NEW YORK, NY – Unseasonably warm air filled the streets of Manhattan as I climbed the stairs and exited the subway. I approached the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street, glanced to my right and knew I was exactly where I wanted to be.
I had found my comrades on the stairs of Federal Hall.
Generally, I enjoy taking some time after I first arrive to write, gather my thoughts or maybe even spin a hula hoop for a bit but I was greeted by a familiar face almost instantly. We shared our thoughts with each other until another familiar face began to mic check.
A group had been discussing their plan of action for the night and wanted to open that discussion to the rest of us. We openly discussed tactics ranging from breaking out into small groups and sleeping in packs around the financial district to surrounding Liberty Park and sleeping on its perimeter. It’s always so encouraging to be a part of these discussions. Our sense of community grows stronger as the days grow warmer; a true testament to the impending American Spring.
Inspiring speeches and playful ways to remember our rights echoed on the human mic following a brief “know your rights” teach-in where we all wrote the NLG [National Lawyers Guild] number on our arms, even though it has been etched in our minds for so long. 212-679-6018. All seemed quiet on the steps when out of the corner of my eye I watched a middle aged woman in a fancy coat and string of pearls drop off a small food donation before hurrying away. I smiled in hope that perhaps the metaphorical walls that separate us were beginning to come down.
That optimism quickly changed when around 9pm federal officers climbed the sides of the stairs and formed a line at their peak. It seemed we may have worn out our welcome. I along with many others stood our ground as journalists and livestreamers swarmed to document what seemed to be our imminent doom. Tensions were running high and things could boil over at any moment when in true occupy fashion we broke into inspirational song.
What began as the group joining together singing the same tune quickly changed to what I can only describe as a round, each of us singing/chanting something different but all in time with the original beat. The magic of our voices sent shivers up my spine until I heard hateful slurs in the distance attempting to overpower our peaceful message.
I looked away from our group to see another middle aged woman, again in fancy clothes. Only this time rather than helping her fellow man she was screaming profanities and flipping us off, looking more like a monster than the lady I’m sure she claims to be. As I scanned the rest of the opposite sidewalk I noticed other obviously disgruntled members of the affluent community. It was clear by the Blue Wall between the two groups, that had grown from about 20 officers to more than 50 seemingly instantaneously, that the powder keg was about to explode.
And explode it does as not 100 feet away from me I witness a resident of one of the neighboring buildings assault an occupier. Pushing, hitting, even grabbing and destroying his clearly threatening cardboard sign all while screaming profanities at this peaceful individual who does not fight back. This is the cue the boys in blue need to justify the horrors to come.
As the police simply pull the assailant away from his victim, they also use it as an opportunity to swarm in, grabbing people left and right for being on the sidewalk, singling out people doing NOTHING wrong, people trying to organize blankets and signs, slamming them onto the pavement, ripping their arms back and cuffing their wrists with the ever popular zip-ties. The residents continue to stand opposite us, seemingly protected by their Blue Army, chanting, screaming, clapping and laughing as the NYPD spits on the First Amendment in front of them, almost at their command. The visual is sickening and will stay with me for the rest of my life.
We continue to respond to their taunts with peace as we cry and hug, mourning those wrongfully arrested. We begin to sing, soft at first, choking back our tears until we overtake the hateful slurs and our love resounds—“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!”
I turn in response to a tap on my shoulder, it’s my roommate. We embrace on the steps of Federal Hall, glad to see each other safe after the chaos. She is headed home but wanted to make sure I had memorized her number so she could be there for me if I were arrested. Moments like this reaffirm my faith. We are on a good path; we have love in our hearts, always.
Short bursts of calm litter the next few hours as we wait for midnight. Still on the stairs we regroup & whisper songs and thoughts of hope to one another but when anyone attempts to amplify their voice above speaking volume they are immediately a target for arrest and mobbed by “white shirts” for speaking their mind, for daring to have a voice. The police climb the stairs of Federal Hall, in the shadow of George Washington and remove occupiers by force.
But as it draws closer to midnight the tensions ease. The rowdy neighborhood residents are gone, apparently we are no longer affecting their slumber and they don’t care to taunt us further. It’s just us and the cops. Federal Officers remind us that sleeping is prohibited but our presence is not and the “blue shirts” assure us that “everything is cool.”
I spent the next few hours consoling a friend whose brother was arrested. The three of us had been chatting earlier and I had tried to calm him then, warning her to keep a watchful eye on him. Sometimes no matter what we do, these situations cannot be avoided. We embraced as she wept on my shoulder. Wishing I could offer her more, knowing this was all she needed. Someone to listen, lighten the load, share her pain. We were all in pain.
I said my farewells around 5am, recording another sleepless night in the books for a good cause, knowing I would be back shortly. Oddly, as I walked back to the subway some 12 hours later the air felt warmer that it had in almost seven months and not from the spring sun beginning to fill lower Manhattan but from the love and loss we all shared on those steps.
-Nicole Rose Pace-