OWS Meets Trinity Episcopal Church


Occupy Wall Street attempted to set up a new camp on a dusty strip of church-owned land in lower Manhattan, Saturday. Occupy 2.0 failed (at least 50 protestors were arrested) but the effort did succeed in stirring up a storm about property, power and the church just in time for Christmas.

Trinity Episcopal Church, Wall St and Occupy Wall St were near-by neighbors when the occupiers lived at Zuccotti Park, but since their eviction from that site on November 15, the occupiers have set their hopes on setting up a new camp a few blocks north, on Canal Street at Six Avenue. The land they have in mind (an ugly fenced-off triangle that abuts a concrete slab called Duarte Park,) is owned by the real estate arm of Trinity Church: Trinity Real Estate, one of the largest landowners in Manhattan with six million square feet of property and plans for a 430 foot-high building on the Duarte site — the centerpiece of a new downtown development.

Trinity’s been adamant about keeping OWS out.  Twenty-two protestors were arrested there on November 15. The company called the NYPD –twice – to arrest hunger strikers who started a sit-in there a few days later. This Saturday, the cops cleared the site once again, after dozens scaled the surrounding fence. The iconic picture of the day was that of Retired Bishop George Packard, Chief Chaplin of the Episcopal Church, crossing the chain-link in full bishop garb. (As one friend put it, That’s what I like, clergy going OVER the fence not sitting ON it!”)

Trinity Church’s rector, Rev. James Cooper, has been quoted all over the New York press, talking up all the good things the church has done for the movement, lending meeting rooms, computers and bathrooms to the occupiers. Says Cooper: “Trinity has probably done as much or more for the protestors than any other institution in the area.” So it was inevitable that as people milled about in the cold this Saturday, some were asking whether, with so few friends and so many banks and Wall Street targets to choose from, the relatively liberal Episcopal Church is actually an apt target for an economic justice movement?\

I’d say it’s a perfect target.  First there are the big basic questions about churches and the state. Why, in economic bad times, or even in good, does the supposedly secular US state subsidize superstition at all, and why despite decades of explicit segregation and criminal abuse – are all tax payers without discrimination forced to subsidize institutions that discriminate?

Then there are the Trinity-specific questions: deeded a good chunk of lower Manhattan, from about Christopher St to Wall St, by Queen Anne of England in 1705, Trinity Church has become the front for a massive for-profit landlord.  Trinity says its real estate profits (on which it reportedly pays taxes) go to support its charitable missions like soup kitchens and homeless shelters and so on. But let’s face facts: whether we’re talking soup or space, Trinity lends a little to those who need a lot (pun intended.) In this they’re emblematic of a world of liberal institutions, (think of your favorite non-profit/foundation.)

They even drag artists into it. Will there be affordable rents for non-affluent artists in their new high-rise?  I’d bet not, but meanwhile, the dismal, dry Duarte space has been lent the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council for “cultural projects.” Yet when Occupy Art NYC, a group that includes Laurie Anderson, an LMCC member, petitioned Trinity for permission to fill the Duarte space with occupy-related art – they received no answer.

Where does Trinity stand on changing the systems that set so many up to need soup?

One hundred years, JP Morgan was reportedly a parishoner and helped encourage the Church’s investments in lower east side slum property. Take a look at Trinity’s vestry today (the governing board that manages the parish’s affairs) and you find a veritable who’s-who of the city’s one percent. Conveniently leaked to #OWS, Trinity’s board includes Wall Street bankers, media and real estate executives, and a former executive vice president of Brookfield Properties, the company that owns Zuccotti Park and pressured the city to evict the occupiers in the first place. (See the full list here – PDF).

As OWS put it, “Importantly, in the Episcopal polity, the parish vestry has full legal control over property — which is a big deal for a church that reportedly has $10 billion in real estate assets. It also means that this small group of people (many of whom are not members of Trinity) are making the final decision about whether to open Duarte Square.”

Even more importantly, the Trinity vestry list is a clear example of the interlocking boards that bind do-gooders to those who do bad, and exactly the kind of information Occupy’s made public when many would rather keep hush. Keep at it.

Wendy Boyce 
Manager, Retirement Plans, AIG, Inc.

Porter Fleming
 Partner, Frommer, Lawrence & Haug LLP

Thomas Flexner
Global Head of Real Estate, Citigroup

Stefan Ford
 General Counsel, Energy Intelligence Group

Dr. Michael Gilligan
 President, Henry Luce Foundation

Lawrence Graham 
Executive Vice President (Retired), Brookfield Office Properties

Joseph Hakim
 Chairman of the Board of Directors, Park Agency, Inc.

Chester Johnson
 Chairman (Retired), Government Finance Associates, Inc.

Leah Johnson
 Founder and CEO, LCJ Solutions

Lorraine LaHuta
 Vice President for Development and Communications, The New York Academy of Medicine

Andrew Lynn
 Director of Planning and Regional Development, Port Authority of NY and NJ

Dr. Westina Matthews Shatteen
 Managing Director (Retired), Merrill Lynch

Andrew McMaster
 Deloitte LLP

Christopher McCrudden
 Vice President (Retired), Princeton University

Jon Meacham
 Executive Editor, Random House

Peter Ng
 Partnership Officer for Asia and the Pacific
The Episcopal Church Center

Jean Phifer 
Associate, Thomas Phifer and Partners

Dennis Sullivan
 President and CEO, Church Pension Fund

Betty Whelchel
 General Counsel-CIB Americas, BNP Paribas

Mary White, MD 
Medical Director, Weill Cornell clinic for Human Rights, Weill Cornell Medical College

LAURA FLANDERS is the editor of At the Tea Party.




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