Reflections on Occupation: “The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge”

October 3rd, 2011. Day 16. Despite the rain and ever-creeping cold, activists continue to occupy Liberty Plaza; slowly coalescing demands, continuing to debate and love and dance. The sheer energy of this movement is utterly undeniable. Occupations, though mostly small in scale, have sprouted up in multiple cities around the country and more are planned as October rolls into the end of 2011. There is a sense in the square now that this is real. The gravity and electricity of what we’re building here is bouncing off the buildings all around us. We all feel more alive. There are incredible ups and downs. Elation can very suddenly plunge into abject frustration, and then turn sharply upward again.

Case in point: Saturday’s march over the Brooklyn Bridge. Truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was one of the 700 marchers ketteled and arrested en-mass by the NYPD on that famed expanse of stone and steel. It began at Liberty Plaza, where thousands gathered to rally in solidarity with the occupation. From there, we marched through the streets of the Financial District and toward City Hall. At the outset the march was united and organized, with none of the weaving through traffic and violent pepper-spray scuffles with police that marked the march of a week earlier. We were determined to get to our destination together this time – just over the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge park where another contingent would be waiting for us with food, speakers, and activities. Or at least that was the plan. I was toward the back of marching crowd of some 2,000 people when we arrived at the bridge only a few blocks from Liberty Plaza. The exact details of what happened next are still fuzzy to most. The planned route was for marchers to use the pedestrian walkway to cross the bridge, but at some point a contingent of marchers broke away and took to the roadway, walking past a slew of cars already caught up in the spectacle of the march. Once the initial crowd of protesters marched onto the road, some 500 or more followed, most (including myself) not knowing that they were risking arrest by doing so.

The NYPD claims that they warned the initial group that stormed the road that doing so would mean arrest, but in reality they did little to deter us. In fact, I assumed that they were clearing the pathway for us because there was simply no way 2,000 people were going to use the pedestrian walkway at once. Once on the roadway, we were ecstatic. It was like no other feeling. Here we were, walking with 500 other people over one of the world’s most iconic structures. We chanted “Who’s bridge? Our bridge!” We drummed loudly and waved fists in the air in solidarity with the marchers 20 feet above us on the pedestrian walkway. Then suddenly, before we had even reached the first stone tower, the march came to a screeching halt. Nobody was really sure what was going on. I couldn’t see far enough ahead of me to know that the police had formed a blockade with the same orange nets they used at Union Square the week before. When I looked behind me and saw yet another line of police approaching, I knew that things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. It wasn’t long before they had surrounded us with orange netting and panic overtook the crowd suspended hundreds of feet in the air over the East River on a slab of concrete.

Some 40 feet higher still the marchers who had used the pedestrian walkway luckily had a bird’s eye view of what was going on. Using the people’s microphone, they kept us updated on what was going on. I could feel the intensity of situation but also felt a wave of calm and solidarity. Like some ragged guardian angels, our fellow protesters were keeping on eye on us, telling us what was happening on either side of us, and livestreaming it all to 30,000 people around the world. We anxiously repeated their updates verbatim. “Mic check! It looks like they have surrounded you on both sides and they’re not letting anyone through. The best thing for you to do is to sit down and lock arms!” And so we did.

We spent the next eight hours in anxious limbo. We waited for what seemed like an eternity on the bridge for the police to arrest each and every one of us. They grouped us in fives and cuffed us, then put us on any vehicle they could – I was put with about 30 others on an MTA bus and taken to the 90th Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Once we arrived at the station we sat on the bus and kept waiting, this time for the police to process the inordinate amount of arrestees. As we waited, all manner of conversations erupted on the bus between protesters – gender rights (the police had separated us by gender before arresting us), organic farming, community organizing – the usual fare at an activist gathering. It was something of a party. Even our arresting officers engaged us in conversations, and they seemed genuinely interested in “what we’re all about.” Some were even borderline sympathetic! Others poked fun at our dreadlocks and discussions about GMO foods. “A tomato’s a tomato, don’t matter how it got there.” One officer, who as one protester later jested was “too Italian for his own good,” was especially talkative. He told us he agreed with the Verizon worker’s strike and was disappointed when they returned to work without a deal. I asked if he would arrest the strikers if he was given the orders to do so. He responded with a smirk and said “yeah, it’s my job.”

Inside the station, more waiting. First to be searched, then to be put in a one-person cell with 5 or 6 others. We passed the time singing and starting conversations about our lives outside of the occupation. After a while, an officer came by with cheese sandwiches and water and promised us we’d be out “in one or two hours.” Three and half hours later, close to 3:00am, we were finally released into the cold night air. It was heart-warming to find a group of people from the occupation and the National Lawyer’s Guild waiting for us.

A group of us took the J train back to Liberty Plaza, laughing and recounting the whole way. 6 hours earlier, we had no idea the other existed, now we were the best of friends. This is what the NYPD doesn’t understand. The more they arrest us, the more solidarity they create between us. We built a community on that bridge and on that bus and in that cell. All of us went through this experience that was dehumanizing, but also jovial and absurd. All the arrests did was reinforce our resolve, commit us more to the occupation and make us even more connected.

I remember during the intense moments on the bridge when we all knew arrest was imminent someone yelled out and we repeated: “Mic check! It is an honor and a privilege to be arrested with you all today. 50 years from now, when you tell your grandkids about this, you can say that you were a soldier in the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge!” And there among the tears and the worries and the panic, we found a place to cheer and stand together.

Here’s a great video on what happened on the bridge: http://vimeo.com/29906321

Reflections on Occupation: “Now this is real”

9/26/11 – 11:13pm

The occupation of Wall Street is in its 10th day. Our numbers have bolstered and momentum continues to build. Occupants continue to work around the clock making media, cleaning, meeting, discussing and dreaming. On Saturday 9/24 over a thousand people marched in solidarity from Liberty Plaza to Union Square. We are drawing members from organizations and movements from around the country and the world to this liberated square in the center of the world’s economic engine. I’ve talked to folks from Colorado, Chicago, California, Spain, Iran – this is truly a global movement and everyday a constant stream of people come and go and mix up the culture of ideas present here. We have started a “People’s Library” and are holding more and more teach-ins about activism and nonviolence. We are still holding two General Assemblies daily and discussing in a completely transparent and democratic process what our next steps should be. The air is thick with conversation even late into the night, and a walk through Liberty Plaza with open ears reveals the diversity of thought and opinion here.

The situation with the police remains mostly non-confrontational, with a few major exceptions, namely with Saturday’s march. About 100 were arrested on that day alone and a few were even pepper sprayed in the streets. After the march arrived at Union Square, the NYPD deployed large orange nets and trapped about 50 marchers on 12th Street between 5th Ave and University Place. All were subsequently arrested and held in city buses until their arraignment. It is a supremely dehumanizing tactic – the activists here refer to it as “kettling” - where marchers exercising their basic right to free speech and assembly are rounded-up en-mass, no questions asked. I myself narrowly avoided being caught in one these nets. Many of the activists feel that these arrests could have been avoided if the march had been better planned. There was some confusion as to what would happen next when we arrived at Union Square. One group of marchers wanted to continue to the UN some 40 blocks uptown, while others wanted to return to Liberty Plaza. This gave the NYPD ample time to swarm around us and deploy their nets. Even the march itself felt a bit chaotic, winding against traffic and turning seemingly at random to our destination. The issue, of course, has been brought up at GA and hopefully a better plan of action will be implemented next time. When those arrested return to Square, the people erupt in applause and chant “Welcome home.”

Frayed nerves and high tensions overtook the Plaza on Saturday night as the police presence suddenly exploded. A line of police cars and paddy-wagons could be seen stretching for blocks down Broadway and what seemed like hundreds of police officers with plastic handcuffs hanging from their belts surrounded the park, ready to sweep through with nets and batons. A mild panic ensued, fed partially by the events on the streets earlier that day and a round of notices of “acceptable behavior” distributed to occupants and posted around the Plaza by officials earlier that morning. Emergency evacuation plans were announced during GA. Many of us were sure that it would be our last night in Liberty Plaza. We were ready to be arrested or relocate. Speculation was pouring from every corner of the Plaza that 10pm would be the time when they moved in. We lit candles and placed them around the perimeter of the park and drummed and danced louder than ever. But 10pm came and went and gradually the impenetrable wall of blue and white and flashing lights dissipated quietly. We’re still not exactly sure what happened, but we are thankful.

On Sunday we all turned into temporary shrinks. There were no marches, and the GAs were mostly short and to-the-point. It was a collective unwinding day. We talked and reflected about the previous day, and wondered why we had been so brutalized on the street and then spared later that night in the Plaza. Was it the less-than-PR-friendly media coverage (finally) of the violent arrests? Was it the owners of the Plaza that called off the raid? The NYPD itself, or maybe the City? We didn’t know, but we were healing by doing what we do best – talking it out. Eventually our healing gave way to food and drums and dancing. Reflecting with a new friend, I asked what he thought Saturday’s arrests and close call meant for the occupation. He looked at me with sincere eyes and said “It means that now this is real.”

Reflections on Occupation

9/23/11 – 12:23am

I’m sitting at a table in what used to be Zucotti Park. For the past 6 days, activists of all stripes have staged an occupation of this park, changing its name to Liberty Plaza and declaring it essentially an autonomous zone. The police presence on the perimeter has been constant, resulting predictably in clashes and arrests. On the whole, however, things have gone over rather peacefully. More than anything, the people who have occupied this space spend their time working. We have divided into different working groups, each assigned with different goals that have to do with both maintaining the physical space (like medical, comfort, food, etc) and also building a sustainable and vital movement (outreach, tactical, media). There has been a palatable sense of building momentum the whole time I’ve been here and it is infectious and inspiring. Our numbers have increased, though slightly, every day and planned marches this weekend will likely draw thousands more here. There are conversations erupting all over the square with people debating everything from demands, tactics, politics to music, culture, and their lives outside of the square. Every night the square is methodically swept and cleaned and the pictures and media from the day are furiously uploaded and tweeted. It is becoming more and more difficult to tear myself away from the square every night, even if it is to the comfort of my own bed. Even a block away, as one walks through the canyons of glass and steel of the world’s financial center, the crushing weight of the magnitude of our struggle is daunting. How can a rag-tag group of young activists with anger in our hearts and a will to brave elements change centuries of entrenched power? Is this even possible?

Here in the heart of savage rationality and greed, we are creating a movement for tangible change based first and foremost on a democratic process that ensures that everyone’s voice – and especially the voices of those historically oppressed – are heard and valued. Twice a day, the people of Liberty Plaza break into a massive meeting lovingly and triumphantly referred to as the General Assembly. The meetings are facilitated (read: not led) by two to three members of the facilitation committee. Here, the people can bring up proposals, discuss concerns, and strategize on growing the occupation and the movement. It is a beautiful thing to watch. The NYPD’s refusal to allow us to use amplified sound has actually been a blessing in disguise. This creates a need for a “people’s microphone” - where as one person speaks the rest of the crowd methodically (and sometimes painstakingly) repeats every word verbatim in order to ensure the person’s voice is heard by all in attendance. Everyone is listening, everyone is repeating. The meetings are facilitated with a complete respect for a democratic process called modified consensus. Rather than take a majority vote, the Assembly is asked to consense – agree - on proposals as a collective. A series of simple hand gestures, some taken from American Sign Language, are used by the Assembly to express themselves. Fingers wiggling in the air (Sign Language for applause) is used to signify agreement, while forming a triangle with your fingers signals that the democratic process has broken down in some way. A block – making an “X” shape with your arms – means that you have serious ethical or safety concerns with a proposal currently being discussed and blocks consensus if/until the concerns are resolved. Using these hand signals, the Assembly trudges through the items on the agenda, taking two or three hours to do so. In a strange way, this process is both completely liberating and cumbersome. There are many impassioned diatribes and the process often stops for clarifications or other reasons. Even discussing small issues can easily eat up large swaths of time when two-hundred highly opinionated people are both allowed and encouraged to weigh-in. Despite the inconveniences, the adherence of the Assembly to a process that is truly inclusive and democratic is incredible and sometimes breathe-taking. Everyone leaves these meetings feeling empowered and accomplished. I do wonder how long we can keep this process up as our occupation grows. It is one of the many bridges we must cross when the time cross.

The rest of the world it seems – especially the media – awaits our demands. “What’s the point? What do you want?” While the Assembly is ever-so-slowly constructing a set of demands and ‘principles of solidarity’, it seems to me that even the idea and manifestation of this occupation is in itself a demand. I’m reminded constantly of a quote from the French Situationist movement of 60’s: “Be a realist – demand the impossible.” We are building something impossible here. With our strict adherence to democracy, nonviolence, inclusion and the gift economy we are experimenting with the embodiment of the changes we want to foster. We are creating a sacred space, tearing open a portal to another world in the very nexus of a world fed by cruel profit and exploitation. The sheer boldness of this act is not considered enough, even amongst the activists taking part in it.