Eviction Memories

Just over two months ago, on November 15, Zuccotti Park (a.k.a. Liberty Square) was emptied by the NYPD. Since then Occupy Wall Street has continued, but without its original home. For many of us, the most reliable and friendly way to follow NYC General Assemblies and Spokes Councils from afar—especially with the physical locus of the movement gone—has been through the live-tweeting of Dicey Troop and the [at]LibertySqGA team. On the two month anniversary of the eviction (also Martin Luther King, Jr. day, our only US holiday that commemorates dissent and nonviolent social change) we’re glad to have Dicey’s and Molly’s record of that night and morning, from both sides of the barricades. —Ed.

DICEY (A.K.A. TIM): The first sign of trouble was a tweet:

[at]mcduh: [at]questlove sayin he saw hundreds of riot cops on South St, Manhattan bout 1hr ago. #occupywallst [at]DiceyTroop are yall aware of anything?

I immediately crossed Broadway on the south side of Liberty, side-stepping dormant traces of ongoing street maintenance and responding: [at]mcduh [at]questlove all quiet at the Park. What did you see questo? Maybe Batman stuff?

As I neared Pearl Street, bad omens rounded the corner, driving back the way I came and toward Liberty Square: ten NYPD trucks towing the kind of lighting rigs often seen illuminating nocturnal construction projects. I’d been thinking about the Spokes Council meeting I’d just left, and my heart and mind bickered the way they do when confronted by disruptive truths. I was far from ready to admit that everything was about to change.

MOLLY: Tim’s text woke me.

Before I got into bed I had checked my phone and online-onlyed through what was later dubbed Questlove’s “Paul Revere Moment.” I’d thought: another false alarm. We’d rushed down to the park maybe two weeks before, practically jumping up and down on the 4 train platform, only to find our friends at Zuccotti shrugging and bedding down for another night. It was a testament to how routine the extremes of life in the park had become. That night, we had found the comfort station sorting blankets, had helped a friend carry jail support supplies to the crosstown subway, had planned a half-baked theatrical action somewhere along the way, and had enjoyed a short—and really, shockingly civil—argument with a twentysomething far to the right of us politically . . . Normalcy. That night, it had been enough to soothe all our fears.

DICEY: As I reached Water Street, the whole police phalanx suddenly emerged from the flat block between Water and South Street. NYPD van after NYPD van rolled through the intersection in a single-file bumper-to-bumper line. Running up Pine to Nassau to Cedar, I recognized several members of Liberty Square’s non-activist homeless population moving away from the park. Well, that’s a bad sign. At Cedar and Broadway, fifty riot police were already assembled next to the red cube, backed by those enormous and shockingly bright klieg lights.

On the other side of the street, I pulled out my phone and snapped a shot of an equally large and well-lit deployment staring into our park from the top of the steps. I tweeted it with the words: Red alert at Liberty Square!

The biggest group of our people was at the kitchen. I reached them and realized I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. What was my role here, right now? I went with what I knew and managed to assemble 140 characters of coherent thought: NOT A DRILL. SHIT IS GOING DOWN. PARK DEFENSE IN PROGRESS. If you want to save #occupywallstreet, come to park NOW.

MOLLY: Tim wrote: Eviction happening. Sound the Alarm. But what alarm did we have? I woke my roommates. We turned on the Livestream around the same time the second text came in from Occupy’s emergency alert system. My laptop was still on the bed, and the three of us stood around it in various states of undress, staring.

DICEY: The moment was stressful, between the NYPD’s announcements, the searing bright lights, and people packing up tents in a frantic attempt to get out before the wave of police hit. Someone banged a kettle with a utensil, much too loudly, until a man with a U-lock around his neck stopped trying to be heard in a pleasant tone and screamed, “Stop making that fucking noise!” Folks with me at the kitchen split up cloth for scarves so we could protect our noses and mouths against chemical attacks. When the bolt ran out just before I was able to make one, a woman named Sarah Harper handed me hers. “The unions are coming right now,” someone said.

MOLLY: “What should we do?” asked one of my roommates.

“It’s probably already blocked off,” said the other. “Tim’s there? I don’t think we can do anything at this point.”

We stood and stared a while longer. It was true.

I had a very familiar feeling. The bright lights, the shouting, all contained in that little Livestream box with the text online-onlying down the margin—how very inappropriate. It doesn’t even go full screen. It was the same feeling I’d had sitting with my laptop on the couch weeks ago, watching Oakland get raided. All I could do is watch myself watching the Livestream. The curse of the all-access class. When I’m at work I refresh my various feeds every few minutes to see what’s going on with the hashtag, but it doesn’t help get my work done any faster, and it certainly doesn’t get me any closer to OWS.

DICEY: The police entered the park, dismantling tents and making arrests. There aren’t enough people to hold the stairs. We’re located around the kitchen. Some occupiers formed a barricade with shelves, racks, bags, and bodies, around those who were U-locked together at the kitchen’s nucleus. The rest of us formed a human wall around the perimeter. I found my perch for the evening: a spot near the south side of the kitchen, which was finally beginning to settle down. We were ready. The human barricades facing the police lines started mic-checking, shouting our #whyweoccupy stories to the line of officers. I love the smell of vinegar in the morning! Mood is festive.

The lights made every tent in the park luminescent. It was hard to see beyond the kitchen. Only as the police neared us did it become clear what they were doing: hauling tents full of people’s belongings across the square and heaving them into trash trucks. They began on the east side and worked their way in. An industrious squadron of Sanitation workers followed, power-washing as if to scrub away all traces of Liberty Square, leaving nothing but the unblemished stone of Zuccotti Park.

On Twitter, folks were losing their shit. During the whole ordeal, I never lost the sense that I was directly connected to occupiers outside my physical reach. I knew that people were having a difficult time accessing the park, but that they were looking for a way to sneak in—that our friends were with us a few block away. I KNOW Y’ALL CAN SAVE US!, I tweeted. Come in the west side maybe.

MOLLY: I rode my bike over, rehearsing the program. You see, I work early each morning, and usually all weekend. My soft, guilty, stomach-clenching mantra for almost every Occupy Wall Street action loops around a single directive: Don’t get arrested. You have to go to work. I tend to calm the anxiety these situations inspire in me by considering myself simply a warm body; a fraction of a crowd-sized statistic someone may find quotable in the morning. Naively, I imagined there would be a place for observers in the raid on Liberty Plaza.

The next few hours proved me wrong. When I came to the foot of the bridge I found myself flanked by similarly desperate-looking kids on bikes; the cavalry was arriving. Police vans had already blocked the road almost up to Fulton; they stretched up to City Hall Park.

DICEY: Some of the stories I heard from the perimeter were far more brutal than the rough treatment I saw in Liberty Square itself. People were arrested for politely asking questions. Press were penned in and assaulted if they attempted to reach the park. Pepper spray and batons were used liberally. I can only imagine that the police on the perimeter thought that protecting the invisibility of their colleagues’ actions in the park was of the utmost importance. But their treatment of the people who came to see and document the destruction ended up documented itself, becoming just as—if not more—scandalous.

MOLLY: I locked my bike to some scaffolding on Broadway and approached the first line of chanting people I saw: a knot of bodies I assumed were there, like me, to show their nonviolent support. I walked up, craned my neck to see past them, and immediately caught some pepper spray in the face. I reeled back; someone helped me rinse my eyes. The guy in front of me got it much worse. I saw him later, face pink and screwed up, being escorted northwards, an occupier on each arm. To my left an older gentleman leaned out of a glimmering black SUV, his video-capable iPad planted firmly between his face and the action.

I crossed Broadway with the blurry idea of trying to find a way into the park. I knew that Tim, along with the others still inside, had taken to the kitchen. I knew the park was being dismantled. A police van pulled up and deployed even more police officers in riot gear, their batons out. I started texting everyone I knew.

DICEY: By 2 AM I accepted the strong odds that we’d be riding this one out pretty much on our own. Without notice, we’d had no chance to warn the (ideally several thousand) people that we, like Mayor Bloomberg, knew would join our park defense efforts. And the speed and ardor with which the police were throwing our belongings into trash trucks sent a clear message to those who dared to stay: Be with you in a minute, hippies. We knew the police had barricaded all access to the park within a two-block radius. Whether there were forty or 400 of us who stayed inside instead of going out willingly, it wasn’t going to be enough.

But it wasn’t even a decision I needed to make. Liberty Square was the closest thing to a free public space I’d ever experienced. We were exercising our constitutional rights to speech and assembly, and calling upon the freedom of the press. And in our assembly, we had begun to test, refine, and demonstrate new ideas of community and of real democracy. Now the NYPD was just going to roll in and take us from our work?

Naw. We began using the people’s mic to remind the cops that they’d sworn to uphold the First Amendment, along with the rest of the Constitution. We spotted an LRAD mounted in the flatbed of a police truck.

MOLLY: The streets east of Liberty Square felt as if they’d had the wind knocked out of them. It’s a pretty well-insulated neighborhood. A block and a half away from the action you couldn’t hear anything—maybe the choppers. It’s not all rich people. The first place I lived in New York was only a few blocks away on Williams Street, right across from the Fed. The police presence there had been overbearing, but unanimously lazy. I used to walk those streets a lot; the neighborhood around Wall Street stops being New York around 8 PM. It’s eerie even on the best night. The delis—already sparse for Manhattan—shut their doors and pedestrian traffic ceases. I walked south, still dazed, glancing down each alley towards the inevitable set of barricades and flashing lights. I passed fluorescent lobbies, and building numbers set in gold. The complete and morbid stillness was broken only by the sound of people running on those gray, clean cobblestones; they passed in ones and twos, shouting directions to each other, and disappeared again.

I completed my lap having found nothing but more cops. As I was making my way back north a girl my age and I passed each other. “Wait!” she yelled, frantic and wide-eyed. “Are you [at]blogdiva?”

I took a second to answer. “Uhm, no.”

The humor of that exchange would come to me much later. [at]blogdiva, a prominent tweeter who participates in OWS, looks nothing like me. But my glasses are similar to the ones worn by her online avatar. If I’d told that girl yes—that I was [at]blogdiva—what would she have asked me? Where would we have gone? She kept running.

DICEY: The NYPD began pointing their sound cannon into the kitchen. GET ON THE HORN TO BROOKFIELD AND MAKE THEM CALL IT OFF. I posted an update from Sarah Harper. And then, once the police had finished removing all of the tents and structures between the kitchen and the east side of the park, they stopped their advance and waited before moving any further. I shot and posted video after video, showing confusion, resolve, indignation, and then rough arrests. No way in hell Ray Kelly is gonna be Mayor, I tweeted. Another Sarah Harper update. Another video. “So, how about those union guys?” someone asked. Other people just shook their heads. We sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and then the NYPD moved in. They tore down the kitchen tent, destroyed shelves of food, smashing pickle jars and mayo jars all over the place. They cursed, irritated. I hope they got it on their boots. I hope their boots still smell like brine.

Zip-tied and face-down on the granite tiles of Zuccotti Park, I felt calm.

MOLLY: Back on the west side of Broadway a compact knot of occupiers and riot cops were wrestling their way down the street, empty space on all sides. I stood for a moment transfixed by this cross-section, the hard blue swath of uniform propelling a churning mass of protesters northwards. They chanted and screamed while my side of the street remained conspicuously silent. Whether we were members of the media, or passers-by with an itch for spectacle, it was hard to tell. But the thirty-odd people on our side of Broadway were all watching through viewfinders: phones, video cameras, iPads.

I texted Tim, “Be careful.”

DICEY: Central Booking was full. The bus had to turn around awkwardly while we sang “This Land is Your Land” and “Redemption Song.” We caught an officer singing along, and when we called him out his face turned red and he stopped. Finally, the bus started moving again, this time in the direction of Foley Square, which happened to be the backup meeting place for the crowd blocked out of Zuccotti. A few minutes later, we were circling a plaza full of hundreds of our allies, cheering. It felt like a victory lap.

Our arresting officer was a member of something called the Staten Island Task Force, called to service that night in Manhattan’s First Precinct, I had to think, because he’d never seen #OWS before. I remembered the stares of those fresh blue-shirted police standing in formation, facing the park from Broadway, waiting to destroy it. It wasn’t that they were staring us down; they’d just never seen anything like Liberty Square before. To the extent that the First Precinct’s finest grew accustomed to us—even sympathetic to us—over those three months of peaceful protest, the police administration was right, I think, to fear for the loyalty of the New York Police Department’s rank-and-file when it came to busting up the encampments of their fellow citizens.

MOLLY: My roommates arrived with a second wave of supporters with black bandannas around their necks. We stood milling in a crowd further north. People gazed at their phones, stared vacantly down Broadway towards the blue lights. Someone started a chant and it quickly died down. Medics rushed by, ushering the injured through. I ran into a few people I knew, also powerless, bewildered by the lights and the noise. Someone announced a march. We watched fifteen or so police vans round the corner of City Hall Park, lights blazing, interrupting a gathering of mourners. At Foley, the people’s mic devolved into disarray as cops formed a line across the south side of the square. Mic-checking each other back and forth, the crowd felt nearly unhinged. We should leave. We should keep the park. They’re closing in. Do you know what precinct they’re going to?

DICEY: Our so-called “arresting officer” wasn’t jovial, he wasn’t mean, he wasn’t condescending, and he wasn’t supportive. He reminded me of myself working some of the less interesting jobs I’ve had in life. He seemed to have no personal investment in the situation.

They marched us into a gated yard to be photographed; while we waited in line I realized that we were surrounded by officers—and they were joking, laughing, messing around. It was bizarre; these folks had just committed a massive violation of civil rights on the orders of their superiors, sure to spawn court actions and create headlines well into the future. The weight of the events didn’t seem to affect them.

We began to converse about non-controversial topics with our arresting officer. One of his other arrestees asked him why he was a cop. “Well, I was in the military. Then I finished my service, came home, and now I’m a cop.” I asked him what led him to decide to serve, and he told me that for him it was a choice between going to college, which he didn’t feel ready for, or didn’t want to do, and joining the military. I asked him if it upset him at all that those were his only two choices. He didn’t see it that way. “Even when I was in high school, I was in ROTC. Like, when I was a kid, I’d want to play soldiers.”

MOLLY: I returned to Broadway to find that barricades had been set up further north; police in full, wide-hipped cop stance guarded the gates. My bike was a lost cause. A friend paid for the cab home, which took three times as long as it would have on a regular night. Streets were jammed up with blue-and-white buses, barricades, frowning men in uniforms. Splintered mobs appeared and receded, shouting and raising their fists as they crossed the streets against traffic. They were going north, east, to Washington Square, to the precinct. My friend and I didn’t say much.

Our cab driver was an older, bespectacled gentleman with a rounded bald head. His English was very broken. He seemed bewildered.

“Excuse me . . . one question?”

“Yes, of course.” My friend leaned forward in her seat.

“What is happening?”

“Occupy Wall Street,” we said. “The protest. The police removed it.”

DICEY: Someone else asked the officer what he thought of Occupy. He said he really didn’t know anything about it, having never seen it and only vaguely aware of it. We tried to explain it to him. He told us we’d be breaking the law by being in the park. We told him that the park rules made our presence legal. Dropping a sanitation order with no notice, while blocking the press, was obviously not a neutral action to do some cleaning and upkeep on your property. “It’s nice to have rights, but if there’s no place in society where you can use them without someone having the power to supersede them, what’s the point?”

He seemed unsure how to answer that, and I tuned back out.

The next afternoon our arresting officer was the one to walk us out, back the way the bus had entered. He stopped at the gates. I shook his hand and thanked him for talking to me. He shook loosely and nodded, clearly bored.

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