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Article Art, Politics & Protest

Our streets: the early days of Occupy Wall Street

John Dennehy believed the US was not capable of a mass protest movement that could topple the status quo. Occupy showed him how things are changing.

A few hours before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I met Nicole in Liberty Park. She wore tight dark blue jeans, a grey sweater and a blue and white scarf that hid behind her long auburn hair. She wore the same pink lipstick she had on at the bar when we met. It was our first date.

Nicole had arrived a few minutes before me, and someone with a pile of quarter sheets with legal advice had given her a stack to hand out. While we stood on the corner she distributed flyers, always saying: “Protest is not a crime.”

“I work for a law firm so the legal stuff interests me,” she explained.

“How long have you been in the city?”

“Just since I found this job, so a few months — protest is not a crime,” she interrupted herself to hand out another flyer. “It doesn’t pay all that much but I live in Harlem and rent is cheap there.”

Occupy Wall Street was two weeks old, and growing quickly. On September 17 protesters armed with sleeping bags had descended on Zucotti Park, renamed it Liberty and set up camp in the heart of the financial district downtown. I had stopped by the first day out of curiosity, but I had no faith that it would amount to anything. All that year, starting in Tunisia with the Arab Spring, unusually powerful protest movements had rocked the world and brought down governments.

But not in the US; that wasn’t something that would ever happen here, much less in the financial district of New York City. Then, somehow, Occupy started to catch on. I began stopping by after work and talking to people in the park. On the edges, protesters stood with homemade signs and tried to engage with passers-by. I stopped next to a middle-aged man wearing a sports jacket and jeans with a sign that read “Banks got bailed out. We got sold out”.

“I voted for Obama in 2008,” he told me, “because I thought he would be different. But when the economy crashed he did the same thing as Bush. In fact, he followed the exact outline that Bush set up before he left and spent billions of taxpayer money bailing out the banks that crashed the economy in the first place. Did you know that Goldman Sachs, right over there,” he pointed to the glass tower at 200 West St, “was the biggest contributor to Obama’s campaign? The banks fund candidates, and once in office those politicians pay back the favor. It’s become a feedback loop between big corporations and government.”

A woman with thick black hair and sunglasses edged in from the sidewalk and caught the end of our dialogue. “It’s worse than that,” she said. “The Bank of New York Mellon got a $3 billion bailout, but that’s not all. They were also awarded a $20 million custodial contract to administer their own bailout. And that’s just one example, it happened with all the banks — the government literally outsourced the work to the same banks that created the crisis. There is no longer any doubt about who is really in charge.”

Mass movements versus the status quo

Inside the park conversations buzzed among strangers. People from around the country who had heard about the protest started calling local pizzerias to send food to the park and there was a constant stream of “occu-pies” being delivered. Other occupiers scavenged downtown searching for expired but still edible food in the dumpsters behind grocery stores. Still more dropped off homemade dishes or gave cash. An ad-hoc kitchen team would go out daily to buy supplies. I slipped $40 into the donation can the first day. In college I would have been one of the people marching through the streets and sleeping in the park, I thought, but that wasn’t my role anymore. I had started a job at the United Nations that week and was earning more money than I ever had before. Plus my 29-year-old body was a lot more demanding about a good night’s sleep than it was just a few years earlier.

I still thought that the experiment would fail, that my home nation was not capable of a mass protest movement that could topple the status quo. But it was clear that this was a different place from the New York I knew.

On October 1, Occupy planned a march to Brooklyn. As a point of principle the movement never applied for permits, thus metal barricades lining the curb forced the crowd into a long thin line on the sidewalk. By the time Nicole and I arrived at the bridge, the front of the march was already funneling onto the pedestrian walkway, though only a handful of police stood at the entrance to the roadway.

A few paces behind us a lone voice began a familiar chant: “Whose streets?” “Our streets!”

“We’re not taking the bridge?” I asked Nicole.

“Doesn’t look that way, I guess they don’t have a permit.”

Protesters bulged at the narrow entrance and had begun to fill the street in front. A few paces behind us a lone voice began a familiar chant: “Whose streets?”

A scattered yet enthusiastic response came from a few other voices around us, “Our streets!”

The second round was much louder. Everyone had picked up the refrain. Without thinking, I stepped off the curb and away from Nicole.

The chant grew quickly and more people moved into the street. The crowd was alive. One police officer spoke into a megaphone but was drowned out by the crowd. A minute later a new chant echoed: “Take the bridge. Take the bridge.”

It was infectious. I had lost myself in the moment and briefly forgotten about Nicole. I thought my idea of protest might have been more aggressive than hers but then she caught my eye, smiled and rushed down from the walkway toward me. Just before she reached me she put her fist in the air and shouted, “Take the bridge.”

We watched as the group of people closest to the police locked arms. Everyone behind them followed their example. The first line marched forward, all moving in unison, connected as one solid mass at the waist. The police turned their backs and walked ahead, leading us onto the bridge. The crowd cheered and rushed up the ramp.

Nicole and I held back a few minutes and helped people climb over the pedestrian railing and onto the road with us. When we began walking again, our hands met so we wouldn’t be separated. Once the crowd spread into all three lanes and gave us space, neither of us let go. Motorists, stuck behind us, were honking in support. People were getting out of their cars and taking photos. Taxi drivers gave rhythm to a new chant: “We are unstoppable. Another world is possible.”

“I can’t get arrested,” Nicole told me.

“They can’t arrest everyone. I can’t see the beginning or end of the crowd. There’s no way they can arrest this many people,” I said.

“Okay, good,” Nicole said, squeezing my hand and looking up at me. “This is incredible.”

The crowd halted then pushed backward, forcing Nicole’s body against mine. The row ahead fell onto us. Our heels landed on toes as we struggled to find enough space. The chants stopped and people began screaming a few rows ahead.

“The police are attacking, go back, go back!” they yelled. I put my arms around Nicole and held her tight; her fingers clasped behind my back and pulled me even closer.

Under attack

To our left, against the inside of the bridge, dozens of people were climbing up the scaffolding and shouting police movements to the crowd. “Riot police are marching toward us from Manhattan,” they yelled. Once it sank in that we were surrounded, everyone began to sit down.

Nicole leaned her head against my arm and I moved my hand across her back. Our bodies moved tighter.

“I can’t get arrested,” Nicole repeated, more desperate than before.

“They can’t arrest everyone,” I repeated, almost as sure.

To our left, where the people had been climbing the scaffolding, police pushed in and set up a net. They immediately walked two protesters in handcuffs down the corridor so everyone could see. They were pushing them hard, making them stumble, almost knocking them on their faces.

We were stuck in a police net, hanging above the East River, completely alone, utterly vulnerable.

We waited, and as we waited the mood became defiant, almost festive. On the first day of Occupy, just two weeks prior, the police arrested anyone who used sound equipment since we never had a permit. To counter that we developed the “mic check” and created a people-powered sound system. When someone shouted “mic check” the crowd closest to that person would repeat and amplify their following words. In larger groups a mic check may go through multiple rings, echoing outward from the speaker. Once the initial panic subsided people started to mic check, mixing rumor and fact. Each time the crowd roared louder than the last.

“5,000 people are watching us on livestream.”

“A crowd is gathering on the Brooklyn side of the bridge; they are waiting for us.”

“10,000 people are watching.”

“The MTA is going on strike in solidarity.”

“25,000 people are watching.”

Even as the minutes dragged into hours and it became clear that the police were in fact going to arrest everyone they had netted, it still felt like victory. Everyone shared what they had; fruit and water passed through the crowd and people called out of work and cancelled dinner plans with borrowed phones.

Nicole and I still held each other. Long after the crowd thinned and the panic passed our hands were still interlocked when we sat and our bodies still pressed to the other when we stood. When I first saw her, a week earlier, she was sitting alone, scribbling into a notebook. She held the pen between her teeth when she wasn’t writing and stared ahead, as if she was somewhere else and not a crowded bar in the East Village. She laughed at an overheard joke my friend made and we smiled at each other.

We got to know each other inside a police net.

“It was a going-away party for a friend,” she told me, “but I don’t drink anymore so I was just hiding in the corner when I saw you. I may have had a bit of a drinking problem.” She laughed. “But I’m seven months sober.”

The police net did not lend itself to secrets.

“Have you been to many protests?” I asked.

“No, but if I knew they were so much fun I would have.”

We both laughed.

Nicole pulled her head out of my arm and we looked into each other’s eyes.

“Best first date ever,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking about the protest or her presence, but it didn’t matter. It was a moment when I couldn’t help but smile, and Nicole happened to be the girl standing next to me.

She giggled.

People were still mic checking, still passing around markers so everyone could write the legal number on their arm, and Nicole and I were still staring into the other, our mouths nearly next to each other. Our lips touched, and then opened.

Getting arrested

We had been in the police net for over three hours when the sun fell below the horizon and it began to rain. “Let’s go get arrested,” I said.

“I’d love to.” Nicole smiled.

I tapped someone on the shoulder near the police blockade. “Is this the line to get arrested?” I asked.

He laughed. “Yeah.”

There was a separate line for women so Nicole and I shared one more kiss.

“I’ll wait for you,” she said in place of goodbye.

A police officer slapped cuffs on my wrist then walked me onto a commandeered MTA bus. All the police stations and holding cells in Manhattan were already overflowing with protesters so we got on the Williamsburg Bridge and, for the second time that day, I headed to Brooklyn. This time, a prisoner in police custody, I made it. The first two precincts we went to were filled and we finally stopped at the 90th precinct. We were the third bus in line so we waited for the others to be processed first.

For more than three hours we stirred uncomfortably, forced to sit at the edge of our seat and lean slightly forward to accommodate the handcuffs digging ever deeper into our wrists. The blood collected in our hands and swelled the skin around the plastic rings. All the while, we took advantage of our captive audience and tried to convert our arresting officers who were now acting as our guards.

“Have you heard of Citizens United?” one of the arrestees asked.

“Yeah, yeah, banks are bad, I get it,” the officer standing in the aisle said.

“It was a Supreme Court case last year concerning campaign finance. The ruling defined corporations as people and claimed that these ‘people’ spoke through money, therefore any restrictions on campaign contributions would be an infringement on their freedom of speech.”

“I think your dreadlocks are seeping into your brain. What good are you sitting here anyway, why don’t you go plant a garden or something?” The officer laughed to himself.

“This system treats corporations as people, and when real people speak up against it they are put in cages. A thousand people will be locked behind bars tonight because they protested the collusion of government and finance, but when the banks manipulated markets for private gain and crashed the economy not a single banker was prosecuted. You don’t see anything wrong with that?”

The officer rolled his eyes, took out his phone and stared blankly at the screen.

My arresting officer was quieter but also more thoughtful.

When the banks manipulated markets for private gain and crashed the economy not a single banker was prosecuted.

“National elections are overwhelmingly decided by who has the most money,” I told him. “Better-funded candidates can distort the narrative in their favor, which gives great power to wealthy corporate CEOs at our expense. The system is broken and while we may not have all the answers, we need to start creating alternatives; we need to take control over our own lives.”

“You’re right,” he said. “The country is heading in the wrong direction and people need to stand up in order to change it, but I got a job to do. I got a wife and kids so if my CO [commanding officer] tells me to make an arrest, I have to do it. I wish I could be with you guys, but I need this paycheck.”

Finally it was our turn and the police marched us off the bus and into the station.

Someone yelled my name as I was being walked to my cell.

“Anita?” I stopped, happy to see a friend smiling behind a row of bars in front of me. “Hey! You got arrested too, huh?” She smiled.

An officer grabbed my arm and yelled, “Get to your cell!”

I kept forgetting I wasn’t free.

In the cells

The cells were built for one with a plank of wood for a bed, a metal toilet, and not much room for anything else. The toilet didn’t flush and was filled with urine and feces. The first thing everyone did was pee and our urine stirred the thick brown liquid and released an even more pungent odor.

Danny, Craig, Adam and Lucas were my cell mates. We were locked in what was essentially a crowded and dirty bathroom, but it felt like a party.

It was the mix of serious and fun that Nicole and I shared on the bridge, that always seemed to be present with Occupy. Danny was Cuban and had the beginnings of a goatee. He studied philosophy in college and constantly crossed and uncrossed his legs as he contemplated his next words. He was a seasoned activist and sang with The Church of Stop Shopping.

Lucas wore a leather jacket with ripped jeans and played guitar in a punk band. “I came out ’cause I saw that video of the cops pepper-spraying those girls last Saturday, just trying to be a good liberal, ya know,” he said.

“Yeah I got caught in that net too,” said Craig. I had met him on the bridge; he was a big guy, over six feet and relayed all the mic checks with a loud soprano voice. That, plus his bright yellow poncho, made him stand out. I remember people kept asking him all sorts of questions as if he had some authority. Turns out he did. He was rounded up just one week earlier with 100 others near Union Square Park in what now seemed like a dry run for the mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge.

“How many times have you been arrested?” I asked Craig.

“Counting last week and today…” He pretended to count on his fingers. “Twice.”

I don’t recall how it started but we began to sing Waterfalls by TLC. I didn’t join in initially but by the time we got to the chorus the whole cell block, filled with male protesters, was singing. I wondered what the guards were thinking as we moved onto Ace of Base and other 90s pop songs.

It started on the bridge, but when I realized that we were actually having fun in jail, my apathy fully transformed into belief.

We were actually having fun in jail.

The wooden bench was only big enough for three people so we rotated who had to sit on the floor while we sang and chatted. “Is this the Arab spring come to America?” Lucas wondered.

“Well, there isn’t a dictator, here. This is an entire system that has become rotten,” said Craig. “It’d probably be easier if we could just go after one guy, but the truth is the people running the show aren’t the politicians. In a way the challenges are much deeper, the system much more entrenched here.”

“And worse is, it’s harder to see here because it’s become normalized,” said Danny. “There’s been a slow corporate coup going on and no one noticed because they were too busy on their iPhones. This may or may not last, but this is the start of something new.”

Released

After 12 hours in police custody, they started pulling us out individually, giving us court dates and releasing us. It was the early morning and dark and cold. Two women were waiting outside. Pairs of volunteers were standing in the cold through the night at every police station in the city, waiting for people to be released. They had juice boxes, cookies and took down everyone’s name, phone number and court date to match us up with sympathetic lawyers who had pledged to volunteer their services.

My phone rang while I was taking a second juice box. “You’re out!” Nicole gushed. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah everything’s fine. I’m in Brooklyn, where are you?”

“I’m waiting for you in the park.”

I got on the subway and headed back to Liberty. The streets of the financial district were deserted and police barricades lined every sidewalk. There was a steady stream of people rising from underground, returning from jail. The city was ours.

I ran into Danny and Craig at the edge of the park and we embraced like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Nicole was sitting on a wall with a blanket wrapped over her shoulders. She dropped the blanket and ran toward me. We embraced like old lovers.

“You must be cold, take this.” She threw the blanket over me. She had enormous energy considering the hour.

When the Brooklyn Bridge story broke, people started coming by the camp and dropping off bags of clothes and blankets. Nicole lead me to intake — a fold-out table with various boxes on top. Someone had written “COMFORT” in bold letters on the inside of a pizza box and leaned it against the table.

A college-aged kid with neat short hair and a yellow hoodie came up when he saw us. “What are you guys looking for?” he asked.

“I’m a little cold and my socks are wet,” I told him.

The boxes on the table had not been sorted yet so I looked through them while our helper turned back to the overflowing boxes behind him to grab some socks. I found a purple scarf and brown corduroy jacket in the first box and put them on.

“I didn’t get arrested,” Nicole told me.

“What? How?”

“I guess there were just too many of us. They started letting girls go at the end; some cop just wagged his finger at me and told me to be a good girl, then let a whole group of us walk off the bridge.”

“Weird.”

“I know, and I was all ready too.” She shrugged. “Anyway, the people here are so amazing. Everyone just helps each other.”

Some cop just wagged his finger at me and told me to be a good girl, then let a whole group of us walk off the bridge.

She introduced me to a group lying on an air mattress next to Comfort. Though it was already crowded, they cheerily made space for us. They were all drinking coffee and decided to rise and welcome others returning from jail, leaving us alone in their bed.

We never slept. We barely even talked. Her body and the day’s adrenaline warmed me and kept me awake. An hour after I was released from jail, the darkness began to fade. On all sides the park was hemmed in by skyscrapers creating an empty shaft of air reaching toward the sky. The sun filtered between the walls of concrete and through the honey locust trees above us, bathing New York City in a new light.

Once the sun rose activity picked up. There were people walking around handing out cups of coffee.

“Where did you get that?” I asked.

The man pointed down the street.

Nicole and I set off for the same café and asked for $20 worth of bagels.

“Are you two from Occupy?” the cashier asked.

“Yes”

She nodded her head and filled our bag with at least twice as many bagels as our cash should have bought. “Take a couple of coffees too,” she added, grabbing two cups from under the counter.

The camp kitchen already had a surplus and more money than they knew what to do with but people constantly went off on their own to bring back food for the network of strangers sleeping in or visiting the park.

That evening a crowd gathered at the eastern edge of the occupation where a few curved steps created a makeshift amphitheater. From the first day Occupy had splintered into a growing number of working groups clustered thematically and each night everyone got together to give updates, present proposals and, as a group, make decisions. The General Assembly (GA) was our government.

Hand signals

There was always a pair of facilitators whose job was to keep the meeting on topic and moving forward. A third person kept “stack,” a list and order of people who raised their hand to speak. Along with the mic check the movement had invented or borrowed various other communication devices for large crowds. In order for the mic check to work effectively everyone had to be silent, so to show emotion or call attention we used hand signals. Holding your hands up and twinkling your fingers meant you agreed. Bending your wrists down and twinkling your fingers meant you disagreed. There were lots of other hand signals, such as forming a triangle with two hands which meant “point of process.” This told the facilitator that a speaker was off topic or otherwise breaking protocol and to rein them in. A pointed finger meant you had a direct response to what was just said.

That night the GA was filled with almost exclusively good news.

“Mic check! We have received word that new occupations began in Los Angeles, Boston and St. Louis last night.” Everywhere fingers shot up and twinkled furiously — a silent roar of approval.

Nicole and I became ever more involved with the encampment. She joined the Legal committee and I joined Media. We met at the park every evening, sometimes just for the GA and dinner and sometimes to sleep. The movement had spread to hundreds of cities in a dozen nations in the two weeks since we shared our first kiss on the Brooklyn Bridge. October 15 was declared a Global Day of Action and the GA decided to march across Manhattan and temporarily occupy Times Square.

The police shut it down before we even had a chance. Riot police clustered behind metal barricades all over Manhattan, and it seemed more certain than ever that the movement was spreading; that we had put the status quo on the defensive.

It seemed more certain than ever that the movement was spreading.

The crowd was too large to all fit in Liberty so that night’s GA was held in Washington Square Park.

When Nicole and I arrived it was already 9pm. At every entrance groups of police stood next to their cars with lights flashing and used bullhorns to loudly and repeatedly announce: “The park closes at midnight, anyone remaining in the park at 12:01 will be arrested.”

All week, as more and more people came to Liberty, people had been discussing the need to expand.

The GA was held around the fountain at the park’s center, which had already been drained for the winter. The facilitators stood in the center of the empty basin and the crowd filled the space around them, spilling out over the sides and hundreds of feet beyond. Many people were walking from Times Square and the crowd continued to grow until we formally got underway at 9:30pm. Volunteers stood on the lip of the fountain and acted as relay stations to the crowd beyond: 4,000 people were listening. There was only one thing on the agenda: should we take Washington Square Park? People from the Direct Action working group talked about how we had momentum, how the world was watching, how New York University students who surrounded the park would provide support.

There was a flurry of concerns and counter-concerns sent over the mic check: we need more advanced planning; there are too many police.

The GA suspended itself for 10 minutes so we could form small groups and discuss it among ourselves before opening the GA again. Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and one of my favorite authors, happened to be in the group with us. Occupy was like that, it felt like the whole world was there sometimes.

A man with long brown hair and a full beard argued hard for an occupation “If we stand our ground, we are guaranteed to win,” he said. “If the police arrest everyone it would be even bigger than the Brooklyn Bridge and would bring us even more support.”

Nicole twinkled her fingers down. “I can’t get arrested. And besides, the focus should be on the financial district.”

The bearded man shook his head. “This movement is so threatening to the status quo because it is more than a simple critique. We are an example of what may be. Instead of hierarchy and greed we built a community based on participation and altruism and it needed to begin on the steps of Wall St but it also needs to grow.”

“I think we need to occupy,” said Chris. “I covered the fall of the Soviet bloc in ’89 and there were discussions like this happening all the time then. They arrested wave after wave of people but the people kept coming, they kept resisting and finally the system broke. You can never predict when the tipping point will be, but this is a necessary step. People have to show they are not afraid. Once we start letting them control our emotions, we lose.”

A man standing across from me spoke next. “I agree with that but I’ve got a wife and kids at home and simply can’t risk it.”

When the GA came back together the first reports were from groups who wanted to occupy, and it seemed we would stand our ground. While we were mic checking and discussing our options, a clique of 20 police pushed through the crowd with a bullhorn and announced: “The time is now 11:30pm. In 30 minutes anyone remaining will be arrested. You are ordered to disperse.”

At every gate larger groups of police stood, each of them holding a packet of plastic flexicuffs. Flashing red and blue police lights bounced off every building. The bullhorn never quieted, it roved through the crowd counting down the minutes until a mass arrest.

The added noise did not stop the GA, but as more voices were heard it became apparent that the mood of the group was shifting. By 11:40 some of the outer rings had already begun to file out of the park. At 11:50 the facilitators asked how many people were willing to be arrested. Perhaps 100 hands went up in the quickly thinning crowd. Nicole and I waited until the final minute, then walked out just as the police began to move in en masse.

Leaving the park

Nicole and I hold hands and walk out of the park together as a wave of riot police move in. The flashing red and blue of police cars light the midnight streets in every direction. The protesters still inside are blocked from view by a circle of police. There is no point in staying, but we press against the gate anyway.

After a few minutes everyone inside is arrested and the police begin to stream out of the park and push us away from it. The crowd left through multiple exits and there are fewer than 1,000 massed with us on the west side. No one knows what to do. Small clusters break off and leave in different directions, either retreating to Liberty Park or going home, but Nicole and I want to stay. I’m not sure why; it is emotional rather than rational.

The remaining protesters are defiant and as the police push into us, we try to hold our ground. We are on the front line, our bodies against the police. They hold their batons against their chests, a gloved hand on each side. They push one side out, then the other in rapid succession, jabbing us in the chest and moving forward anytime we step back to avoid the next blow. They yell at us to turn around.

“Is this why you became a police officer?”

A jab to my chest.

“Does it feel good to hit me?”

It was the first time I ever felt anger with Occupy. It was the first time I felt like I didn’t have control. It was the first time we retreated.

A large group in the back breaks off and runs down Waverly Place toward Broadway. The rest of the crowd follows. Still holding hands, Nicole and I turn together and sprint to catch up. Our hands pump, slip from each other and turn to fists. We catch most of the group when it hits Broadway.

It’s late, nearing 2am. There are 300 of us, running through what little traffic there is, screaming. Some people are shouting different chants between gasps of breath but never in unison, just noises competing. On the sidewalk, pedestrians duck into doorways or dash down side streets to avoid us. Cars roll up their windows and lock their doors.

The police catch up with a young man running on the outskirts, against traffic, his face covered by a black and red bandana. They tackle him hard onto the pavement, then pile on top of him, muffling his screams. We all stop, then rush to the pile. More police appear, some in cars or on motorcycles.

“Get back!”

“Fuck you!”

“Get the fuck back! Now!”

I see Nicole a few feet away. A police baton sweeps through the air, just missing her.

A bottle crashes to the ground. Glass shatters across the pavement, and we start running again.

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