16 November 2011

A Day in the Movement

This is an edited version of a piece that appeared at infrontandcenter.wordpress.com.


The text came at 1:05 AM, just as I was just getting out of the shower:

OccupyNYC:URGENT:Hundreds of police mobilizing around Zuccotti. Eviction in progress.

I both could and could not believe it. But it didn’t matter right then, what mattered right then was that I get on my bike and get there as soon as I could. I threw on the first clothes I found and started texting everyone I knew. I somehow remembered to fill my water bottle.

Half an hour later, with my friend David, I locked my bike a few blocks from Zuccotti Park. We were starting up the street towards Broadway when out of nowhere I was body-checked by three cops in riot gear and thrown against the side of a van, pinned there by a baton. I looked over and saw David was surrounded and being shoved. I start to scream and threw my arms up in the air, and simple thoughts started going through my head. There is no one here to see this. What did I do? How do I get out of this safe? Suddenly it was over and we were being pushed down the block, being told we couldn’t go that way. I was shaking. I grabbed David’s hand. He held it tightly and I started to cry.


By the time I arrived at the scene it was 1:30 AM, half an hour after the emergency text message went out. The park was fenced in and we could only get within a one-block radius of the square. People were arriving from all over the city, our numbers were growing quickly, and the police decided to push us back before more supporters arrived. I saw many faces I recognized from the long weeks of occupation, many I did not, but there was spontaneous solidarity among us: we linked arms; we tried to stand our ground; we chanted that this was a peaceful protest—and we were met with wanton violence. The police had hardly started to move when to my right three people were pepper-sprayed; a man to my left was being repeatedly gouged in the stomach with a police baton. A few minutes later, we were penned in and the police were grabbing people at random and arresting them. They made a small opening and started violently throwing people through it. One man fell to the ground, and the cops did not step in to help him up but rather kept throwing more people towards him; they tripped and stumbled on his body on the ground. When we tried to help him up we were met with batons, cursed, and shoved.

Many of us, on Broadway

We were walking down the sidewalk on Broadway, back towards Liberty Plaza,, when about fifty feet ahead of us a few cops jumped out of a police car and grabbed our friend N. She was an organizer at Occupy Wall Street and she had clearly been singled out for arrest. We ran up to the police car she had been roughly shuffled into and tried to yell to her through a slightly opened window: “Anyone we can call for you? Anyone we can call?” Suddenly ten officers surrounded the car, pushing us back, yelling over her as she tried to answer. They shoved a man with a camera to the side and grabbed his press pass. “We’re just trying to ask her if she wants us to call her family,” we said. They continued to push us away from the car, telling us to keep moving or be arrested as we continued to call out to our friend. Through all the yelling a line from one of the officers was clear: “You can’t talk to her, she’s a prisoner. Move along or you’ll be arrested.”


It was now nearly 4 AM, the crowd had thinned, but we were still marching around Manhattan, expressing our outrage at this calculated attack against political freedom and disgust at all of the brutality we had seen that night. The police would follow us for a while, then cut off one street and we’d turn onto another. Again and again, they would jump into a crowd, isolate an individual and violently shove that person against a wall or to the ground; when others would try to intervene, the police would arrest them, too. At some point, someone next to me was nabbed; before I could react I felt a blow to the back of the head, and while losing my balance heard someone say, “Take that motherfucker.” My friends pulled me out of the crowd, and I turned to see one that one of the white-shirted officers was simply swinging at random at people’s faces, backs, and shielded bodies. “They’re trying to provoke violence to legitimate the repression” one of my friends said. I walked away smarting, my neck sore from the blow but thinking, We’re on the cusp of something huge. Police only act this way when they’re scared.

The actions of the police and city government last night were reprehensible: peaceful protesters were beaten; media observers were arrested; subway stations were closed to prevent people from entering or leaving the scene of the raid, and airspace was blocked to prevent news channels from filming it. The Zuccotti Park library and countless items of private property were confiscated or destroyed; the encampment itself was destroyed. The area around the park was closed off for blocks. The smell of pepper spray, the sound of people yelling, and cops decked out in full riot gear were everywhere.  These are the kinds of actions pursued by authoritarian regimes, the kinds of actions that prove to us that we do indeed now live in a police state. But in thinking about all this during the last day, one thing becomes clear:  this movement is important and the state is scared of us. And ultimately, this spectacle of repression should not distract us from the tasks we have at hand, nor should it overshadow the great strides we’ve made in the past months. There is no evicting a movement.

The synchronized raids and evictions of occupations across the country clearly were coordinated at a national level. We can expect further repression and acute struggles over public space to ensue. These struggles will be important. They will set the tone of the movement in the coming months, and they will be the fiercely debated. But equally important is what happens within institutions, workplaces, and schools as this movement continues to expand beyond its initial confines in the small, drab lot of Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. In these and other spaces the movement is building, it is evolving, and it is gaining momentum.

This movement has clearly entered its second phase. We may have lost Zuccotti Park, and city government clearly intends to keep us out of other public spaces that we have used to assemble. But the movement is far from dead. We are just beginning. Working groups from OWS have meetings and events planned for the months ahead. They will continue to meet and continue to grow. There is a nascent student movement in New York. General Assemblies now take place on most major college campuses in New York City, and around the country. Each of these has its own working groups that are meeting constantly and planning the next steps. This week has been called a Student Week of Action, and its calendar, which shows over fifty events on campuses across the city, testifies to an unprecedented scale of collaboration, solidarity, and collective planning. The movement is spreading to new spaces—where we are employed and where we are educated.

But perhaps the greatest testament to the strength of this movement is that it is changing the terrain of political discourse in America. When, in his statement justifying the eviction, Mayor Bloomberg said snarkily, “Now they will have to occupy the space with the power of their arguments” he actually missed the point entirely. It is not just that the power of our arguments is winning or losing a competition with other equally legitimate arguments in some mythic public sphere. The power of our movement, of our actions and our practices, is that they are changing the very coordinates of how people think about politics—they are changing the political imagination.

It is difficult to predict how the movement will develop. This second phase will likely see general assemblies and working groups move into places of employment, conference rooms, community centers, and living rooms. Already union halls have been offering space for OWS planning meetings and union leaders have been participating, office and storage spaces have been donated to the movement, and working groups have started convening in people’s homes. As the state continues to repress political expression in public spaces, we can expect that new alliances forged in this moment of collective indignation will continue open up new private spaces to the movement. The struggle over public space will continue, but alongside this struggle private spaces will come to be used in new ways. Police repression can expel an occupation from a particular space; individuals can be locked up, thrown into the back of police cars, and openly called political “prisoners”; but ultimately none of this will solve the political and economic problems of our time. If anything it will aggravate them. This is why the movement will continue to grow and will continue to spread.

We dragged ourselves home at 7 AM. Napped. Showered. Ate. Text messages and emails flew around all afternoon about the court order, about whether we would be let into the park again. We started sending our own emails: Should we reschedule the People of Color caucus meeting? Should we push the student planning meeting back? But most urgently: where should we meet tonight? We knew we would all go back out.

At a quarter to seven, we went back to Zuccotti Park. General Assembly was taking place on the steps by the red sculpture. There were barricades around the perimeter. Boxes of vegan pizza were passed around. A pile of books stood in the corner as a makeshift library. Our friends from the night before were exchanging stories about what happened. We were incredibly angry and sad about what we had built, what is now gone. But somehow that night also felt like the early days of the occupation and those were hopeful days—then like now the future felt open.

Image: People link arms a few blocks from Zuccotti Park as New York City officials clear the Occupy Wall Street protest from the park in the early morning hours of November 15, 2011, in New York. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images.) From atlantic.com.


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