In many ways, the story of Occupy Wall Street’s May Day protest yesterday is much more about what didn’t happen than what did. There were no mass arrests or massive traffic disruptions and workers didn’t walk off their jobs en masse. In total, the NYPD said there were “over 50″ Occupy-related arrests yesterday, a far cry from the hundreds of arrests that accompanied previous Occupy actions.
After months of dealing with the protests, the police have clearly adapted to Occupy. Last night, the NYPD managed to clear the crowd that gathered for the May Day finale rally within thirty minutes without the pepper spray and arrests of press and politicans that led to controversy at past protests.
May Day began yesterday morning in Bryant Park, which served as the central hub for a variety of marches featuring thousands of protesters, union leaders and cameo appearances by famous musicians. Though the protesters had vowed to “shut down” the city and police warned of possible “militant elements” and traffic blockades, by the evening, the NYPD said there were only “approximately 30″ arrests.
At 5:30 pm, protesters staged a march from Union Square to the financial district. The march finished with a “general assembly” on the Vietnam Veterans Plaza that drew hundreds of people. A speaker informed the crowd that the park was scheduled to close at 10 p.m.
“After that, it will be up to us,” they said.
Police circled the park with scooters and columns of officers clad in riot helmets. The protesters seemed to be gearing up for another one of the violent confrontations that has defined their movement.
When the appointed hour rolled around, a Lieutenant with the Manhattan South task force grabbed a megaphone and addressed the crowd.
“This is a New York City park. It is closed at 10 o’clock. You will have a few minutes to leave. If you refuse to leave, you will be arrested,” he said.
The vast majority of the crowd moved out of the park and into the surrounding streets. About 11 protesters, including Bishop George Packard and Reverend Michael Ellick of Judson Memorial Church participated in an act of civil disobedience by remaining in the park and were arrested. The Politicker also saw at least two other protesters get pulled to the ground and carried from the park.
At the eviction of the Occupy encampment in Zuccotti Park, members of the press were arrested while attempting to cover the protests leading to a public relations nightmare for the NYPD. This time around, credentialed reporters were allowed to remain in the park to view the May Day crowds being cleared. We spotted “hipster cop” Rick Lee, whose natty attire has made him an accidental star of the Occupy protests, as the police broke up the protest. He pointed towards the arrested protesters who were lined up against the wall of a nearby office building.
“If they only listened to me, we’d all avoid this,” he said, before quickly adding, “The Occupiers, I mean.”
The police also made a clear effort to avoid the political fallout that followed last fall’s Occupy protests when Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez was arrested while he claimed to be observing the eviction of Zuccotti Park. Mr. Rodriguez was in attendance last night along with his fellow Council member Jumaane Williams, who was himself arrested while participating in an act of civil disobedience in support of Occupy Wall street last November. As a result of his arrest, Mr. Rodriguez is currently participating in a class action law suit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City.
Last night, Mr. Williams and Mr. Rodriguez were permitted to remain in the plaza and view the May Day finale. Shortly before the area was cleared, an NYPD officer brought the councilmen a contingent of Community Affairs officers to accompany them as they observed the protests.
“These guys are Council members. They’re here to observe. Make sure they don’t get mixed up in this,” the officer said.
After the protesters were cleared from the plaza, there were several arrests and clashes with the police as they made their way through the surrounding streets. Though several protesters were pushed to the ground and arrested, there was no sign of the pepper spray that resulted in widely viewed YouTube videos and substantial criticism for the police at past Occupy protests.
When it was all over, a smaller group made their way to Zuccotti Park including Mr. Rodriguez and Mr. Williams who gave us their takes on the day’s events.
“I think that it is wrong to evict protesters from a public square. That is my belief. We need to change the law. I believe that peaceful demonstration should be allowed in a public place because that is what the Constitution says,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “What happened today, the message was clear, this movement will stay and will continue growing in the City of New York.”
Mr. Williams echoed his opinion protesters should not be cleared every time they attempt to assemble.
“A public square should be allowed for people to protest,” he said. “Today was clearly successful in letting people know the message is still alive, the movement is alive. It’s not dead. To let the Bloombergs, the Cuomos, the Obamas, all of them in the Congress know that these guys and people like us who are fighting are not going away until the problems are addressed.”
Bishop Ray Blanchette, a clergyman who was with Mr. Williams and Mr. Rodriguez at the protest, said the major remaining question is how protesters can figure out how to make themselves heard when the police have figured out how to quash their demonstrations so effectively.
“The big issue is, how are we going to address the fact that they keep shutting down our protests,” he said. “This will prevent any progressive movement. … The police have us under their thumb.”