The View From the Middle of the Road
Several weeks ago my mother made a comment to me about free speech in America. She said that it wasn't really free if you got arrested every time you exercised your right to dissent. She's no radical, but the sentiment is becoming clearer and clearer even to those standing most firmly in the middle of the road.
My husband and I cancelled our honeymoon to return to NYC and demonstrate against the war. We had been in Mexico City, but it soon became clear that all of our time was going to be spent either cringing at news reports in internet cafes or trying in our broken Spanish to follow the anti-war chants outside the U.S. embassy. It seemed ridiculous not to return home.
We arrived just in time for the massive March 22nd peace march. We were excited and reassured by the tens of thousands of people who came out to show their opposition to the war, a war being waged largely in New York's name. The police department had fought against issuing a permit for the march, but with the court-sanctioned event underway they were grudgingly cooperative, blocking off our route for us and scowling at smiling protesters in the Saturday sunshine. The march let out on little Washington Square Park, with no culminating rally to tie things up. People didn't want to go home. Bombs were dropping in Iraq, innocents were dying with our tax dollars, and the folks on the street were not eager to melt back into anonymous New York indifference. Thousands of marchers were milling about -- some marching around the park, some through the middle, many just sitting around and appreciating the scene.
The police began to move in. Soon, there were lines of police on the street, in the south of Washington Square Park, I suppose to keep people on the sidewalk. To our right we saw a man, standing and talking with a friend, suddenly pulled from the sidewalk into the police line. We were stunned. For no reason at all the cops grabbed the guy and put him in a paddy wagon. We saw this happen three more times. I was completely confused. It was random, and pointless.
But the March 22 arrests didn't properly prepare me for what happened on April 7th. There was a small nonviolent civil disobedience planned that morning outside an office of the Carlyle Group, a defence contractor. It was bitterly cold on the morning of April 7th, and my husband and I were sorely tempted to stay in bed but we went and were pleasantly surprised to see a good number of people, maybe 200. Everyone congregated on the sidewalk across from the entrance to the Carlyle Group. The folks planning on doing civil disobedience crossed the street and began a picket line in front of the offices. My husband and I stayed across the street with the 'supporters,' people who couldn't participate or risk getting arrested. I felt wimpy as I watched the die-hards across the street leave the moving picket line and sit down in front of the entrance to the building, linking arms and angrily chanting about war profiteering.
The police began to make arrests of the 20 or so protesters who were actually participating in the civil disobedience, blocking the Carlyle Group office entrance. Other officers formed a solid line in the street in front of the observers, the 'unarrestables'. I assumed this was the police playing schoolyard bully as usual, blocking our view and making us feel little and helpless. My husband and I moved further down the sidewalk to get a better and less cop-obstructed view.
But as officers across the street were finishing with their arrests there, two lines of police suddenly came charging across onto our sidewalk. We now had police along the street in front of them, police across the sidewalk on either side of them, and an office building at their backs -- completely penned in. A young man with a camera caught in the path of the police advance was thrown to the ground, smashed into the pavement by a dog-pile of four officers, and then carted off to a paddy wagon. He had been doing nothing but taking pictures.
My husband and I were left outside of the supporters and observers. Officers ordered us to disperse, and to clear the sidewalk, all two of us. Concerned for our penned -- in fellow protesters, I told the officer that he should let the penned-in people go, that they had received no order to disperse, and that he was, in fact, obstructing the sidewalk, and that I was not. He left his police cluster, walked briskly up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said "ma'am, I'm sorry, but you're under arrest". I laughed. I couldn't believe he was arresting me. My husband shouted "You can't arrest her, she hasn't done anything wrong" and the officer informed him that he too was under arrest.
The officer put the plastic cuffs on me, gruffly and way too tight, as if somehow it was my fault that he had to go through the process of arresting me and carting me off. He put my husband and me into a waiting paddy wagon, where we joined the young photographer who was originally attacked. He had large clots of blood on his forehead and all down his front. I gasped when I saw him and asked if he was OK. He replied in a daze "I can't be late for work". The cops took him out of the paddy wagon a few minutes later to be brought to the hospital, leaving streaks of his blood on the wagon wall.
Then the paddy wagon began to be filled by those standing on the sidewalk. Every single person on the sidewalk was arrested, over 100 people all told. It seemed everyone was going to be late to work, miss a big meeting, miss a guest coming in from out of town. Asked what we would be charged with, one cop replied with a grin, "Oh, they'll make something up."
All of us in the wagon had our cuffs on far too tight. Maybe two hours after I was arrested, the cuffs were finally removed. The brand name was etched into my wrist and left lines of welts that stung for several days.
With our blanket arrests it was clear something had changed in New York. The police had always disrupted protests, always created lines you couldn't cross and then attacked you before you had realized there even was a line to avoid. But this was more orderly, more determined, and more broad. Almost 140 people were arrested on April 7th, and only 20 or so had any intention of doing so. The cops did their best to round up everyone who so much as showed up at the protest, no questions asked, no warnings to disperse. The police were sending a message, and it resonated clearly. If you go to a protest, the police will try to arrest you. There is no safe space to express dissent.