NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK — For a city that never shuts up, New York is pretty quiet in the first days of this year’s United Nations General Assembly — the annual circus that brings the entire world into Manhattan.
From politicians to activists, they all roll in, the former rubbing elbows over expensive meals in plush hotels and embassies, the latter, at sign-making parties and marches.
But with protest permits stacked up for next week — when the high-level meetings start to happen — the designated protest zone across from the United Nations was quiet on Thursday, jammed on one end with dozens of police barricades, and on the other with office workers and nannies taking their lunch breaks.
The city, of course, is noisy as ever. Subways rumble and trucks roar as women with expensive blow-outs discussed how much rosé they shouldn’t be drinking and men named Patrick were being congratulated on really nailing it at their first board meeting.
Some thirty blocks south of the U.N., at Union Square, though, dissent lived.
There, among the incense sellers, the Hare Krishnas, and chess players were a group of Guatemalans warming up for their main event next week: Protesting the government of Jimmy Morales pushing to oust U.N. anti-corruption investigators out of the country.
Boris Ochoa, 48, is one of the organizers of this warm up and said they’re expecting up to 500 people next week (“We have the permit,” he said, with a smile) when they are permitted to protest outside the United Nations, urging them to keep their inspectors there.
Morales, himself on the ropes on a graft probe, tried pushing the U.N. to change the head of the investigating commission — a move U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres flatly rejected on Wednesday.
Morales, though, had already shut down the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) triggering protests there as the U.N. warns that the rule of law there is in jeopardy.
“We are protesting as they are in Guatemala right now,” said Ochoa, who owns a construction contracting company in New Jersey, adding that this act of solidarity was being seen by people in Guatemala on social media.
“We want the U.N. to keep CICIG in the country to investigate Morales’s corruption,” he said.
A few feet away, another group was gearing up for a far more elaborate set-up.
Going by #OurPowerPRnyc, a coalition of frontline groups and community activists (comprised of politicians, faith leaders, artists, and more) was there to honor the memory of the thousands who died after Hurricane Maria started its assault on Puerto Rico on Sept. 16, 2017.
Most of those who died didn’t die in the storm, but in its aftermath, due to the lack of medicine, clean water, safe food, and shelter. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been blamed for this, although President Donald Trump has denied that over 3,000 have died in the hurricane’s aftermath.
They are pushing for a lot of things, and among them are: Debt relief for Puerto Rico, repealing the Jones Act (an outdated shipping law), and an investment by the U.S. federal government to rebuild Puerto Rico for Puerto Ricans.
And although they aren’t holding this event in in from of the U.N., they want its action, because they’re also calling on the international community to recognize the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and provide emergency aid and support to grassroots organizations.
“What’s happened, as a result of this hurricane, is that FEMA, instead of rebuilding, is working hard to push Puerto Ricans out of Puerto Rico. So by next year, we expect that 500,000 will be pushed out,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of UPROSE, a Latino community organization.
“We think that this is an international human rights crisis. And it has to be treated in that way,” she added.
There’s movement to privatize essential services on the island, while little is being done to ensure that Puerto Ricans have a safe home to go back to. In fact, said Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association, most poor, marginalized people don’t have deeds to their ancestral lands, which means their are ineligible for aid from FEMA.
The even had a roster of big names in community activism, including New York Democratic congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who delivered brief remarks to an awe-struck crowd), and author Naomi Klein, whose 2007 searing takedown of disaster capitalism in her book Shock Doctrine, remains a must-read for activists.
“Donald Trump says that Puerto Rico is an ‘unsung success,’ but the truth is that in this city, on Wall Street, there are people singing his praises, because they have opportunities to profit,” said Klein.
But what will hold this administration accountable? Will it be a domestic mechanism? Or, will speaking out here, in the shadow of the U.N., with the global media present, make a difference?
“Hold these guys accountable?” said Klein, looking almost amused as she spoke over the atonal electric guitar chords screeched out by a young man with chickadee-yellow hair and the din of Union Square traffic.
Rushing to sign copies of her books, she gave it a thought and told ThinkProgress that, yes, maybe an international investigation involving the U.N. Human Rights Council (from which the U.S. has withdrawn) should not be ruled out.
“But I think these guys have to be voted out…accountability will come later,” she said, before blending into the crowd forming in the back of the square. They weren’t there for the protests, though. They were lining up around the block to partake in the culinary Harvest in the Square event, with tickets ranging from $150 to $500.
“This is what it’s come to,” said one man to another, probably unable to hear the nearby crowd’s chants for clean drinking water in Puerto Rico.