Leading up to Thursday night’s Occupy Wall Street march across the Brooklyn Bridge, the atmosphere was ominous. Streets in the financial district were filled with helmeted police officers on horseback and empty police wagons. After an afternoon filled with hundreds of violent arrests, protesters in Zuccotti Park prepared for the worst as they readied to culminate the day with a massive march across the Brooklyn Bridge.
As usual, the first sounds we heard upon arriving at the park were protesters repeating the words of a speaker via the “people’s mic.” A man who called himself Bless passed out cigarettes and shouted a phone number for legal representation.
“I’m living proof, 36 hours and I’m out,” he said. “I had 36 hours locked up for holding the flag.”
This was originally supposed to be a commemoration of Occupy Wall Street reaching the ripe old age of two months, but Tuesday’s raid that temporarily pushed the occupiers from the park and resulted in the destruction of the dense tent city where this now global movement was born cast a dark shadow over the proceedings.
Last time the protesters attempted to cross the bridge, it ended with over 700 arrests as the protesters were stopped before reaching the Brooklyn side. During that march, the protesters blocked the roadways on the bridge. Yesterday, they planned to stick to the pedestrian walkway.
Wearing a pink ski jacket and a white knit cap over her long braids, a woman named Lady Millard announced the evening’s agenda.
“We will be leaving for Foley Square at five, but we also need people to hold down the park,” she said.
“That would be me!” Bless said.
Two men walked through one of the gated entrances to Zuccotti where burly guards from the company that owns the space, Brookfield Properties,bar those with large bags and tents. Since the eviction, camping is no longer allowed in the park.
“Welcome to Occupy Wall Street,” one of the men shouted as he strutted in.
Just before five, Ms. Millard led the crowd out of the park waving an American flag. About 150 people followed behind her chanting the now familiar refrain of the movement that was made in Zuccotti Park. “We are the 99%! You are the 99%!”
As we moved North up Broadway, the Observer asked Ms. Millard if she was prepared to be arrested. “I’m not worried.” It wouldn’t be the first time she was put in police custody at the protests. “I was taken to Bellevue,” Ms. Millard said referring to New York’s infamous downtown psych ward.
Their route to Foley Square brought the protesters past City Hall, which was completely encircled by police with riot helmets and batons. Marchers called out to passing pedestrians asking them to join the procession.
“Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” they chanted.
One of the women in the march struck up a conversation with a policewoman who stood in front of City Hall.
“No helmet tonight?” the marcher asked.
“No, I just like the hat,” the policewoman said with a smile.
At Foley Square, protesters passed through barricades that kept them shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk. The threat of another violent crackdown seemed omnipresent. Scores of police officers stood in the streets wearing their riot gear. We had to walk a block to get around the barricades and into the square.
Somewhere in the crowd, there was a public address system blasting music and speeches. It was so packed in the park we were never able to pinpoint the location of the main microphone despite spending more than an hour listening to it blaring statements from an assortment of speakers.
“Hello beautiful people. It’s so good to be with the best people in the world tonight here in Foley Square,” someone said.
A male and female rapper did most of the talking.
“If you love freedom say, ‘Oh yeah,'” the man said.
Many of the marchers wore gear identifying them as members of local unions including the UAW, UFT and 1199 SEIU. At 6:15 p.m., the crowd begin to inch toward the bridge. Barricades, crowds and general confusion made it hard to move. Over the public address system, the male rapper said a “children’s brigade” had arrived from Union Square. A voice that sounded like it belonged to a little girl came on next chanting “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
“Hip hop is in the house. The children are in the house,” the man said.
For approximately the next hour, we slowly moved out of the park and onto the bridge. Many in the crowd were getting fed up with the rappers.
“Why are they dominating the stage? All groups should be represented,” asked Cynthia Price. She had greyish hair, glasses and a sign that read, “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are trying to change the world.” Ms. Price used her smartphone to tap out an email to an official Occupy Wall Street account asking them to stop the soundtrack. Behind us, we overheard a tall man named Andrew complain about the music.
“I’m pretty against whoever’s got this P.A. running,” Andrew said.
The rappers were eventually joined by old school hip hop star KRS One who asked protesters to show the world how clean they could be by taking litter with them as they exited Foley Square.
“Occupy a garbage container,” he said
We pushed our way to the front of the crowd. Marchers were at a standstill on the corner of Centre and Chambers. Police allowed people to file through a small opening in the barricade and the march barely moved.
“Bloomberg fuck you!” protesters chanted venting their displeasure with the Mayor.
Once we made it through the barricade on Chambers the crowd thinned and began moving much more quickly. We climbed on top of a statue in front of City Hall to get a photo of the massive group of marchers already making their way across the bridge.
“I’ll give you one shot,” the policeman guarding the statue said. “You got to get off before my partner comes, he’s the nasty one.”
At the base of the bridge, two lines of workers from a coalition of city unions stood on either side of the walkway between the police and protesters. Other demonstrators handed out small electric votive candles to mark the movement’s “birthday.”
Once on the bridge protesters began a chant of “Bloomberg beware, Zuccotti Park is everywhere.”
Lights projected huge letters onto the nearby Verizon building proclaiming the day a victory and listing occupations in various other cities. “Occupy Alaska … Occupy Miami … Occupy Detroit.” Huge cheers went up from the crowd when the light show culminated with messages reading “Occupy Earth” and “We are winning.”
All the way across the bridge, cars driving on the road on either side of the pedestrian walkway honked in support of the protesters. On the Brooklyn side, we spotted residents of apartments in Cadman Plaza flickering the lights in their homes as the march went by.
Protesters slowly funneled down the steps leading onto the street from the bridge guided by NYPD Community Affairs officers wearing blue windbreakers and baseball hats.
“Watch your steps on the way down. Watch the children and the elderly in the procession,” the officers said.
A passing protester remarked to the officers that she was surprised by cordiality.
“We’re from Brooklyn, we’re always nice in Brooklyn,” one of the officers said.
Overall, the march gave us the impression protesters and the NYPD may finally have learned to get along. Or perhaps, Occupy Wall Street has simply accumulated the a critical mass necessary for the protesters to assert themselves in New York City’s streets. The crowd of marchers on the Brooklyn Bridge last night was estimated to be approximately 32,000 strong.
Though the threat of violence that hung in the air never materialized, the night was not entirely without incident. In Brooklyn, the marchers gathered for a general assembly meeting at the Brooklyn War Memorial. A man named Leo spoke to the group via the “people’s mic.”
“At 6 p.m. tonight, 99 of our friends including union members and City Council members sat down in front of the Brooklyn Bridge temporarily,” Leo said detailing how the group was arrested for their act of civil disobedience. “Right now, they’re still on a bus in Queens. Thought you should know. Send them some love when they get out,” Leo said.
This morning, an NYPD spokesman told the Observer “something like 250″ people were arrested during yesterday’s day of protests.
“I don’t think we have an exact count,” the spokesman said.
With additional reporting
by Emily Witt.