My Night Trying to Save Liberty Plaza: Firsthand Account of NYPD's Eviction of OWS
I walked up to Liberty Plaza at 1:30 Tuesday morning to find out I was too late. The barricades were up; the police were everywhere. We couldn't even get close enough to see inside the park.
People were pissed. They were blindsided -- separated from their friends, their homes, their families. Occupy Wall Street runs on camaraderie, on solidarity. And when your supporters are facing an unknown fate in the park that has become the base for a global movement, separation is tough.
And yet, the demonstrators stood strong as their hard work, all their infrastructure -- the people's library, the kitchen, the tents, media, medical--was destroyed.
I had not been there long at all, maybe 10 minutes, when all of a sudden I was slammed up against a building on Cortlandt St., at the corner of Broadway. I looked up, and it was the cops. They were pushing the guys in front of me, crushing several of us against a building as they shouted at us to move back. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a huge gust of pepper-spray jet past my head. Luckily, I didn't get hit, at least hard. My mouth tasted like acetone as my eyes and face started to burn, just enough to make me livid. I was spitting that shit out for hours.
Swarms of riot police, protecting themselves behind shields as they swung their long nightsticks, managed to separate us. They beat people for being in the street, shoved us on sidewalks, and then pepper-sprayed and beat us more when we could not physically fit in the sidewalk space they demanded we occupy instead of the park. They shoved us down the street, then came up in front of us and pushed us back, forcing us into several clusters. Divide and conquer. They did it over and over again. It was frustrating as hell, but there were moments of inspiration. As we stood on Broadway and Dey St., a homeless veteran shouted to the police "You know I'm here, I'm homeless, because I'm a veteran. Because of the government. I lost everything. Are you happy?"
Police vans and fire trucks sped by.
As the crowd around Zuccotti shrank and I realized nobody was getting anywhere near the park, I decided to meet up with a march that had headed toward City Hall. I had no idea how big it had become until I arrived. Communication was complicated.
Still, I wanted to get to City Hall quick. I had a feeling I was missing out. I hopped in a cab to realize I had three dollars in my pocket and couldn't find my debit card. That cab driver turned out to be the first of two to offer me a free, or nearly free, ride. I gave him three bucks and he took me to City Hall, where a much larger, or perhaps more centralized, group had convened. Dozens of police cars, their lights flashing, were lined up the hill on Pearl St. It was psychedelic, like watching a film.
Hundreds of demonstrators were peacefully assembled around the statue, discussing whether or not to march immediately or wait for more occupiers to come. Quickly, they decided to go. As we walked away, I noticed the street at Centre and Worth was full of fog. Demonstrators said someone had lit a fire, and the cops responded with tear gas. I don't know for sure if either is true.
At first, we marched from City Hall as a large mass, intermittently taking the streets and returning to the sidewalks as police swarmed and arrested. The cops' rules kept changing. In standard NYPD Occupy procedure, the police told us to obey traffic laws and wait until we had a walk light to cross the street at an intersection where our brothers and sisters had already crossed. Then they immediately decided that the street was closed and we could not cross at all.
Both occupiers and police exhibited internal differences in tactical preferences. While some cops shoved people across the street and down on the ground with their hands, others swung their batons on the heads and backs of demonstrators. Others were defiantly peaceful.
Several times throughout the march, police sprinted down the street to clear people out of the vacant roads (it was 3am). One cop walked slowly behind, joking with demonstrators that he wasn't like the other cops. Another cop pushed me up onto the sidewalk, but when I told him I was trying to get up there but had nowhere to go, he immediately apologized, and then apologized again, and seemed to feel bad. Another cop yelled angrily to another cop, "Let them cross the street!!" and started to pull people out of an intersection.
The demonstrators went from clusters around the park to moving clusters all over the village and downtown, where we paced, often aimlessly, for hours, not wanting to give up, but without a solid plan or destination. Some people shouted to go to Washington Square; others said Union Square; back to Foley Square; Broadway and Pine. Some demonstrators threw trash into the street; others hurried to pick it up. By 5am, our group had been wandering for hours and had shrunk from a couple hundred people to about 30. The cops even stopped marching alongside us. They sped away in their vans.
A bicycle messenger visited us several times to help guide our small group. There were reports of groups all over. When we finally made it to Foley Square, where another group had already converged, the peace and organization was a burst of relief. There were human mics and process. Proposals were suggested -- to find homes for the evicted, to support arrestees walking around One Liberty Plaza, to take Zuccotti, to wait for the unions expected to join.
The crowd came to consensus to stay in Foley Square and invite others to join us there. We became the new, temporary base. Not everyone was happy about that. Some had higher expectations for a commitment to Liberty Plaza, and they felt that those who remained in the park had been abandoned. One occupier interrupted process and the GA to shout that people at the GA were not occupiers with the same respect for, or stake in, what had happened in Zuccotti. "Who else had their homes taken?" he asked. I felt for him. As far as they knew, everything they had was gone.
But there were moments of solidarity as well. Bagels, bananas and water arrived. Two NYPD buses full of arrestees drove by, and we greeted them with cheers and waves, as they pressed their faces to the glass and smiled back. Another march joined us from Zuccotti, and we welcomed our brothers and sisters.
And while disagreement over issues and action continued, familiarity with consensus assisted the stressed-out, sleep-deprived demonstrators in deciding to act with careful planning. We waited, we tweeted, we communicated, and crowds gathered. By 7am, Foley Square was buzzing. An inspiring demonstrator lifted an American flag, tied onto sticks, that he said was the last item left at Zuccotti Park. By 8am, we were marching to Canal and Broadway, where an impromptu camp showed that the occupiers were never sleeping. They did not give up; they cannot be dispersed. All physical separations are only temporary, and the cops cannot penetrate the mind. Bloomberg cannot evict a movement, even if he is a third-term mayor of the 1 percent with a girlfriend on the board at Brookfield.
So when we marched again, to Canal and 6th Ave., I was not surprised that the group had come back together, or that they had done so with an image of organization and self-definition. Hand-painted yellow signs read sad truths like, "I will never pay off my student loans" and "I will never own a home in my life."
Exhausted, I left for home at around 10:30am and hopped into a cab. The driver asked, "Who are they?"
"Occupy Wall Street," I said proudly, "They were evicted from the park. The police kicked everyone out."
"Were you over there?" he asked.
"Yep," I said. And he turned off the meter. Solidarity.