As the people’s occupation snaked through the streets of Manhattan, it felt like we were doing something the city of millions had never seen. We were at least two thousand or three thousand strong. We were angry, but we were peaceful. A cluster of balloons floated in the sky ahead, tethered by the head of the pack, seeming to emit a buoyant sense of what Gandhi called right against might.
This is not a hodge-podge hippie movement, as is always the stereotype pinned on civil disobedience, but a peaceful, well-aimed, and growing consciousness that some of the money and power stuck at the top needs to trickle back down to the rest of the American people. About 80 percent of all new income generated in the last 30 years has gone to the top 1 percent. That’s not okay.
There has been a lot of talk about why we walked up the bridge – who did we think we were to block traffic in the middle of a Saturday afternoon? For one thing, this is civil disobedience. By definition it is offensive and obstructive to many; that’s how it gets attention. If we had just walked around lower Manhattan for an hour we wouldn’t have garnered half the attention. As for what actually happened, this is how I saw it:
As we reached the bridge, part of the pack began to walk up the pedestrian ramp that rises between the two directions of traffic. From my vantage point halfway back in the crowd, the front of the line seemed to hesitate at the road, then suddenly surge up it with a heady determination. I was shocked but invigorated by our assertiveness, and when I looked to my right and saw a line of police calmly separating us from the next lane of cars I figured they must somehow be okay with it. In fact it almost felt like they were escorting us up the bridge.
Once we had gotten almost halfway across the bridge, the police were suddenly no longer okay with it. The lane of cars was gone; the march stopped abruptly, and I could sense a pushing and pulling up at the front. The people behind us called for us to keep going, and the people in front of us told us to go back. What I later saw on YouTube was police at the front of the crowd literally dragging what seemed to be random people out and arresting them. “The whole world is watching!” the crowd chanted. Hey, it was true. Then, “this – is – a peaceful protest!”
It suddenly dawned on the thousand or so people that we were trapped, and likely to face arrest. A “Let us go!” chant began. Though the crowd had every reason to panic, everything stayed very orderly. Some people climbed 15-20 feet up to a walkway overlooking the road until the police stopped them and cordoned off the crowd. A man standing on the walkway above initiated a human microphone, a tactic frequently used in the occupation because megaphones are not allowed, in which the person speaking yells a few words at a time, and those words are yelled by the people within earshot, and the message expands outward in waves. In this case, the man with the vantage point was telling us we were probably about to be arrested.
My friends and I got arrested on the bridge at around 6pm. We were loaded onto an MTA bus with our hands behind our backs in plastic cuffs. The Transport Workers’ Union is now suing to stop NYPD from using them as accomplices in obstructing the people’s movement. As we were led to our bus, the crowd was singing the Star Spangled Banner. “The land of the free, and the home of the brave” serenaded me as I stepped into the makeshift, extra large paddy wagon.
Some of the people with me began to lose circulation in their hands because their cuffs were too tight – they say theirs wrists and hands still hurt days later. I was lucky enough to have loose cuffs, only strong discomfort. We sat cuffed on that bus for a total of five hours as the Crown Heights, Brooklyn Precinct 77 struggled to process the hundreds of us. Feeding off of each others’ optimism, we made conversation with each other and with the policemen in charge of watching us.
The more talkative cop professed not to care much about the country’s economic situation, as he himself had a comfortable salary and benefits. When asked if he would join the force now, though, since compensation has been reduced, he said hell no. He also asked why we had clogged the bridge. We told him to ask his superiors why they let us. He was a nice guy though – when my friend Jon was at the point of pissing himself, he unzipped Jon’s fly and let him relieve himself down the back stairs of the bus. We all got a good laugh out of that.
When we were finally let into the precinct station, they cut our arms loose and put us in 7′x5′ cells with six or seven of our comrades. At this point it was around midnight. We all pissed in the toilet before flushing it, in order to reduce the risk of it overflowing, as the toilet in the neighboring cell had done. We had nothing but each other – they had temporarily confiscated our shoes and every possession but our wallets. No phones for communication, nor to check the headlines and see what the world was seeing. Soon we had one more thing; a cop came by pushing a big plastic crate labeled “jail sand.” They were peanut butter sandwiches that tasted like they’d been made months ago. Having eaten nothing since leaving Liberty Plaza nine hours earlier, I ambivalently ate mine. An Asian 38-year-old in my cell used his to cushion his head against the wall. At one point I reached through the bars and threw my crust down the hall in frustration. We had no way of knowing how much longer we’d be in captivity. But we conversed warmly, bonding quickly in a climate of shared oppression, shared victory, and the shared knowledge that we are all firmly in this together.
For all we knew we could have been left there all night – and it crossed my mind that if anyone had to take a crap, our cramped cell, half occupied by the toilet and a bench, would become unbearably awkward. “Anyone got any TP?” I called out. Said Jon: “Use the sandwiches!” Laughter all around.
Around 1:30am, as conversations waned, Jon called out from the next cell down, “Okay, we’ve learned our lesson!” The whole row burst out in laughter.
My cellmates represented a diverse (though almost all white and male) cross-section of reasons for supporting the protest. JC had recently graduated from one of the top fashion schools in New York, and said his previous company had wanted desperately to hire him full time but simply couldn’t. He had just been fired and had spent the last week living and breathing Occupy Wall Street – something his employed friends couldn’t understand. A guy from the city and a guy from Rochester both had stories of restaurant managers trying to get them to work for free. Another cell mate, Julien, said he considers himself lucky because he does art handling for people who are, essentially, in the one percent. But he’s still very much of the protest – in fact he had been pepper sprayed the previous weekend. Sean, a sophomore at Wesleyan, sat awkwardly through a conversation we had about how a college degree is no longer remotely a guarantee of employment in this country. Some 22 percent of college grads are unemployed, and another 22 percent are working jobs that don’t require a college degree. The average college grad is entering the real world with $20,000 of debt.
I couldn’t help feeling the intense irony of the situation. Every day on Wall Street, stock brokers gamble with the world economy. Finance CEOs know that when something goes wrong they can take the money and run. The government will bail them out just like it did last time (the financial reforms made since then haven’t been nearly strong enough to change that). The people in cuffs are fighting for their own futures, and incidentally, for the future of this country. On the other hand, the last Wall Street manipulators I remember being penalized were Martha Stewart, Jonathan Lebed, and Bernie Madoff. Each of them was guilty of doing no more than what Wall Street does everyday, but on a scale that was respectively too high-profile, too embarrassingly juvenile, or too huge to ignore. They were isolated individuals who could take the fall without seeming, at first glance, to be impugning the entire system.
At around 2:30am, the cell next to me was finally released and handed their tickets. An hour later, they came back for us, taking a few every fifteen minutes. Finally it was just Julien and me, out of the 100+ protesters who had been jailed in that precinct in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn. We told each other whoever got out first would wait for the other outside and walk to the metro together. “I’m gonna go crazy if they leave me alone in here for too long, man,” he said. I was called first. Before, everyone had clapped when another protester was released. Now there was no one left to clap. The officer hurried me along as I put on my shoes and belt, placed my things back in my pockets. He said they were about to close and if I didn’t hurry I might be stuck overnight.
“You know where to go?” an officer asked me after I got my tickets and headed to the door. “Be careful out there,” he said. “Put that camera bag on your front.”
When I walked out of the Brooklyn Crown Heights jail at 3:30am there were several people standing across the street in the wet cold. One held a sign saying “Thank you!” and another held one saying “Occupy Precinct 77.” They took my name to give to the Lawyer’s Guild, and sent me around the corner to the welcome station.
Anyone who thinks Occupy Wall Street is unorganized is under-informed. Waiting for me around the corner were several more OWS people with cookies, chips, tobacco, water – all the comforts one craves on such a night. (Aside from beer and a deli sandwich, which came later.) My friends who had been released earlier were there too. As my friend Jon said while we were marching along the bridge, just before the cops sandwiched us – I had never felt more alive.
Occupy Wall Street is a self-explanatory movement. To be in Zucotti Park (aka Liberty Plaza) is to be in a warm, stimulating, relatively non-monetized community. There is plentiful food, donated by people around the city and around the world. When it rains, people walk around handing out ponchos. When it rains at night, people sleep there anyway. There’s a media and information center with people who, in my experience, were highly accessible. Conversations are happening all around. There’s a library, witty and incisive signs everywhere, meditation groups in the mornings.
Sure, many of the occupiers are too out there for most Americans to identify with. And in our fast-paced, pre-digested media culture the occupiers have befuddled superficial analysts by lacking one clear demand. But the underlying message should be obvious: Wall Street in its current, loosely regulated, risk-encouraged form = too much private money in politics = rapidly growing wealth disparity = loss of democracy and the American dream.
It’s a message with the potential to truly resonate with the masses – dare I say, to even have party crossover appeal. Some 160 cities around the country and the world — from Birmingham and Wichita to Dallas and Fargo to Tokyo and Tijuana — are preparing to occupy public spaces and condemn elite money in politics. They feel in their gut that now is the time to make something happen. If half of those cities have the audacity, patience and creativity of Occupy Wall Street, change is simply inevitable.
I and many others in my generation have been waiting our entire lives for the opportunity to coalesce our multitudes and right the ethical wrongs we’ve watched our country perpetrate under the guise of democracy. Indeed, for us American democracy has been, if not a guise, then a farce. We’ve come of age watching a president steal arguably two elections and lie his way into a costly war we’re still fighting – a war waged under the flimsy pretense of spreading democracy. Meanwhile the president we thought was the last great hope has fallen in line and largely been cowed by corporate influence – directly as well as indirectly, via the GOP. As a result it has become impossible to ignore the juxtaposition, and indeed causal effect, between steadily rising poverty and exploding wealth in the top 1 percent.
A middle-aged friend of mine who came from DC to meet me in Liberty Plaza, said this movement reminded him of the Vietnam protests – except those were more social, more fun. People didn’t go to those protests alone, the way some seem to be doing now. There was no specter of economic depression. Now there is. For that reason we may be on the cusp of a global Tahrir Square – and it will be fascinating to watch how each city, state and country reacts.
Of course, major challenges lie ahead. The winter is coming, which will make it harder for people to continue occupying outdoor spaces. And though the movement calls itself the 99 percent, many at the lower end of that group are repelled by the image of a largely white, somewhat middle class movement they see as being ungrateful for what it already has.
But with each passing week the occupation is gaining more momentum and more penetration into mainstream consciousness. This Wednesday, major New York labor unions and NYU student walk-outs will join the march. All signs point to a relentless mounting of pressure. Sooner or later something – or someone – will have to give.