New York, NY – While living in Europe I was was witness to some intense May Day scenes, from evicted squatters smashing windows in Zurich to lingering tensions from the break-up of Yugoslavia spilling onto the streets of Vienna. From that perspective what happened this May Day in New York City was relatively sedate. Still, the day turned out to be far more violent than necessary. A group from Occupy Wall Street had announced a so-called Wildcat March and promised some shenanigans. Whether that prospect alone put the NYPD response into overdrive, I do not know, but the level of force on display was hardly proportional to the threat the marches actually posed.
Mind you, I don’t want to walk down Fifth Avenue through a sea of broken glass. I don’t condone violent tactics, and forgive my French, but if you start breaking shit, you loose me. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the very tactics NYPD deployed may not ultimately bring that scenario about. After all, actio = reactio, as the old saying goes. And both sides have been ramping up their antics.
NYPD ground troops were observed conducting exercise drills in full riot gear on Randall Island in the days leading up to May Day, while their Intelligence Unit stormed the homes of several organizers on a series of pretenses (More on that here, and here if you like). And finally, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly deployed his second in command, Deputy Ray Esposito, in person to supervise police actions in response to the Wildcat march. So, whatever happened that day was not only approved, but implemented from the very top of the chain of command.
Occupiers meanwhile showed up with an enormeous “Fuck The Police” banner, goggles, bandanas, and black hoodies. So, what exactly did they expect?
I had tried to meet the march from Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge on the bridge itself, walking up from the
Manhattan side. But I was blocked from entry and made to wait at the foot of the bridge, along with Deputy Commissioner Esposito, Captain Lombardo (more on him here) and 100+ riot cops.
As the march finally arrived, three protesters had already been arrested on the bridge and were brought down first. Later on, about 300 marchers came along, chanting slogans, carrying signs, and generally doing what protest marchers do. Hardly cause to deploy 100 riot cops.
A bike squad was also part of the march, and they gave the scooter cops a good run for their money riding up and down Houston Street, having NYPD quite literally run in circles. The mood until then had been fairly relaxed. Deputy Commissioner Esposito was busy talking on his phone, while everyone else basically waited to see what would happen.
All that changed the moment the hoodies appeared. After a peaceful assembly in Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on Houston Street and 2nd Avenue, a group of protesters emerged in black hoodies and goggles. They barely made it to the street corner, when the first shoving match ensued, leading to several arrests. While the police were making their first collars, and a group of protesters tried to hold them back, the rest of the marchers snuck out the back entrance of the park and started running through Chinatown.
What followed was a cat and mouse game between cops and protesters with some trash cans and some paint bombs thrown about. I didn’t hear any glass break, but not for lack of trying. Both protesters and police were agitated, one side
trying to get away with taunts and running in the street, and the other side hellbent on shutting down any such action. Also, Deputy Commissioner Esposito did not go back to his office. He rolled up his sleeves and went right in there.
Further up, around the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, the next major melee occured, as protesters tried to run up 6th against traffic – a tactic that had proven successful in avoiding kettles and being herded into unwanted directions. One protester was slammed to the ground so hard, he wound up with a bloody nose. Another had suspicious discoloring on his torso, after he emerged back on his feet, hands cuffed in the back.
Finally, a bit further up the road towards Union Square, four protesters were arrested for “blocking the sidewalk”. After being told all morning that they were supposed to stay on the sidewalk, these protesters walked where they were told to, chanting “We refuse to obey by your laws” and waving a flag. A white shirt cop on a scooter came up behind me riding on the sidewalk and drove up to them. Next thing I know, they were arrested, again rather brutally. And, again, Ray Esposito was right there.
I wondered what he was thinking this display of force might actually achieve, other than further radicalizing a group of protesters already willing to push the envelope. I walked over to the Deputy to ask him, but he was busy shoving a protester. And as I waited for him to finish, I was pushed away by another cop. I looked for Esposito later on to ask him that question, but that was the last time I saw him that day.
Union Square was packed! I’ve never seen so many people there or at any Occupy event I have attended. The atmosphere was festive and the usual diversity of people and ideas was very well present. An odd dichotomy to the past few hours I had just spent running around downtown Manhattan. The oddity of the situation was rounded out when I went into Whole Foods on 14th Street to grab a drink. There was a long line for the restrooms. And after chasing each other through the streets, I found cops and protesters lining up for the same bathrooms …
The march down Broadway included an estimated 30,000 people, protesting for workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and for social justice. About 100 labor unions and affinity groups had sponsored this march, and turned out in force. Jesus and Captain America came along, too.
As the march reached downtown Manhattan, we found Zucotti Park barricaded off from the marching route (30,000 people wouldn’t have fit in there, either), and the procession moved on towards Wall Street. As had been the case during the Liberty Square occupation, the street was barricaded off for any pedestrian traffic. Somewhat odd, given that for the past three weeks, Occupiers had held a 24 hour vigil on the sidewalks and later on the steps of Federal Hall). Consequently, 30,000 people suddenly had nowhere to go, and a shoving match ensued again, as protesters voiced their anger at the protection Wall Street was receiving, both physically and figuratively.
The march finally moved on toward Bowling Green, where several union members held speeches. Afterwards about 1,000 of the Occupiers marched on toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Water Street for a People’s Assembly. The amphitheater behind the memorial wall was packed, as people caught up on events of the day around the country, and started to wind down and relax after a long day of marching. New York City councilmen Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, both plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NYPD over their forceful tactics (more on that here), were at the assembly.
Councilman Williams urged everyone to “keep agitating, as change doesn’t come quietly.” The memorial however closes to the public at 10pm, and so again, NYPD assembled over 200 cops in riot gear outside the memorial to move in shortly after 10 to close the park. Questions whether NYPD actually had jurisdiction remained unresolved, given that war memorials tend to be federal properties.
Most protesters left before much trouble could arise, but some did get arrested. What followed was the truly saddening part of the day’s events. Admittedly everybody was tired at that point – cops and protesters both had been on 17 hour shifts – but arresting people brutally for no reason has no place in a democratic society. Had causes for arrests during the day been thin at times, at this point they were completely non existent. One man was arrested for walking his bike on a sidewalk. Seriously.
A group of protesters sought refuge near South Street Seaport at the Waterfront, but was driven away again, at which point I called it a day and went home. All in all, 97 people had been arrested that day, many under the direct supervision of the NYPD’s Deputy Chief. I wonder whether he needed to be there to make sure these arrests were happening. Several beat cops looked uncomfortable doing what they were told to do.
A friend later told me that as she was sitting with others in Zucotti Park around 2am, a white shirt cop walked by her and said “Ok folks, you stay here as long as you like. We’re going to bed …”
Editors note: check out all our May Day coverage here.]]>
I, like Chris Hedges, to name one of the liberal progressives I am referring to, and numerous members of the media that I’ve met at recent events in Oakland and San Francisco am white, greying and not dressed in black. I, like Chris Hedges, am deeply uncomfortable with violence as a protest tactic BUT unlike Chris Hedges, I am deeply sympathetic to those who feel their voices are not being heard and have never been heard and whose daily lives are impacted by an indifferent if not outright violent “peacekeeping force” we call the police.
I arrived about noon on May 1 to Oakland’s now infamous Oscar Grant Plaza to participate in the May 1st International Workers Day events. The streets around the plaza were cleared of traffic by the police until sometime around 2:30 pm when suddenly traffic was flowing through the streets demonstrators had been parading around for the duration of my time there. Instead of a few motorcycle police redirecting traffic about two or three blocks away from the square, there were now police two rows deep announcing all demonstrators had to get off the streets and stay on the sidewalks. A news van peeled out. Brave demonstrators faced the police line, tear gas canisters popped off, sirens could be heard and within minutes police were 6 deep all around the square. The air had become sharp from tear gas and the heightened sense of danger. Young men, in black from head to toe, calmly relayed the police dispersal order to those of us on the fringe and took extra time with parents who had kids in tow. I, along with others, headed for the 12th Street BART station. The gates were closed. It seemed there was no in or out. I walked in another direction even after organizers had earlier told us it was safer to stick together and because I was white and an obviously healthy woman, the police smiled, wished me a pleasant afternoon while giving me directions to the nearest open BART station just a few blocks away. One officer even moved the barricade aside so I could freely pass through.
I am not an experienced activist, I don’t want to get hurt and getting arrested is not a badge of honor for me. I know the fear of getting hurt is the reason put forth by many of my friends who stay away from the Occupy movement though I think their deeper reason is that they are comfortable so why fuss. But I, unlike many of my friends and maybe the seasoned mainstream liberal progressives like Chris Hedges who feel they have earned their stripes to say whatever they please about the Occupy movement’s “lack of focus” while blind to the awful reality of the oppressed in America and simultaneously glorifying the oppressed rising up in third world countries, feel heartache when I see police brutality enacted against our young people, against people of color, against those who were not born of privilege and against those who are sick– all of whom have been abandoned by those currently holding power in this country. I am sickened by the idea that this is the richest
country on earth and that our majority citizens feel no moral imperative to feed, house or provide decent heath care for all our people. I fear what the world and what this country will be like in another 30 years when my children will, most likely, be raising children of their own. I weep when I see what the establishment does to people exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly. Occupy started out as a protest movement against Wall Street greed and because of oppression against the movement in the name of protecting property over people, it has had to also become a protest movement against the system that uses violence against those who speak out against the numerous injustices suffered by the 99%.
I direct my comments specifically to Chris Hedges because he wrote a piece denigrating the Black Bloc group who then attempted to enlighten Mr. Hedges of their deepest motivations to care for and protect themselves and their fellow protesters from the excessive violent tactics of the police. Some months later I heard Mr. Hedges speak at a conference in Washington wherein he repeated his deep dislike of the Black Bloc and anyone who resorted to violence during Occupy protests as if he had never read the comments from Black Bloc members or demonstrators who had been helped by Black Bloc members. Mr. Hedges may not condone violence as a tactic of social change but he does not have to live as far too many others do– facing a bleak future if facing any future at all. What’s perhaps worse is that he fails to share with his readers that not every non-violent social movement succeeds – assuming there has ever been a flawlessly non-violent social movement. If Chris Hedges were directing his organizing efforts for the benefit of communities like Newark, New Jersey or Baltimore or SouthCentral LA rather than Manhattan perhaps his views of the “proper” conduct of protesters would be transformed by a greater understanding of the terribly harsh realities many face in today’s “Gilded Age”.
I do not condone violence, ever, even though I fail daily in my efforts to purge violence from my thoughts and deeds. But America does condone violence. Every day America enacts war in our streets, at our borders and around the globe. Violence is a language America understands. If our poor, our tired, our scared, and our sick are not being heard, then maybe the only alternative is to use the language power understands so intimately well. Chris Hedges has no formula to guarantee the success of this or any other political or social movement. None of us do but by participating we will move forward.
Check out all our May Day stories here.]]>