On October 15, a procession of demonstrators with the Occupy Wall Street movement made their way north to Times Square—the gaudy epicenter of global corporate excess. A digital sign for Bank of America blinked overhead as they flowed in from 46th Street. Soon after the crowd’s arrival, New York Police Department officers frenetically erected a line of metal barricades, impeding people from entering the iconic plaza most recognizable as Times Square. Normally open to free-flowing pedestrian traffic, the area instead resembled a miniature Maginot Line that Saturday night—fortified with rows of police, assorted emergency vehicles, and, eventually, a contingent from the NYPD’s Mounted Unit.
At least a dozen officers on horseback entered the barricaded area soon after demonstrators arrived. For a time, the horses simply stood before the crowd, not doing very much. Then, a so-called “white-shirt”—a high-ranking officer on foot —suddenly removed one section of the barricade and guided a horse directly into the crowd. The mounted officer spurred his horse forward, ramming demonstrators, and the scene quickly descended into chaos. A chant of “animal cruelty” broke out, and people were clearly frightened for their safety: horses can inflict serious harm, especially in volatile, high-density situations.
Video footage of the incident shows that at least one of the horses attempted to turn and retreat, according to Barbara Lynn Sherman, a professor at North Carolina State University with expertise in equine behavior. Professor Sherman examined the footage at The Nation’s request. The animal appeared to either slip or momentarily “spook,” Sherman said, “a common response in horses, particularly when startled in response to fearful stimuli.” In fact, she added, police horses are specifically trained to avoid the “spook” reaction while on duty.
Did the NYPD abuse its horses by bringing them into the situation? Peter Singer, the Princeton philosopher and author of Animal Liberation, a landmark 1975 treatise on the rights of non-human organisms, calls it “unethical.” Reviewing the footage, he says, “At least one (horse) appears to be forced to do something—charge into the crowd—that it tries very hard to avoid.”
“Whatever one thinks of the demonstrators and the police,” Singer says, “the horses are innocent, and they should not be used as if they were weapons against the crowd. Horses should be kept out of these situations.”
Though police horses are often used for “crowd-control” in US cities, the NYPD Patrol Guide makes scant mention of the Mounted Unit. Its only substantive discussion of horse-related protocol is in Section 213-15, which stipulates that when commanders determine the animals should be dispatched, “it is important to ensure that a crowd or group to be dispersed has sufficient avenues of egress available to them.” However, in Times Square that night, it would have been virtually impossible for anyone penned near the barricades to vacate.
A few days after the kerfuffle, I visited the NYPD Mounted Unit’s headquarters, which overlooks the Hudson River on West 38th Street. Personnel inside the facility said that there was no literature available on the unit. When I asked if I could view the historical memorabilia on display inside a glass cabinet, one individual ordered me to leave immediately.
As I exited the facility, two men who appeared to be NYPD employees approached me and started asking questions about why I had stopped by the headquarters. When I identified myself as a journalist, one man said, “Here’s my advice for you: get out of here and don’t come back.” The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.
Since Occupy Wall Street began, police have coordinated mass arrests, beat members of the press with batons, pepper-sprayed demonstrators without provocation, and intentionally struck people with motor-scooters—to name only a few incidents. Using horses as crowd-control weapons in the middle of Times Square is yet another grievous example of the department’s insistence on employing disproportionately forceful, and callous, tactics.
To the horses’ credit, things could have gone much worse; no member of any species was seriously injured. The only real casualty, per usual, is the NYPD’s increasingly tarnished reputation.