I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in a bar, my right elbow bent like a bastard, on the night of September 17, 2012. It was the anniversary of Occupy Wall Street – a movement I’ve been covering for about a year – and the plan was to be out in the streets, tweeting, taking pictures, and scribbling obscenities in my notepad. That’s what I do. I’m a reporter. It’s my fucking job.
But I wasn’t on the streets, recording so much senseless brutality. Instead I was a victim of it, having gotten viciously tackled and abused less than two hours after reporting for duty. I hardly planned for this; if I had, I would have left my weed at my motel. But having covered comparable actions in more than 20 American cities over the past year, I’ve learned how to get my story without getting bagged. Or so I thought.
I intentionally slept through the early morning Occupy efforts to troll Wall Street suits as they arrived at work. I’d been up late tailing protesters to Times Square, plus I’ve written about journalist mistreatment in such circumstances, and had an inkling that there would be mass arrests during the rush hour festivities. It turned out that hunch was on point; when I showed up at noon in Battery Park, most people were rapping about how ugly the AM actions got.
After surveying the crowd of several thousand in Battery and smacking back some water, at about 1:15pm I went to work, and headed north toward Zuccotti Park. But between the tourists, cops, and activists there, every slab of pavement was mobbed, and I didn’t even enter the old encampment. Instead I followed about 100 protesters – an intriguing mix of hardcore Occupiers and labor picketers – east on Liberty Street.
It was hardly different from any other hot situation that I’ve covered. Signs were held, chants were yelled, and after about 10 minutes of people lambasting Chase bank, cops ordered everyone off of the sidewalk. I was in the street – tweeting, taking notes and pictures – when a cop chased me across the pavement and away from the action: “YOU – GET ON THE [OTHER] SIDEWALK – IT’S THE THING MADE OUT OF CONCRETE.”
No problem. I went exactly where they told me to go. But soon after, so did the crush of protesters, who by that point had been joined by at least another 100 comrades heading north on William Street. Once there, they all began to pile into a courtyard up some steps, but I stayed on the sidewalk, obeying orders, and snapping pics of what seemed like an imminent dispersal. That’s when the ringleader cop in the white shirt and black leather cloves pointed directly at me. All I heard was, “CHOPPER – SICK BALLS!”
I must be a seriously fat shit because, somehow, my nose didn’t hit the ground as I was pushed, grabbed, and tackled while standing alone, with no one nearby to cushion the blow. It did hurt, though, especially since despite not battling back, I was repeatedly jabbed in the lower back and told to stop resisting. Pleas for my cellphone, which went flying when they sacked me, and my screaming “I’M A JOURNALIST” just made the fuzz angrier.
One reasonable cop did rescue my horn, but only after one of his colleagues grabbed my right arm, forced my hand far enough up my back to touch my left shoulder, and twisted until we both heard the uneasy sound of muscle tearing. At that, they stood me up and asked if I was “okay,” to which I just nodded and continued to repeat, loudly, “I’M A JOURNALIST.” Surrounded by more than a dozen cops, I doubt that any civilians or protesters heard me ask for someone to call my editors in Boston.
Nobody was happy about how much shit I had in my pockets. Not me, not the dimwits digging through my pants, and not the nice young cop who was eventually assigned as my “arresting officer” despite having little to do with my beat-down. As they cleaned out my jeans near the police wagon, I was yelled at several times for carrying a notepad, pens, a towel, my camera, and a small container full of trees, which prompted some serious hilarity. When asked why I was holding marijuana, I told the officers that I smoke it to prevent anxiety – to which the biggest dope among them said, “Wait until the media finds out that you were working and doing drugs. You’re finished!”
After the dumbest cop of all accused me of trying to escape – while tied up, with my belongings in their custody, in the middle of a police state – the wagon doors were slammed, and I sat alone with no ventilation or air conditioning for about 10 minutes. Between the lack of oxygen and plastic cuffs choking my hands, I was sure that I would puke or pass out, but then the doors opened, and in came Tyler. A 21-year-old day trader from a wealthy Connecticuit family, Tyler was not a protester or a journalist. He was just a pedestrian who happened to be passing by when I got sacked, and who made the mistake of pulling out his cell phone to record the craziness.
Tyler was absolutely freaked. On his way to lunch near Battery Park, his day had taken a dramatic turn, and by the time he wound up in the meat wagon with me, dude was really bothering the cops. I told him to shut the fuck up – several times – and for the most part he followed my directions, except for when he asked, half-seriously, if we were going to be water-boarded. To diffuse the situation and calm him down, I made a joke about there being seat belts in the bus, which only a contortionist could possibly fasten while cuffed from behind.
While in custody, I made it a point to tell every cop I came in contact with that I’m a journalist, and was either ignored or ridiculed each time. One steroid fiend with a pre-school education quipped, “So you’re one of the blogger idiots who thought you wouldn’t get arrested protesting.” Another cop at the station took my business card to a superior officer, who looked at it, then glanced at me, and determined there was no way that I was really a reporter.
After a not-so-awful booking process in which my balls were barely grazed, I was led into the holding cell where about 75 protesters were hanging and chanting. I realized right away that they were entertaining company, not to mention a diverse scrum if there ever was one. Before long I was trading arrest stories with New York anarchists, a senior citizen from Maine, two teenagers – aged 15 and 16 – who had come down from Philadelphia, an NLG volunteer who still had his green cap on, a minister from Somerville, two Veterans for Peace, and an aspiring MC who spit all types of flames for us to nod to.
If there’s one thing I’ve always found about Occupiers, it’s that they know how to flip shitty situations inside out. This was especially true in the can, a despicable 800-square foot dungeon with flickering fluorescent lights, two turd-filled toilet bowls, and a broken telephone. Given those conditions, activists used the slices of American cheese from our stale sandwiches to cover the security cameras. And when the five-gallon water jug was finished, they used it as a bongo until one of the steak boys came in to confiscate it.
Other highlights included seeing such familiar faces as Noah McKenna from Occupy Boston, and John Knefel, a fellow journalist who does the internet show Radio Dispatch, which I’m sure will be waxing about this. And how could I forget the New York Occupier who, through the bars, kept berating a cop who was watching movies on his phone? Or the officer who entered the pen to tell the 16-year-old from Philly that his father had been contacted, and that his parents were extremely pissed off. We all got a real kick out of that one.
After roughly five hours of watching officers struggle with tall piles of paperwork – the NYPD apparently has yet to upgrade from pens and pads to computers – my name finally got called. So with Tyler and another new friend – Paul Mayer, an 81-year-old Catholic priest from New Jersey who had been in since about 8am – I collected my belongings (though they kept my weed) and walked with a desk appearance ticket for December 5, when I’ll argue that if anyone was guilty of “disorderly conduct,” it was the pack of Neanderthals who rammed me into that “thing made out of concrete.”
It should go without saying that, while I didn’t get to report as planned, the day was hardly a waste. Though half of my cellmates expected to be arrested for civil disobedience, an equal number had been fucked like me, and assaulted, cuffed, and stuffed because some dope in a uniform disliked the way they looked. Hearing their stories reinforced everything that I already knew about the extreme savagery that’s been aimed at this movement, especially in New York. To quote Mobb Deep, “There’s a war going on outside no man is safe from.” No woman either, as it turns out.
As for Tyler – he was kind enough to offer me some bong hits at his apartment near Union Square, where we got wicked stoned and ate tacos before I got to writing this. At 2pm yesterday, he was an aspiring broker who was walking to lunch, when he got violated by people who, up until that moment, he thought were there to protect him. By 4pm, Tyler was chanting in solidarity with a horde of Occupiers. And by the time that we got out, he was itching to head back towards Zuccotti and get more footage of police beatings. If that’s not the best birthday present that Occupy Wall Street could ask for, then I don’t know what is.
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.
I’d been covering the Occupy movement beyond Wall Street, and the Bronx had so far held eight weekly general assemblies of its own. This past Saturday, there was a planned 11 a.m. rally to bring attention to the city’s October bulldozing of the Morning Glory community garden, a long-abandoned lot that area residents had taken over two years ago for the garden. The lot was now grassy and fenced-in.
I thought that I’d report for an hour or so and then meet a friend for an afternoon brunch. Less than 10 minutes after arriving, however, I was in handcuffs.
When I stepped out of the 149th Street station at 11 a.m., my first time at that sprawling five-lane intersection, I found the protest site—a sidewalk beside an empty lot—easily because of a heavier-than-expected police presence. Early reports had indicated the opposite. I didn’t expect to see an officer of rank surrounded by 11 cops, four cars and a police van. I remember thinking, There’re more cops here than protesters.
A cluster of the protesters were walking away from where they had planned to set up. I saw a two-person Bronx News 12 camera crew and a man I assumed was another journalist; he was scribbling into a pad and interviewing. Another guy with a hand-cam, I pegged as a protester. While filming, he demanded to know why officers, in particular the black and Latino officers, were breaking up a protest over a garden in their own community.
I started asking questions, first to the ranking officer, but without identifying myself as a journalist, and then to the dawdling protesters, to figure out what was happening and why.
According to Captain Garcia, protesters had been obstructing pedestrian traffic. I looked around to verify. At this morning hour, on the sidewalk of an empty lot, in the middle of a major five-way intersection, there was no pedestrian traffic. Cops didn’t count as pedestrians, so I dismissed the charge.
Then the first arrest happened. A man whose name I later learned was David Suker had been crouching over a crate, fiddling with a stack of Occupy Wall Street Journal newspapers and simultaneously telling officers that he had a right to be stand, sit, or run on a public sidewalk. He didn’t move on cops’ requests, so they moved in. The rest of Garcia’s flank was fanning out along the sidewalk, warning the boldest protesters against standing.
A community-affairs officer gestured for me to move on, so I identified myself as a journalist. He immediately stepped back and said that he wouldn’t want me to “get caught up.” I interpreted his words as a friendly exchange, not a warning.
I kept writing and then I heard Captain Garcia say, in my general direction, “You can not stand here. You have to move. You’ve been so notified.” It’s the last thing I scribbled before police officers surrounded me. I must’ve looked like a guppy mouth; it just didn’t occur to me that Garcia had meant to arrest me.
As officers encircled me, I kept my shoulders down and tried to moderate my tone. That sixth sense had nothing to do with journalistic training and everything to do with my being city kid. I grew up here in southeast Queens; NYPD ain’t never been nothing to fuck wit. I protested that I was a working journalist and asked if they were serious.
One officer took my bag, lifting it off my shoulder and over my head, while another said I was being placed under arrest.
Someone else took my notepad and pen. And another officer pulled my hands behind my back. When I felt cuffs clasp around my wrists, I started to do a weird thing.
Similar to fixating on the bottle of lotion while sitting in lockup, I kept asking after my notepad. Looking back, I see those tics for what they were: poor attempts to assert control. If freedom were an object, in my case it would have been my reporter’s notebook and a forgotten bottle of lotion. On Saturday they held roughly the same value.
As I was being led away from the sidewalk, I suddenly remembered Kelly’s mandate not to touch journalists covering Occupy protests, and I reminded every cop within a 10-foot radius.
The officers led me to the van. Kelly was in Manhattan; this was the Bronx.
The other arrestees, four male protesters, were in the seats behind me; officers sat up front.
I got an uncomfortable feeling of déjà vu. I’d been detained by the NYPD before, except I wasn’t a journalist. I was a kid in high school. When I was 15, while coming home from a dressy night out, a girlfriend and I pushed through the West 4th Street station turnstiles together on a single fare. It was a dumb thing to do.
We were cuffed, packed into the back of a police van, fingerprinted, and kept overnight in jail. I’ll never forget the kitchen chair when I got home the next morning. My mother had positioned it by the window to overlook the boulevard; she had sat there, worrying unnecessarily because I had begged the officers not to call.
Another time, also while a student at Dalton, a prep school on the Upper East Side, my classmates and I were detained in the Times Square subway station while going to an annual minority-college fair at the Javits Center. We were attending during afternoon free periods. Apparently we should have traveled with notarized forms permitting us to leave school premises. Our college-fair fliers weren’t enough. Not only were the officers sneering and incredulous, they paraded us single-file through the station and into a back room to wait while they sorted out “the truth.” I eventually did make it to that fair.
Very rarely have I talked about these incidents with the NYPD. It’s not because those milestones didn’t deeply affect me. They did. But heavy-handed or discriminatory policing was so commonplace when I was growing up, nearly all of my black and Latino friends had experienced or witnessed it at least once—or had close friends who did. Compile our testimonies in a book, scatter the leaves in the air, and they’d blanket the city from tip to tip. I didn’t see the point of adding one more.
I began to rethink that approach on Saturday. After the umpteenth time I asked officers, who weren’t paying me any attention, why I’d been arrested, someone answered. From the seat behind me, Suker said, “Because you’re a black woman with dreads.”
That shut me up because for the first time that day, it occurred to me that Suker might be right.
“Black woman or not,” I said to no one in particular, “You don’t know who I know.”
But my confidence game was up. The statement sounded rushed. Plus, my voice cracked on that second, “know.”
What recourse did I have? I’m a freelance journalist working up a story about Occupy spreading into the communities of color that I had not yet sold. I didn’t have an assigning editor to call. I was in trouble and it was time to think about how to get out of it. Dwelling on how officers perceived me because I’m a black woman with natural hair was not going to help.
The only thing I knew how to do was my job.
The preceding intimidation, the arrests—they weren’t right. The charges didn’t match what I had seen, which, with the exception of Suker, was a small group of people shuffling along at officers’ requests, and grumbling, sometimes yelling, about having to do so. Nothing major. By the time the police van left for the precinct, the few remaining protesters were simply huddled on the opposite street corner.
In the van, I interviewed the four arrested protesters. I wanted to know who they were.
I asked officers questions like: What’s next? What am I charged with? (To which I never a straight answer.) Why are you doing that? How long is it going to take? I sounded like a 5-year-old on a long road trip. Maybe that’s why an officer twice insisted as I was standing in the station house waiting to be frisked, “You must’ve pissed somebody off.”
By the time I was released about three hours after being arrested, “disorderly conduct” had been added to my summons, and Captain Garcia warned me not to engage in similar criminal behavior. I had no intention of listening.
In what alternate universe is it disorderly conduct for a journalist in a U.S. city to scribble on a pad and question police officers in a normal speaking voice? In what upside-down town is the right to freedom of the press—and the right to assemble—considered a technicality? Oh. Right. New York City post-Occupy Wall Street.
While the four protesters left, I stayed behind to complain to Captain Garcia. His flank, as always, stood close. I made some good points but so did he. Unless I carried a press pass from the office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information—which I didn’t and which no officer had asked to see, either—then I’d be treated like a protester, he said.
“You don’t say who or who isn’t a journalist,” I said. He seemed to concede the point but also fell back on the policeman’s answer, “It’s the law.” Our “discourse”—his word, not mine—was over. I was way too angry anyway, both at being treated like a criminal and at myself for feeling afraid, to remain professional.
Looking back, it’s hard not to conclude that the four or five officers who helped to arrest me weren’t just using a strategy of overwhelming force but a tactic of disorientation. I can’t identify who arrested me. I never got a reply as to whose handcuffs were on me. From the moment of my arrest to my release, I’d passed through at least 10 different officers’ hands. If I were to complain, whom specifically would I complain about?
I opened the door of the 40th Precinct to a boisterous crowd that had amassed across the street. A dreary morning protest of roughly 12 people in front of an empty lot had multiplied to about 70 people chanting in the precinct’s front yard for prisoners to be released.
Occupy the Bronx had gotten lucky. A local anti-gun-violence group from Patterson Housing, a public housing development visible in the distance, had planned an unrelated 2 p.m. rally in front of the 40th Precinct. After hearing that cops had arrested five protesters, though, they temporarily joined forces with Occupy. In the surrounding apartment buildings, heads were peeking out of their windows.
A familiar face, Mychal Johnson, a member of the local community board, crossed the street to greet me.
I’d walked to the side of the station to get my bearings, but also, I was uncomfortable with the protesters’ loud embrace. I was grateful for their presence; I’m not sure I would’ve gotten out of jail in a couple of hours without them. We shared a common interest in protecting the public’s right of assembly. I, too, had been a victim of the police tactics with which many of them were intimately familiar. But I wasn’t one of them.
“They weren’t leaving till you came out,” said Johnson, smiling as he walked over to introduce himself.
I’d first seen Johnson inside the precinct when the five of us arrived, although I didn’t understand his role, then. Turns out, Occupy leaders had called ahead, told him about the arrests at 149th Street and asked him to get to the station to observe the officers. It’s an old strategy among older activists in disadvantaged communities: policing the police.
“Because of Occupy Wall Street, the police are in a heightened state,” said Johnson, but, he explained, intimidation tactics in his section of the Bronx are nothing new.
We were trailing the enlarged protest group, which was now marching north toward Patterson. The anti-gun-violence group led with the call, “No guns in the community.” Occupiers closed the rear with, “No guns with the police.”
“They arrest first and find out later if you’re innocent,” Johnson said. “The system has it backwards because by the time you get to court and the judge tosses out the charge”—like, trespassing or disorderly conduct—“you’ve already been handcuffed, detained, and your name put into the system.”
Johnson stops walking and turns to face me as if emphasizing the point. “It shouldn’t work that way,” he said.
My court date is Feb. 16.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Beast.