Episcopal clergy arrested after entering Trinity Church property

December 17, 2011
Retired Episcopal bishop George E. Packard (purple robe) and other protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are detained after climbing a ladder to trespass on a privately-owned piece of land near Juan Pablo Duarte Square during a march in New York December 17, 2011.

Retired Episcopal bishop George E. Packard (purple robe) and other protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement are detained after climbing a ladder to trespass on a privately-owned piece of land near Juan Pablo Duarte Square during a march in New York December 17, 2011. Hundreds of anti-Wall Street protesters took to the New York streets on Saturday in an attempt to establish a new encampment, with a number arrested as they tried to move onto land owned by Trinity Church, Wall Street. Photo/REUTERS/Andrew Burton

[Episcopal News Service] Retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard and at least two other Episcopal priests were arrested Dec. 17 after they entered a fenced property — owned by Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall Street — in Duarte Square in Lower Manhattan as part of Occupy Wall Street‘s “D17 Take Back the Commons” event to celebrate three months since the movement’s launch.

Livestream video showed the former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence at about 3:30 p.m. and dropping to the ground inside the property.

Photo/REUTERS/Andrew Burton

Livestream video showed the former Episcopal bishop for the armed forces and federal ministries, dressed in a purple robe and wearing a cross, climbing a ladder that protesters erected against the fence at about 3:30 p.m. and dropping to the ground inside the property. Packard was the first to enter the site. Other protesters followed, including the Rev. John Merz and the Rev. Michael Sniffen, Episcopal priests in the Diocese of Long Island.

Soon after, police entered the area and arrested at least 50 people. Merz reportedly was arrested with Packard. Sniffen was conducting a telephone interview with ENS that ended abruptly. At 11 p.m., he confirmed that he subsequently had been arrested. Just before midnight, Packard’s wife, Brook, told ENS via e-mail that her husband had been released and was on his way home.

OWS had been lobbying Trinity to use the property for a winter encampment, following the movement’s Nov. 15 eviction from Zuccotti Park near the church. Trinity had refused, citing a lack of facilities at the site and its lease agreement allowing the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to use it for periodic art installations. Packard had been trying to mediate an agreement between OWS members and Trinity.

“Trinity Wall Street would not meet with Occupy Wall Street. They refused,” said Brook Packard in a telephone interview shortly after 7 p.m. Dec. 17. “When Trinity closed its ears and refused to negotiate, the path of civil disobedience was clear.”

On Dec. 17, OWS had invited protesters to attend a “Block Party and Re-Occupation” at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, site of the Trinity-owned property near the Holland Tunnel, beginning at noon. The event was scheduled to include on-site entertainment plus performances broadcast by WBAI radio: “From the airwaves to the subterranean let us assemble once again to say we’re here to liberate space and we’re not going away.”

Sniffen told ENS he entered the park with Packard and other Episcopal and interfaith clergy. Over the phone, the sounds of people singing “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming” could be heard in the background.

Sniffen said he was concerned about getting arrested and didn’t know until the last moment whether he would enter the fenced area.

“As a matter of conscience and discernment, I felt that I had to enter … in solidarity with these people who I’ve been supporting from the beginning and who are taking an enormous risk to force a conversation to happen about social and economic justice,” he said. “As a priest of all the people, I felt that it was important to be with the people rather than looking at them through the fence as they take this great risk.”

A moment later, he reported, “There are a lot of people exiting the park” and then, “I’ve got to go.”

Livestream video of one portion of the fence showed protesters pushing it inward and police officers pushing it outward. Cameraman Tim Pool reported that police pushed their clubs through the fence to move protesters away.

“The people outside the fence who were not breaking the law were in much more danger than the people inside. I thought I was going to lose my life,” said Brook Packard, who also described her experience on her husband’s blog. “We were sitting outside the fence. The cops came, and they started pushing the fence down on us and pushing the people that were standing.”

“A cop looked me in the eye and kneed me in the chest,” she said. She asked him to stop and “he kneed me two more times. I was pushed to the ground, and then I was picked up and thrown on top of other people.”

“I was not alone,” she added. “That’s nothing compared to what the protesters have encountered in terms of violence as they try and get this movement moving.”

Inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations that sparked political change in the Middle East, the Occupy movement protesting greed and economic inequality has spread to more than 2,500 locations across the country and the world. Officials in many cities have dismantled encampments, including New York’s original site at Zuccotti Park. At an Advent event in New York on Dec. 3, at which Packard delivered the invocation, an OWS member named Laura read a “proposed national call to reoccupy” on Dec. 17.

“We call on displaced occupations across the nation to reoccupy outdoor places,” she said.

Said Brook Packard, “There are two things that can kill this movement: violence and not having a home. And they need a home.”

Members of an OWS working group she attended discussed how, in seeking to use Trinity’s property, “they didn’t want to make it against religion or people of faith” and wanted to make it clear that “the end goal was not to occupy this area,” she said. “The end result was to get a home, so that from there they could occupy foreclosed homes for homeless people instead of banks” and take other actions.

Faith leaders have differed on whether Trinity – which has allowed use of other facilities for OWS meeting space and respite – should permit an encampment on the Duarte Square site and whether protesters should “occupy” the space without permission.

The Rev. Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church, one of the leaders in an interfaith group supporting OWS, wrote in an e-mailed notice to supporters Dec. 16: “Occupy Faith NYC has always supported the OWS ask of Trinity, and will continue to do so, but there is no clear consensus on actions like civil disobedience. Without this consensus, we will not be endorsing such actions, and individual faith leaders who may choose to go this route will be doing so autonomously. That said, I encourage all of you to join us tomorrow for this event.”

Also on Dec. 16, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and Episcopal Diocese of New York Bishop Mark Sisk each issued statements criticizing OWS attempts to occupy the Trinity property without permission.

“The Trinity congregation has decided that the property known as Duarte Park is not appropriate for use by the Occupy movement, and that property remains closed,” Jefferts Schori wrote. “Other facilities of Trinity continue to be open to support the Occupy movement, for which I give great thanks. It is regrettable that Occupy members feel it necessary to provoke potential legal and police action by attempting to trespass on other parish property.”

Retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu issued two statements. The first praised OWS members as “a voice for the world.”

“Trinity Church is an esteemed and valued old friend of mine … That is why it is especially painful for me to hear of the impasse you are experiencing with the parish. I appeal to them to find a way to help you,” he said.

The second statement discouraged attempts to occupy the property. “My statement is not to be used to justify breaking the law,” Tutu said. “In a country where all people can vote and Trinity’s door to dialogue is open, it is not necessary to forcibly break into property. Nor is it to reinforce or build higher the barriers between people of faith who seek peace and justice. My deep prayer is that people can work together and I look forward to that conversation.”

Brook Packard, however, said Trinity, despite repeated OWS requests, had not been willing to dialogue directly with OWS members beyond a recent meeting with hunger strikers seeking to get Trinity to permit OWS use of the property.

“The real story is, why did Trinity not engage in dialogue?” she asked. “Trinity more than anyone should know its own history, particularly with its support of Desmond Tutu, that laws must be broken in order for justice to reign.”

In a Dec. 17 statement, Trinity’s rector, the Rev. James Cooper, said the church was “saddened that OWS protestors chose to ignore yesterday’s messages” from Jefferts Schori, Tutu and Sisk.

“OWS protestors call out for social and economic justice; Trinity has been supporting these goals for more than 300 years,” he wrote. “The protestors say they want to improve housing and economic development; Trinity is actively engaged in such efforts in the poorest neighborhoods in New York City and indeed around the world. We do not, however, believe that erecting a tent city at Duarte Square enhances their mission or ours. The vacant lot has no facilities to sustain a winter encampment. In good conscience and faith, we strongly believe to do so would be wrong, unsafe, unhealthy and potentially injurious. We will continue to provide places of refuge and the responsible use of our facilities in the Wall Street area.”

After the arrests at Duarte Square, OWS participants began another march. Videographer Pool reported they were headed toward Cooper’s home, but police blocked the street. Marchers then took to the streets, snarling evening traffic on Seventh Avenue and, after temporarily being blocked by police, walking to Times Square.

Before attending the Dec. 17 event, Brook Packard said, “We had agreed that [George] would be arrested and I would be home.”

“After that really terrifying moment of having the fence crush me and having the police throwing me around,” she said, she was able to walk to another location and sang a song to let her husband know she was there. He later called her from the police “paddy wagon.”

Reflecting on the OWS participants, she said, “We love these people. They are remarkable. They have been misrepresented in the media. They are young and vital and brilliant. There are some hangers-on, but that happens.”

“This is the wind of the Spirit blowing forcefully into our lives,” she said. “This could have been an amazing opportunity for Trinity and an amazing moment for the entire church, but they chose private property over people and principles.”

– Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.