New York, NY – Yesterday I woke up before dawn and headed down to the financial district to celebrate one year of Occupy Wall Street. I met some friends at the assembly point for the Debt Zone and set off with the group to confront the police cordon around the Stock Exchange. We spilled into the street and briefly formed a wall in front of the barricades but police immediately moved in, made arrests and pushed us onto the sidewalks or down the street. Police blocked streets and formed moving lines around us and we retreated back to the assembly point to regroup and splinter into smaller groups.
From there I joined some friends and walked toward Wall St. once more. There was a group of protesters on either side off Broadway near Wall Street, mixing with business men and women heading to work. There were police horses behind the barricades, lots of police in the street and police cars and prisoner transport buses parked. When I stepped off the curb into the crosswalk during a chant of “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” I must have caught the attention of one of the white shirts. When it became clear that even with the red light I would not be able to cross I returned to the sidewalk but I saw a white shirt point at me to a new line of police that had just arrived. I tapped my friends on the shoulder and said, “I have to go, I think the police are targeting me.” With that I felt someone grab my arm and pull me toward the street but I was able to jerk free and duck under some scaffolding. I ran a few seconds before a large man stepped in front of me, blocked my path and gave me what amounted to big bear hug. I assume this man was an undercover police officer. Within seconds uniformed police that had pushed through the crowd, forced me against the metal scaffolding and tightened cuffs around my wrists.
They walked me onto the police bus where I had a front row seat to watch some clergy sit down in front of Wall Street in an act of civil disobedience. When the police crammed thirty of us into a holding cell, our cuffs still on and increasingly painful as blood collected in our hands, swelling them against the hard plastic rings, an 81-year old priest I had watched lay down at the foot of financial power led us in song. “I’d like to share some freedom songs I first sang with Martin Luther King in the jailhouse of Selma, Alabama,” he said. We sang songs, the dozen women in the holding cell across from us joining in. Our voices pushed out beyond the bars, and we alternated singing with mic-checks and soapboxing why we choose to join the movement. The 81 year-old priest then mic-checked a message to the police, dozens of whom clogged the space between our cells. I cannot quote the words but clearly remember the meaning and emotion: We are all brothers and sisters in this struggle and I urge you to see us as allies in a common cause rather than enemies. We each repeated his eloquent words and I could see a burly police officer directly in front me nodding his head. At the close, he looked at the priest and placed his hand on his heart. It sent chills through my body.
Finally, my name was called, my cuffs cut, my person searched then led to an even larger holding cell. When I walked in I saw about one hundred people pressed together between bars and reinforced glass, sitting on wooden benches, lying on the concrete floor and standing in the spaces in-between. All of them were clapping. As each new prisoner was added to our cell, we clapped. We clapped when each female was lead past us to the women’s cells. There was a non-stop flow of cheer. The holding cell had been self-organized into a very crowded section against the cell door that was loud and boisterous, while at the far end near the two metal toilets was quieter and some people lay on the benches or floor, using their shoes as a pillow. Within the louder section there was also a small General Assembly that formed where people shared their arrest experiences and discussed tactics. Every few minutes as new prisoners were added we heard new tales from the outside: We shut down a Chase Bank; I was plucked off the sidewalk for no reason; we blocked the doors at Goldman Sachs; I was trying to take pictures of an arrest when they grabbed me; etc. etc. At various points some prisoners grabbed garbage cans or water jugs and started drumming. Everyone else quickly picked up the rhythm clapping their hands or banging on benches, walls and metals bars and a hundred of us made music together before the police stormed in and took away the makeshift drums. The time between the noises we made together were filled with hundreds of subversive conversations.
It was wonderful. Each time I heard a new story of the actions taking place on the street after I was picked up I felt like I was missing something; but I also knew the community we formed in our cells was one of the most incredible things that would happen all day; one of the most liberating things I would ever feel. I knew that just by going out with Occupy Wall Street I was risking arrest; and in fact that was a major motivation in coming out, to show that I will not be intimidated, to count my body among the opposition. The power of the system is never so naked as when it forces it’s dissenters into a metal cage. Only then does it become so transparent and so obvious that they will never control my actions, that they will never control my thoughts and suppress my hope for a different world, a better world.
When I was released, nine hours after I was detained, a group of friends were waiting for me with food and love, thus completing the experience and ending it with warmth and inspiration rather than fear. Yesterday, I was free.
- John Dennehy -