Last week, the city’s labor unions joined the Occupy Wall Street protests in earnest, swelling the ranks of the demonstrators from a couple of hundred to tens of thousands. Before the scene was marred by a couple of sporadic outbursts of violence, a half-dozen or so members of the City Council stopped by Zuccotti Park to raise a fist and become among the first elected officials in New York City to officially declare solidarity with the demonstration.
“My schedule,” Ms. Chin said when asked why she didn’t join in last week. “I had all these important meetings that were scheduled. We have major issues down here—like the Seaport Museum, how to save it. Then we had the Stated Meeting [the City Council’s monthly legislative session], then after that we had caucus meetings, so it’s like all of a sudden, ‘Oh, this was planned?’”
Plus, Ms. Chin adds, “I have been to so many marches.”
Indeed she has. As all of New York City pols struggle to find the right tone in talking about Occupy Wall Street, none perhaps have struggled quite as much as Ms. Chin, who has been aggressively low profile since the protests first landed in her neighborhood three weeks ago. For one thing, Ms. Chin is the only member of the City Council for whom Occupy Wall Street is more of a constituent concern than a global protest movement, as a horde of new residents have helped transform the financial district from an office park into a neighborhood where one must dodge $400 strollers and designer dogs. And never mind that many of those new residents/constituents are the very same people the protesters accuse of alternately screwing the world, eating the poor and poisoning the planet.
Although she doesn’t like to talk about it much these days, Ms. Chin, a soft-spoken, 4’11″ immigrant from Hong Kong, who has lived in or near Chinatown since moving to the U.S. at the age of 9, got her start in community activist circles while a student at City College as a member of the Communist Workers Party, and in particular a local off-shoot called Asian-Americans for Equality. According to a two-decade old article in the conservative publication City Journal, the C.W.P. was a Maoist sect aimed at infiltrating local politics and “it declared its ‘guiding ideology’ to be ‘Marxism/ Leninism/Mao Tse-Tung thought.’ Its publications mourned the death of Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev and hailed the economic policies of Pol Pot. It rejected Deng Xiaoping for being too soft on the West and capitalism, and embraced the Gang of Four.”
Ms. Chin went on to become a teacher and housing activist and fought for the City Council to create a district that could insure the election of an Asian-American. She herself ran for that office three times and lost before finally upsetting a two-term incumbent just as she was on the verge of becoming the kind of gadfly who gets tarred as a perennial candidate. Part of the reason Ms. Chin was unable to win a seat was due to a lingering distrust of her radical past in certain circles in Chinatown, where older residents in particular feared anything that smacked of the Cultural Revolution. At times, her races started to look like the last remaining battles of the Cold War.
When asked about her past, Ms. Chin laughed nervously and said, “Of course it’s just like groups of people fighting for a cause and saying that, O.K., we have to improve the lives, especially workers, lower income [people], and also solidarity internationally.
“There was a lot of concrete day-to-day community issues, but theoretically you have stuff to read about and then open your eyes to what was going on in South Africa,” she added. “So when people ask me I say I am very proud of my development because I could have gone another route.”
She was not, she said, as her opponents allege, a card-carrying Maoist.
“There was no card-carrying. There were associations,” Ms. Chin explained. “I mean, if they take your picture and you happen to be at an event or a press conference, that’s it.”
It took time, Ms. Chin said, for her neighbors to come to grips with her political history.
“Back in those, in the early days, it was a lot of what I would call negative campaigning, just trying to use that,” she said. “But I think for me the issue is—I don’t really know how you would say it—but the weak part of my community was not ready. We didn’t have the vote.”
In Ms. Chin’s defense, most of New York’s elected officials have been delicately dancing around the protesters, eventually settling on the standard line of saying something to the effect of how they approve of the general outlines of the message even if they haven’t heard the specifics. But some in the City Council have been making floor speeches in support of the marchers, and have been actively encouraging their fellow lawmakers to get downtown and enjoy the fun.
“It’s a great thing to be around, it’s inspiring,” said Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, who like Ms. Chin is a member of the Progressive Caucus. “Those of us [elected officials] who are on the progressive side, it’s an extremely important thing to see. Those guys are walking the walk.”
“They are just kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah, I went down there to visit and it’s great,’” Ms. Chin said, lowering her voice several octaves in imitation, “But they didn’t realize there was an obstacle that was created too. Just imagine it was in your district, your constituents start calling you.”
Ms. Chin said that so far only a few dozen residents have contacted her office to complain about the protests. But others in the neighborhood say that due to Ms. Chin’s reluctance to wade in, the local community board—which is almost entirely made up of volunteers—has become by default the main liaison with the protesters. A subcommittee of the Community Board called for city officials to end the “intolerable intrusion” on their neighborhood. Eventually, demonstrators met with the community board and agreed to lessen their noise after 10 o’clock.
“There are some real quality of life concerns down here. We found the protesters to be incredibly responsive to our concerns,” said one board member. “And she is not.”
Ms. Chin pointed out that most of her constituents are used to disruptions, since Lower Manhattan has been in recovery or in lockdown for the past decade.
“In some ways down here we are so used to the street closures, and every time there is a terrorism alert all of a sudden you see the cops with semi-automatic rifles and National Guard and things like that,” she said. “In a sense we are in this every day. And this is just added. Maybe after a while they will get used to going around two more blocks.”
Seasoned residents, she said, are “used to having to go this way or that way and if they live here long enough—like for us, we know which way to go to get home, or to get around. And some of the more recent residents are maybe the ones that are not so used to going around or knowing the area.”
Ms. Chin scored just under 40 percent of the vote when she finally won her seat in 2009, and her politicos say that under the right circumstances she could be turned out of office, too. Earlier this year, Ms. Chin called for the criminalization of those who buy counterfeit designer bags on Canal Street—a measure that got dismissed out of hand by Mayor Bloomberg—and she pushed for the Chinatown B.I.D. (which led to the charge that she was favoring corporate interests over longtime residents of the neighborhood) but has been mostly behind the scenes otherwise.
“I don’t see the wolves at her door, but if she gets a strong challenge in Chinatown, and another outside of Chinatown, yeah she could be vulnerable,” said one local political operative.
As far as the methods of Occupy Wall Street, Ms. Chin would like the protesters to start articulate some more concrete policy demands—to vote, to call their representatives to get behind President Obama’s jobs bill, to push for Governor Cuomo to restore the millionaire’s tax.
For now, most of her involvement has been watching the protests from afar, either on TV or skirting the area on her way home. Last week, she did take a walk through Zuccotti Park with someone from the N.Y.P.D.’s community affairs unit, albeit in the early morning, when most of the protesters were still sleeping.
She isn’t sure when she will stop by again.
“I guess we’ll see if there are actually people that we can talk to that really are in charge or providing some leadership. I mean like the guy who was interviewed on MSNBC yesterday, on The Ed Show. I mean he was saying negative things about elected officials so he just wrote us off as he would all the bad guys. So it’s kind of like I am not sure how welcome [I would be.] If that’s the sentiment, I don’t know.”
She is sure of one thing though. If her younger self were around—the Margaret Chin who took on housing and language discrimination in Chinatown back in the 1980s—no one would wonder what the message of Occupy Wall Street was.
“When it comes to organizing, people follow [me] because I was like, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’ I think that somebody or some group really needs to step up and craft a message and organize people about what to do,” she said. “There needs to be some structure. You need to form immediate demands. What do you want to gain out of it? What kind of goals do you want to gain now? Otherwise it’s like you camp out and you do this and you can go back home and say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I was in New York at Occupy Wall Street.’ But what did you achieve?”
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