"This is the Beginning of Something Big": Report From AlterNet Staffer Arrested on Brooklyn Bridge
By 3pm on Saturday, Zuccotti Park swelled with bodies, signs, and music. What was a quiet gathering of a hundred had morphed into a crowd of at least two thousand. We were going to take the Brooklyn Bridge. The energy was contagious.
Before the march began, the National Lawyers Guild did a quick mic-check, the first of very many to occur throughout the march, as well as behind bars.
"Mic-check!" yelled a small voice from a body I couldn't see.
The crowd rumbled in reply. "MIC-CHECK!"
We were so many people the announcement echoed once more. "I'm going to give you a few tips on how to stay safe," I heard repeated in the crowd.
"Have a buddy. Make sure it's someone you know. Look out for each other," he began, speaking in echoed spurts. He said to have emergency contact and medical information, as well as identification. If arrested, we could be held for up to 72 hours. The voice, carried by the crowd, said to write this number on our bodies: 212 679 6018. The National Lawyers Guild. I wrote it on my arm, not expecting to use it.
At around 3:30pm, we lined up peacefully. There was no rush or chaos, just a steady stream of people exiting the park onto Broadway and heading north. The confusion did not set in for another hour, when the police trapped us like cattle. But before then, cops stood by the side of the road, their stern faces yelling inaudibly into megaphones. There could have been one hundred of them and they would have been no match for the thousands of voices chanting together. Other police said nothing. Instead of speaking, they pointed video cameras at the crowd.
But cops were not the only people watching us. Tour buses rolled past the march as protesters flashed them peace signs, held up their fists, and distributed the first edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Most tourists took pictures and cheered. Others stared unamused.
We chanted - "We are the 99% (and so are you!)" the classic "This is what democracy looks like!" and "All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!" among other slogans. A few blocks down Broadway on our way to the Brooklyn Bridge, a young enthusiast tallying heads announced more than 1,000 protestors -- and counting -- marching to the famous landmark. I looked behind me to see an incredible, endless mesh of people. We were teenagers, college graduates, grandparents, and children. And we were contained and peaceful, marching down the sidewalk with a list of guidelines passed out to us before we left. Though I was charged with "disorderly conduct," there was absolutely nothing disorderly about our actions. For the police, however, it was a different story.
As we closed in on the bridge's entrance, the crowd became more congested before splitting. Some people marched right onto the roadway as police appeared to block traffic; others took the pedestrian walkway. Confused, I heard a demonstrator yell "Go this way if you don't want to get arrested!" Some people turned to take the safer walkway, while the statement encouraged more fearless demonstrators to walk on the street. Still, the majority of people must not have heard anything.
Because thousands of people marching down the narrow walkway seemed implausible, I opted for the street. At the same time, I expected us to be treated with some scrutiny. Only the hardcores, I thought, would be arrested. After the pepper spray incident, the cops seemed to have learned a lesson. I never imagined 700 of us would end up behind bars.
We walked alongside a single lane of cars, crawling up the bridge. There was an element of danger, a small fear that someone might trip or get pushed and fall in front of a car. At the same time, there was a suspiciously low number of police. I expected them to swarm but saw only one white shirt police officer before we were trapped, and even he seemed calm and said nothing.
Soon after we crossed onto the bridge, the car lane ceased to exist. Throughout the crowd, demonstrators championed the apparent diplomacy of the police. They had considered our safety; they didn't want us marching next to traffic. We were a peaceful swarm of the 99%, occupying our own public space. One of my cell mates said later, "Who says the bridge is for cars?"
Twice, we stopped moving. The first time seemed like a pause to soak it all in: Hundreds of people cheered in loud exhilaration. "We took the bridge!" It was a moment of pride and courage. This is the beginning of something big, I thought.
When we paused again a few moments later, there were still no police in sight. Stationary, people sang and danced, "Get up! get down! theres a revolution in this town!"
Then, suddenly, people started to turn around. Groups of protestors were pushing back against others who stayed put or pushed forward. Confusion and disappointment set in. Were we giving up?
"Sit down!" people chanted en masse, and we complied though there was barely enough room to get your butt on the ground. As those in front of me bent down, I saw what was happening up front: Police formed a barrier in front of us. There was not a net, yet, but they were shoving, pushing what was now the front line of protesters back against us. They had a video camera, and they were filming the crowd.
Shortly after, we were on our feet again, and the arrests began. One police officer in a now notorious white shirt was red in the face - literally huffing and puffing air into his cheeks and out of his mouth. Some looked visibly distressed; others seemed calm, even amused. They were snatching up people with cameras.
As I scanned the front, I saw a cop's hat fly from his head as he made an arrest. A girl screamed and cried that her cuffs were too tight. "Shame!" the crowd chanted, and "Who do you protect?" Some police stood calmly; others grabbed people, often forcibly, and locked their hands. Still, others were more gentle. Some arrested none at all.
The chaos started slowly. "Fuck the net!" people yelled. A kid next to me put on a medical mask. "Whose bridge?!" yelled an arrestee. "Our bridge!" the crowd responded.
Then people started screaming "Fall back!" The police kept pushing, and suddenly we were crushed, slammed up against each other and corralled on both sides by police. It was so tight my feet were barely touching the ground. Some people screamed to "sit down!" but we were too crammed to reach the ground.
A girl shouted "It's the police doing this! No one is pushing back!" Other people yelled to them, "Stop it! Why are you doing this?"
And then panic set in. Men and women climbed up the guardrails to the pedestrian parkway above, where other protestors pulled them over the railing. My heart dropped as I watched people climb -- often as many as four at at a time -- to safety.
The tightness lingered. With our elbows bent at our sides, we used only our forearms to pass around water bottles and dried pineapple. Some people complained it was hard to breathe. Others said they had to pee. After about ten minutes as sardines, the space between us widened, but not by much.
We were all confused; no one had any idea what was happening. We couldn't see behind us, and the people in the back couldn't see up front. We hoisted a small girl onto our hands so she could look back: "They're arresting people there too," she said. There was an orange net. It became clear we were trapped. They had locked us in on both sides.
People were shouting at us to stay calm. Incredibly, most of us were. And still, the cops plucked people out of the crowd, one by one, seemingly arbitrarily, with minutes in between arrests.
Well after 5pm, we were still stuck, immobilized by the trapped mass. An NYPD helicopter hovered above the bridge. People shouted to the cops, "Will you let us go if we leave peacefully?" to no avail. I asked a police officer what would happen. "You will all be arrested," he said. As we accepted our fate, people stopped pushing away from the police and headed towards them instead. Next to me, a same-sex couple held hands and faced the line of cops together.
Throughout the ordeal, people walked across the pedestrian walkway above to mic-check us messages of support. "Stay strong!" we heard, as well as reports that the National Lawyers Guild would have bail money for those who needed it. I called their number, written on my arm, to give my name. Others shouted out their information as cops hauled them away.
Then, it started to rain. Umbrellas opened up above the crowd, and we huddled five people below one. We were singing "This Llitle Light of Mine" and Rhianna's "Under my Umbrella." I was freezing, but the crowd was brave and un-deterred. We stood grouped together, cold and wet but smiling, waiting to be arrested. Someone called for us to put backpacks on our fronts, so the cops wouldn't take them when they locked our hands.
We were still hundreds strong after 6pm when a girl perused the crowd to tell us that police were asking men to submit. "They're arresting us by gender," she said. Girls kissed their boyfriends good-bye. A young guy handed me his umbrella as he walked off to be arrested.
The crowd shrunk. The police cars, vans, and MTA buses in the back became more visible. We were surrounded by officers and vehicles, prepared to take hundreds of us away.
"Stay together. We will never get torn apart," was the last note I took. Dozens of people were lined up and cuffed, sitting defiantly on the edges of the bridge
At 6:40pm, I was arrested. An officer pointing at me shouted "Okay, come on!" as I was trying to text friends and colleague to let them know I was officially headed downtown. He yelled at me to "Put down your umbrella!" Distracted, I kept texting and said "Ok." He yelled the command again. I lowered it slowly, texting and stalling to buy time to send the message. He knocked the umbrella out of my hand and put my arms behind my back, pulling the cuffs tight across my wrists. "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 - you're with these girls," he said.
I walked with them up the bridge where we formed a line and met our "arresting officers." Mine was a young black man with braces, not the white guy who had actually cuffed me. Lined up and freezing in the rain, we laughed with our AOs and waited for MTA buses to take us to jail. The sun had set; it was night.
We walked further up the bridge as people above filmed us with cameras and bright lights. A woman from Reverend Billy and the Church of Earthalujah sang down to us. The whole time, we never lacked support.
And still, we waited for buses for what felt like forever. I was recently diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome, and my hands felt like they were losing circulation. The cuffs cut off the very nerve affected by the CTS. I asked my AO to help me.
"I'm sorry," he said, sincerely, "I don't have the tools to cut them off." I hung tight. I was not the only person in pain.
We stood still, waiting, waiting, waiting. On the bridge above, a man with a camera announced "20,000 people are watching you right now." We shouted our ages; those who had not called the Lawyers Guild yelled out their names.
Finally, we climbed, hands behind our backs, onto MTA buses. Our arresting officers stood in the aisles as we sat down. We all adjusted, trying to sit comfortably with our hands tied. Only two arrested passengers were males. In the time it took them to arrest hundreds of us, we could have crossed the bridge four times.
Incredibly, spirits remained high while we rode to jail -- all the way into East New York, Brooklyn. More surprising is that the police were clearly enjoying our company, making "mic-check!" jokes and laughing along with us. They said they hoped their bosses would let us go with a ticket and expressed their respect for our right to protest. If it were up to them, they said, they would not have arrested us at all. One officer with a short mohawk asked a young man why he had not yet asked for his number.
Several arrestees mentioned that the police let them walk in front of the cars, that they encouraged them to enter the bridge. They had no idea they would be arrested. For Aron, an almost middle-aged woman from Ohio and one of my six cell-mates, it was her first time visiting New York. I kept checking my fingers for loss of circulation; they were tingling and numb.
We sat on the bus, stationary, for about twenty minutes. When they finally let us out, we strolled through the police department -- still cuffed -- like we owned it. People were still laughing and smiling. As my cell mate Karin said, "They expected a bunch of angry girls, and they got a bunch of bo-peeps."
We lined up several times, once facing a room full of cops working on whatever it is they were doing: typing on ancient typewriters, an ironic example of austerity, counting a pile of cash, chatting. As they collected our information, I heard the age of the woman next to me: sixty-one years old.
We lined up again for mug shots with our arresting officers. After hours with our hands tied, our cuffs were finally cut off. In the photos, my group and our officer smiled playfully. I smirked with my head on his shoulder, and he actually put his arm around me for a second. We took the laces off our shoes and removed our belts, dropping all our belongings into brown paper bags.
When we were lined up again, this time in front of the male prisoners, I talked to the man across from me, who shouted his phone number and told me to remember it. In the cell next to him was a Vietnam War veteran who had remained silent on the bus. He was locked up with two strangers, one of whom was a very young black man. He looked at us, so sad, and said "This shit is the worst, man." The pain in his eyes, behind bars, was piercing. The whole thing felt like a time warp. What did we do to end up in a cage?
But my experience behind bars was nothing like what the other prisoners -- all people of color -- must have experienced. Police gave us food and water from the vending machine (we paid), cigarettes (to great celebration), and McDonald's. But mostly, the officers maintained a sense of humor, joking and taking our rowdiness with a grain of salt. We kicked the bars and toilets, mic-checked each other, and laughed loudly. If there were ever a party in a jail cell, it happened on Saturday night. These cops were on our side.
That does not, however, mean the experience was pleasant. When someone had to pee, we stood up to block her from people walking past us. The toilet was covered in wet toilet paper and white powder, as if someone made an incredibly bad attempt to clean it. We were locked up for five hours, bored to death in the beginning and end, with good conversation in between.
At first, to pass the time, we went around and listed vegetables, one for each letter of the alphabet. As we became more comfortable with each other, the time passed more quickly than I had expected. We were enjoying each other's company; the police were pleasant and attentive. There must have been 60 or 70 of us in that one precinct.
Slowly, at about 1:30am, they started letting groups out of their cells. We cheered as the heavy doors slammed. When we finally made our exit, they handed us court summonses and charged us with disorderly conduct and obstructing traffic. The cops told us we were lucky they didn't take us to central booking. Everyone else, they said, ended up there. On the way out, I asked why we were never read our rights. "Because you were never interrogated," the captain responded.
As I walked, triumphantly and exhausted, out into the jail lobby (if you could call it that), a group of recently released protestors and representatives from the Lawyers Guild cheered. A lawyer took my information to offer me pro-bono representation. The sense of support, unity, and defiance was uplifting. We were all in this together.
When the jail emptied as the last few prisoners were released, a van staffed by two officers escorted us to the subway station, where they let us in for free. It was after 2 am. We had been trapped by the police for ten hours. And still, we were smiling, undeterred and unafraid.