22 November 2011

At the NYSE

Following the eviction of Zuccotti Park in the early morning of November 15, I came with several friends from Occupy Boston to support the mass day of action on November 17. The earliest, riskiest mass action planned that day was to prevent the New York Stock Exchange from opening on time by blocking the surrounding streets. Protesters were meeting at 7 AM to march from several locations to the Exchange.

I got off the train at Broad Street around 8 AM. I was feeling sick and had overslept. A labyrinth of metal barriers guarded the narrow streets, heightening the claustrophobia of the Financial District. I exited a police checkpoint at Exchange onto Broadway and began walking up towards Zuccotti. All but one of the entrances to the district proper had been sealed to anyone without a work ID, and soon I came across a long line of protestors shuffling along the sidewalk, pinned in by scaffolding, chanting, and waving signs, slowly filing through a checkpoint. My friends were already inside, and I doubled back, wishing I hadn’t left the fortress so quickly.

After taking a left onto Beaver, I soon was passing groups of protestors who wisely had chosen to approach the exchange from the south and the east. I ran into two friends, and we joined a sit-in on Stone Street, right next to the drummer keeping time for the chants. Ears hurting, we moved on, quickly joining an armlock on Hanover. Since the police had barricaded the street, the only way through was the sidewalk, which we filled in rows of three or four, chanting, “Wall Street’s Closed!” Confused and sometimes angry people tried to enter. Mostly they got halfway down the street before going to find another entrance. A few yelled and one just continued to walk, pressing into us for ten seconds before turning around wordlessly and going in the opposite direction.

I had stepped out to find a friend who had texted to say she was just across Wall Street when the police got word of the block and came to clear it. In the taxonomy of cops, the most dangerous are the Ones Who Snap, but the scariest are the Ones Who Like It. They know how to hurt and terrorize just enough to keep on doing it without facing discipline or reassignment. So, for example, when clearing people from a sidewalk or street, most cops will get very close and push with their bodies or batons or shields, but without fully extending their arms. The Ones Who Like it will take these opportunities to do extra damage when it can’t be seen. The Snappers, by contrast, come right out and shove you repeatedly, arms fully extended, past the point of caring whether or not there is space for you to move. One of the cops who came to clear the (mostly female) block at Hanover seemed like this: He looked like he had been waiting his entire life to shove young women into metal poles and onto concrete. But perversely, this probably meant not that he had, but that he’d lost it already. It was 8:40 AM.

After that, we walked down Wall and up over to Maiden, where we ran into more people we knew. The crowd was thick as we watched a circle of people sitting in the street to block traffic get arrested one by one. A friend was led away in cuffs, and we cheered.

Pushed up Pearl by the crowd, we took the long way around, back down to Beaver and Broad. Under such circumstances, there are organized arrests, where people engage in civil disobedience and are taken away one by one, and then there are random arrests, in which police seize on any perceived provocation—earlier in the day, another friend had stepped off the sidewalk and was immediately tackled by six officers. On the way down Beaver, there were several similar arrests, each following the same pattern: a quickening in the crowd, people streaming past, then the appearance of clump of photographers as several police leant into somebody lying face down on the ground. In one case, some poor bastard in a flannel got shoved up against the wall by a cop with a brown wooden baton, who then spun him by his shirt onto the curb, striking him repeatedly with overhead blows. He curled in the street, almost shirtless, as the pale flesh of his exposed back quickly turned red. We knew it was bad because the crowd was reduced to saying things like ”holy shit” and “Jesus Christ,” before recovering ourselves and launching into “shame shame” or “this is what a police state looks like.” The cop, a classic Snapper, was eventually pulled off his victim by several others, and I think the kid was allowed to go free—another sign that a line had been crossed.

For the next hour, the crowd moved up and down among Beaver, Broad, and William. Around 10 AM, still on Broad and Beaver, I heard a sound to my left like the alarm when someone opens an emergency subway exit. Turning, I saw a line of maybe twenty protesters, not two feet over, drop to the ground like puppets with their strings cut. This was the LRAD—a Long Range Acoustic Device, or sound cannon, that emits a high frequency pulse that rattles the skull—earplugs don’t help. First developed for use in faraway countries, it has finally found its way home.

At the intersection of Broad and William, a long armlock had sprung up to block the street, and was anchored in the middle by an elderly woman, dressed beautifully in purple. I mean that. She looked fantastic. And not only was she beautifully dressed but she was calm and relaxed in a way that nobody else was—and all two hundred eyes were on her. She was our single best defense against the police all day. Officers kept going up to them and saying things I couldn’t hear. The crowd was inspired, surging to block an approaching police bus. Pushing us back onto the sidewalk, one tall cop with olive skin and rolling eyes held his baton at my friend Ariel’s neck for an uncomfortably long time. Eventually, the cops succeeded in moving the woman, I’m not sure how, and the bus was allowed to pass. I don’t think she was arrested.

Shortly after that, two dozen cops carefully formed a line, drew their batons, and charged into a group dancing down the street with black umbrellas, beating them freely. I wondered what it was that had prompted this direct assault. Was the dancing just that bad? Did the umbrellas count as weapons? It was the only time I saw more than one officer using overhand blows, and for an extended time, so there must have been some understanding. A Times photographer was caught up with the dancers, as there was picture of the attack on the cover of Friday’s paper. 

Image: March on New York Stock Exchange, November 17, 2011. From Mark Ovaska.

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