Posted on 04 June 2012.
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 -