"Night had already wrapped the city, and I thought to myself how different the bright lights of the city looked when you have hands behind your back with armed police watching over you."
As I was having my morning coffee on Saturday, ready to go out and join the Day 15 of Occupy Wall Street, the last thing I expected was to spend the Saturday night in jail. But that’s exactly where I ended up together with some 700 demonstrators, surrounded by huge numbers of police and arrested on the iconic Brooklyn Bridge in the largest arrest operation on US soil in decades. And this a day after about 2500 people marched on the Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan to protest police brutality, pepper sprayings and unprovoked arrests from the week before. But, in comparison, all that was minor disturbance compared to what was about to take place. The incident that took place on the Brooklyn Bridge this Saturday signaled a turning point. Some of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators called it a historical moment.
It all started at noon, without the slightest clue of what was going to happen. As people gathered in the Liberty Plaza, once again facilitators were declaring that this was to be a peaceful march. Instructions passed on to the participants were clear: “Do not provoke the Police.” Volunteers from the National Lawyer’s Guild were advising us on what to do if someone does get arrested, immediately followed by another call for a peaceful march. There were reports from past Seattle and Chicago protests that spoke of men instigating violence actually working for the Police.
By the time we took to the street numbers swelled up to 2000 demonstrators. Walking through the streets of lower Manhattan everyone obeyed police instructions to stay on the footpath. Navigating through the maze of tourist busses and shoppers, the river of people with banners and signs made out of pizza boxes, calling for an end to corporate greed, was making progress towards the Brooklyn Bridge. “Show me what democracy looks like!!” voices drowned the noise of sirens, cars and tourist busses, “This is what democracy looks like!!” the river replied.
This is a people’s movement. Seeing “We’re not afraid” written on pizza boxes and directed at the police, while they follow our every move, is truly empowering. There is no other word to describe being surrounded by people who all share the same frustrations with the powerful few. Contrary to the right wing opinion, they are not hippies, the unemployed and lazy, they are students, teachers, artists, musicians, construction workers, union reps, retired, they are the 99 percent.
They are not just Americans, they are calling the whole world to take notice, they are calling the world to join in. “People united will never be defeated!” voices echoed in the concrete jungle, reaching people in their balconies watching on. I didn’t feel just as a visiting New Zealander, I felt like one of the people. I felt like an American, Bosnian, Egyptian, New Zealander, a human being simply asking for more fairness and compassion.
Dozens of police officers on scooters were forming a line to direct marchers away from the traffic and keep them on the footpath. Atmosphere was electrifying, but peaceful and orderly. When we reached the Brooklyn Bridge, a small number of scooter-cops continued on to the road, followed by a few hundred demonstrators. The rest of the procession continued on the pedestrian side, splitting the march in two.
I found myself on the road, confused as to whether the police was escorting us, or if it was a spontaneous move to march on the road. Many shared my confusion, but kept on marching regardless. Young and old, with peace signs and fists in the air, were joyfully marching on, full of pride and sense of purpose. We had a clear message and it felt that it was being heard.
However, when the march came to a halt somewhere close to the middle of the bridge mass confusion ensued. Once again demonstrators had to use people mic to relay what was happening at the front. “Police have blocked the road!” message carried, followed by, “Go back!”
Confusion and commotion quickly caused the mood to turn somber. It dawned on many of us (at least the taller ones) that there was no way of going back. We were trapped. Hundreds of police have blocked both side of the bridge. Some were calling for calm and patience, others had panic in their eyes. More than 700 of us were stuck in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge, trapped like sheep. While the confusion grew, many with smart phones were reporting that we were led into a trap by the police. But, most of us just didn’t have a clue what was happening, and certainly none had any idea what was about to happen.
Those on the pedestrian side of the bridge, who were elevated above us, started reporting to us down bellow what they saw happening on two sides blocked off by the police. “They have started arresting people!” voices echoed. Whoever was calm until then, had now concern and fear written on their faces. “They have brought out the nets!” voices from above continued.
Stuck in the middle of the group, I took few more photos of approaching police busses, feeling nervous myself, but at the same time thinking that surely they can’t arrest all of us. Those with smart phones reported that Twitter is alive with activity, and that 40,000 people are following what is happening right now. As if those 40,000 were the encouragement we needed, the hundreds trapped in the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge erupted in a single voice: “The world is watching, the world is watching!” and “This is a peaceful protest!”
As our slogans of peace resounded, calls for a mic check returned. This time people mic was informing those on the top “they are coming for you!” One of the facilitators continued unmoved, as if though what we were shouting made no sense. At that stage hundreds of arms pointed to his left shouting, “they are coming for you!” The police moved in on the marchers standing on the pedestrian passageway above us. Broke their lines and pushed them away from the fence, preventing them from filming what was about to happen to the rest of us. Half of them were sent back to Manhattan, and other half dispersed towards Brooklyn.
We were alone, stuck in the middle of the bridge, with police on both ends and two police helicopters above. Someone asked where the media helicopters were. They fly over a tree with a cat stuck in it, but as hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were being trapped by the Police in a largest action of that kind in recent memory, there was not one to be seen. It later turned out that the police established a no fly zone over the area.
“We have to sit down and lock arms,” girl in front of me cried, her message riding a sonic wave outwards. Seeing reason in that statement, and lacking any viable alternative, we all started to sit down. There was hardly any room, so people were trying to make themselves amateur contortionist for a day. “Would you like a cigarette?” asked a girl sitting on my feet, in a position I can only describe as uncomfortable. “No thanks” I smiled back.
Just as I started regretting my answer, shouts from the back were urging us to get up, once again creating utter confusion. Ominous message was reaching us from behind: “We are being pushed by the Police! People are falling over!” All those like myself, who hoped that there was no way that police would opt for mass arrests, now lost all hope. Orange nets were closing in, and one by one people were being grabbed and taken away. It was a surreal moment, with people paralyzed, unable to move, waiting for your turn to be handcuffed. It reminded me of a similar feeling of paralysis I experienced during the Bosnian war, when as a boy I heard somebody shout, “The soldiers are coming!”
A voice from the crowd instructed that no one resists arrests and goes with the police peacefully. At that stage I thought that no one had any intention of resisting, and I certainly didn’t need to be instructed to “go peacefully”. We were all just waiting patiently for our turn. Once my turn came to be handcuffed, more than half of people were already taken away in police vans and busses. I began my bus ride without a clue as to where they are taking us. Night had already wrapped the city, and I thought to myself how different the bright lights of the city looked when you have hands behind your back with armed police watching over you.
So many people were arrested, that they had to take us to different police stations all over New York. I ended up in North Brooklyn precinct where I spent eight hours with four other men in a single person cell. “Flush doesn’t work!” one of the guys complained about the filthy old toiled bowl. “Don’t worry, at least you don’t have to piss in a bottle,” another men replied, for some reason making us all laugh.
As I rested my arms against the bars, I saw myself in the round mirror in the corridor. Seeing myself in the mirror, used by the police to check on the prisoners from around the corner, it dawned on me where I am. Imprisoned, and for what? For being on a wrong side of the bridge? For marching with people calling for greater equality? Calling for an end of the majority being exploited by the small minority? And where, not in Bosnia where I survived the horrors of war, not in New Zealand where I had been on many marches and gatherings, but in the land of the free.
It now seems that close to 1000 people have been arrested since the movement began. Greater number of ordinary peaceful people put in jail than there are bankers responsible for all this mess, and lets not even discus how many of them saw prison. But, I firmly believe that what happened on Saturday is only going to make people more determined, and increase the momentum of the movement that is already taking place all over America.
Police deny that they have led the demonstrators into a trap, something that was reported by New York Times, whose reporter was also arrested. However, competing versions from the OWS or NYPD explaining how the march was split is a marginal issue compared to how the Police dealt with 700 peaceful marchers. All of us would've agreed to disperse and leave the bridge peacefully. The police violence and mass arrests of such numbers of people only re-enforce opinions that the police in this country are only protecting the interests of the wealthy.
Shocking arrests this Saturday aren’t going to intimidate or slow down the movement. In fact, people are vowing to show up in even greater numbers next time. One of the guys being let out of jail before me, once he had his release papers and personal possessions, turned to the police officer and said: “See you next week.”
The shameful repression of people marching for justice and accountability should be seen and noted by all, including us New Zealanders. For New Zealand still has plenty to protect and a lot to lose. The use of force by gun-carrying police, who have alarmingly vast powers, against the very people they are sworn to protect, serves as a warning to what happens when powerful elite detaches themselves from the majority, and the police have too much power. Innocent citizens should not be afraid of the police, innocent citizens who want to exercise the freedom of protest should not fear mass arrests or worse. While the rugby is on the forefront of most people back in New Zealand at the moment, there are lessons to be learned from what is happening here.
When I first came to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th I didn’t expect that the movement will grow so rapidly; I didn’t expect that other cities would join in; and I certainly didn’t expect to be on the receiving end of US police’s repression. If Tea Party, or any other right-wing demonstrators gathered anywhere in the country in their tens of thousands, I seriously doubt that the police response would be anything like what we have seen since 17 September. The repression and brutality exercised over peaceful citizens, calling for a fairer world, is not just unprovoked and unnecessary, but criminal. Only explanation for such disproportionate response is that it is a directive coming from the top. Directive from those that fears the voice of the people, fears that it could get “out of hand.”
“We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.” Reading those words coming from OSW, it becomes clear that only the “one percent” could fear this information. Only the elite would be afraid of freedom of speech and the right to assembly. I am certain that many people here at Liberty Park would like to send the message to NYPD: “See you next week.”
-Emir Hodzic. Emir is from Aotearoa and rolls with the Unite Union. He is currently in NYC participating in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement.