OWS presents a ‘fracture of good order’ for Trinity Church

Daniel Berrigan speaks to the press at Zuccotti Park. Above him, George Packard, and to the right of him, Chris Hedges. Photo by Loren Hart.

Jesuit priest and war resister Daniel Berrigan, soft-spoken but still eloquent at 91, and journalist Chris Hedges joined members of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Faith at Zuccotti Park on Thursday morning. They gathered to sing, pray and denounce the continued determination of Trinity Church, an Episcopal parish, to cooperate with the prosecution of OWS protesters.

The cases stem from trespassing arrests on December 17 of last year at Duarte Square, a plot of land which Trinity Church claims ownership over at Canal Street and Sixth Avenue. Trials begin Monday for the activists, including retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, other clergy members and Jack Boyle, an HIV-positive man who is refusing food or medication unless all charges are unconditionally dropped. Occupy Faith has called for a period of prayer leading up to the trial. Some defendants face 90-day jail sentences. This is a vital test of whether Occupy protesters will experience significant imprisonment for their actions, and of whether the institutions of civil society will rise to protect them.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, has, according to Trinity, offered deals which would not involve fines or jail time to all but three defendants who have “multiple open cases or additional crimes.” So far, none have accepted. In a statement on Thursday, Trinity Rector James Cooper said, “Trinity fully supports the District Attorney’s decision to offer protestors non-criminal dispositions without fines or incarceration, and also respects the protestors’ right to make a choice.”

To understand why this is no ordinary trespassing case, one must first understand why Trinity is no ordinary church. The legal entity which owns Trinity Church, Trinity Wall Street, is one of the largest landowners in Manhattan, controlling millions of square feet of commercial property, the result of a 1705 land grant by England’s Queen Anne. For many years, Trinity owned buildings housing printers servicing Wall Street financial firms. In the early 1980s, much of it was converted to office space. Today, Trinity Real Estate is trying to remake the area around Duarte Square into a home for tech startups, residential developments and trendy businesses frequented by the creative class. The encampment OWS activists say they were trying to start on December 17 would not seem to fit the business plan of Trinity’s rector, or its well-connected vestry. Rector Cooper said, in his statement released Thursday:

Trinity has welcomed and continues to welcome OWS members, like all members of its community, to its facilities in the Wall Street area. However, Trinity unequivocally does not support the seizure of private property.

This is as much a trial, therefore, of the idea of Trinity as church/landlord as it is a trial of nonviolent activists who scaled a fence. Concerns have even been raised about whether Trinity really owns Duarte Square in the first place. Gideon Oliver, president of the National Lawyers’ Guild New York City chapter, says, “Trinity’s relationship to that real estate is something we plan to call into question.”

Chris Hedges, right; George Packard, left. Photo by the author.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author with a divinity degree, quoted from the Book of Luke in his remarks in Zuccotti Park, then made a case against what he deems the greed of Wall Street financiers. He said:

These people obsessed with personal enrichment and empowerment, who have decided to build tiny monuments to themselves as the product of their lives are consumed by demons, the demons of greed. … In theological terms, people who orient their lives, and have the power to orient our society, in that direction are servants of death. These are forces of death. And what we have come to do today is stand up and fight for the forces of life.

Calling Trinity a “corporation masquerading as a church, possessed by the same demons of money,” Hedges pointed out that it has among its tenants the investment firm Goldman Sachs, which runs one of the world’s largest commodities exchanges. Food prices, meanwhile, soar in the developing world.

Daniel Berrigan. Photo by the author.

The tactic of turning a trial into an opportunity for political theater is one that Daniel Berrigan knows well. He and his late brother Philip were members of the Catonsville Nine, a group convicted of charges relating to a 1968 demonstration in which they took files from the United States Draft Board and set them alight in a parking lot using homemade napalm. Their trial was as much a trial of the Vietnam War as of the defendants. Berrigan never denied his actions but, rather, explained them. In court, Berrigan said:

Our apologies, dear friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

Following his conviction, Berrigan continued his protest, going underground with his brother and others, periodically giving public sermons until his capture in August of 1969. Berrigan wrote a play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which was adapted into a 1972 film.

On Thursday, Berrigan framed the Trinity Church issue by asking, “What is real about real estate, and what is unreal about real estate?” Suggesting that “real estate is real when it is the servant of a real common cause,” he described activists’ presence in Zuccotti Park as giving reality back to the space. Though Duarte Square has since been rented to operators of trucks selling high-end food, on December 17 it was just a barren spot behind chain link fencing lost amidst the Holland Tunnel-bound traffic. What common cause that served only Trinity seems to know.

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