Monday, September 26, 2011

Inside the Wall Street Protests: An Eyewitness Account of Police Crackdown on Peaceful Demonstrators

by A.J. Myerson

Protester arrested by NYPD. Via @NYCRevMedia on Twitter.
Photo Credit: @nycrevmedia on Twitter
Deep in the belly of the beast, among the financial district’s skyscrapers, next to derivatives traders in business suits and Rolex watches, you will find a one-block large democratic society, governed by consensus, whose features include free food, free professional childcare, an arts and culture area, medical and legal teams, a media center, constant music, a library and a stand with refreshments for the many police stationed to supervise the area. This is the one-week-old occupation of Wall Street, located at Liberty Plaza Park.

A group of protestors from the camp ventured outside the park and marched on Union Square Saturday morning, and around 100 of them were arrested. Police sprayed peaceful protestors in the face with pepper spray, threw them to the ground and assaulted them with elbows, dragged a woman around by the hair, jumped over barricades to grab and rough up young people, and, when all was said and done, laughed to themselves triumphantly. This is exactly the sort of violence and brutality American authorities routinely condemn when perpetrated against non-violent civilians demonstrating for democracy in Middle Eastern dictatorships, even as they employ horrifying cruelty right here.

Filmmaker Marisa Holmes was recently in Egypt, documenting the revolutionary movement there in its attempt to transform the ouster of Hosni Mubarak into a democratic society. Inspired by the movement there, she became involved with the group organizing the Wall Street occupation, hoping to emulate the Egyptians’ success in mobilizing the public to wrest their country from the brutal forces in power. Video shows police abusing her, confiscating her belongings and falsely alleging that she had resisted arrest.

In the aftermath of the mass arrests, Liberty Plaza was gripped by an agitated nervousness. Would the cops move in on us in an attempt to seize the square? What was in store for our comrades? Some of them texted people back at camp, giving brief glimpses into the fate they were meeting – a concussion incurred from police brutality on a marcher denied access to medical attention, a group locked in a van parked at Police Plaza, people clubbed about the head and chest with police batons.

As the reports came in and people in the camp began to see video and photos of the violence, nervousness turned to anger. These were our friends who had been brutalized for no reason apart from their earnest desire to avail themselves of their guaranteed First Amendment rights in order to call for a more just, more humane, more equal America. One young man implored those assembled, “There are people right now bleeding in handcuffs! Let’s march!”

As tempers rose, the NYPD let us know that they were, as one friend put it, “playing for keeps,” standing shoulder to shoulder and occupying every inch of the block of Broadway adjacent to the square, displaying the orange nets the same police force had used to corral demonstrators at 2004’s Republican National Convention. During a shift change, as the sun dropped behind the buildings to the west, dozens of cop cars, sirens and lights blazing, began to circle the plaza, intimidating its denizens. Rumors began to circulate that the cops were waiting for cover of dark to invade the square and avoid the watchful eye of the media.

After all, they had targeted the internal media team in the arrests, capturing, among others, Marisa. That would have been bad enough, but the cops stationed at Liberty Plaza were also spotted harassing the mainstream media and prohibiting news vans from parking in convenient locations. (One candidate response to having been busted being sadistic and pitiless by the media is to stop being sadistic and pitiless; another is to eliminate the media).

In a true democracy, though, knee-jerk reactions don’t happen. A consensus eventually emerged that a hastily-organized march to the precinct would divide the group, leave the marchers vulnerable to arrest and the camp vulnerable to seizure by the police, and heads began to cool and focus on the task at hand. A lawyer addressed the general assembly and reviewed the proper procedure for dealing with hostile police. Some campers volunteered to surround the media center to protect the livestream from potential police encroachment for as long as possible; an outreach committee went to work trying to recruit more occupiers. Community is a magical thing, and social solidarity is a reliable antidote to the aggressive impulse.

As of today, most of those arrested have been released; the rest, including Marisa, await arraignment. But the mood back at camp is defiantly jovial. The occupation will not be intimidated by state violence, will not be suppressed by a hostile police force and will not be discouraged by snarky hack journalism like that in the New York Times.

This group remembers that tea party dissenters were allowed to bring guns brazenly to town hall meetings, without being subjected to mace and arrest. Similarly, the crooked Wall Street thugs who obliterated the economy and then extorted the country for staggering sums of money have never faced police brutality or even justice. And the congress (a subsidiary of Wall Street), as it proposes huge budget cuts, is even jeopardizing the pensions of those cops whose batons bloodied my friends’ face.
If only they knew what really needed to be smashed.

J.A. Myerson is the executive editor of The Busy Signal and a frequent contributor of Foreign Policy in Focus.

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