We just wanted to go home, but we were being corralled like cattle. The protesters of Occupy Wall Street—a grassroots movement for social equality and American democracy—had made it all the way from Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Plaza), downtown at the corner of Liberty Street and Broadway, to Union Square at 14th Street, and we just wanted to go back.
But the New York Police Department had a different idea in mind. After following the protest up from its onset and seeing firsthand that, aside from delaying some traffic for a few minutes, we caused neither damage to property nor bodily harm to civilians or officials, the police still decided to separate the protesters at 12th Street and Broadway into two more easily manageable groups (one of about 1,000 and one of about 400). I was part of the 1,000-person group, which made it to Union Square, where protesters began to make speeches to the public concerning corporate greed and influence on American politics, two of the main focuses of the movement. Then, though we had already begun chanting, “Let’s Go Home! Let’s Go Home!” as we turned around to head back to the Plaza, the police decided to split the protesters up even more.
And so the chaos began.
Whether it was their aim to have protesters aimlessly running around and screaming for help and guidance, I have no idea. The entire scene soon soured as white-shirted police officers pepper-sprayed innocent bystanders for simply asking the officers why they were arresting people, pushed septuagenarians onto the floor, dragged a woman I later met in jail across the ground by her hair, beat men senselessly with batons and, in one instance, punched a teenage girl in the face for the mere crime of standing amid the ruckus. I saw the last action firsthand. The rest you can see on Youtube.
About 60 protesters and I ended up escaping the madness down 12th Street by walking toward University Place, holding trampled signs with sayings like, “Wall Street is Our Street,” while we cleaned pepper spray from our faces with baking soda and water. At the end of the sidewalk, we ran into another group of officers holding a bright orange net who told us that all we had to do was sit and wait. When we asked why we could not be peaceably let through, they said we had to calm down, remain on the sidewalk, and create a path for pedestrians, though the police were blocking the path themselves with netting. We sat down in neat, orderly rows on the edges of the sidewalk and waited.
Then, after a few minutes of chants from bystanders on the other side of the barricade and from those of us entrapped by it calling for our release, we noticed a second group of officers coming down the other side of 12th Street who also carried crowd-control netting. A group of about six officers, including one white-shirted lieutenant, ran to the front of our utterly confused group. Some cops told us to go one way while others told us to go another, and all of them warned us about stepping even one toe onto the street. One officer said if I did so, it would “make [her] day.”
Then, wordlessly, a lieutenant pushed an olive-skinned protester against the wall to our south, crooking his arm back into a disfigured ‘L’ and constraining him with white, hard-plastic handcuffs. The blue-shirts then told us all to turn around, and began cuffing the remaining sixty protestors who were trapped like sardines in their opposing nets. After 10 minutes of pleading with the police to let me go, saying we were innocent, asking why I was being held, and alerting them of the fact that I was a minor, I was finally arrested, and we sat down to wait for the police to get sufficiently large vehicles to transport us all.
We were never read our rights, and we were never told what we were being charged with. They told us all that could wait until we got to the precinct. The police shuffled 35 others and me onto a commandeered MTA bus and the rest onto various vans, and we drove down to 1 Police Plaza.
The bus ride itself was as jovial as one could make it in a prison transport. Somebody pressed the “Stop Requested” button a few minutes after the doors closed, and even some officers laughed. Some people also started rapping and beat-boxing (I’m guilty of that charge, if nothing else), but seething beneath everyone’s speech—and their silence as well—was the tangible feeling that this entire ordeal was ridiculous and extralegal. Nobody, cops included, wanted to be there.
We spent the next hour and 15 minutes being counted on the bus, getting pointlessly transferred to vans, and having our pictures taken with and without our arresting officers, according to standard police procedure. At that point, some protesters’ hands had turned purple and clammy, and they could not feel their fingers anymore, because their handcuffs were too tight. The police feigned the inability to address their concerns, saying that they did not have any extra pairs of “zip-tie” plastic cuffs, though they could’ve easily left the bus and gotten some from the countless other officers outside. Unlike metal and leather handcuffs, “zip-ties” cannot be unlocked by a key, and therefore need to be cut and replaced instead of opened, loosened, and relocked like other handcuffs. After a while though, we complained enough to get new cuffs for a few prisoners. It only took two hours get that done.
Our bags were confiscated, and we signed in at the front desk of the precinct. The police searched us thoroughly, took our cell phones, and put us in a large, windowed holding cell with benches etched with gang names and expletives, a steady, oppressive fluorescent light overhead, and some toilets in the back. You do not realize how awful it is until you are there. The crime dramas cannot prepare you for the fact that there is a cell you cannot get out of, a door you do not have the power to open. You are stuck in a cage like a dog. You have lost your freedom. All for protesting.
I could go on to bemoan the fact that we were not given food for another five hours, that the cops took their sweet time and wasted at least two or three hours on their phones, or eating, or that even just the relatively short six hours I spent in jail were the most disorienting of my life—I was a peaceful protester stuck in a room normally reserved for gang members, with no contact with the outside world, no shift in light, no sense of time. Instead, I just want to quickly hearken back to what the protest was before the mass arrests.
I have spent my entire young adult life searching for a way to express myself politically, to have my ideas heard, and this protest gave me a way to do that. On the first night, Saturday, September 17, I was able to speak in front of thousand of people using a “human microphone.” I would break up my speech into short phrases, each of which would be repeated by those in my immediate vicinity after I said it, so that the whole protest could hear. Funnily enough, the speech I made was a response to the anti-cop fervor among the crowd, saying that most cops were our friends, and that if we were nice to them, most would return the favor.
A week later, I was walking down Broadway with many of the same protestors, but hundreds of new faces as well. We were chanting, marching arm-in-arm at points, and talking to people on our way uptown. I handed out fliers, I spoke to curious onlookers on the sidewalk, and I got more than a few handshakes, peace signs, and words of encouragement from supporters.
Six hours later, I was sitting with a man who was taken down so severely he had a gash on his leg, just because he was trying to videotape an instance of police brutality.
Oh, the irony.
I’ll probably have the arrest stricken from my record in about eight months if all goes well in my trial for “Disorderly Conduct” on Thursday, November 3. But this experience will never leave my memory.
Joining Occupy Wall Street was my first foray into actively participating in my country’s democracy. I joined—like so many others—to fight corporate influence in our government, to get our politicians to listen to their constituents rather than their lobbyists, and to try to hold accountable (rather than award with bailouts) those who caused our current financial crisis. I got arrested for it. I know the march I participated in did not have a permit, but arresting protestors for that violation is forgetting the spirit of that law—the permit rule is there to protect the citizenry from harming others through violent protest. Our protest was non-violent. We moved as swiftly as we could through traffic. The police had no reason to arrest us, let alone beat us and pepper-spray us.
They did. Alhough I may not be able to stand in the front lines of another march for a while (another arrest would result in me having to spend the night in jail, and the arrest remaining on my permanent record), I will do all the organizing and spreading-the-word I can while not physically present in Liberty Plaza. I hope my arrest served to get at least some media attention for the protest and the issues it brings up as well.
It’s scary. You see all those newspaper headlines—80 Arrested in Protest, 3
Protesters Pepper Sprayed—and then you are part of those numbers, and you know those people by first name. You have sat with them in jail together as political prisoners. You are part of the pictures, part of the history.
And you haven’t even graduated high school yet.
As an ending note: I went back to Liberty Plaza after my release at about 11:30 p.m., when my parents picked me up, seething with understandable anger bred from fear for my safety. I had left my backpack at the park before the march. When we got there, it was still in the same place I had left it eleven and a half hours before, including the three hours before and during the march. As I picked it up and left—escorted protectively by my mother—I saw a man I had met in jail just a few hours before. He was going back to the Occupation. We threw up a silent peace sign to each other in complete understanding as we passed with a smile: they will not stop us, no matter how many they arrest, no matter what they do. If anything, the arrests only bring more media attention, more concerned Americans to Liberty Plaza. They only help us grow.
Getting back into my car, with the sound of hundreds of people chanting, “This is what democracy looks like!” a block behind me, I cried. I was a criminal, but safe. The protest would go on.