New York City — There were many extraordinary moments during both Sunday’s huge climate march through mid-Manhattan and Monday’s more militant protest in Lower Manhattan’s financial district, from the little boy marching with a tambourine that had “This Machine Kills Fascists” written around its edge (a bow to Woody Guthrie who painted that line on his guitar) to the bored policeman along the march route blowing a huge bubble from the gum he was chewing. But the most telling occurred in the early afternoon on Monday, when, as several thousand climate action protesters sat or milled around, penned into several blocks of Broadway by hundreds of linked-together metal police barricades, a young man astride a pair of telephone booths began an impromptu IWW rant.
(Update: The IWW reports that the young man in question is named Elliot Hughes, and is co-founder of the IWW’s Ecological Unionism Caucus.)
The day before, during the big march down Central Park West, Sixth Avenue and across 42nd Street, those phone booths had been favored vantage points for photographers, dancing young women and people just trying to get a better view of the march. Bored cops standing along the parade route would chat and joke with those perched above. But this time a young man, dressed in black and standing in sight of the big bronze Wall Street Bull sculpture, and just several blocks down Broadway from Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange building, was shouting out a call for workers to unite, rise up and overthrow the capitalist system. It was just too much for the police who were guarding the barricades to segregate people so those on the street couldn’t leave and so supporters on the sidewalk couldn’t join the protest.
A dozen of the cops came over to the nine-foot-tall phone booths, surrounding them, and demanded that the shouting young man come down. He ignored them, realizing that they couldn’t reach him, and went on to finish his speech, which was relayed phrase by phrase via the “human mic” technique perfected three years earlier by the Occupy Wall Street movement. When he was done, he paced around on his perch like a rooster, looking down at the surrounding cops, and then suddenly made his break.
Leaping over the cops and some of the surrounding protest supporters, he managed to land on his feet on the sidewalk and started running. Protesters closed ranks behind him, slowing down the cops who all began chasing after him.
At that point, all the police guarding the metal barriers took off after the young man too. Eventually this police horde caught up with the man, and leapt on him like a rugby scrum. I don’t know what happened to him in the end. He was probably arrested and charged tautologically with resisting arrest, but for what violation I don’t know since, as the events of the day before proved that just standing on a phone booth was not illegal or cause for arrest; apparently only making a leftist speech from one is a “crime.”
But this anonymous orator’s escape attempt turned out to be an unintended act of liberation. As soon as the majority of police lit out after him, abandoning their posts for the opportunity to finally pummel someone, people on the sidewalk and in the street spontaneously, with no organized encouragement, began unhooking the gates separating them. On the west side of Broadway, people carried the gate segments around a corner and down a side street out of sight. On the east side of the street, the sections were piled in a heap on top of each other, after which protesters scaled them and sat down. The gates were never replaced by police, and the attempt to fence in the protest collapsed.
Actually then, far from blocking Broadway, as the media reported the FloodWallStreet action to have done, the protesters had made their protest zone the only place where pedestrians could freely cross from the west side of Broadway to the east easily and unimpeded. All around Wall Street in every direction except for that one liberated zone, police had set up so many roadblocks and lines of gates that grumbling workers in the financial district were having to make eight- to ten-block detours to get to and from their lunch break. And cars? Fugetaboudit!
It was the NYPD that effectively shut down the financial district on Monday, not the protesters.
I spent about an hour after this act of liberation on a doomed odyssey, trying like Diogenes to find an honest cop who could explain to me on what basis the police had chased after and arrested the phone-booth orator. I began with some of the cops who had actually surrounded him in the first place and demanded that he get down off the booths. None of them would give me any answer. Nor would other cops venture an opinion. I then asked a couple of police wearing jackets that said “NYPD Legal” on their backs. They told me that they couldn’t answer because they were only there to provide legal advice to the police.
That made no sense to me. “If you’re here to tell your officers what the law is, you must know what the law is right? Don’t you have to tell them whether they should or shouldn’t be arresting a person?”
In both cases, I was told “We don’t give legal answers to the press or the public. We’re here for the police.” They told me I had to find an NYPD public information officer. When I asked how I could spot such a person, I found myself in Kafka territory. “They wear plainclothes,” I was told.
Well, the Public Affairs officers of the Philadelphia Police Department, who are at every demonstration or march, also wear civvies — suits actually — but they also wear a prominent police department armband identifying themselves as public affairs officers, so I asked how New York’s Public Information personnel identified themselves. “They don’t identify themselves,” I was told several times.
This raises the question of how they can function as “public information” officers at all, if they’re hiding their role and, in effect, working undercover.
At one point a higher ranking cop, a so-called “white-shirt,” suggested to me that if I went to the “command center” for the current police operation dealing with the FloodWallStreet protest, I could probably find a PI officer. Where’s that located, I asked. “On Liberty Street, half a block from Zuccotti Park,” he said, with no sense of the irony of having the HQ for an organized effort to block First Amendment protest located on a street named Liberty. The cops at the Liberty Street crack-down headquarters professed not to have seen a PI.
(I spoke later with someone from the National Lawyers Guild who couldn’t come up with a law being violated by standing on a phone booth, other than perhaps “creating a hazardous situation,” but then the only person at risk was the guy on the booth, and after he jumped off safely, it was the police who chased him and piled on top of him in the street who created the hazard to his health and safety, so that would not make much sense as a charge, so really this was just a case of police making an arrest for no good reason other than that they can do it and get away with it. No wonder none of the cops or police lawyers wanted to talk with me.)
Ah well. The sun had come out, and the sit-down protest on Broadway, blocked by a row of cops from moving up the street any closer Wall Street, was in a party mood, with dancing, music and the usual circles interminably discussing tactics and seeking to achieve consensus. I drifted around on sidewalk and street, watching the fun, always keeping a wary eye on the police massed further down towards South Ferry (I had my computer with me and didn’t want to get caught in a police attack). Then at about 3:30 it was decided by the activist collective to force the issue and push on up to Wall Street. Arms were linked and the throng moved northward as one, leaving behind Bowling Green Park with its charging bull sculpture, past Exchange Alley and Rector Street on up to Wall St. As the protest crowd surged forward, the outnumbered police fell back, finally setting up a line a block past Wall at Pine Street. The metal grilled separation barriers were in place sealing the street off from the sidewalk on both sides. The barriers also ran clear across the top of Wall Street, and behind these were rows and rows of cops and white-shirts — maybe over a hundred of them — backed by a row of mounted police.
This was a serious police presence meant to decisively protect Wall Street. Half a block behind where they stood was that sacred edifice of capitalism: the New York Stock Exchange. Wall Street would not be breached. The famous financiers’ street even has, at either end, two huge metal plates sunken into the pavement which, in extremis, can be lifted up on an angle by motors and chains to create effective “tank traps” capable of stopping even a fully loaded truck bomb from reaching the NYSE facade.
Despite this heavy uniformed protection for The Street, some of the assembled FloodWallStreet activists, ready to provoke arrests, grabbed at the barriers blocking entry to Wall Street and tried to push them over. The police pushed back, some actually bashing at the hands of the daring protesters. As the protesters began to gain the upper hand through sheer numbers, one cop pulled out a pepper spray can and zapped the crowd, hitting a few protesters and one reporter close to the action. There were a few arrests, but after that, things settled down. Some 300 protesters who intended to get busted sat down and waited. Those who had valuables with them, like musical instruments, computers, video cameras, blankets or other personal effects, drifted away to avoid losing their belongings during a police assault (In the big raid on Zuccotti Park in 2011, police destroyed and then threw away dozens of expensive tents, sleeping bags, guitars and computers.)
The remaining protesters got their wish at 6:44. It had, by then, gotten pretty dark and the TV trucks that had been on hand most of the afternoon hoping to film the violence had either left or had taken down their antennas. The news deadline for the evening had already passed, so they were done, regardless of what was going to happen.
Suddenly a sergeant at either end of the march issued an announcement, using megaphones. Their line was the same: “If you leave west on Rector Street now you will not be arrested, but if you remain, you will be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct,” they each called out. There was still considerable delay as wagons were brought up closer. Finally the cops moved in, each carrying a stack of white plastic handcuffs.
There was a big difference between this mass arrest and the ones that occurred during the two and a half months of the Occupy Wall Street occupation of Zuccotti Park in 2011. During those events some three years ago, the police waded into the crowd all suited up in full riot gear, truncheons and clubs swinging, pepper spray was widely used and arrests often involved people being thrown to the ground, stomped on, and, in one case, even run over by a motor scooter several times. This time, the police moved slowly and methodically, arresting people relatively gently, and then walking them, not dragging them, to the wagons to be carted off for processing on their charges. There were a total of 102 people arrested in this protest action according to FloodWallStreet.
There is a difference between the police under the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an ultra-billionaire who was clearly catering to the wishes of his wealthy pals on Wall Street who wanted their turf cleared of the unruly rabble occupying their street and their park in 2011, and the new Mayor Bill DeBlasio, a veteran of the the 1980s Nicaragua and El Salvador solidarity movements who had won election as mayor by appealing to the city’s most liberal voters. The police, under the leadership of a new chief, William Bratton, appointed by DeBlasio, clearly were under orders to use a velvet fist in this situation (DeBlasio had even joined marchers on Sunday.)
That is to say, even under the supposedly left-leaning Mayor DeBlasio there would be no occupation of Wall Street itself, and no reoccupation of Zuccotti Park, which was ringed with gates and cops the whole day. The sanctity of Capital would be stoutly defended, but the anti-capitalist protesters, despite their refusal to even request a permit, would be allowed to get close. They would be allowed to get themselves symbolically arrested, but they wouldn’t be unduly roughed up in the process. Even a man wearing a remarkably realistic polar bear suit, when arrested and led off wearing his faux fur costume, had an officer walking beside him carefully carrying the elaborately made bear’s head, which in 2011 would surely have been stomped flat and left behind for the garbage crews.
There would be at least a pretense of respect for civil liberties at this protest, except for those cases, like the IWW speaker, who pushed too hard or didn’t obey police orders (legal or not).
Having marched in the huge, peaceful and exuberant parade on Sunday, and then witnessed the militant action on Wall Street on Monday, I think that the two-day protest and the actions on the days proceeding and following Sunday’s and Monday’s action were, on balance, an historic moment for the movement to save the earth and humanity from climate disaster. Almost half a million Americans of all ages, races and classes came together in New York, and reportedly hundreds of thousands more gathered at some 1500 other locations around the US and the world to demand real action to rein in carbon emissions. While the organizers of the big Sunday march in Manhattan tried their best to keep the rhetoric tame and unthreatening, Monday’s protest in the financial district made it clear that in the end, the real enemy of the earth and of humanity at this point is capitalism and the unrestrained greed of the ruling elite.
As the sign carried by one young woman who opted to leave the street before the arrests began put it: “Protesting for Climate Action is Fertile.”
I think she is right. I believe that this week’s mass protests and civil disobedience actions are not an end, or that this was just something like Earth Day, destined to become another co-opted vehicle for corporate marketing and “greenwashing.”. Rather, I think the past few days of protest signal the beginning of a mass movement to force a tectonic shift away from an era of unrestrained economic growth, environmental rape and the widening chasm between the rich and the rest of the world.