"They're Arresting Us One by One": 700 Thrown in Jail as Wall St. Protest Grows -- Labor Declares Support
It's raining in Liberty Plaza Saturday afternoon as the shrunken crowds fall in around the Occupy Wall Street media center, which still isn't allowed a tent. They're keeping the laptops and livestream (which reports 13,000 viewers at one point, from around the world) under a large picnic umbrella and some tarps, and every now and then the call "mic check!" rings out and someone jumps atop a table to relay the latest from the protesters kettled on the Brooklyn Bridge, cuffed, and being loaded onto giant NYPD buses for dispersal to various locations.
The "People's Mic" is one of the most striking features of the "Occupy Wall Street" community that has sprung up down in the heart of New York's financial district. Because NYPD hasn't allowed amplification, speakers confine themselves to short half-sentences, that are repeated back by the crowd. It makes every statement communal--in addition to wiggling your fingers downward if you disagree, or rolling your arms around if you want the person to hurry up and finish, you often simply stop repeating. There's an engagement, a type of consent that it creates, which is demonstrated when Congressman Charles Rangel shows up just before the march to show his support--Rangel is greeted by the horde of reporters thrusting the microphones not allowed protesters in his face, but Rangel's words don't get repeated to the crowd--instead, the most striking feature of his attempt to speak is the crowd's reaction to a heckler who got in Rangel's face. The crowd immediately took up the chant "Sit down!" and then "This is a peaceful march!" echoing across the plaza.
There's only one round of shout-backs necessary in the small crowd during Saturday afternoon, but later that night, at about 7:30 PM, the reports from the legal team are echoed back in waves. It's almost soothing; combined with the professionalism from the legal team volunteer, who tells the crowd that they have names of 100 confirmed arrested and have dispatched lawyers to get them out, you almost forget that friends, colleagues are standing in the rain on the bridge.
(Photo by Michael Whitney)
AlterNet's Kristen Gwynne is one of those stuck in the bridge when the police closed off both ends and came in with the plastic cuffs. "They're arresting us one by one. I just asked a cop and they said they're going to arrest all of us. There are hundreds of people who dont have room to sit down. We're just crammed in," she reports by phone.
Later, she texts, "Now it's pouring and we're huddled five people to an umbrella. People just sang that [Rihanna] song "you can get under my umbrella." Spirits are high and people are sharing what they have and coming together to protect each other."
The relationship with the police stationed around the park has been remarkably good, but marches have been contested. The Saturday crowd proves that Friday's attendance wasn't just a fluke brought on by a rumor that Radiohead would play for the protesters, and thousands of people join the march--as we pass, the boy clinging to a drainpipe and counting protesters shouts out "1200 and counting!" When visiting UK journalist Laurie Penny and I turn back, we squeeze past easily as many people as were ahead of us. A couple of marchers have a giant balloon cluster floating above with a camera dangling from it, getting a bird's-eye view of the crowds.
When the texts and Twitter reports start to flood in that arrests are happening on the bridge, that even a New York Times reporter is being held, we rejoin the now-smaller crowd in Liberty Plaza to find out if there's any news. Reports are confused--some say that you can get off the bridge on the Brooklyn side, and indeed I receive a report from a colleague that he's on the other side at Cadman Plaza. The jubilant tweets that the police were allowing marchers into the traffic lanes have turned to fear and anger at what many perceive as a trap. Surprisingly quickly, facilitators call "mic check!" and ask anyone who has a smartphone to go to the base of the bridge and record what they see--including clear instructions on a specific app that can be downloaded to stream video instantly to the Web.
From the park, we briefly return to the base of the bridge to see a mass of police officers blocking the entrance to the traffic lanes. The crowd gathered there is mostly pointing cameras and smartphones at the police, but with no one moving on or off the bridge, the scene is tense. Protesters call "Join us!" and "Police are the 99 percent!" at the officers, who stand impassive, making no moves to arrest anyone or to allow anyone, on foot or on vehicles, from either direction, past. In the rain, we return to Liberty Plaza and the media tent, hoping for better news updates, and check updates on our phones.
Even as the NYPD was corralling and cuffing protesters on the bridge, new support was rolling in for the occupiers. Leo Gerard of the United Steelworkers union, North America's largest industrial union with 1.2 million active and retired members, made a resounding declaration of support:
"The United Steelworkers (USW) stands in solidarity with and strongly supports Occupy Wall Street. The brave men and women, many of them young people without jobs, who have been demonstrating around-the-clock for nearly two weeks in New York City are speaking out for the many in our world. We are fed up with the corporate greed, corruption and arrogance that have inflicted pain on far too many for far too long."
Working America, the AFL-CIO's community affiliate which organizes non-union workers, releases a statement as well, offering support and encouragement to the protesters. "It's obvious what has motivated these protests, and it's the same thing we hear at the doors we knock on every day," the statement reads.
News also came in that the NYPD, which according to protesters has not allowed its officers to even accept donuts from protesters in the square, gratefully took $4.6 million from JP Morgan Chase, one of the Wall Street banks targeted by the protesters, in donation to its foundation.
New Yorker and Naked Capitalismblogger Yves Smith writes of the gift, "The Foundation has been in existence for 40 years. If you assume that the $100 million it has received over that time is likely to mean “not much over $100 million” this contribution could easily be 3-4% of the total the Foundation have ever received."
The news coming in just as the reports were hitting that police had actually led protesters onto the car-traffic section of the bridge certainly sets the crowd humming (video below shows police marching ahead of the crowd onto the bridge):
Michael Whitney, who was marching with the crowd onto the bridge, tells me, "No one knew we were going over the bridge." He says that the march stopped, then proceeded onto the traffic lane on the bridge, led by police. "We walked past dozens of police officers who said nothing to us--in the middle of the march, with 1200 people ahead of us. I thought out loud it felt like a trap and a bad idea."
Whitney continues, "When it became clear police were blocking us from Brooklyn on the walkway and the roadway, we knew it was only a matter of time before arrests began. We started walking against the crowd back towards Manhattan. That's when we saw a sergeant and two officers walking up the pedestrian walkway, and multiple police vans driving on the roadway. They were getting everybody off the bridge, including the hot dog vendor and an old couple on a bench."
Smith comments, "We simply don’t know whether the police would have behaved one iota differently in the absence of the JP Morgan donation. But it raises the troubling perspective that they might have."
No one knows yet what the next few days will bring; Wednesday will see a march in solidarity with the occupiers which will include The United Federation of Teachers; 32BJ SEIU & 1199 SEIU; Workers United; Transport Workers Union Local 100, as well as the Working Families Party, Moveon.org, Make the Road New York, the Coalition for the Homeless, the Alliance for Quality Education, Community Voices Heard, United New York and Strong Economy For All.
Occupations have sprung up around the country, and with the growing media coverage, the word is spreading fast. With union support comes money and an infrastructure used to planning rallies, strikes and protest actions, and with the community groups come people who aren't on social media but understand all too well the impact of bankers' greed. The first edition of the "Occupied Wall Street Journal", professionally printed as a broadsheet, was handed out along the parade route, and the occupiers issued their first official statement Saturday as well.
The statement reads, in part:
They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
Hena Ashraf, who joined the protests this week,details in a blog post the process by which the official statement was composed and edited; her account highlights both the drawbacks and the strengths of the movement. She writes of calling the facilitators out for unacknowledged white privilege, the way the consensus-based decision-making process worked, and how the protesters learn from each other. "We walked away realizing what we had just done - spontaneously come together, demand change, and create it, in a movement that we are in solidarity with, but also feel a need for constructive criticism," she writes.
The crowd at the end of the night is unbowed, the mood still jubilant, in a "the flag was still there" sort of way. The square is full again, full of wiggling fingers of assent, echoes of news, dotted with Guy Fawkes masks turned backwards and 1199 SEIU ponchos, brought down from the union. Kristen is released from jail late at night; other protesters are also freed the same evening. Jeff Rae, one of those arrested,tweets pictures from inside his cell before his release, and says he is charged with "failure to obey order, prohibited use of roadway, and blocking traffic." Their resolve is only hardened by their time singing songs of support on the bridge, the honks of support from passing cars, the growing protests around the country, and the cheers back in Liberty Plaza.
*Photos, unless otherwise noted, are by Sarah Jaffe.