From Party to Standoff at Times Square: Occupy Wall Street Spreads

 A few weeks ago, I heard someone down in Liberty Plaza make the point that the big banks were all headquartered in Midtown now anyway, since September 11th's attacks on the financial district, so why occupy Wall Street? 

I thought of that yesterday as my colleagues and I exited the police-barricaded "demonstration area" at 47th and Broadway and found ourselves in front of Morgan Stanley's headquarters. 

The situation at Times Square went from a party to a tense standoff with police, including mounted officers, as they tried to keep protesters in line while not obstructing the endless flow of tourist traffic through the area's shops. Protesters held up signs to be broadcast on a video screen above the women's clothing chain store Forever 21, contrasted with a dancing blonde woman superimposed on top of the images of signs declaring solidarity and calling for an end to Wall Street power. 

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Photo by David Franklin

We arrived before the main march, which was winding its way from Washington Square Park (see Nick Turse's account here). It was about 4:30 PM, and two of the three "demonstration areas" barricaded off for "free speech" (a tradition at protests since the Battle in Seattle in 1999 and perfected by New York's police since the Republican National Convention in 2004) were nearly full. Tourists weaving in and out of the zones pointed and took pictures of protest signs. 

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Photo by David Franklin

Toward the back of the square, at 46th Street and Broadway, a crowd was gathered around several people in white and a marching band. Stiltwalkers in costume entertained the crowd, a mixture of tourists and those gathered to protest Wall Street right in the heart of capitalism, underneath giant neon signs. The band played, people danced, and beside us, a local NBC affiliate interviewed tourists who said they agreed, at least in part, with the occupiers' demands. 

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Photo by David Franklin

As we stood in the park, word was filtering in that people had been arrested at a Citibank trying to withdraw their money, and Twitter was alight with news of arrests on the march to Times Square. Comedian and Citizen Radio host Jamie Kilstein tweeted "They arrested Hero [one of the Liberty Plaza regulars] cause they thought he was the leader. There is no leader." 

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Photo by David Franklin

The atmosphere in the square still seemed jubilant, though, with cheers as the main march from Washington Square Park arrived and flooded in. An accurate crowd estimate is probably impossible, because tourists and locals mingled freely with the protest crowds, and Times Square is choked with people at the best of times (though the crowd still was certainly not as large nor as drunk and rowdy as the crowds on New Year's Eve each year, say). But New York magazine reported "by some estimates upwards of 10,000 people gathered." 

And then the police rolled in.

I stood leaning on a barricade at 46th Street and watched two motorcycle police officers ride up to the barricade blocking cars from crossing Broadway and 7th Avenue--and then watched them charge straight through it, shoving the barricade out of the way. A police officer on foot pulled the barricade back into place behind them and they headed down 7th Ave toward the "demonstration areas" up front--and then a riot squad followed. 

The Wall Street Journal reported: 

Around 6:15 p.m. there were three arrests at 46th St. and 7th Ave. of individuals trying to take down police barriers. As arrests were made, a few began chanting "fight back" but most did not take up the cry. Some who tried to pull down barriers would run to the back of the crowd to avoid arrest, and also push the crowd from the back to confront police.

At about 8 p.m. a large disorderly group at 46th St. near 6th was given at least three separate warnings to disperse and when they did not, 42 arrests were made, Mr. Browne said.

The party atmosphere slowly faded to tension as protesters faced lines of police; people climbed lampposts and in one case a traffic sign in order to see, and police trucks brought in more barricades. Still, the arrests didn't come close to the 700 on the Brooklyn Bridge a few Saturdays back, and the protesters who reconvened at Washington Square park at 10PM (and remained until forced out by the police at 1AM) called for reinforcements via Twitter and email as they contemplated occupying that park as well. 

Though the crowd ultimately left Washington Square to return to Liberty Plaza (welcomed back with open arms), the size of the demonstrations across the city makes one thing clear: Occupy Wall Street has grown far bigger than a few hundred people sleeping in a park in Lower Manhattan. A globally-networked protest movement has embraced the language of "the 99%," and the strength of rallies in the US is fed by and feeds into rallies across the world. 

October 17 will mark one month of the occupation in Liberty Plaza, and it's truly amazing to see the movement grow. 


AlterNet / By Sarah Jaffe

Posted at October 16, 2011, 2:28am

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