March 17 was the 6-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street moving into Zuccotti Park, renamed it Liberty Square and the beginning of the Occupy Movement worldwide.
We celebrated all day, in style—chanting, dancing, marching, holding a General Assembly that needed three waves of the People’s Microphone—until the police brutally crashed our party—beating and violently arresting over 73 Occupiers in the park and on the march that ensued. It was probably the most violent day in our short history, and we have not been able to determine that any of the incidents were warranted or incited by an Occupier.
Our response was two-fold. On Tuesday, March 20, we held a press conference at 1 Police Plaza with allied communities—Muslim, Latin@, LGBT, the undomiciled—to call for an end to police repression, brutality, surveillance, and explicitly for the resignation of NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly.
The second part, which was much more in line with our style, was to take our energy back to the streets. We, again joined by our allies, held an anti-police-brutality march.
On Saturday, m24, I got to Liberty Square around 11:30am to meet with about 10 other Occupiers, who had also volunteered to act as pacers for the march—folks who would help direct the march, respond to police kettling or obstruction, close gaps and maintain continuity in the middle, and help protect stragglers in the back from getting picked off by police.
We discussed the plan for the day. It would begin in Liberty Square with a series of speakers talking about their personal and communities’ experiences with the NYPD, which mostly consisted of violence and repression. Afterward we would march north on Broadway to Union Square, where a new, 24-hour occupation had been in place since the violent eviction at Liberty Square on m17.
The march route would pass in front of five locations at the heart of New York’s police and prison system—City Hall, 100 Centre Street, aka “the Tombs,” 1 Police Plaza, the Federal Building, and the ICE Detention Center. The exact route would be at the discretion of the pacers at the front of the march, and largely based on how much space the police gave us. Our primary mode of communication with each other was via a private text-message loop, which would help us coordinate throughout the march.
An interesting addition to this march was a group of about 30 folks from Veterans For Peace. They appeared to be somewhere in between their late 50s and late 60s. They were mostly white men and women who had served in the armed forces. Their gray sweatshirts bore their logo, and every one of them had plastic goggles hanging from their necks. They were prepared to be peppered sprayed.
Having seen photos, videos, and reports of the violence the week before, Veterans For Peace reached out to OWS. Not only did they want to march in solidarity with us, they wanted to put themselves on the front lines, or positioned anywhere in the march that we felt was vulnerable. They wanted to stand between us and the police, in order to protect our constitutional rights—to put their bodies on the line and spare us the brutality for one day.
I nearly cried when I saw them gathered on Saturday, and I’m crying now as I think about it. I’m crying because their sacrifice honors and humbles me. And because it didn’t work.
The first speaker of the day was Eric, an organizer and street medic with Occupy Wall Street, who was one of those arrested during the m17 eviction of Liberty Square. Eric chose not to speak of his own experiences, as violent as they were, but instead to connect our current struggle and experiences with those of people who have come before us. With Sean Bell, Troy Davis, Amadou Diallo and so many more black and Latin@ men and women murdered by the NYPD and the police state.
A speaker from the National Lawyers Guild, which provides all of the legal support for Occupy Wall Street, highlighted how some people are treated as criminals based on their actions, but in New York City, the NYPD has criminalized the entire Muslim community simply because of who they are.
City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (Democrat, District 10, Manhattan) and Jumaane Williams (Democrat, District 45, Brooklyn), longtime OWS supporters spoke on the history of NYPD violence.
“It is not an accident that all the people killed by the NYPD are black and Latino,” Rodriguez said.
On OWS, Rodriguez asserted, “This movement is the voice of the working and middle classes.”
Councilmember Williams flipped up his hoodie, which he said that he wore in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black youth murdered by a man in Florida who targeted him because of his clothing and his race. Williams asked those of us with hoodies to put on our hoods as well. We wore them with pride.
It was nearing 1pm, the crowd in Liberty Square had filled out dramatically, energy was building, the sun was shining, and we were ready to march.
The pacers spread out, the drums started to beat, and we marched.
It was a large procession, stretching for at least a few blocks. For the first half hour or more we stayed on the sidewalk.
One of the first chants that I remember was “RACIST! SEXIST! ANTI-GAY! N-Y-P-D GO AWAY!” This is a favorite chant for many of us. It is confrontational without being physical, while making a bold statement to the police, as well as bystanders, on how Occupy regards the NYPD.
We slowly made our way up Broadway until we passed the home of the FBI and Homeland Security at 26 Federal Plaza. Both of these federal agencies have played a role in the suppression of the Occupy Movement. In the weeks leading up to the violent evictions of Occupy encampments nationwide in November and December, Homeland Security provided assistance to local cities in the form of intelligence monitoring and information gathering.
As we passed the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge, the sight of six cops on horseback could not be ignored. Following the October 1st action that took over the Brooklyn Bridge, resulting in close to 700 arrests, the NYPD has been very protective of this monument.
The march veered east past Foley Square on its way to “The Tombs” of Central Booking at 100 Centre Street, where at least 7 our comrades were being held for arrests from the day before.
I was one of about 5 pacers holding up the back of the march and trying to ensure a tight formation as we moved through intersections—a typically vulnerable point, where police can kettle, redirect, or break up a march if there are gaps.
Instead of reciting our usual chants, the back of the march had a bard of sorts leading us in song, which we repeated for many blocks:
Mama, mama, can’t you see
What police have done to me;
They keep trying to beat us down,
But we’re rising all around;
Mama, mama can’t you see
What police have come to be;
They keep trying to beat us down,
But we’re rising all around.
As we lined up in front of the Tombs, we held a die-in. Everyone melted to the ground, and we lay there until our bard sang, “… but we’re rising all around.” As if on cue, we got up, cheered, and continued marching.
Because of the slow pace of the march and in an effort to maintain energy levels high, the pacers decided to skip some of the more out-of-the-way destinations and head for Union Square, while we still had a large number of protestors. It’s not uncommon for marches to peter out after the initial momentum and energy wears out, even when a final destination is set and events are planned. If marches are slow, or winding, or met with significant police blocks or resistance, people tend to peal off gradually, and the march shrinks.
Shortly after this, the tone of the march changed dramatically. The front of the march saw an opportunity and decided to take to the streets, veering off the sidewalk and breaking through the line of cops along the edge of the street monitoring the march.
As has become common practice, the NYPD targeted two female protestors—Amelia and Negesti—who could be isolated and arrested. A white-shirt pointed to them and said, “Those two.”
They were quickly surrounded and told that they were being arrested. Since there was nowhere to go, they decided to lie down in the crosswalk.
Word of their arrests made its way through the march very quickly.
Sensing that the police were getting tired of escorting us, we decided to make the march a bit more militant and active, diverting off of major streets into the more intimate, consumerist, and tourist-destination Nolita neighborhood.
The narrower one-way streets allowed us to more easily move in and out of the street, filling it with Occupiers who continuously chanted about police brutality and about the better world we know is possible.
Walking north on Elizabeth Street, as we approached Prince Street, suddenly, I heard the all-too-familiar shout for cameras—an unmistakable signal that the police were doing something that required monitoring.
I looked up the street and saw Mesiah, a 16-year-old girl, being held up by two cops. She looked shocked. Someone called for a medic. She started to cry.
I took a step off of the sidewalk and into the street, which was being blocked by a line of cops on scooters along side the march. Then I turned around to address the crowd of people that had amassed on the sidewalk behind me.
“MIC CHECK! MIC CHECK!” I yelled. After it was repeated back to me, I continued, “SHE IS 16-YEARS OLD!” The crowd repeated it over and over, but they only encountered the NYPD’s blank stares and deaf ears.
Turning back toward the street, I saw five cops carrying Mesiah down the street, her shirt pulled up, much of her torso exposed. I screamed at the cops that they should be fucking ashamed of themselves. I called them fucking animals. I asked if they were proud to have beaten up a 16-year-old girl. I asked why it took so many of them to carry her off.
As the march continued up the street, I had a heated exchange with the white-shirt officer who oversaw Mesiah’s arrest.
“DO YOU FEEL GOOD ABOUT YOURSELF? MANHANDLING A 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL? YOU FEEL REAL FUCKING TOUGH IN YOUR WHITE SHIRT? 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL! IT TOOK FIVE OF YOU TO CARRY HER UP A PUBLIC STREET.”
“OK, well you have a nice day.”
“OK, YOU HAVE A NICE DAY, YOU PIECE OF SHIT.”
On the northwest corner of Prince and Spring Sts. a group of tourists watched us pass by. I stopped in the middle of them and recapped, as loud as I could, what had just happened a mere few feet from where they stood. My voice cracked, and my stomach cramped. I can only hope that they shared with others what they heard.
My friend Anthony came up to me, put his arm around my shoulder and told me to take a breath, to center myself and focus, we still had a long way to go until we reached Union Square, and we had a role to fill.
I tried. But I was so angry.
As we walked along Houston I think I yelled at the line of cops acting as our escorts. I know that I had three separate interactions with the police, but with the exhaustion of the moment, I don’t remember the second one clearly. I remember holding my stomach. My muscles ached from yelling, I was hungry, and my throat burned. I was fuming.
When the march had mostly crossed Houston on Broadway, we encountered another large pack of tourists. My anger overwhelmed me. I stopped in front of them and yelled with all of my remaining energy.
“THE NYPD CALLS ITSELF NEW YORK’S FINEST. THAT IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. JUST A FEW BLOCKS BACK THEY BEAT UP A 16-YEAR-OLD GIRL FOR WALKING IN THE STREET. THEY RIPPED HER SHIRT OFF. IT TOOK FIVE OF THEM TO CARRY HER OFF WHILE SHE CRIED. REMEMBER, NEW YORK’S FINEST IS BULLSHIT.”
I turned the corner, not feeling any less angry. This time, Anthony ran up to me, put his hand on my back and said, “A Community Affairs cop just pointed at you and said, ‘He’s next.’ Get out of here.” And he pushed me forward.
I ran up the march; took off my bandanas, my hoodie, and my glasses; and stashed them in my bag.
Turning onto Great Jones I shot west towards Lafayette, and then ran up to Astor Place. While I was disappointed to leave the march, I was overwhelmed with pride. I could hear our chants reverberating off of the buildings blocks away.
“ONE! We are the people!
TWO! We are united!
THREE! THIS OCCUPATION IS NOT LEAVING!”
I watched the march make its way up Lafayette and then snake along Astor back to Broadway. I ran up a few blocks to stay ahead of it, and, hopefully, well away from the cops who were targeting me on its south end. I found out later that, just after I left the march, a group of white-shirts were examining a photo on a phone, and one said, pointing, “This one; I think he just ran off.”
On Broadway, as a line of police marched by, I ran into a friend making his way south from Union Square. Usually one of the happiest, funniest, and most loving Occupiers, his rage was palpable that afternoon. He’d heard about “a 16-year old being brutalized” and was trying to find the march.
When he found out that it was Mesiah, he almost lost it. He looked at me and said that he was afraid he was going to do something stupid. I put my hand on his shoulder and told him to consider that he was more good to us out here than inside.
“We need you.”
He looked at me, and the tears ran off of his face. I pulled him close. He held on to me, as if letting go would only add to the day’s tragedies. And all I could say was, “I know.”
The march caught up to us and we continued, rather uneventfully, for 4 more blocks to Union Square.
The mood in the square was energetic, but something felt off. We intended to do our spring clowning training as a way to burn off any remaining energy. But we had just been brutalized on an anti-police brutality march. The irony was not amusing.
Two of my closest friends, Nathan and Jason, entered the park with the march. They could tell how angry I was. And they knew that I had been targeted, both from a tweet that I sent out after leaving the march and from witnessing the cops examining the photo on their phone. We decided not to stay in the park. Several of our comrades, including two close friends and a scared, potentially injured underage Occupier, were in jail.
We left the park quickly. We needed to find 19 Pitt St, somewhere beneath the Williamsburg Bridge. Our friends were there, at the NYPD’s 7th Precinct, and they needed jail support.
(photography and videos in this article via @poweredbycats, katertott129, juliacreinhart, Sign0fH0pe, jskagon, shammiches, & owsNaSh)