New York, NY – For the past several months I have been cheering on Occupy Wall Street: I have defended their message in my own intellectual and artistic circles; I have supported their stances on social and economic justice; I have defended the movement to anyone I know who has questioned or doubted their motives; I have studied the similarities between the Occupy movement and what most pundits have come to regard as the Arab Spring; and I am proud to say that I have participated in several marches and demonstrations (both massive and minimal). I have been involved in several Occupy general assemblies and even sat in on a couple of think tank discussions. I have never directly participated in any work groups, committees or things of that nature. The truth is I’m scared to get involved that deeply. The efforts of this new generation of activists have been astounding and I fear my own efforts may slow down their work and progress. At the very least I felt my presence at Occupy demonstrations would show stronger solidarity with the movement than just giving them a ‘thumbs up’ on facebook.
March 17th was different.
As a former graduate student of Pace University, I was able to attend The Left Forum 2012. For those who may not know The Left Forum is a conference of radical Leftists ranging from academics to intellectuals to activists and so on. It lasts for a weekend at Pace University, which is located in the financial district of Manhattan (ironically) and I usually find it to be highly engaging and educational. The conference consists of many panels. Everything from the environment to the wars to civil rights to social media is discussed and debated from a Leftist perspective. I attended the conference all throughout graduate school and this was my first year attending the conference without being a student. I was excited. Artists like Amiri Baraka would discuss the historical legacy of figures such as Malcolm X and Wallace Shawn was set to do a reading from his new book of essays. The theatre nerd in me rejoiced!
On the second day of the conference Michael Moore was set to speak. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by his presence. Not that I don’t appreciate his films or some of the work he has done in the past, but I wasn’t really interested in hearing him lecture. It just wasn’t appealing to me. The last panel for the day ended at 7pm. Moore was scheduled to speak at 7:30pm. Once the clock hit 7pm the halls of Pace University were quickly flooded with people. Leftists of all branches and kinds were still in engaging in dialogue and still entrenched in their dialectical nature as they exited the classrooms where the panels took place. At that moment, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next. I had been at the conference almost all day (I slipped out briefly to attend a rehearsal for a play I was in) and, more than anything, I felt odd. I wasn’t interested in seeing Moore speak, but I didn’t feel right about going home either. Much of the conference was spent speaking to and about Occupy Wall Street. It felt almost wrong to be a part of this conference and then go home and not do anything. But, then, something happened. As I was trying to exit Pace, a large group of Occupy activists started chanting,
“Out of the forum and into
the streets! Out of the forum
and into the streets!”
The occupiers were dancing in the streets outside of Pace University. They had made signs and banners and they were encouraging the Leftists waiting to see Michael Moore speak to join them instead.
“You talk the talk! Now walk
the walk! You talk the talk!
Now walk the walk!”
The energy was incredible. The question didn’t even dawn on me whether I should join the occupiers or try to see Michael
Moore. It was no contest. The time for talk and praise of the Occupy movement was done for the day. We had to march. Only so much can be accomplished with intellectual analyses and academic discussions; only so much can be done with praise or criticism from a comfortable distance; only so much can be gained with inactive dissent. The moment was now and, as an actor, I know that if a moment so precious comes along, one must seize it.
We tried to get as many people as we could to march with us to Zuccotti Park, which is about a five minute walk away from Pace University. Many joined us. Many would later join us. We marched on the New York City streets and declared them as our own. Oddly enough, I found myself near the front of the march. When I realized it I was suddenly struck with worry. I had been following the brutality which had been visited upon Occupy demonstrators all throughout the country and it deeply disturbed me. My instinct of reluctance was proven correct. The NYPD’s response to the march was almost immediate. With little warning, police officers started to push and shove marchers onto the sidewalk violently. Police officers started to swing batons at the marchers in order to force them into submission. The response was, without a doubt, excessive, but we kept marching. If I remember correctly about two marchers were arrested on our way to Zuccotti Park. People were terrified, but they stood their ground. Cameras appeared everywhere instantly and recorded these brutal actions by the police. People shouted,“Shame! Shame! Shame!” to the officers, but it had little impact on their intention to repress. I was unaware that blocking traffic and/or jaywalking in New York City is an arrestable offense and is deemed so dangerous that the violator(s) must be subjected to police brutality and then violently detained. Or maybe that’s naïve.
But this was only the beginning.
As we marched on, an almost endless string of NYPD motorcycles trailed the march very closely. When we finally reached Zuccotti park there were already many people there. They welcomed us with open arms. The NYPD eventually surrounded the park. Most of us reached the park safely. I breathed in a sigh of relief. I was glad I arrived safely. It’s always a strange feeling for me personally when I go Occupy Wall Street demonstrations alone. Not a bad a feeling, but strange. I feel I belong and don’t belong at the same time. I have so much to say in moments like that, but, when I’m there, I become particularly quiet. I always find I learn more when I listen to other people and that’s exactly what I did at Liberty Square a.k.a. Zuccotti Park. Soon after the march arrived, an Occupy General Assembly began. It was declared that this would be a 24 hour occupation. People cheered. I began to walk around the park and notice the eclectic collection of people Occupy has attracted. I saw musicians play songs, artists choreograph tableaus, people played a game called Silent Ninja, and a young woman led a very large and elaborate exercise, which, I believe, has come to be known as Spring Training. It was more than thrilling. The energy was unmatched compared to anything at The Left Forum. I began to strike up conversations with people and many of them were completely fascinating and many of them were as ordinary as any Jane or John Doe. The diversity of people seemed infinite and, all in all, it was a fun time. There were points where I was entirely content just sitting and observing people. And as I sat and witnessed this movement grow before my very eyes, I realized that I had been wrong. I was not a part of an apathetic generation. My generation would not sit by silently and watch our world be destroyed by the corruption of those who hold power. My generation would fight back. And it seemed, for the briefest of moments, that we had reclaimed our public space.
The triumph was short lived. As I wandered through the park observing and taking note, I saw a marching band on the other end of the square. The band was across the street and it looked like an Irish bagpipe marching band. Why not? It was Saint Patrick’s Day after all. They began to play their music as they marched toward the upper end of the square where most of the people in the park were standing. People became ecstatic when they started to play. People ran toward the marching band in order to welcome them. But, again, the excitement was short lived. Soon after the band started playing, the NYPD stopped them. The band didn’t even reach the park. We started chanting, “Let them play! Let them play!”It was no use. Lawyers from Occupy crossed the street in order to make sure none of them were detained. I don’t think any of them were arrested, but I could be wrong.
I was furious. Not allowing people to play music in a public park on St. Patrick’s Day? It was nothing short of despicable. And it only got worse.
It was around this time that uncertainty started to fill the park. I got worried. I wasn’t sure what exactly was about to happen, but I had a pretty good idea. The NYPD started to surround the park on a greater level. More and more of them came. The officers marched almost like soldiers with guns, handcuffs, and batons. The people in the park started to worry. One of the high ranking police officers in a white shirt used a megaphone to make an announcement, but the volume wasn’t nearly loud enough. It would have been impossible for most people to hear him. I only saw him make the announcement once and, shortly thereafter, the NYPD started to raid the park. The officers tore at people with a kind of vengeance as they destroyed signs, ripped banners, and assaulted peaceful demonstrators. Officers were followed by more and more officers and they were clearly armed.
The park was thrown into a great unease. No one knew what to do. Finally, someone yelled, “Sit down!” Almost immediately people sat down and locked arms. I looked over at the police who were approaching us like a wave. They were already manhandling people and hitting them with batons. They were anxious to clear the park and were going to do so violently. That much was clear. What was unclear was what I was going to do.
I froze. As I stood in the middle of the park, the air became thick. Time didn’t slow down, but it certainly seemed out of measure. But, then, something interesting happened. It’s hard to explain in so many words, but the best way I can describe it is that I shut down. I mean, in that moment, I emotionally and intellectually shut down. Many people were screaming at the police, others were chanting, and everyone who sat down prepared himself or herself for what was about to happen. And in my strange state all I could do was join them. I sat down with the protestors in solidarity. I had to do this. Because we had every right to be in a public park; we had every right to participate in a general assembly. This was not about confronting the police. This was about protecting and exercising our right to freedom of speech. The actions of the NYPD were wrong. I knew that. But none of this rhetorical thinking absolved my fear. There were quite a number of people sitting in front of me as the police officers made their way toward us. Police officers struck people with their batons, other officers threw protestors tothe ground, punched people, etc. The scene was ugly, but I had no emotion. I would sit there. I would exercise my rights in the face of tyrannical gestures. And I was willing to suffer the consequences of my decision.
By the time the police reached me I think I was the only quiet person in the park, even with all of the intensity surrounding me. There was a young man in front of me with an orange helmet who was being dragged and pulled by the police. They eventually detained him. I was next. I took a breath. Everything was happening so fast; it was difficult to process. But, according to my own memory, this is what happened next. After the young man in the orange helmet was detained, a police officer struck me with a baton. I think he was attempting to hit my left arm. He didn’t really get a good shot at me. I felt it mildly, but I’m sure the person next to me felt it fully. He then grabbed very forcefully and pulled me up. I didn’t resist. In fact, I put up my hands immediately and said very loudly, “I’m not resisting arrest!” He proceeded to throw me to the ground, get on top of me, ram his knee into the lower part of my back while handcuffing me, all the while another police officer stepped on my face and pushed my head into the concrete with his foot. I was screaming, “Jesus Christ! I’m not resisting arrest!” The officer who had handcuffed me got me to my feet. My right knee was already bleeding from having been thrown to the ground and my jeans started to soak up the blood. The officer said, “Let’s go!” He took me to a curb outside the park where the police officers were stashing those they were arresting.
I sat on the curb. Still, I remained fairly quiet. Many of the protestors (arrested and not) were screaming at the police officers. They were consumed with anger and they had every right to be. I wasn’t. I just sat quietly. I accepted what was happening to me. More than anything I was nervous about what would happen to me and to the rest of the arrested protestors. As I looked around I saw police officers laughing and taking pleasure in what they were doing. That disgusted me. I couldn’t say I was surprised, but watching them laugh about what was happening to us was truly appalling.
I had no idea what to do. It was around this time I noticed the handcuffs on me were made of plastic and were on extremely tight. They were on so tight that I was in agonizing physical pain. I started vocalizing my pain a bit, but I tried to keep quiet. (Eventually, the handcuffs would cut off blood circulation almost entirely and my hands would remain numb for weeks.) I politely greeted some of my fellow arrested protestors. I gave them a smile and a couple of them smiled back. They were not quite as calm as I was, but it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone and that they were all in solidarity. I noticed to my left that there was a young woman who looked like there was something dramatically wrong. I found out later that she was in the first stages of having a seizure. She was begging to have her handcuffs taken off. The police officer standing in front of us refused her request. She kept begging and pleading and he would not help her. At one point she got up and tried to run to a medic and was quickly and viciously pushed to the ground. Her body seemed like it was about to start convulsing. At the time I didn’t understand why, but it was clear she needed some kind of medical attention. After she was thrown back to the ground, her body couldn’t stop moving. I was scared for her. I looked up and saw the police officer, to whom she had been pleading, and he was reaching for his gun. It was at this point that I and a couple of other protestors started yelling at him.
“Why are you reaching for your gun?!?! She’s already in handcuffs! Why do you need your gun? She’s
detained! Why are you reaching for your gun?!?!”
He took notice of us and stopped. It turns out this young woman’s name is Cecily McMillan. I’m not sure what the updates on her are aside from that she was arrested, sent to the hospital, and the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (Occupy’s legal team) had a difficult time getting into contact with her while she was in jail. She was eventually released and is being charged with assaulting a police officer while she was having a seizure.
More details on Cecily McMillan:
It was around this time I noticed a public MTA bus had stopped in front of us. It was empty. I quickly became confused. I assumed we would be taken in a police wagon. But a public bus? I wasn’t even sure if that was legal. As the officers began to put people on the bus, a few demonstrators went limp and refused to give any assistance to the police. Because of their civil disobedience police ruthlessly tried to get detained protestors onto the bus in the only way they know how: violently. I complied. But as I saw the police manhandle people in order to force them on the MTA bus, I became increasingly frightened for my own safety and for the safety of the other peaceful demonstrators
I walked to the end of the bus and sat down. I was soon joined by others in handcuffs. The bus soon became filled with sound and fury, signifying everything. Many of the protestors were still yelling at the police. They accused the police of being corrupt, of being fascists, of being the pets of tyrants, etc. I didn’t participate in the name calling. I didn’t see a point. Nothing I could have said at that point would have changed my fate. And, frankly, I was so completely repulsed by the vulgar actions of the
NYPD. No words would have been sufficient enough to express what I felt. But I remained calm. As the police brought in more and more protestors, their treatment only got worse. The police slammed one protestor’s head into each step while they dragged him on the bus and I was terrified they were going to break his neck. This was another point where I shouted at the police officers. They eventually got him to a seat. The bus was put into motion. We received cheers from the demonstrators outside of the bus. They celebrated us. That felt nice. This was, indeed, my first arrest.
As the noise on the bus died down and as the protestors calmed down, we became creative. Most of us began to sing
together. Everything from Queen to Bob Marley was sung. One occupier laid down a beat and another started to freestyle as they hauled us off to jail. At one point, I said something entirely in character of myself. I waited until the bus became quiet for a moment and then I yelled, “So, does anyone know any showtunes?!?!” The occupier in front of me said, “Only one.”
“Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men.
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drum,
there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!”
It was magical.
As I’m writing this my hands still feel numb from the handcuffs, even though it has been almost a month since my arrest. I visited a doctor and she told me there was no nerve damage, but I’m growing more and more concerned that the marks on my wrists caused by the tightness of the handcuffs may be permanent.
More than one person has asked me, directly or indirectly, whether all of this was worth it. Whether it was worth being arrested for this cause; I find it to be a strange question. My civil rights were violated: my right to sit in a public park, my right to exercise my freedom of speech, and my right to peacefully participate in a general assembly. Was it worth it? By bringing this next example up I am by no means comparing myself to the brave and honorable civil rights activists of the 1950’s & 60’s who intentionally broke laws in the segregated south by sitting in segregated lunch counters, but I’m sure at one point each of them was asked the same question: was it worth it? Well, fifty years later, what do you think? Was it worth them getting beaten ruthlessly by police and then being hauled off to jail? Again, I’m not comparing myself to these civil rights activists, but I’m sure each of them found the question to be just as absurd as I do.
It’s safe to say, however, the events of March 17th 2012 have changed me and I will never be the same. Whatever your feelings are about Occupy Wall Street, I think any rational person can see the tactics used by the NYPD are absolutely unacceptable. Cecily McMillan left for the hospital on a stretcher with a broken rib. Another protestor suffered a panic attack and
was manhandled for it. One protestor had a black eye and marks all over his face from police officers punching him. One occupier suffered a broken thumb and an injured jaw. It was a disgraceful scene and the NYPD was entirely responsible for creating it.
I don’t believe my efforts here were remarkable. I simply did what I had to. In truth, I chose to be arrested. I chose to stand up for what I believed to be right and I stand by my decision. I was told that all of the charges were dropped, but, in fact, they were never even brought. I spent roughly 29 hours in jail before I was released. Any citizen of the world should be concerned with the corruption of power and what it has done to our supposed democracy. Our economic system has been destroyed for a generation because of people like Charles Prince, Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and many others who have not seen an hour in jail for theft, corruption, and fraud. This is what really angers me. According to the established order, it’s fine to steal billions of dollars and destroy the lives of millions people, but it’s not okay to speak out against it. What I learned on March 17th was that I have civil rights as long as I don’t exercise them. Was it worth it? Needless to say, I have gone back and participated more at Occupy demonstrations. And I will continue to do so. Because a profound change in this world is not just inevitable, it’s for our very survival.
Philadelphia, PA – After a day of marching the streets of Philadelphia photographing a protest against student debt at Occupy’s National Gathering on Sunday, July 1st I escaped the oppressive heat for some air conditioning as one of my journalist friends offered a beer. After a good meal and conversation we reemerged into the now slightly cooler Philly summer night and walked down 10th Street towards Market Street when we suddenly heard the familiar chant of “Whose street? Our street!” ringing around the corner. Shortly thereafter the first marchers came into view and we knew right away that after the very orderly and disciplined march from earlier in the day, this was the after party for those who had wanted more action. The daytime march was routed to bring the occupiers close to Penn’s Landing, where a rightwing group was holding their annual July 4th weekend festivities. However, Philadelphia PD clearly didn’t want a confrontation on their hands and blocked the NatGat march outside shouting distance from the Tea Partiers. The marchers had stood in a stand-off with PPD for a brief time during which they debated whether to push their luck or return to Franklin Square Park where gatherings and teach-in’s were taking place. Worn out from the immense heat, most marchers opted to return to the park. As everyone turned around, I noticed a group of protesters clearly disappointed.
As we encountered the evening march, I still had my camera in my bag and my friend his notepad ready, so we decided to tag along with the group of 40-50 protesters flanked to the left and right by about maybe 30 bicycle cops, dressed in neat dark blue shirts and the ominously sounding “Police Strike Force” printed in light reflective letters on their backs. I did notice a heavy presence of Philadelphia PD brass marching along with the group. One protester pointed out the commissioner, Charles Ramsey out to me as being among them. The other three were his deputies.
We headed down towards City Hall following the marchers into the street and running against traffic. Philly PD tried to herd the group into the lane flowing with traffic but marchers kept changing direction, often by running in sudden dashes in and out of the admittedly very light Philly evening traffic, choosing to swim “upstream” rather than going with the flow. Some of the protesters were definitively agitated and chants ranged from the productive to the unprintable, but I didn’t notice anything excessively unruly. No trash or paint was thrown, no attempts at breaking windows or other property were made, and no overtly aggressive or threatening behavior was evident to me. This was a group letting off some steam by running in the streets and at some point trying to jump into a public fountain for a cool off before the bike cops managed to get in the way. I’ve seen more unruly behavior at “orderly” marches in New York … Still, the presence of senior brass worried me. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly hardly ever comes to OWS marches. When his deputy Ray Esposito shows up, mass arrests are almost par for the course …
That said, it was also clear that this was not part of the official NatGat program, whose organizers have spent much time and energy on putting together a program focused on movement building, alliance forming, and constructive dialogue. One of the organizers later expressed great frustration to me at what was about to transpire, stating that they did not look to force confrontation with the police. I had heard some rumblings on twitter and from New Yorker participants pro and contra the use of black block tactics during marches at NatGat events, an argument that has been ongoing in the movement ever since the police crackdowns started in the fall. That energy needed somewhere to go at NatGat, and it came out in this march in the form of running in the streets while dancing, singing and shouting. But nothing more than that.
After about 30 minutes of us marching and running along with the protesters, my friend decided to return to the Greyhound station to which we were originally headed after dinner, as he had a bus to catch back to New York. I chose to stay on to see what would transpire. Something was up, but I wasn’t clear as to whether trouble would come from the protesters or the police. I remember one moment, as we were making a mad dash around a corner near City Hall, one protester called out that he had been talking to a cop who said that people would get arrested if they kept running in the streets. I remember that clearly, because the kid was right next to me when he said it. I don’t know if anyone else actually heard him. Most were busy running, catching up, and catching a breath. It was still a very hot night even as the clock struck 10pm.
In New York, when I tag along with wild cat marches, I stay on the sidewalk, as cops tend to block the edge of the streets to prevent protesters from running in the streets and grab those that make it through anyways. NYPD takes a very dim view on marching in the streets without a march permit. In Philadelphia I had noticed during the march earlier in the day that protesters took to the streets unimpeded, even though the march in itself was not permitted. The march had a pacer who cooperated with the PPD Community Service officer who then passed on the information to the commander of the officers lining the march and directing traffic. So, when I saw the kids run in the streets during the evening wild cat march, I didn’t expect that to be the cause for trouble. I also noticed that I could not walk on the sidewalk per usual, as the bike cops were taking up the entire breadth of it as they flanked the march. My only option for staying with the march was to follow the protesters into the streets.
As time wore on I noticed that one of the units fell behind and started to group at the end of the march rather than on the sides. Reinforcements had arrived, too. Had the ratio cop to protester been about 1 cop for 2 protesters when I happened upon the march, the ratio now was passing 1 to 1 towards having more cops than protesters on the scene. When we passed Cherry Street while marching on Broad St I heard the community affairs officer tell one of the protesters to turn into Race Street which lead us back towards Franklin Square. A unit of bicycle cops blocked Broad Street, so that the march really couldn’t turn any other way than directed. The park was closed at that time, but it was in the general direction of where most NatGaters had found sleeping quarters for the night. It seemed police was starting to lose patience and wanted people to go home. A protester at that time also popped up next to me and told me “we’re going to disperse shortly, stand by for the signal”. The marchers had grown tired, as well. So, at that time it appeared as if we were headed to a peaceful resolution.
As we were marching down Race Street I noticed that the unit of bike cops that had been riding along side the march had slowly one by one regrouped at the front of it. I looked back and saw a second unit of bike cops bring up the back of the march. At that point we passed a side street that the marchers wanted to turn into, but decided not to when they noticed it was lined on both sides with police vehicles. We just passed Philly Police Headquarters, and this is where they kept their vehicles parked. So the march trotted on along on Race Street and looking back and forth I remember thinking “we’re kettled.” Just about then I saw the bike unit in the front get a signal at which they spread out across the street and blocked the marchers from moving forward. One kid, whom I did not know, charged the bike unit, trying to break through the blockade and was taken down quickly and shoved back into the herd. The rest of the group while getting agitated did not charge the police line, as was later claimed in the arrest notices, but rather stood and shouted, then turned around trying to get out the back when everyone realized that the second bike unit had also closed off the street and we were captured. At no point was an official dispersal order or arrest warning given. No illegal assembly had been declared. Protesters were not given the option to quietly go home. The kettle closed, everybody in it was told they were being arrested, and that was the end of that.
Some protesters got angry and started shouting at the cops “why are you doing this? We didn’t do anything wrong” and some other things, not all of them printable. Others just sat down on the sidewalk resigned to the fact that they would spend the night in jail. All in all the group did keep it together and while some were standing up for themselves and complaining about being trapped I did not see any aggressive behavior after that first kid that had charged the police line.
Still, within maybe 3-4 minutes in which the two sides stood there in a standoff, the bike cops shoved everyone onto the sidewalk, using their bikes as barricades as they closed in. Everyone was ordered to sit down and await their arrest. I tried to get out of the kettle by showing the cops my ID card from the National Press Photographers’ Association, and two of the cops responded “Don’t worry, you’ll be safe.” As they were about to let me pass through their ranks a protester came up from behind, called out my name, grabbed my bag and pulled me back in, which aroused suspicion in the cops.
“Are you with them or are you a reporter?” one of them asked.
I responded “I’m a photographer and I’ve been covering the movement for the past nine months. So, of course I know many of them.”
The Lieutenant then instructed his unit “she’s with them, keep her in,” pointing at the NLG number I had written on my arm.
I said that this was a safety measure, since photographers had been arrested in other cases, so the Lieutenant took a closer look at my NPPA press pass.
“Never heard of them” he said, tossing my credentials back at me. “Who you shootin’ for?”
“I’m an independent photographer”, I responded.
“So, you sell your pictures?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Yes, I do, if someone wants them,” I replied.
“So, you’re a papparazzi, not a reporter”, the Lieutenant concluded, repeating to his troops “she’s with them” and ordered me to keep in the corner.
All the while this conversation was going on I kept shooting pictures of protesters getting arrested right next to me. Some tried to get up and move around, others just sat there waiting. The arrests were very methodical and mostly without violence. A couple of protesters who had gotten up and tried to sit close to their friends got grabbed and pushed against the wall a little harder, others complained about tight zip ties. Still, for a mass arrest of close to 30 people accused of unruly behavior, the entire procedure was very orderly.
As I kept photographing, the Lieutenant got annoyed and said, “stop doing the press thing. You’re a papparazzi. Put your camera away or you will be arrested.”
At this point I asked “Am I under arrest, Lieutenant?” to which one member of his squadron replied
“Hang in there, we’re getting the boss.” The Lieutenant looked a little unhappy but said “in the meantime, put that camera away.”
I still believe I had every right to photograph where I was and what I saw but was a little weary of pushing things further, so I did take the flash off my camera and stuffed it into the bag I had hanging around my shoulder. As cops ordered the protesters to sit down or get hurt I stood quietly in the corner, waiting for things to evolve and tweeting about my possible arrest while feeling the full force of a splitting headache, I had tried to ignore for the better part of the evening march. It had been excruciatingly hot all day, and photographing protests is a physically demanding undertaking, so I sweated enormously. While I had been drinking a lot of water, I did not resalinate, and was now paying the price for that.
The boss, I believe it was the Commissioner himself, but I might be mistaken – it definitively was a very senior white shirt cop – eventually came and took another look at my press pass and told his troops “It’s ok, she can go.” And so, after about 15 rather tense minutes, they finally did let me leave the kettle. I crossed the road, while tweeting that I was now out, when an officer in a light blue shirt came over and introduced himself to me as the “media relations officer”. Why he was there at the ready when at that point the TV crews had not yet shown up I do not know, but he demanded to see my press pass, wrote down my name and the fact that the pass was from the NPAA, and then asked for my address and date of birth. I know I should have told him to call my lawyer, but was frankly a little out of it, so I gave him the info.
After a couple of minutes I regrouped, pulled out my camera again and started taking pictures of the arrestees lined up and waiting for the paddy wagon. At that point I also noticed the Fox News crew running around filming the protesters being loaded in, talking to the Commissioner and other brass. I don’t think they interviewed the protesters. As the first paddy wagon drove off, I heard a choir of voices from inside singing in union “solidarity forever” …
As word of the arrests got out, other occupiers arrived on scene, many shouting at the cops, protesting what they saw. I was particularly impressed with an older lady who in a quiet but determined way heckled the police for arresting these marchers. She didn’t use any unfriendly words, but clearly got the point across that she felt what the police did that night was wrong. The cops and the news crew ignored her and kept going about their business.
A group of occupiers that had congregated at the arrest scene by then marched on further down the street to the police headquarters for jail support. I wanted to join them but felt I needed a break from my headache, especially since a text had gone out saying that most arrestees were expected to be released within 3-4 hours. So, I found the group from Occupied Stories who by then had bedded down outside a PNC Bank branch on Walnut and 9th Streets and to my delight found a couch standing on the sidewalk that I could crash on. Halfway through the night I woke up to find a man a few feet away from my face taking pictures of me sleeping on the couch. He was not a photographer and looked more like an undercover cop armed with a cellphone. So, who, exactly, was the papparazzo in this piece?
On Monday morning, as we walked back to Franklin Square, we passed by the police headquarters and saw that jail support was still ongoing. At 9am, a good 10 hours after the arrest, only about 5 protesters had been released, telling stories of being kept in the paddy wagon without water for close to an hour, and realizing that their belongings had gotten mixed up between different protesters, indicating a thorough search of everyone’s bags. I sat down with the protesters to catch up on what had transpired after I had left the kettle. Slowly, usually in groups of two and three, the arrestees emerged, all very happy to be greeted by their friends, several voicing complaints about their treatment. One protester read out the charges levied against him, while another added pantomimic underlining for entertainment. In essence, Philadelphia Police’s version of the story is that the protesters disrupted traffic, blocked a highway (which Race St on which we were kettled technically is) and then charged the police line, upon which they had kettled the group. That is not what happened on Sunday night, as the wild cats went running in Philly.
New York, NY–My wrist hurts.
Really more that it possibly should. This is not good. I’m a writer, a photographer, I like to shake people’s hands. I need my wrist functioning.
And I’m not even arrested yet.
It’s 12 o’ clock and there’s maybe 100 people here…and that’s including the press. #D17 is not looking to be all it was cracked up to be, like an ‘N Sync reunion when Justin doesn’t show up. (It was intended to be a celebration of the 3 month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement and its encampment at Zuccotti Park, and was supposed to be marked by a reoccupation in New York at the nearby Duarte Square, a vacant plot of land owned by Trinity Wall Street, a parish of the Episcopal Diocese of NYC.)
It’s freezing, well, maybe not that bad, but I’m underdressed for the occasion, wearing a light jacket and no gloves or a hat. An hour and a half into standing around at Duarte Park in Lower Manhattan – I thought I’d be running after occupiers and dodging kettling nets.
I get the standard shots – the wide above the head shot (for crowd count), the protesters children (cute sells!), the old school occupiers (who knows AARP might run a piece on #OWS), the funny signs (always good for Internet reach), and then the pretty portraits (30mm f1.4 Sigma, wide open, manual focus – shallow depth of field).
Ok. So now it’s 1:30 PM. Our sources inside the OWS movement tell us that since the organizers were pre-arrested** – one of which is some guy named Zach – they’re not sure anything is actually going down during the day, maybe not until 7 PM.
CS (still photog), Andrew (still photog), Brian (still photog), Rosie (Village Voice writer) and I (SuicideGirls photog) huddle in a group, trying to decide what to do. I hate to admit it, I’m the first one to say fuck it, let’s go home – warm up and recharge for the night.
Brian, a shooter says he’s staying, has to and recommends that we all stay. Even if he didn’t have to, we all know he would anyway. He’s done Egypt and Greece already, so we kind of look to him for guidance. He’s known within his agency to be the one that will go for days without sleep just to get the shot. During the cleansing of Zuccotti he went for about 2 days without sleep, going from assignment to assignment carrying other people’s shifts. Our motley crew decide to take Brian’s advice and stick around until 3:30, and if nothing happens run home and file.
3:30 PM EST.
CS and I are chatting, talking about brunch, warm coffee, French toast…suddenly Brian runs by – we immediately follow blindly.
The crowd suddenly starts to move. Where? We haven’t a f’n clue – but like the lemmings that photojournalists are – we follow (well, actually we run to the front of the crowd and walk briskly backwards while taking photos).
Immediately I get that something else is going on. The crowd isn’t going anywhere in particular and the turns it’s taking seem to be just to throw off the police that are on scooters.
And then I go around a corner to get a wide shot of the march and almost run straight into a man in purple robes. Oh, it’s a diversion. Bishops only move diagonally though. Where’s the rook?
I quietly say to myself, “I see what you did there.” Realizing that something is afoot with all these religious figures randomly hanging out watching a protest go by, I stay back for a moment allowing the protest to go by.
Like a ADD kid that hasn’t had his Ritalin, I very quickly get impatient and see a scuffle with a cop and a protester, I take one last look at the Holy figures I’m standing next to and run off chasing the pretty pictures.
Did I say fuck before? Because you see this time I really mean it. Like a crap Chess player going up against Bobby Fischer, I immediately lose the Bishop. Chasing after pretty pictures, ones I have hard drives filled with – I lose what will very quickly become the whole point of this charade.
Fuck it, I follow the protesters back toward Duarte Square, I know I screwed up, but maybe I didn’t waste the whole day.
Slowly we turn the corner to Grand Street and to my surprise (and quiet anger) I see several hundred protesters already there – some setting up a step ladder up against the fence that surrounds the other half of Duarte Square. A purple flash of cloth begins to ascend the wooden ladder that the protesters have propped against the fence, as if playing out some medieval storming of the castle. Except the castle is a park and the battlements are a standard wire fence.
The Bishop doesn’t wait for the other half of the stepladder – like a boss he runs to the top and then lets himself down the other side slowly. People quickly follow behind him, nearly falling on top of him. I’m stuck in the crowd about 20 feet away from the ladder – I look to the fence and judge correctly that there’s no way in hell I can scale it myself and then push toward the ladder – a path opens up and suddenly as I tell OWS organizers that I’m going over they’re all smiles and hands helping me and my gear over. Climbing over and taking blind shots from the top, I suddenly realize what a bad idea this is – fuck it, I’m over and now officially in “criminal trespass” territory.
About 75 people are over – including CS and about 5 other journos that I can point out as pros. The occupiers start pulling at the fence bringing it upward so that the rest of the crowd can rush in – there are very few takers. This very clearly worries the people on my side of the fence – and worries me – any moment now the police will be here and numbers are the only thing protecting us from batons, plastic cuffs and a night in the clink. I give up on waiting for the shot of the protesters going all Steve McQueen under the fence and start grabbing every possible angle of the scene I can think of. Through the fence, the wide shot, the closeup…Then suddenly there’s a very large officer from the NYPD in my face yelling “GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!”
Photojournalists understand that as “YOU HAVE ONLY FIVE MORE SHOTS TO TAKE AND YOU NEED TO START MOVING TOWARDS THE EXIT.”
CS flies by me yelling at me “TIME TO GO, NOW!” For once he’s being the careful one.
I begin to comply and start moving towards the stepladder, the only “exit” I know of from this fenced-in park. I, of course, continue taking shots though moving towards my non-arrest, then I make it to the place where the stepladder used to be.
It’s not there.
Well, to be exact, it’s on its side.
Again, oh shit!
Also, on the other side of the fence, where just moments before the protesters and other journos were pushing forward, now the police are pushing them back. I looked around and couldn’t place CS, Brian or any of the rest of my crew. I also noted, with growing dread, that I was the only person that wasn’t a member of the New York Police Department who wasn’t handcuffed face down in the gravel.
“SIT DOWN, NOW”
“I’m press! I’m a freelance photojournalist.”
“DO YOU HAVE CREDENTIALS?”
By this, he doesn’t mean from my agency or from my paper, he means the official New York City Press Credentials issued by the New York City Police Department.
Yes, the NYPD, the boys in blue that are currently in the process of arresting me are the ones that decide whether I am a recognized member of the media. They will not of course take in account my years of work for The Guardian, the dozen or so pieces I’ve produced for BBC TV, or any number of other works of journalism that I have done.
I don’t have NYC NYPD Press credentials.
So, I sat the fuck down. The officers went on to deal with other people – so, I continued to take photos, from my seated position. Once I had taken everything I could from this angle I called my boss (day job) Greg Palast.
Me: “Greg, I think I’m arrested, they told me to sit down, but they haven’t cuffed me yet. I won’t be making it into work later today.”
Greg: [Chuckles] “Ok Zach, we’ll get the word out. Keep me updated.”
Realizing that this whole arrest and day would be for naught if something happened to my memory cards – I (slyly as I could) removed the card from my camera and shoved it in my wrist brace.
Blanking on anything else that could be done I just sat there for a moment somewhat dazed as an old Phil Ochs song starts to run through my head…
There’s nothing as cold as the freeze in your soul
At the moment when you are arrested.
There’s nothing as real as the iron and steel
On the handcuffs when you protested.
The zip cuffs weren’t that cold, and certainly weren’t made of out steel, just heavy duty plastic that would need to be cut using utility shears. The officer that put on my cuffs was nice enough to ask about my wrist brace and put them somewhat loosely around that wrist, but made up for it on the other. I got off easy. The kid sitting next to me didn’t; very quickly his cuffs started cutting off the circulation to his hands and the cold didn’t help much either. After being helped up from the ground by the police he begged for his hat and sunglasses that had been knocked off in his takedown by the officer. Sunglasses and snowcap pulled over his head he looked like a reject from a Cheech and Chong audition. His banner and prop mannequin arm was to be left behind (I didn’t ask).
Lining us up by the exit of the park, we were taken off in threes to our respective wagons. I was with Cheech and a bearded protester from Canada who had a sad looking guitar case – he later confided with me that it wasn’t a guitar, but an axe (again, I didn’t ask).
It was now our turn to make the perp walk from the gated confines of the park to the paddy wagon.
Surrounded by about 40 police officers holding back protesters and photographers on both sides of us, we quickly walked to the awaiting wagon. I heard my name being yelled from both sides, on one Brian and on the other CS. Trying to give them both good shots I turned to one, held the look for a moment and then to the other doing the same. I tried to look serious, but not angry – honestly I was just dazed and somewhat confused – still convinced at some point the police would wise up and release me, allowing me to get back to my job as a photographer.
That didn’t happen of course.
Have I ever told you the one where the Bishop, the pastor and the photographer get into a paddy wagon together?
Yeah, I think not.
Bishop Packard is a tall man; dressed in purple robes, he commands attention just by his presence. Sitting beside him is a pastor, across him, luckily enough, is someone who worked out of her cuffs. Which is why we have this video. In it the Bishop breaks down why the Occupiers decided to take Duarte Square.
Even churches have a 1% and a 99%. The good Bishop is in the 99% – Trinity Church…well, I think you got it.
The ride to One Police Plaza is a long one and seemingly the bumpiest ride in all of Manhattan. But we’ve got the time – based on John Knefel’s reporting we have a long night ahead of us. The only problem is with each bump all of our cuffs get tighter and tighter. Cheech sitting next to me is in excruciating pain – the Bishop tries to see what we can do, but none of us can reach his cuffs to try to help.
When we finally make it to “The Yard,” as the police call it, it takes them another 40 minutes to process us and remove the cuffs. Paul Bunyan, the guy with the axe and beard, seems to have it the worst – the officers can’t find a place to get the scissors between the cuffs and his skin.
Moving from the yard, finally inside I realize that they never took my cell phone – so I quickly tweet out a couple of photos before they notice.
Inside the cell I noticed that I’m one of the first in my wagon to be processed – though there is a priest, a minister of some kind, and about 12 other occupiers.
I decide to make an entrance by announcing loudly, “My goodness is that a Priest on the Group W bench!?!?!” (doing my best Arlo Guthrie voice). Everyone over 30 in the holding cell starts laughing. Then one of the younger priests starts…
And I, I walked over to the, to the bench there, and there is, Group W’s where they put you if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committing your special crime, and there was all kinds of mean nasty ugly looking people on the bench there.
Then with gusto – anyone who got the original joke starts singing…
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,
Walk right in it’s around the back,
Just a half a mile from the railroad track,
You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.
I think Arlo would be proud. We went on to have a good old time swapping war stories. The Bishop joined us 20 minutes later and we all cheered. About a dozen other guys followed over the next couple of hours as we learned about the night’s continued actions. We held stack, talked about the future of the movement – I held a small working group trying to explain how to get better media coverage, and prep people for questions and so on.
I wouldn’t say the time flew by, but it moved. My arresting officer processed me out in about 8 hours – no iris scan – just fingerprints. I was lucky – some of the protesters coming in had some battle wounds. One 19-year-old kid had a shiner from what he said was getting punched in the face by a cop. Another, a main OWS organizer of #D17, was talking to us, reporting on the night’s activities and blood started streaming from under his winter hat. He calmly patted it with toilet paper and continued his report.
It’s surreal – 11 years I’ve been doing this shit. Years of anti-war protests, hanging with black bloc, shooting in Wasilla, Bed Stuy, and the reservations of the Southwest – and jumping over a ladder is the thing that gets me busted.
As I stepped out into the cold, a free man, the dry cheese sandwiches that they gave us to eat still festering in my stomach – I thought back to something that the Bishop had said. “There’s a reason we’re all here in this cell together; this is a moment and we need to keep it going.” I agree.
Fuck, this is beginning to sound like some odd redemption story – there’s no magical black man who can “acquire things” for me, and I’m not standing in the rain, covered in shit finally free…just the realization that none of us are safe – press, protester or priest.
Welcome to Bloomberg’s New York.
**Yes, pre-arrested – we’re talking Minority Report shit here. The police arrested an #OWS organizer for crimes that they assumed that he was going to commit later in the day.
They were pointing at us. The occupiers.
The scene down below was not so refined, nor so polished or comfortable. Not with the sporadic arcs of mace and pepper spray. Not with the cops hitting us with their bicycles, or our people being jumped by undercovers when they reached down to help a fallen comrade. Not with the screams of indignation echoing, the rage permeating everything. Not with the calls to “hold the line!” as we forced cops to give ground, defiance one only hears about in stories or in dreams.
No, not so refined. But with all the dignity of the world.
This was the scene in Seattle on the night of November 2, 2011. It was the day of Oakland’s general strike. Which just so happened to be the day the CEO of JPMorgan Chase was scheduled to speak at that pleasant, refined, “suit” hotel. Perfect.
The day began with uncertainty. Did they know our plans? Would they attack us? Would they use pain tactics? Will we be hospitalized? If something happens, will those I hold dear know how much I love them? Will we be successful? What if we aren’t? Is our movement strong enough to work through such a setback?
These thoughts persisted as three of us approached a Chase Bank branch, only a few blocks away from our occupation.
The half-tinted windows made visible two young women, laughing, writing on what must have been deposit slips. Huge tubes of reflective red, silver and white wrapping paper poked innocently from their large black garbage bag. The clerks and security looked tense, but they didn’t know what we were up to. At least, not yet.
One of our people, a young man with a half-hawk, opened the door. The other two of us walked through.
“Thank you.” The words came out more softly than I had intended.
We walked to the counter, catching the eyes of the women with the wrapping paper. Maybe it was just me but I felt everything in the room get tense. The sterile beauty of the soft florescent lighting forced a sense of normality. People banking. Money exchanged. Tellers shuffling paper, having something to do with the profits of Chase. Maybe the paper he handled had to do with someone’s mortgage, bankruptcy, or loan. Financialization hard at work. This, the daily reality of plunder and parasitism, of speculation for super-profits at the expense of millions: the spirit of accumulation above everything worth anything, including people, was what we were out to disrupt, even for an instant. It felt like all eyes were on us. But it was probably just nerves.
The five of us converged at the counter. Our arms dove into the tubes of wrapping paper. A foot of slender steel chains fell from each of our sleeves. Fifteen seconds later carabiner mountaineering clamps clicked shut. Our arms were chained together inside the PVC hidden beneath a layer of colorful Christmas paper.
Minutes later I started to hear militant chants as marchers closed in on the bank from a distance. Hundreds of them surrounded the building. And while the bank had tried to continue business before, with us locked together sitting in front of the tellers’ station, now the bank was entirely shut down. Keys went into the doors, turning to lock out the many.
I heard our statement read on each side of the building. A mic check: “The world – Does not – Have to – Be this way!” pierced the glass. “General strike!” roared from the bullhorn.
Damn. I felt incredible. We couldn’t have hoped for such success.
We settled in for a long stay. We played word games and made up an elaborate stories. On one side of the building a dance party broke out to revolutionary hip hop. On the other I heard chanting, mic checks and agitation. All around us excitement, enthusiasm. There was a sense that we were doing it. We are changing the world. It was tangible and almost palpable.
Eventually, some of the friendly faced cops came in and sawed us out of our pipes and cut our chains. It was okay. We knew we were going to be arrested. For more than two hours we kept that bank shut down. Twice what we thought we could pull off. They stood us up in hand cuffs, preparing for our procession outside, but when we got outside it was a whole other scene.
The excitement and enthusiasm was still there. But it wasn’t alone. Someone from the crowd called out, “Mic check! – Hail! – Hail! – Hail the heroes of the revolution!” Everyone took it up. I’m not one for self-aggrandizement, so I don’t know how I feel about “hail the heroes” thing, even if it was spontaneous and heartfelt. But I’ve never felt such love from such wonderful people. These people, the occupiers, are the most selfless, passionate and high minded individuals I’ve encountered. It’s contagious. And it’s moments like that one where you really understand how important that is. It seems to me that it is a moral code, an ethics – almost a whole culture in embryo. It’s so radically different from how people are taught to think, live, act and love. Yet it exists. Right here. As a fracture, a departure, out of which something new is emerging.
We were placed in a police van, only to have our fellow occupiers start to push and rock. A spray of clear liquid hit the small windows. The mace was out. We saw someone do a running dive under the van to keep it from leaving with us. We cried out in shock when we thought the van had run over him. He was alright. Even without that sacrifice, what he did, that was heroic.
A small window that looked out the front of the van revealed people laying on the ground linking arms and legs. Occupiers were shoving the bikes back at the cops. I’d never seen anything like this before.
Eventually uniformed enforcers were able to pry enough of our people out of the way to move the van. The last thing I saw peeking through those small windows was the face of one of my comrades, hidden behind a bandana. Our eyes met and his fist launched into the air. The image faded into the distance while we made our coerced journey to the precinct.
I later learned that street skirmishes and shoving matches continued between the hundreds of occupiers and the cops after we left. The police had tried force our people back to our camp. Instead, the rebels pushed the cops off the streets, holding intersections and marching up and down Broadway. Those men (yes, they were all men) in blue and black uniforms, were defeated. The protesters, now left alone, took the streets. That stretch of pavement was, quite literally, for that fleeting moment, theirs. We could win–not sometime in the future, but right here and now.
The day was a blur. The adrenaline, the ecstasy of collective action and power, makes what was hours of travel from handcuffs to processing to jail cell now seem like minutes.
“Those girls are having way too much fun. They’re in there singing. I haven’t seen anything like this since the WTO,” said a tall white man in a nurse’s coat, long brown ponytail swinging behind him. I smiled to myself. Back in 1999, when the World Trade Organization had tried to meet in Seattle, it too had been shut down by people putting their bodies on the line.
The cold cement walls, the uniform sleeveless red shirts and pants, the cheap plastic sandals designed to be impossible to keep on, the smug cops sitting behind counters pushing buttons to lock and unlock doors, the phones that hardly work…They all make you think of this place as an immovable, insurmountable monolith. You ponder your own powerlessness.
I was called out to get fingerprinted. One of the cop’s forensics people asked me, “Did you hear what they’re doing in Oakland?”
“Yah, its fantastic.” Even where I was couldn’t keep me from grinning with excitement.
“No, it’s terrible. I’m concerned about the people of Oakland,” he replied.
“It’s the people of Oakland who are rising up,” I said. “The only way they can change anything is by shutting down the city. How do you think the eight-hour work day was achieved? How about things like breaks? Or revolution?”
“Well what about the baker who just wants to go to work and feed his family?”
Another cop called to him from across the room, “That’s a stupid response!”
Later, while in our holding cell, an older white man walked by. The lines of age and stress told me he must have been in his fifties. He turned his back to us for a moment. When he walked away there was a taped a sign across from us: “Nurses support #OccupyWallstreet.” We saw him raise a fist, looking at us.
There, as deep in the belly of the beast as one can fathom, I witnessed the cracks and potential division, even here, surrounded by our enemies. In the future, there are fractures and schisms that may emerge even within institutions of the State.
With our triumphant spirit, we got our short-term inmates talking about occupation, about the cops, about the general strike. I joked with a couple of older guys, “It’s time we occupy this cell!” It’s probably not very often that the jail’s officers see their prisoners so jovial or hopeful.
Four or five hours later, we were released. As soon as the five of us regrouped and hugged it out, we received word: The CEO of Chase’s speech had been disrupted by Occupy Seattle. He had to end it early and Occupiers were trying to block the hotel exits.
We began our sprint through the rain, laughing, hugging, joking about going straight back to jail. None of us, as far as I could tell, could wait to get back to our fellow occupiers and stand with them again.
Back to the Sheraton. Every eye already bleary from the day-long exposure to chemical weapons. New goggles and masks cover many faces. The spirit is different. The anger of being attacked all day, of seeing our friends and loved ones maced or beaten (or both) gave it an edge. All those who once said the cops were on our side now had little to stand on. It was undeniable: There, inside that looming hotel, was Jamie Dimon, the face of one of the most criminal and insidious institutions in the world, and here, in front of us, were the cops defending him against more than a thousand people.
When I arrived, out of breath but relieved, I started greeting people. They were happy to see us, but exhausted and tense. They were on a war footing. Dozens had their arms linked. It was the fallback tactic when facing the cops. All four corners of the intersection outside the main entrance to the hotel were blocked by damp, determined occupiers. The heavy din of honks and shouts from drivers, participants, and supporters alike rang out in the background, coloring everything.
I sprinted to rejoin the line facing off with the cops. There, in the line with me, were all the people I had just gone to jail with. The five of us, now called the“Chase 5” by those who argue for our defense, grinned at each other, knowing we had no choice but to stand there. We could feel the world shifting and we were on the fault line. There was no waywe could walk away.
A half hour passed, with periodic scuffles and mic checks and chants. It was clear the that the towering Sheraton Hotel was now empty of any CEOs or equally criminal people. The remaining occupiers gathered and started to march away from downtown, back toward our camp.
I have been involved in attempts to build a revolutionary movement for a number of years. Never before have I left an action feeling like we won a battle. It had always been left in the realm of the symbolic or moral: “We did good work,” as it goes. But as we marched up the long hill, grinning faces moist with mace and rain the people of this new movement cheered and shouted together, “We are victorious!”
This story was originally published in The Occupied Wall Street Journal]]>