WE HEARD IT FROM THREE BLOCKS AWAY. The Observer left North Brooklyn sharing a cab with a neighboring journalist who had also been covering the protests shortly after 5:30 AM. By the time the cab pulled onto Broadway, after a quiet ride into Manhattan, traffic was at a standstill. It was around then we heard the noise, seeping in through rolled-up windows: yelling and shouting in a distant, chaotic baritone. The loudest chants of previous protest days paled in comparison. It started, we thought, fearing the worst, and without much discussion, the fare was paid, we jumped out of the cab, and ran toward the commotion, our adrenaline beginning to surge.
Zuccotti Park—a city block-sized privately-owned “public space” in the Financial District most New Yorkers had little to no familiarity with only a month ago—has been the home of Occupy Wall Street for 27 days, now. Over the last week, Zuccotti’s now-world-famous occupants faced the threat of a cleanup by the park’s owners, the publicly-traded Canadian real estate firm Brookfield Office Properties. The cleanup was presented by Brookfield as an effort to resolve unsanitary conditions in the encampment; but many pointed out that it conveniently served as a de facto eviction of the protesters.
For the cleanup, Zuccotti would require all of the protesters to leave, which would require the help of the police, who have been a perpetual presence at the protest since it started. It was ordered for 7AM this morning, against the wishes of local politicians, the reportedly well-coordinated cleaning efforts of protesters, and an offer by a hip hop mogul to pay for the entire thing himself if it meant maintaining the occupation. Failing any of these options, protesters had planned to link arms around the perimeter of the park in solidarity. Given the NYPD’s interactions with the protesters previously—pepper sprays, use of night sticks, mass arrests, widespread allegations of improper police conduct—the potential for this strategy to go very south very quickly for both sides was considerable.
As we raced onto the crosswalk around the park, two things came to us: an immediate sense of relief that nobody was being pepper sprayed or arrested en masse, and then, the realization that more people were at Zuccotti Park at 6AM on a Friday than any other moment in the protest prior to it. The protest’s organizers pegged the number at “over 3,000 people,” which may have been exaggerating somewhat (or at the very least, counting the police presence, the media and onlookers in that figure).
Still, the effect was palpable: it was a packed house. An ring of lights from television cameras and photographer flashes around the park created an odd, spectral silhouette of those inside the darkened space, who chanted, sang and of course, cleaned.
A girl walked around offering to write “the number” on anyone’s arm who asked; it was that of the legal nonprofit on the scene for protesters arrested during the cleanup. The lawyers readily answered questions and were easily found by their neon green baseball hats; they often traveled in clusters.
A “General Assembly” started moments later. These are the widely-reported meetings that employ a “human megaphone” technique—wherein protesters repeat what the speaker in their center is saying so the message reaches the far side of the crowd, in order to comply with an ordinance against amplified sound. Most messages or “mic checks” are repeated twice. This one? Four to five times.
Somewhere in the middle of the message being repeated outward—something from a Deputy Mayor—cheers erupted. The rest of the verbatim message didn’t reach the crowd, but the idea being conveyed was clear: they weren’t being cleaned up. Someone, somewhere had relented. The gathered mass at Zuccotti Park was jubilant, hugging each other, chanting. A brass band played in the park, muffling screams of “we won” and hampering the efforts of the mass of telecasters on the scene.
There was more cheering. The agenda and tone for the morning, it seemed, had been set. Until they were interrupted by distinct shouts from the corner of the park: “LET’S MARCH!” a younger guy screamed, and then another few people scream, before a steady line of protesters start moving off of Zuccotti Park, and right down Broadway, in the middle of the street. The feeling of “victory” over a landlord—with a Hydra-headed problem of logistics, politics, and intense media scrutiny —wasn’t enough to sate them at that particular moment. The spoils of a media war’s victory are, after all, only so rich. It was, without question, a conscious effort at confrontation, even provocation.
Marchers streamed through the street, as traffic honked in frustration behind them. They flooded past the infamous “Wall Street Bull” sculpture, a cheer erupted: “CAS-TRATE THE BULL! CAS-TRATE THE BULL!” The bull, recently fenced in and closed off to its usual audience of tourists who believe in its properties of luck, went without harm.
An older gentleman on his way to work spoke on the phone with his wife, walking parallel to the marchers on the sidewalk: “No, I’m walking with them, they’re right here. This is amazing!” Tourists with brochures advertising tours for the Statue of Liberty cowered on the far side of the sidewalk, and in storefront doors. “We’re taking this to the stock exchange!” another protester screamed. The crowd took a left on Beaver Street, across from Bowling Green park, and turned onto New Street. They jumped a barricade, and were stopped at a gate at the intersection with Exchange Place. “White-Shirt” NYPD officers streamed towards them as officers at the gate tried to hold them back. (A white-shirt was responsible for the now infamous video of a protester being mercilessly pepper sprayed; they have become an unofficial uniform of what to fear from the police presence at the protests, which is likely why many of those who made it all the way to Exchange Place started running in the other direction.) “We’re not big enough,” one protester screamed. “Go back! Go back!“
The crowd was dispersed without incident. The last wave started running back towards Beaver Street, doubling back on the the first. “They’re marching at the park, now!” Another march was happening, the route, as yet unknown. Broadway was empty again, momentarily, and eerily silent. The two buses likely intended for detained protesters unwilling to move for the aborted cleanup sat idle up the street.
Nearby, the Wall Street Bull sat peacefully, guarded by no less than six NYPD officers and a gate.
NYPD officers stood in the middle of Broadway, shooting video on an HD-handicam.
It didn’t appear they had anything to film, until it did: another march down Broadway had started. This one was louder, larger, armed with more energy and bigger numbers.
Police sirens started screaming from all directions. Gaggles of scooter-riding police honked at and herded the protesters forward. Protesters moved slowly; police were meeting them in scores through the front by cars, and as they resisted the push of the scooters, another wave of white-shirts pushed in through the front.
The protesters turned onto Beaver Street again; traffic, which had temporarily resumed at the intersection, had come to a standstill. Throngs of police moved to maneuver to the side of the crowd; others waited on the side. The Observer, hedging risk against a face-full of pepper spray, decided to refrain from following the chosen route any further. Police continued to flood into the crowd, screaming at the protesters, who rushed up the street again towards Broad Street. We called our reporting colleague. He explained in staccato that people had seen a scooter cop run over somebody’s leg, and multiple arrests, finishing the call with “I have to run, like, actually have to run.”
Working our way back up Broadway, we saw the worst case scenario beginning to paint itself in the form of riot police, being organized in single-file.
They marched up the block, and started receiving a briefing from a commanding officer.
To briefly editorialize: for someone acting as an outside observer to civil disobedience, there is nothing more ominously terrifying than someone clad in all black, with padding, shileding, weaponry, and the civic authority to use it on whoever they choose to in the name of restoring order, especially when you’ve just seen said order come under question. An eager tension within the riot police ranks was readily evident: one spun his club with his right hand, beating it into his left. Another bounced on the balls of his feet, the same way a prizefighter readying for the first round does. The only thing more worrying than their presence was that of the crowd who started in behind them, chanting: “The whole! World! Is watching! The Whole! World! Is watching!“
The riot police stopped in the middle of the street, facing uptown on Broadway; they turned onto a corner. A woman unaffiliated with the protests yelled at the from the sidewalk: “What is this, Star Wars?!” They retreated onto the sidewalk, in a holding pattern; a white-shirt addressed them again. They turned around, and headed downtown, back whence they came.
Back at Zuccotti Park, most of the marchers had returned to loud cheers; a few were still returning from a few blocks uptown with stories of arrests and abuse. Many of the news anchors were rushing the arrivals, trying to get the exclusive on their recent pavement conquests while they were fresh. The park buzzed with action and chatter, and police continued to clear the sidewalk for the morning commuters as they attempted to maneuver their way to the office. A clear picture of the morning’s events, however, had more than emerged by then: plenty of people on both sides of this confrontation wanted palpable action. Thankfully, a violent climax was averted.
As it turned out, the morning’s takeaway would largely be the images of Zuccotti Park being cleaned by self-proclaimed responsible, peaceful protesters. This, along with the sheer number of those attending the protests, is likely to help the movement gain traction on the ground, and in conversation worldwide? Paired with the carefully communicated endorsements of celebrities and local politicos, it paints a colorful picture of an intensely media-savvy movement, but one that inherently betrays their party line of being different from so many of the movements that came before it.
After all, the few idiots who fuck up the good intentions of groups of people—and the mass within that group who lets them—isn’t really anything that new.
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