Last Thursday morning, I was arrested along with about thirty other protesters at the corner of Pine and Nassau streets, a block from the New York Stock Exchange. Hundreds of us gathered near Zuccotti Park at 7 am before making our way towards Wall Street, to join up with other marches in front of the exchange for the first in a daylong series of actions.
A police barricade was waiting for us along Pine, as they were at the other intersections surrounding Wall Street that morning. As more and more of us began to fill the intersection and found ourselves unable to move past the heavily reinforced line of metal barricades and helmeted officers, many of us decided to sit down where we were. We chanted, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and demanded our rights to assemble peacefully on putatively public streets. All of a sudden, an order went out among the police on the other side of the barricade, and dozens of them began pushing into our ranks. They forced people backwards with their arms and billyclubs, trying to push us out of the street and onto the sidewalks. Those of us who stayed seated, linked arms, or simply refused to move, were hauled away and cuffed. One of them was Ray Lewis, a retired Philadelphia policeman, dressed for the occasion in full uniform. All told, more than 150 protesters were arrested on the streets around Wall Street that morning.
I drove to Wall Street from Connecticut on Thursday, knowing full well that arrests were likely. I’m an organizer in my hometown of New Haven, had been to Zuccotti Park a few times since the Occupy Wall Street protests began in September, and have been involved in movement activism for a long time before that. But this was the first time in my life that I had been arrested.
Watching the Occupy movement unfold around the country over the last couple of months, it has become increasingly obvious that concentrated corporate power is not the only, or even the most immediate, obstacle confronting our movement as it grows. From the Brooklyn Bridge, to Oakland, Seattle, or the UC-Davis campus, municipal governments and police departments have moved to contain and overwhelm peaceful protests whenever—and however—possible.
Those moments rightly have generated intense media scrutiny, but they are just the most visible examples of a systematic and chilling policy of containment. On October 5, I joined 10,000 students, union members and other New Yorkers in a permitted march from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park. Broadway, a five-lane street in Lower Manhattan, was completely closed off to traffic, but we were routed between metal barricades through a single lane and the sidewalk. As hundreds of police officers monitored our progress from the four empty lanes to our left, we thousands inched along in our cramped pen, making torturously slow progress. This, indeed, was what democracy looked like: physically curtailed, intensely surveilled, the threat of arrest imminent if we dared to step beyond a barricade. Whose streets? Hell, not ours: we just got a single lane.
To me, the Occupy movement is about nothing so much as a rejection of single-lane democracy, in all its forms. It is a rejection of a sclerotic political system that offers no exit for the unemployed, foreclosed and endebted; of the nihilism of a “bipartisan consensus” that emerges only to serve the interests of the 1 percent; of a law-and-order regime that only makes a mockery of itself by capriciously and repeatedly disregarding our rights to freely assemble and dissent. So when presented with a choice on Thursday, about whether to be penned in again or to insist that these streets were, in fact, our streets—to insist that I spoke my dissent not as a threat to “public safety” but in defense of the very idea of the public—I decided to let my butt do the talking.
Civil disobedience is a tactic, but it is also a statement, like singing “We Shall Overcome” with a bunch of strangers a block from the New York Stock Exchange. Protests and marches bring attention to our movement, but also define what our movement is fighting for: an economic order built on equality, not profits; a political order built on popular justice, not private self-interest; a fuller and freer democracy, not only in the political process itself but over the economic resources that we all depend upon to live. The law-and-order regimes that encircle our protests and cordon off our marches are saying, in effect, that these are not possible; we say they are. When we get arrested, we are saying, in effect, that the law is not sacred. And as our movement grows, in the face of ever intensifying efforts to contain us, the opportunities to define and to demonstrate again and again what it is we are resisting will only increase. We do not have to knock down barricades to overflow them.
After five hours cuffed on the sidewalk, in the back of a police bus, and waiting to be processed, about eighty-five of us ended up in a central holding cell at 1 Police Plaza. We cheered as unconfirmed reports trickled in that the protests had delayed the opening of the Stock Exchange by fifteen minutes, and applauded each new arrival into the cell. We got to know one another, shared our stories, our reasons for being a part of the movement, our hopes for how it might continue to grow. We were not, as some media reports have attempted to portray the Occupy movement, a privileged bunch: as a graduate student at Yale University, I probably qualified as a member of the “middle-class” minority (though my tax return would beg to differ). Some of us had been battered during our arrests; most of us hadn’t. Most of us got out by the end of the night; some of us didn’t.
The thing I regret most about spending thirteen hours in police custody on Thursday was that I missed being in Union Square, or Foley Square or on the Brooklyn Bridge, with the tens of thousands of other people who took to the streets of New York. It sounds like it was a beautiful day. But let me tell you: doing a People’s Mic in a holding cell is a beautiful thing, too. If you get the chance, you should try it some time.