Zuccotti Park on the night of October 26th
On October 25th, riot police from Oakland, California and more than a dozen other towns fired gas, explosives and other material at a crowd of people peaceably assembled as part of a nationwide movement to address economic inequality. The police held off their attack until the two network television news helicopters, short of fuel, ceased a live broadcast of the confrontation. Within minutes, the streets were filled with explosive chemical canisters; all of this was broadcast over the internet.
From three thousand miles away, I watched the events unfold in near real time. I was shocked that the police would fire tear gas, shocked at how similar the images seemed to those streaming out of places like Egypt and Libya over the past summer. The protests in Oakland were, until the moment that police opened fire, not unlike those happening in New York or hundreds of other smaller cities around the country.
New York City’s protesters scheduled a march the following night in solidarity with the victims of the Oakland police raid. I marched.
Ten days earlier I had joined in the Times Square march. That protest on a warm October afternoon had attracted tens of thousands to the city’s emblematic heart. Police on that afternoon had been outnumbered easily by a factor of ten, but that peacefully assembled crowd included small children and toddlers strapped to their parents’ backs and senior citizens older than my parents. And even though on that afternoon I was but a few dozen meters from the most aggressive police presence—46th Street—where mounted officers and riot police stormed the crowd and arrested agitators, I never once felt threatened either by the crowd or the police.
The Solidarity march, hastily pulled together in reaction to the Oakland police raids felt altogether different. The immediately obvious difference was in the crowd: the senior citizens and the children were all in bed. This march would largely consist of my peers, the Millennial generation. And while the Times Square march began on an auspiciously sunny afternoon, the Solidarity march was beginning in the dark, dampness of a rainy night. The police, grossly outnumbered in Times Square, now more equally matched the smaller solidarity march. Everything straight away felt intimidating.
The Solidarity march began at the Zuccotti Park base camp. The camp had matured in previous weeks. I filled in midway through the pack of protesters filing around the park. I observed that the innocent enthusiasm of the early days of the protests, when the park could easily have been confused with a college drumming party, had now been replaced with a weathered anxiety. To be sure, after weeks of protests and growing awareness around the nation, despite beginning to effect change in the national discourse, even the heartiest of protesters were being worn down by the elements and the pressure of daily confrontations. As we left the base camp, those staying behind wished us well. They waved and said things like, “Stay safe!” It seemed almost like we were soldiers sent to the western front.
As we marched north along Church Street, passing the World Trade Center construction pit, crowds filled the street. The police, despite providing a well-manned escort, offered no directions. On the advice of a pretty blonde lawyer, I remained well within the sidewalk. Still, there seemed no reason to believe that the police had any concerns with protesters marching in the street, particularly one with little traffic.
The first escalation by the New York Police Department came as the protests rounded the corner of Barclay Street. Here the police began unfurling the now famous kettling nets, the orange plastic used to corral protesters before shooting them with pepper spray or making mass arrests. Their use of the nets may have been an innocent attempt to keep the marchers out of the street as they rounded the street corner. But the immediate result was simply an escalation of the tension between the police and the protesters. For the first time of the evening I felt legitimate concern that getting arrested might be a real possibility.
The Kettle nets appeared early in the march
The first arrests did begin on Barclay Street. Further ahead of where I had walked, police and protesters and a few cameramen tussled. Inevitably the police won and carted away several men as the crowd chanted “Shame, Shame!”
The marched continued on up over Broadway and around the tip of City Hall Park. The usually bucolic park with antique gas streetlights was on lockdown fortified with riot police and civil servants behind the iron gates. They stared out at us with an expression that suggested an ominous threat or restrained sympathy. The march continued up Park Row while the chant turned to “Every time you fuck us, we multiply!” and “Tonight New York is Oakland!”
Continuing around Chambers Street, we passed City Hall and the courthouse. Chambers Street was lined with police every meter or so and they grew more aggressive about marchers remaining on the sidewalk while simultaneously insisting protesters continue marching forward. At this point however, the wide plaza along Park Row funneled more protesters onto Chambers Street than the narrow sidewalk allowed for. The police continued with seemingly contradictory instructions. The crowd must stay on the sidewalk and must keep moving creating a claustrophobic crush of.
Chambers Street where the sidewalk narrowed
As the march rounded back out to Broadway, the wider sidewalk relieved the crush and the march continued on in a circle. I looped back around Park Row where the crowd began to splinter. Ultimately some groups marched to Brooklyn over the bridge, others to SoHo and elsewhere.
I had sensed during the second loop around City Hall Park that the police, despite of or perhaps empowered by the images from Oakland of tear gas and explosives, might turn events sour that evening. I quietly exited stage left into the depths of the 6 train as the march diverged. By the next morning, minor skirmishes with the police appeared in videos on the internet.
I am part of the ninety-nine percent.