First Amendment protects the protesters’ right to demonstrate on the Green, which he called downtown New Haven’s primary space for public gathering.
Regardless of the outcome of the case, which U.S. District Court Judge Mark Kravitz will hear on March 28, the protesters’ lawsuit is shedding light on a heretofore obscure group of people: the Green’s true legal owners. Since 1683, ultimate authority over the space has rested with the Committee of the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands at New Haven.
As the presence of the Occupy movement — a nationwide protest of economic inequality that began last Sept. — has been increasingly perceived as permanent in New Haven, both the proprietors and City Hall have been re-evaluating what role the Green should serve. While City Hall first approached the Occupy movement about leaving, both groups have come to the conclusion that Occupy needs to go.
Perhaps a part of the New Haven protest’s message lies in calling attention to defining proper use of public space offered by the Green, said School of Architecture professor Alan Plattus, who co-coordinates the school’s “Urbanism and Landscape” program.
“Most people assume that once a protest is over, the space goes back to being what it was before,” Plattus said. “But Occupy is making a statement: a more persistent and continuous transformation of this space. That’s really part of the message.”
Now, with less than a week before Occupy pleads its case before Judge Kravitz, one question stands out above all: Just whose Green is it, anyway?
PUBLIC OR PRIVATE?
Because the Green has not been used in a consistent way since it was first designed in 1638, Judge Janet Hall said during the trial on March 14 that New Haven did not have the right to ask Occupy to leave until the purpose of the Green is made more clear.
City founders designated the Green as “common land,” Plattus said. Such spaces were typical of New England towns and were intended for activities ranging from civil meetings to livestock pasturage, he said, adding that the Green has since been used for many other purposes.
While the Green operates as a public space day-to-day — the New Haven Parks Commission oversees upkeep of the park — the proprietors assumed legal control of the Green 45 years after its founding and have since regulated its uses from the background. The proprietors, a group of five prominent citizens of New Haven, hold their positions for life. When one proprietor passes away or resigns the position, the remaining four elect another to take his or her place.
Drew Days, the Green’s head proprietor, declined to comment for this article, citing the ongoing litigation with the Occupy protesters.
For Elihu Rubin, a School of Architecture professor who is the other co-coordinator of the “Urbanism and Landscape” program and created a video documentary about the Green, the main criterion in determining what uses of the park fall under the category of common space as the proprietors aim to guard is based on whether a certain use prevents another citizen from also using the Green.
The Green is “New Haven’s living room” that no citizen should be prevented from enjoying, said Karyn Gilvarg ARC ’75, the executive director of the New Haven City Plan Department, adding that the aesthetic value of the space is part of its appeal. For every citizen in New Haven to be able to enjoy the space, the park should be green and well maintained, Gilvarg said.
Still, since Occupy New Haven allows anyone to enter or exit their campsite at will, Rubin said, perhaps a permanent encampment like Occupy does not prevent others from using even their portion of the Green.
“I think the strength of the Occupy movement is that it’s a porous environment, one where the barriers to entry are relatively low,” Rubin said. “My sense of the place is that it’s not an exclusive club.”
Rubin added that if New Haven citizens not participating in the movement feel encouraged to enter the Green and engage in civil discourse more than they did before Occupy began its campaign, it could be argued that the movement adds to a sense of the Green as a space for every person in New Haven.
HISTORY OF PROTEST
The Occupy movement as a whole advocates for more than just short-term dialogue. The strategy adopted by the protests nationwide began with setting up camp in a public space. To protesters, the success of the movement is linked to maintaining this “occupation.” To leave the park seems, to them, like giving up. As a letter posted to the Occupy New Haven website declares: “Our presence is not a camping trip.”
Occupy members have continued to argue that the Green is meant for anyone’s use, adding that they only take up a small portion of the park.
“It’s our constitutional right to be here and I believe they need to look inside them and figure out what’s the right thing to do,” said a protester who identified herself as Danielle. “It’s not even just our right, it’s our obligation to do this.”
Between Occupy New Haven’s beginning on Oct. 15 and early February, the protesters faced no opposition from City Hall, a contrast to Occupy protests in several other municipalities nationwide. City officials discussed with protesters that while they supported the movement’s overall goals, they believed the protest’s permanent presence on the Green inhibited other residents from using the space. At the city’s next meeting with protestors, one of the proprietors attended to express the group’s agreement with the city’s position.
When Occupy first arrived on the Green, city and police officials made no mention of a limit to the time protesters could camp on the Green. Then-City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph stressed that the city’s only priority was public safety.
“In New Haven we have a 373-year tradition of public assembly on the New Haven Green — as long as the occupiers are conducting themselves in a safe and responsible manner, we’re fine with that,” Joseph said when protesters first arrived. “It’s city and police policy that as long as everybody is following the rules, following the law, we support it as a city.”
But while Benton maintained the City still supports Occupy’s efforts, she said a “permanent tent community” on the Green is not “a long-term viable solution.”
Numerous protests have occurred on the Green in years past, especially in the late 1960s and early ’70s with events like the anti-war moratorium and the May Day protest. But none challenged the historical precedent of maintaining the Green’s open space longterm.
Edward Zelinsky ’72 LAW ’75 GRD ’75 ’78, a former alderman and longtime New Haven resident, recalled the city’s “very strong policy against permanent structures on the Green” after the assassination of former president John F. Kennedy. Kennedy had spoken in New Haven while campaigning, and after his death, a proposal to erect a statue of the former president was sent to the proprietors. Citing the Green’s purpose of housing as much open space as possible and their duty of looking to the long-term good of the Green, the proprietors rejected the proposal.
“The proprietors have always felt and have had widespread public support that this is open space,” Zelinsky said. “And if we can’t have a statue of President Kennedy, we have to wonder if this tent city is good for the long-term health of the community.”