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.