OFFICIAL REPORT ON THE QUESTION OF THE SO-CALLED NEW YORK COMMUNE
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Beginning of the transcript…
It all started two weeks before the declaration of the Commune. Thousands of us invaded the incomplete structures of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. We took action when most of us were getting evicted from our homes after the rents doubled in the last few years. The occupation started as a form of protest, but quickly evolved towards a real alternative-society model. We set up camps on the hundreds of slabs of the towers and started to live in them in a new form of urban living. Multitudes of hoists were insuring the vertical communication of food, essential goods and reclaimed construction material from the ground.
The first time that the NYPD attempted to take back control of the site, we were disorganized and managed to make them retreat only after having outnumbered them. When they came back a few days later, our defensive strategy was more responsive, and the hundreds of policemen did not even succeed in entering the site. Every day we were gathering in small assemblies to debate and construct the particulars of our small society. Many people were exhausted and discussions could quickly become harsh and long, but only a limited number of people left the movement during the occupation.
One night, after a bit less than two months of common life in the towers, we were suddenly awakened by the loud noise of a flock of helicopters that quickly invaded our space with their powerful spotlights. While Special Forces were landing on the roofs, hundreds of police officers in full riot gear were climbing up the structures, arresting all the people they encountered. The surprise of the attack led to a general panic that reached a dangerous level on some overcrowded floors. It was only after few hours of systematized and serial arrests, when the towers were almost emptied, that the event that would make history occurred. Even today, it remains unclear what really happened. A small number of us were still on the ground, ready to be brought away in the MTA buses requisitioned by the NYPD, when we heard a terrifying scream and made out in the darkness of the dawn the fall of a frail body from one of the highest floors of the main tower. Whether it was a suicide, an accident, or a murder was irrelevant to us. What we knew is that this tragic event would have never occurred without the police’s armed attack. Our rage was growing on the way to Rikers Island, where the thousand of us who had gotten arrested were eventually corralled in the central courtyard.
A few hours later, nobody in New York could possibly be unaware of the story and many of us left our offices and homes to join the various gatherings that were organizing everywhere in the city. One portrait of the young man who died was spread on the internet and became quickly visible on many signs in the streets. Little by little, we started to move again and joined a march that started in the North of Harlem and was determined to reach City Hall.
The Police Department was overwhelmed as many officers had been sent home after finishing the night-eviction operation. It also had to face an important number of resignations and defections by the officers who had witnessed the dreadful event of that morning. Reinforcements were called among Newark and Hoboken Police, but the newcomers were quickly outnumbered by our irresistible crowd, which constituted an important part of the city’s population.
When we reached downtown, there was several dozen of thousands of us. Barriers were organized around City Hall and the Police troops gathered there were armed. One of the white collar cops shouted himself hoarse through a megaphone promising us to have his men shooting if we went ahead. However, after we ignored the first warning shot and continued to march forward, the troops did not dare fire and let us go.
Our crowd continued to grow until the evening. At that point, we were surrounding the entire City Hall area. Few clashes with the police had happened during the last hours, when little groups of people tried to infiltrate the buildings of the Financial District, but nobody died that night.
Around 11pm, we saw the police forces effectuating retreats from every places we were occupying. Some of them even joined us in the crowd accompanied by joyful chants and screams. We quickly learned that the mayor had fled the city. New York City then existed without executive power.
All throughout the night that followed, we engaged in numerous conversations to address what needed to be done in the coming days. The process of collective discussions was long and sometimes painful but it became clear that we needed to gather the next day to take a definitive decision about the future of our city. Minor yet multiples arguments occurred as to determine the place to meet, as the location of this historical event was emphasizing the feelings of neighborhood identities throughout the five boroughs. Eventually, it was agreed that we would meet in Harlem, in the neighborhood of the dead young man who had brought us together.
DAY ONE OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
When we woke up the next day, the streets were empty and the silence was somehow underscoring the importance of the next coming hours. Around mid-day, we all found ways to reach Marcus Garvey Park and joined the thousands of people who were already there. We needed to determine whether we should organize new municipal elections or rather be more radical and declare the independence of the city. Each of us who wanted to participate in the debate saw their voice repeated by the crowd in an expanding circle around them. Many of us then invoked our foreign nationalities or origins, talked about our feeling of belonging to New York but not the United States, and called for the creation of a universal city. Others questioned the economy of such a city and the potential suppressive consequences that might have already been undertaken by the federal government. By the middle of the day, we could read in the news President Giulani’s television appearance in which he stated that, despite his regret for the death of the young activist, his administration would have no mercy whatsoever for those whom he calls, savage violent rioters. From there, the conversation in New York City took a radically different turn. We understood that our time was limited and that a decision had to be made. Only few people had not yet been convinced by the necessity of independence and, grasping the ineluctability of history, left the crowd as a form of protest.
A few hours later, the Commune of New York City was declared. The five boroughs constituted the parts of the first Universal City of modern times. Everywhere in the city, more or less formal ceremonies were being held to dramatically take down the star-spangled banner from the many flagpoles where it flew. Those ceremonies were followed by a multitude of spontaneous street parties favored by the unusual warmth of the weather. Only a few violent fights between small groups of nationalists and independentists had then to be reported despite the absence of the police, whose chief commissioner had officially terminated the post after the declaration of independence.
DAY TWO OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
Most of us, citizens of the Commune, refused to go back to work at our former jobs. We were simply walking around randomly in the streets of the city, discovering neighborhoods that were previously unknown to us. In the evening, everyone could read the first issue of the Liberated Time of New York City in which, among other stories, an old man explained: “I have lived for seventy-five years in the Upper West Side and I had never crossed the Harlem River before!” For the first time, the territorialized cleavages between social classes seemed to have been forgotten. From Chinatown to Cypress Hills, from Fordham Heights to Flushing, we drifted tirelessly between the various social geographies that then composed the city. At night many block parties were organized and thus crystallized our social diversity in many neighborhoods.
DAY THREE OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
That morning, we started our day without power. By then, we were off the American grid and the small power plants in New York could not feed the entire city by themselves. Our past way of life had been absolutely dependent on electricity, and we were going to experience what it means to live without it. Later that day, many neighborhoods were equipped with mobile generators which helped to provide power for essential needs. Every one of us understood rapidly that there would soon be a shortage of gas too, and most streets were now emptied of their cars. At night, the neighborhood mobile generator was providing one of the rare sources of electrical light and many meals were cooked and shared around it. Electricity was somehow what had been keeping us inside our houses as individuals; its absence had brought us together, to get through the difficulties, as a collective.
DAY FOUR OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
While we continued to drift in the city, a zeppelin appeared in the New York sky and dropped tens of thousands of leaflets which fell on the city’s sidewalks. They read: “Citizen of the United States of America, you have been fooled by a group of provocateurs who have slyly taken New York City hostage. Arrest the rioters and affirm your loyalty to your country. Any citizen who does not actively distance himself or herself from the so-called Commune will be punished to the full extent of the law.” Official propaganda was however not the only information spread around that day. Helped by local printers, we distributed thousands of copies of a small manual that we designed to facilitate the creation of local forms of government for which one has to be physically present to be part of the decision-making process.
Somewhere else in the city, a small number of us undertook to vandalize every floor of the Seagram Building, throwing desks, chairs and computers out of the windows. The skyscraper designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe quickly turned into a ruin surrounded by cadavers of office furniture lying on the sidewalk. Although most of us ignored the fact when we attacked the building, the Seagram was a symbolic paradigm of the past New York, one of “open space” and profitability. We needed new architectural experiments that corresponded with the social one we were living in.
DAY FIVE OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
The food blockade that President Giulani wanted to impose on New York City had been judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, which had gathered for an emergency session. In fact, the Supreme Court based its decision on the effective non recognition of the independence of New York City and therefore affirmed that no citizen of the United States could possibly see his own government actively preventing him from having access to food. We had been saved by a legal loophole but, back then, we could not have cared less.
DAY SIX OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
The small manual on self-governmentality, which had spread all over the city was starting to be applied locally in many neighborhoods. However, we rapidly observed that only very few public spaces of the former city offered appropriate conditions for hosting political assemblies. Until then, public space had been designed for circulation, control and commercial concerns. The invention of a space that would facilitate democratic processes was harder to undertake than what we originally expected. Our assemblies, held on empty parking lots, squares or parks, were starting to feel the urge for a proper public infrastructure in order to sustain their function over time. On the other hand, we were also only a few people who knew that all design work is unquestionably related to mechanisms of power and we feared reproducing the schemes that required so much effort from us to fight against.
Meanwhile, many of our communities in Brooklyn and Queens, worried about the US President’s threats of a food blockade, decided to organize in order to multiply the means of local food production. Empty lots and rooftops were reclaimed and organized into small farms to provide a minimum amount of food for their direct neighborhoods.
DAY SEVEN OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
Many of us considered our daily stroll as our primary occupation. We, drifters were often recognized as such and were regularly given joyful greetings and refreshments when we entered a new neighborhood. Before the Commune, we would have never considered walking as a form of urban exploration and socialization. Even our Sunday walks had adhered to well-known comfortable routes. As citizen drifters, we stopped experiencing the city as a sum of disconnected spaces and started to explore the logics of economic and social production.
DAY EIGHT OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
Among us, several dozen women and queers that we retrospectively called the pétroleuses, armed with Molotov cocktails, marched towards City Hall and undertook to burn down the central building of the former executive power. Others intervened and claimed that the building should be saved, not for its symbolism, but for its architectural heritage. We, pétroleuses, replied that nothing from the former regime should survive if a new society wanted to exist, and soon we, protesters were outnumbered by the mob throwing the rest of their Molotov cocktails through the windows of the building. The scene of the 19th-century landmark burning down fascinated us as we watched it, for it dramatized both an apocalyptic painting and the beautiful spectacle of a monumental torch at dusk.
DAY NINE OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
The, engineers, architects and artists among us invited the rest of us to gather in front of the Public Library to build the first architectural agora. We thought of the structure primarily as a sort of stage surrounded by several stair towers which could be connected to each other. We were thinking of it as a piece ready to form potential rhizomes of similar structures. Rapidly after the beginning of the construction, the dozens of us who were involved undertook to build shelved walls on the side of these stairs. We argued that we wanted to take advantage of this opportunity to transfer some books from the Public Library to the agora. Our small team of architects complained that none of that was part of the original design while we, engineers, claimed that the structure was not strong enough to support the books’ weight.
It took us some time but we all finally understood how the agora could constitute a place of assembly but also, a theater, a place of rest, a library and some sort of immanent fortress if counter-revolutionary forces were to be sent against us. The well-organized and professional design of the agora was supplemented by an enthusiastically assembled chaotic structure made out of tree-trunks found on a truck nearby.
DAY TWELVE OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
The construction of the agora had been accomplished after three full days and nights of work. The structure’s shelves then harbored about 20,000 books written in more than forty languages. They had not been placed following any particular order but most people were able to find a book in a language that they could read while seating on the agora’s steps.
At night, concerts, lectures and discussions were being held on and around the structure. We still thought that things were far from perfect. That is how, many of us formed collectives to start building other agoras in our respective neighborhoods based on our own need and critical understanding of the Public Library’s one. We, architects, never had so much work. The notion of design was not really the same as the one we used to know but we were acting as advisors to enthusiastic groups of amateurs and professional builders wanting to construct architecture with and for the collectivity.
DAY SIXTEEN OF THE NEW YORK COMMUNE
The rumor had spread that many former officers of the NYPD who had fled the Commune, had been re-organizing in New Jersey and were preparing an attack against us. Although the American Congress was still refusing to give emergency powers to the President of the United States, it fully legitimized the NYPD as the appropriate authority to enforce American sovereignty over the Commune.
Fragment found in the cell of patient Martial Donatian at Bayside State Prison’s Behavioral Health Department (New Jersey). Experts agree that this text ought to be associated with the eigtheen photographs (attached to this report below) found on detainee Aziza Delville at Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center and Martha Milstone at the psychiatric wing of the Indiana Women’s Prison (Indianopolis). An important sum of other pieces of evidence collected at the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health Hospital (Baton Rouge) requires examination but seems to tally with Donatian’s written version to a reasonable extent. The commission notes that this concordance is remarkable. It therefore recommends further studies to determine what would be an appropriate response to the recent release of documents evoking in different forms the so-called New York Commune in the prison and psychiatric environment.
End of the transcript
Léopold Lambert / Architect[e], Editor & Writer