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New York Becoming a Police State? Occupy Wall Street Meets the "Ring of Steel" at Liberty Square

NYPD's metal barricades have militarized the peaceable occupation at Liberty Square and contributed to the creeping homeland security state ethos.
 
 
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They stand like sentinels. Rain or shine, they’re always present at the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Square. They outnumber the women and men in the drum circle. They outnumber the food-cart vendors. They even outnumber the cops. They never take bathroom breaks. And their own occupation of the block-long, half-acre site has been going on for weeks without so much as a pause. They go by the name FX-7 -- metal barricades that, locked together, form a ring of steel separating Zuccotti Park from the rest of the city.

On any given day, approximately 150 steel barricades form a solid cordon, except for openings at the four corners, around the occupied park. Approximately four feet tall and seven feet in length, with 14 spindles, each of these the dull gray barricades made by Friedrichs Custom Manufacturing of New Orleans are a ubiquitous presence and represent some of the most tangible but overlooked evidence of an overwhelming police response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. They’re also a potential rallying point, a distinct issue that the park’s activist occupiers, neighborhood residents and those working in the financial district can see eye to eye about.

A Manhattan-Sized Ring of Steel

“It’s one of our standard models,” Chris Friedrichs, the vice president of Friedrichs Custom Manufacturing told AlterNet when asked about the metal barriers at Zuccotti Park and surrounding streets. “We’ve been making barricades since 1968,” he said in a recent phone interview, noting that the New York City Police Department has been a customer for more than 20 years. Just how many barricades the NYPD has in its inventory is unclear. “It’s in the thousands and they’ve bought them from other venders, too. At times, they’ve bought thousands,” Friedrichs told me. “They use a lot of them.”

The NYPD failed to respond to AlterNet’s requests for an estimate of the number of barricades in its inventory. A July 2003 New York Times article noted that the NYPD had more than 9,000 of the metal fences -- close to 12 miles of metal barricades, just a mile short of the length of Manhattan Island.

At that time, according to incomplete data maintained by the Mayor's Office, the department had already awarded more than $172,000 in contracts to Friedrichs Custom Manufacturing. All told, not counting thousands of barriers purchased from third-party vendors, the NYPD and Friedrichs have done at least $646,000 worth of business since then, for a total of $818,471 in contracts since 2002. (The police department’s most recent deal with Friedrichs came in 2008, when it signed a $123,282 contract with the company. ) All of this suggests the police department may have enough metal barricades to lock down Manhattan Island’s 32-mile perimeter in a ring of steel.

Years ago, the NYPD used to employ blue wooden sawhorses, with “Police Line Do Not Cross” emblazoned on them in white, as its primary crowd control device at parades and protests. At Occupy Wall Street, the only evidence of these past impediments recently was a single disassembled wooden horse lying at the foot of an NYPD Sky Watch tower -- a panopticon-like surveillance booth on hydraulic legs that observes the park from across the street and two stories up. As if to add insult to injury, the broken-down sawhorse sat behind a cordon of metal barricades, some of the hundreds more FX-7s, in addition to the 150 ringing the Liberty Square, that also line the streets surrounding the park. Chris Friedrichs says that while sawhorses are useful for vehicular traffic, his models are superior for containing people. “It provides better coverage from top to bottom,” he told me. “For crowd control you really need a more fence-like structure.”

Good Fences Make Angry Neighbors

“Last year we told over 2 million people where to go…and not go,” reads a caption superimposed on a photograph of its barriers posted on Friedrichs Custom Manufacturing’s Facebook page. At Liberty Square, the purpose of the barricades is far from clear. “It’s to keep people from spilling into the street and blocking traffic,” a spokesman from the NYPD’s Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information told AlterNet.

But to anyone who has spent much time around Zuccotti Park, it’s plain to see that people often walk on the street-side of the barriers to avoid crowds on the sidewalk. For hours on end, police -- often white-shirted superiors -- will stand in the street near or leaning on the barricades, while others -- generally blue-clad subordinates -- do the same inside the barricades. Many of the barriers themselves actually sit in the street, further narrowing thoroughfares already constricted by police vehicles and parked cars.

"The NYPD has put police barricades…all over the financial district. So we are getting a tremendous number of calls at the Community Board office dealing with access to residential buildings and businesses," Julie Menin, the chair of Community Board 1, an advisory committee that deals with land use and zoning matters told WNYC, the local public radio station, earlier this month.

Late last week, at a meeting of the board’s Quality of Life and Financial District committees, local residents sounded off about the NYPD’s metal maze in the financial district. “My biggest issue is the barricades,” local resident Sabrina Espinal was quoted as saying by the Tribeca Trib. “I don’t care if they [the protesters] stay in that park 'til kingdom come. I just want the barricades down.” When Metro asked Wall Street workers about fencing, they heard much the same. “I hate the barricades. It’s like we’re caged in,” said Janice Weinman, a 38-year-old hospitality worker on Wall Street. “They have to give us our sidewalk back.”

Their newest neighbors in Zuccotti Park have experienced even worse. “Several arrests were made for crossing barricades or attempting [to cross them] on Wall Street,” Tyler, a spokesperson for Occupy Wall Street told AlterNet.

An NYPD spokesman refused to comment by phone on laws in regard to jumping, moving or otherwise circumventing police barriers. Multiple emails to the department on the subject of the metal fencing went unanswered as well. “Leaning on or loitering near barricades in Liberty Park leads to immediate warnings by police to move away,” Tyler told me. This reporter has experienced the same response by police on multiple occasions.

On a recent day, I leaned against a barricade on Broadway to scribble down some notes when an officer in a rain slicker approached and told me I couldn’t stand in that spot and had to move along. I walked about eight feet down the block, toward the corner of Liberty Street, and took up a post next to some beefy, middle-aged men in jeans and white sneakers who just happened to be loitering in the same location for close to an hour without harassment. About 10 minutes later, the same officer approached. Hadn’t she told me I needed to stop blocking the sidewalk? I countered by asking about my neighbors. “Do these gentlemen have to move, too?” She sheepishly announced that everyone needed to move along, at which time the men produced their detective shields. “You’re violating my rights, officer,” one of them joked to her as he stayed put and I ambled on.

I asked Chris Friedrichs what he thought about the barricades being used to pen in the Occupy Wall Street protests. “We make a product and we sell it. It’s similar to any manufacturer; if you sell a car and someone drives drunk in it, it’s not your responsibility,” he told me. “Almost any product can be used for good or bad, so most barricades are used in good situations to help protect people from getting into harms way.”

To the Barricades

Friedrichs says the police like the FX-7 because “it’s a lightweight but strong design; lightweight helps them move them around very quickly and easily deploy them quickly.” And the NYPD has certainly deployed them with ease. Like the Sky Watch tower, dozens of regular police vehicles, surveillance and communication trucks, helicopters, scores of police officers, stationary cameras and others means of control, the NYPD’s metal barricades have militarized the peaceable occupation at Liberty Square and contributed to the creeping homeland security state ethos that has been growing steadily in the city since 9/11 and was supercharged during the 2004 Republican National Convention. For years, however, the police were generally immune from much criticism due to deference accorded them in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center.

A decade after 9/11, however, heavy-handed tactics toward nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protesters, from a pepper-spray attack on young women to mass arrests as well as a long succession of unrelated scandals (including the “Mafia Cops,” the so-called rape cops, and more recent allegations that police planted drugs on people to meet arrest quotas) have opened the NYPD to increasing criticism from average citizens.

Now growing numbers in the financial district see the police, not the protesters, as negatively impacting their community.

“The protesters are at Zuccotti Park,” April Condell, who is forced to weave through the police barricades every day, told Metro. “The NYPD is actually occupying Wall Street.” At the community board meeting, Vincent Alessi, who co-manages a nearby steakhouse, said the metal barricades were hurting his business. "That's the NYPD," said Alessi. "The protesters have been peaceful. They march by the restaurant, no one causes any damage."

“We hope our barricades are used to protect people,” Chris Friedrichs told me. But many New Yorkers who live or work in the area, like their new neighbors occupying Liberty Square, don’t see the metal barriers that way. Perhaps the clearest evidence is the resolution passed at the October 20 community board meeting. “CB #1 calls on all the elected officials representing Lower Manhattan, OWS, the city and all major stakeholders to come together to address the following…Remove some of the barricades that the NYPD has erected that are blocking access to home and work.” Later, the resolution was amended to read: “Remove all non-essential barricades.”

Given the clear conflict between the NYPD’s contentions about its metal barriers and reality when it comes to penning in protest in and around Liberty Square, it remains to be seen if the police can demonstrate if any of the barricades have ever been “essential.”

Nick Turse is the associate editor of TomDispatch.com and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook