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Federal Hall | Occupied Stories

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The Tale of the Brief Liberation of the Freedom Cage


New York, NY–Sometime in April of 2012, shortly after occupiers started their “sleepful protest” of bedding down on or near the doorstep of the New York Stock exchange, the Freedom Cage was born: After Occupy was denied the reoccupation of Zuccotti Park, and a brief refuge in Union Square, NYPD had tolerated sidewalk sleepers outside the stock exchange building for about a week, during which I spent a few nights staying up and talking with the night-watch group that was in charge of making sure that sleepers remained undisturbed. We mostly sat awake on the sidewalk or on the steps of Federal Hall, from where we had a good overview of comings and goings in any direction, talking in quiet conversation to not disturb the sleepers. There was no drumming or excessive shouting. The entire atmosphere was calm and rather beautiful.

The first night I was there, we had one single NYPD officer standing guard on the corner of Wall Street and Broad Street. By Friday, the police contingent had grown somewhat, but nothing to indicate major concern from either side over the situation. In the early mornings protesters would usually get harassed with street cleaning teams washing the sidewalks, repeatedly (in general it seemed that the City of New York was developing a sudden urge to clean any place occupiers tried to call home, even if those places had not been cleaned for years beforehand) but otherwise they were pretty much left alone. By week’s end maybe 50-100 people were peacefully sleeping in small groups within steps of the world’s global financial center, when patience of the 1% and local residents must have run out, and cops started to randomly and rather brutally arrest occupiers on the morning of April 16th at 6 am for blocking the administration of government affairs and sitting on sidewalks. The rest of the protesters fled onto the steps of Federal Hall, a building which is under jurisdiction of the US Parks Department, and not the NYPD, and decided to settle there. By nightfall, a large crowd of 100+ protesters congregated on the steps, making music, talking, shouting and reliving the experience of the past few weeks.

All in all the atmosphere was festive, if a bit rambunctious, as the weather was suddenly unseasonably warm and pleasant. A few passersby were critical, but others just wanted to know what was going on. As the night drew on, we noticed an ever increasing contingent of white shirt cops looking at each other with deep concern. Tensions slowly rose throughout the night as a standoff between cops and protesters gradually built up, and at around 1am the arrest started. Not in a systematic, riot gear driven fashion as during the eviction, but more randomly, and it wasn’t always clear to us witnesses as to why the specific people who are arrested actually were collared. Some were just grabbed, others had taunted the cops first, but nothing worse than had been said many times before. By night’s end about 15 people were arrested, amongst them a poet for reading a poem out loud and a livestreamer who had sat down on the sidewalk. I saw him herded off by a member of the counterterrorism squad … It struck me that many of the cops were rookies that night. Not only first timers at an occupy protest, but still without an assigned precinct. They didn’t seem comfortable with what they were asked to do and only reluctantly got engaged in the arrests. So, the white shirt cops finally took initiative and started grabbing people. My photos from that night can be found here.

The next morning a well-designed (some think) and strictly enforced fenced-in area was erected covering half the steps outside the birthplace of the Bill of Rights, allowing 25 or less protesters to be present in what was, in federal plans handed out by NYPD when the barricades went up, referred to as the Free Speech Zone. Thomas Jefferson and his brothers in arms, under the watchful eyes of the bronze statue of George Washington, had given birth to a zoning regulation.

Soon lovingly nicknamed the “Freedom Cage,” occupiers made it their home and over the next few weeks. I spent several days and nights in groups of at least sometimes 25 or less along with a contingent of NYPD and US Park Rangers to keep us safe (and awake). At first, K-9 and SWAT units guarded the area, but as time went on and the cops got bored watching people talking to each other, they disappeared, until finally the Park Rangers stopped showing up completely, and two lowly beat cops sitting in their car around the corner was all that remained.

After the nightly wild-cat march in solidarity with student protests in Quebec on Saturday June 2nd, I joined a group of occupiers to march down from Washington Square to Zuccotti Park, and we soon found our way to the Freedom Cage, ready for another night of quiet but good conversation, face to face with an enormous American flag, placed there by the 1% to remind us who the true patriots were in this country.

But then the magic suddenly happened: By a slight of hand George, ye George of Washington, who had watched over his occupiers night after night, whisked away the front row of the barricades, opening, liberating even, the Freedom Cage and its denizens. As is usually the case in open spaces, people and ideas soon flowed freely amongst themselves and with those passersby who were sober enough to notice.

But, as is the norm, with firm regularity the beat cop must emerge from his four-wheeled dwelling, stretch his legs, and stroll to the nearest watering hole for a coffee-refill. On one such journey, our guard noticed, rather unhappily, that an essential part of the Freedom Cage had gone missing. After a gently presented friend request by some of our group, the hastily called-in supervisor did, after much deliberation, what intrepid leaders do: He called for back-up …

Back-up came in the form of Captain Brooks, a light-hearted variant of his species, who easily connected with us dwellers of the Freedom Cage. He even remembered to place his coffee order for his return a few hours later. And yes, he happily accepted the offer of having a donut included, glazed, thank you very much.

So rebuked, Captain Brooks’ troops soon withdrew, making for an entirely peaceful night in what now truly was a free Speech Zone.

And lest we forget our not-so-peaceful encounters with the shirts of white and blue, Eric appeared and told us what he had just been through. The night before he had suffered a seizure while walking down the street, and as he came to he noticed two cops beating him up and placing him under arrest for lying in the street. He tried to stand up and walk away but was thrown down again, tried to stand up again, and was yet again thrown to the ground. Bleeding, he was taken to the hospital where it was confirmed that he had indeed had a seizure, and after he was administered five staples into the back of his head (sans sedative or pain-killer, mind you), he was unceremoniously dismissed both from hospital and arrest. He is currently looking for legal representation …

Alas, the freedom of the cage was short-lived. After the near-by picketing protest outside Trinity Church the following morning, the barricades have been restored to their full force. But as with the Queen of the Night, that mystical flower that only blooms for one short night, the sweet smell of true freedom still lingers on.

– Julia Reinhart –

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Civil Disobedience on Wall Street


NEW YORK – I have come to three ‘Spring Training’ marches now—but today [April 20th] was by far the most exciting. The weekly marches on Wall Street have become increasingly well-organized and effective at getting occupiers in front of the stock exchange for the closing bell every Friday.

The marches are designed as a fun way to practice new protest tactics before May Day. The police stop us blocks away from Wall Street when we march in a group, so we have developed different tactics of going “civilian,” breaking into small groups to penetrate the police lines that circle the stock exchange before reforming the protest on the other side. This week, when we began to arrive, there were many occupiers already there who have been occupying the steps to Federal Hall since they got pushed off of Wall Street earlier this week. The police had barricaded the steps and control access to what they officially refer to as the “first amendment rights area.” Seriously, they really call it that. In addition to the NYPD, there were counter terrorism, federal park police and SWAT.

As the crowd swelled the police began making arrests and clearing the sidewalk. The police pushed aggressively and isolated everyone who had just arrived from the group that had been occupying the steps to Federal Hall, arresting at least three. Tension was high, but the crowd calmed before the people’s gong—our response to the closing bell of the stock exchange. We mic checked to the people behind police lines on the barricaded steps and celebrated together before breaking into the familiar chant, “A – Anti – Anti-Capitialista,” this time in the very heart of capital. There were police barricades and lines of officers keeping us apart, but there were a few hundred of us dancing right across from one of the most potent symbols of power; the energy was high.

A mic check broke our chant.

“Ten occupiers are laying down on the sidewalk right now, they know they will be arrested and wish to go peacefully!”

Two weeks ago a group began sleeping on the sidewalk, following the exact specifications for legally sleeping on the sidewalk as a form of protest from the the 2000 U.S. district court decision Metropolitan Council V. Safir. The occupation grew larger each night until last week, when the police started arresting people. The occupation shifted half a block to Federal Hall, which as federal property was beyond the jurisdiction of the NYPD. This was where the “first amendment rights area” had been set up. Direct Action had video cameras in place to film the occupiers laying down in accordance with the law, then immediately getting arrested for it.

“Mic Check! Next week we are going to invite everyone to come lay down!”

It was powerful. The NYPD has tried very hard to prevent us from growing roots anywhere in the city. The last few weeks have been filled with arbitrary arrests, sleepless nights and scant media coverage, but for the first time in a while, it felt like the tide was turning today; it felt like we were winning.

John Dennehy

Editor’s note: This is part of series of stories detailing how different occupies are getting ready for May Day. Read what other’s are up to and tell us what’s happening where you are.

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A Sleepless Night at #Occupied Wall Street


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.

photo credit: Stacy Lanyon

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-

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