Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two days that saw Occupy Wall Street change the world

In his latest report and photos from NYC, Aucklander Emir Hodzic describes the weekend's events.

Up to now the world was watching Occupy Wall Street, this weekend the world joined in. What started as a small group of protestors occupying Wall St in protest to corporate greed and Wall Street’s grip on the White House is now a global movement. From day one OWS message to the world had been “we’re in this together.” As more cities in the US are seeing similar occupations, cities across the globe are also joining in, in what is turning out to be a truly international plight for justice. In past few days OWS has moved from the brink of eviction from Zuccotti Park to shutting down Times Square.

On the eve of the Global Day of Action, inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement, New York mayor Mike Bloomberg decided to “clean up” Zuccotti Park. Owners of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Properties, said they were worried about the sanitation, and wanted to send in the cleaners. Plan was to evict the demonstrators the following morning, clean the park, and then allow demonstrators to return under new rules. They wouldn’t be able to lie down or sleep in the park. Its like saying you’re free to go, you just can’t leave the building, or I hate you my love. It made no sense. Protestors knew that if they got evicted that night, occupation of Liberty Plaza would be threatened.

Many at OWS suspected this was an attempt to shut down the protest, like they did in Boston, Denver and elsewhere in US. However, as the news of the imminent eviction spread across New York, OWS sent an appeal for supporters to turn up and prevent that from happening. They knew that the only weapon they have against the police are numbers.

In the meantime, many volunteers were frantically cleaning the park all day, picking up rubbish, scrubbing the stairs and tiles with biodegradable soap, even taking care of the flower garden. Fervent cleaning continued late into the night in attempt to show the mayor that the park is clean, and there is no need for city cleaners in blue to march in.

Even with the knowledge of the impending police crackdown in the morning that was to forcefully remove everyone, the atmosphere in the park was mostly positive and energetic. Despite the heavy rain and cold, spirits were high and people cheered during the heaviest of downpours. Almost taunting the heavens. “I had enough of the summer anyway,” said one of the cleaners gleefully as he scrubbed with determination.

As I was getting thoroughly drenched, an older man stood next to me holding a plastic sheet over his head. “You look very calm,” he mumbled under the plastic. I guess some were nervous about getting arrested in matter of hours, and being wet, cold and tired (no one slept that night) didn’t help. “It’s just rain” I replied, circumventing the small issue of the expected raid.

It turned out that the senior is another Vietnam War vet, who for years had been waiting for something like this to happen. He talked about a replica drone he made for display in the park just the other day and made parallels between predator drones and Wall St finance sector. In both cases there is a detachment from personal responsibility.

As the deadline approached, droves of people of New York flooded into the park in solidarity with OWS. By 6am park was full, and people that were still coming in were holding banners and cheering from the streets surrounding the park. At the same time reports were coming in that number of police outside the park is also growing. At that point most of us in the park didn’t have a clue how is all this going to end. Many around me were ready to get arrested in defense of the occupation. As a matter of fact, many have voiced their readiness to be arrested in defiance.

However, just after the deadline had past, message was received that the “cleaning” had been postponed. Police isn’t marching in and there will be no eviction, not today. All those that were worried only minutes before, were now loudly cheering and dancing. “People united, will never be defeated!!” echoed through the Liberty Plaza and surrounding streets. As people were celebrating what they saw as a victory over mayor Bloomberg, announcement was made that we are to occupy Times Square on the Global Day of Action. The announcement was met with shouts of approval and defiant fists in the air.

This victory renewed the sense of purpose, and has given all those present an added boost of energy. The huge turnout in defense of the occupation empowered everyone to fight another day. OWS facilitators that broke the news of delayed “cleaning”, admitted they didn’t expect so many people at 6am. Reenergized, people were getting ready for the weekend.

Saturday's protest drew thousands to the march from Washington Square to the Times Square. Demonstrators were split into two groups marching along 6th Avenue with police escort. Occasionally police would stop the protestors on one side, followed immediately by shouts “let them march!!” from the other side. March was orderly and followed police demands to stay on the footpaths. At times protesters stopped to discuss strategy as reports were coming that the access to Times Square has been blocked. Through megaphones police instructed protesters to keep moving so as not to stop pedestrian traffic, at which protesters replied in unison “we are the pedestrian traffic!!”


The protesters were prevented from moving freely and the access to Times Square has been restricted by barricades and hundreds of police. Tensions rose when one of the “white-shirts” (captains of NYPD are distinguished by white uniforms) rushed at the barricades, and joined by his colleagues in blue started pushing the protestors back, crushing those caught in between. “There is no room!!” panicked shouting ensued as people were pinned against the tide of protesters in 46th street. My leg was caught few times under the steel barricades as police pushed us back.

Standing at the barricades between the police and protestors, I was taken aback by the unfolding chaos. Situation worsened when police on horseback charged into the crowd, knocking people over. “What are you doing!!” and “Someone is going to get killed!!” protesters shouted at the police. As one of the horses fell among the protestors, enraged protestors shouted “Animal cruelty” and “Horses are for Mubarak!!”

As commotion engulfed the scene and thousands of protestors, all traffic into the Times Square was stopped for a while. Through ‘people mic’ demonstrators were encouraging each other by repeating that we’ve shut down the Times Square. New York’s main tourist attraction was shut down on a Saturday while the world was watching. Until that day the world was only watching, today the world was participating.

After being pinned against the barricades as the police charged, I eventually succeeded in getting over the steel obstacles. I encountered a Deputy Commissioner of NYPD, Paul Brown, and asked him about the police actions. He stated that most of the protesters were orderly except a few who got arrested. I asked him how many people got arrested and for what offences. He said he wasn’t sure of the exact number of arrests, but that the number exceeded 50 in total. Some of the people were arrested for wearing masks. Apparently this is against the law.
When I asked him why was the order given to charge into the protestors with horses, he replied that few in the crowd were pushing the barricades and trying to break through. I told him that I stood at the site of the incident and haven’t seen any protestors pushing back, but he maintained his position.

Eventually, the overwhelming presence of the police dispersed the crowd. A few die-hards remained, but most continued to march back to the Washington Square where the announced general assembly was to be held. As I made my way back to the square, I expected to see a hundred or so protesters, but I came to find the park full of people and a jovial atmosphere.

Over a thousand people gathered for the assembly, where calls were made to make a stand and occupy Washington Square, despite the police warnings that everyone has to be out by midnight. Spokesperson for the National Lawyer’s Guild was instructing people what their rights are in case of the arrests. The good people from NLG have played an important role in instructing people and monitoring the protests. However, every time when a member of NLG spoke about what to do if arrested, uneasiness could be sensed in the crowd. Many of them students who don’t necessarily want to spend a weekend with NYPD, and I for one can understand that apprehensiveness.

As midnight approached police buses arrived and hundreds of policemen came into the park. It became clear that the occupation of Washington Square isn’t going to happen tonight. Protestors were leaving the square shouting “This is what the police state looks like!!” One of the protestors was yelling out that the citizens have a right to an assembly “It is in the constitution!”


Once everybody was out of the park, upset protestors used people mic to address the police. “This is a message to all the police, as individuals, not as a whole force. You are like us! You are the 99 percent! Please help us make change!!” I wonder if this message reached any of the individuals underneath the blue uniforms. I wonder if the time will come when some of them will disobey their orders.

If anything, today’s events have again shown that this movement is not going away, but on the contrary gaining in strength and influence, while at the same time state and police repression of it are becoming more violent. As OWS inspired protests are taking place all over the world, those “hippies” are becoming a serious thorn in elite’s behind.

The message from OWS is clear. The rapid spread of the grassroots response to the overwhelming inequalities perpetuated by the global financial and system and transnational banks isn’t going away. More actions are expected and the occupation of the Liberty Square in Manhattan will continue indefinitely.

All photos by Emir Hodzic.

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