Mutual aid org. fights police presence in Washington Square Park

During an aid distribution event at Washington Square Park last month, police officers displaced unhoused people living in the park, discarded their belongings and made several arrests. Now, the organization behind the event is pushing back.

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NYPD officers confront members of the Washington Square Park Mutual Aid community group. (Photo by Steve Cruz, courtesy of Copwatch Patrol Unit)

Tori Morales, Deputy News Editor

A mutual aid group for low-income people living in and around Washington Square Park is calling for more protections for unhoused people after police forcefully removed a family of unhoused people and their belongings from the area. Three people were arrested during the encounter, including two unhoused people and an activist.

Washington Square Park Mutual Aid runs food and clothing distribution events at the park. On Aug. 19, during one of the organization’s weekly events, two police officers approached WSPMA’s distribution tables to check for violations of the park’s tabling rules, according to organizers.

Police left after people attending the event began shouting at them, but returned with additional officers and attempted to access the organization’s belongings. No items were removed nor were any violations found. The New York City Police Department declined to comment on the incident.

Steve Cruz, the co-founder of Copwatch Patrol Unit — a group of volunteers who follow and take videos of NYPD officers in order to document incidents of police brutality and harassment — frequently attends WSPMA events. He witnessed the Aug. 19 raid and believes it was in response to complaints from Greenwich Village residents and nearby business owners.

“They’re very mad at the people that live in the community that bring food to [unhoused people],” Cruz said. “They try to come after the people that are helping them, and they feel like we’re keeping them here.”

Many WSPMA participants also regularly join protests against police sweeps — removals of unhoused people’s belongings. First, a notice to vacate must be posted at least 24 hours in advance — although there have been cases of authorities failing to issue a notice before conducting a sweep. The Department of Homeless Services, Department of Sanitation, and police arrive together at the posted time. Sanitation workers remove any remaining belongings and structures while Homeless Services workers help locate shelters and other city services for those who express interest. Police most frequently intervene when unhoused individuals do not comply.

A WSPMA member, who did not give his name for fear of police retribution, was part of the group preventing police from interfering with the Aug. 19 distribution. He and others stood in front of officers and told them to leave. One officer repeatedly warned activists to back off.

“We give them a hard time because they don’t belong here,” the organizer said. “They tried to bump past me, going to see what was in our bins, and it escalated to a little bit of a shoving match.”

Members of the organization followed the officers away from their table while Cruz filmed, with others continuing to accost the officers and attempt to pressure them to leave the park. WSPMA had planned to run an educational event on defense against sweeps later in the evening, but the organization postponed the event after being alerted to arrests and a sweep in the northwest corner of the park.

The required 24-hour prior notice was not given for the Aug. 19 sweep, according to WSPMA. Cruz’s video shows that around six WSPMA members attempted to protect an unhoused woman’s belongings, but most were stopped by police.

“They wouldn’t let us help her,” said a person who was a part of the confrontation and also asked to remain anonymous. “We were able to get one person behind the barricades to help her figure stuff out. They trashed a lot of stuff.”

One of the three men who was arrested was a mutual aid activist and off-duty EMT who had helped an unhoused family move their belongings. All three of those who were arrested were later released with court summonses. Witnesses told WSN that the reason for the arrests was not explained to them.

Sweeps have grown in frequency following Mayor Eric Adams’ promise to crack down on structures built by unhoused communities citywide. Critics of the policy argue that sweeps merely displace unhoused people, as many are reluctant to enter the shelter system. The system has been criticized for unsanitary shelter conditions.

As a result of Adams’ policy, activists have been facing off with police to defend encampments, most notably at Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. An April 6 sweep there prompted an hours-long standoff resulting in arrests and protests, and prompted many activists, including some of those at Washington Square Park, to begin advocacy work.

A local block association leader told The Village Sun that the reasons for the sweep included NYU’s student move-in week and the beginning of the fall semester. University spokesman John Beckman, however, told the publication that NYU was not involved in the incident. Beckman said that the university considers the northwest corner of the park a source of concern.

On Aug. 26 during WSPMA’s next distribution event, some of the people that had been arrested during the previous week’s altercation returned to the park, including the unhoused family who had their belongings taken. WSPMA continues to distribute meals and clothing.

“That day, they came in here to intimidate,” Cruz said. “This is not the crowd for that.”

Contact Tori Morales at [email protected]