Occupy Wall Street’s Day of Action: the 1% Strikes Back
While the behavior of the NYPD has been heavy-handed and disproportionate since the Occupy movement’s very start, the violence and lawlessness that characterized the actions of the police yesterday was extraordinary. Thankfully, the countless photos and videos of peaceful protestors — and journalists! — in New York and elsewhere being clubbed, punched, kicked, maced, and slammed against pavement have led to widespread disgust. More importantly, that disgust has inspired a broader conversation about the relationship between cop and citizen in America today, and whether or not our police have become overly militarized and out of control.
If we focus specifically on the NYPD, however, it’s hardly a question worth debating — at least no more than it’s worth debating whether or not sadness is fun or puppies are cute. Philip Gourevitch of The New Yorker description of the Zuccotti eviction is indicative of how the NYPD has been handling Occupiers this week; and the war zone atmosphere he describes below was even more harrowing and distinct yesterday than it was during the initial clearing of the park:
The N.Y.P.D. descended on the park with deafening military-grade LRAD noise canons and several stadiums’ worth of blinding Klieg lights, and while they worked, they drove journalists steadily back further and further from their area of operations. (Even the airspace over southern Manhattan was closed during the raid to prevent news helicopters from filming, making a mockery of claims, by the mayor and the police, that they were keeping reporters at bay for their own safety.) A number of journalists who attempted to stand their ground, identifying themselves to the police and insisting on their long-established legal right to work, were treated like protesters—roughed up, shoved, put in choke holds, pepper-sprayed, and otherwise manhandled, and at least seven reporters (including four who’d sought refuge in a church, and one from the New York Post, which has been calling for such a police operation against O.W.S. for weeks) were among the nearly two hundred and fifty people arrested during the crackdown. So was a City Councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, who was taken into custody blocks from the park, and bloodied in the process.
Yesterday was a “Day of Action,” according to protestors, that began with an attempt to shut down the New York Stock Exchange, continued into a truly ugly and downright scary melee between some protestors who tried to “reclaim” Zuccotti and a police force determined to stop them, and concluded with marches on Foley Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the illumination of the movement’s “bat signal” (which is pretty cool, really).
I don’t consider myself an especially easily rattled or even calm-loving person; I think it’s good and necessary for people to, within reason, cause a ruckus and upset whatever fantasies others might hold of a righteous status quo, in which everyone can just go about their business like everything were in its right place.
But I’ve got to say that it was unpleasant to be on the streets right when the NYPD had decided to flip the switch on the shock-and-awe portion of its response to protestors. Police trucks, buses, and cars careened down Broadway, sirens wailing, immediately turning the atmosphere heavy with the natural unease that comes from blaring noise and frantic shows of force. What was, to me, perhaps most unnerving was watching the long, white, empty NYPD school buses zoom their way towards Zuccotti and knowing that in hardly more than a few minutes they’d all packed-tight with nonviolent protestors, their hands bound together at the wrists with those plastic handcuffs that the police nearly always “unintentionally” set excruciatingly tight.
I hope this kind of civil unrest isn’t merely another aspect of the “new normal” of Great Recession America; but, unfortunately, I’m sensing that it is. What’s especially worrisome is seeing how violent and unruly police are already, when the protests are not only still nascent and short-lived, but also mainstream, nonviolent, and temperamentally conservative. If the 1% are this scared, this threatened, already — if they’re already willing to endure the bad press and the bruises to their legacy that result from condoning this kind of thuggery — where will this go next?
The self-reinforcing nature of the conflict is that the more violent the NYPD becomes, the more emboldened and sympathetic become their opposition. But at a certain point the brute force will be too great for all but the most hardened, angry, and radical protestors to endure. And protestors like these will only inspire the police to come down harder; and thus it goes, on and on. One escape path from this maze of conflict and chaos, of course, is for the powers at be to listen and make a concerted effort to address the concerns of the Occupiers — which, conveniently, happen to be shared by many, many more people than just those in the streets.
Yet the logic of escalation, of waiting for the public to become exasperated with the fighting, angry at all involved, and desperate for simple tranquility, however unjust its foundations, is as clear as it is ugly. And, for some, it’s cheaper too.