Occupying the Brooklyn Bridge
I just got back from NYC Sunday night. I was there for the Partnership for Academic Leadership on Sustainability Summit, but had plans to stay the weekend and enjoy the city. After visiting galleries in Chelsea on Saturday I met up with my friend, Evan, to see what was going on with Occupy Wall Street, also on my list of possible things to do. We got there a little after 3pm and the protesters were marching north, so after watching for a few minutes we joined them. There were so many people there – all different ages, races, genders, backgrounds, etc, all protesting for the same list of grievances mainly representing the 99% of Americans who are being harmed by Capitalist/Corporate Greed. People were chanting things like: “Banks Got Bailed Out! We Got Sold Out!” and “Whose Street? Our Street!” and “We Are the 99 Percent!” and “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Corporate Greed has got to go!” There was even some chanting, “We are Troy Davis!” It was exhilarating to say the least.
As the parade took a turn east we realized we were headed for the Brooklyn Bridge. All along the cops had been standing between the traffic and the protesters, calmly keeping us on the sidewalk, but once on the Bridge the protesters split up between the pedestrian walkway and the road. Evan and I had started on the pedestrian side, but after I leaned over to take a picture of the crowd on the road we climbed down to join them. It seemed sanctioned. I wasn’t sure what would await us in Brooklyn – speeches? A rally? Nothing? Either way Evan lived there so we figured afterwards we’d just keep on going to his apartment.
I felt the power in our numbers and I felt protected by the cops, who appeared to be escorting protesters onto the road, allowing us to block one lane of traffic while cars slowly moved along side us in the other lane. Video footage that I saw later that night, show the cops leading the march over the Bridge as they walked in front of the parade. While conflicting reports say the cops were telling protesters they would be arrested if they marched on the road, I certainly didn’t hear them. It’s hard to tell if they led us on, in order to trap us, or if they were just overtaken because of our numbers. By then the chants had evolved into “Whose Bridge? Our Bridge!” and “The whole world is watching!” It felt momentous and I was proud to be there.
About two thirds of the way over the bridge there was a sudden rush backwards by a few, while the rest of us stood our ground. Some people started climbing up the railing onto the pedestrian side, while others yelled for everyone to sit down in passive resistance. Next we were surrounded by cops, and they were telling people not to climb up. I wasn’t sure at first if we were in trouble or if the cops were just trying to protect us from falling into the East River. Then they were unfurling their orange nets and corralling us into the center from all sides – this tactic of “kettling” has been used by the police during protests in Europe and Canada, most recently in London. I saw a few protesters being escorted out with plastic handcuffs but for the most part most people were just standing around not sure what the cops wanted us to do. Instructions from the crowd alternated with “Everyone, sit down!” to “Stand up! Stand up!” It was confusing. We also got conflicting information and advice from some of the cops we spoke to – some telling us that we might be allowed off the bridge and couldn’t possibly be arrested because “there are too many people for us to process.” While others stood with blank, stoic faces of authority, implying that we were all doomed. People began shouting out a phone number and writing it on their arms. Evan and I couldn’t hear it so we just made sure we both had his fiancé, Liz’s number written down in case our phones were confiscated. The cop next to us told us not to write it on our arms because that would make us more of a target to be arrested. While other protesters insisted that the papers would be taken, so I put mine in my underwear. I was impressed with how calm the cops were and how many seemed to sympathize with us, explaining that they knew their pensions were at stake but that they were just doing their job. One even gave us continued instructions under his breath and wanted us to get the attention of a young protester he had been helping earlier. At one point he told us “Be ready to run to the other side if I tell you to.” It was tense, but I wasn’t scared. Somehow I trusted that we were doing the right thing and wouldn’t be punished for it, or at least felt that if we were going to be arrested it would be a mere inconvenience and wouldn’t be enough to make me regret participating.
After standing around for a while waiting for the unknown, a man from the pedestrian bridge above yelled “Mic Check!” and the crowd below repeated his words. Apparently this has been the tactic of the Occupiers while in Zuccotti / Liberty Park because the NYPD have not allowed them the use of a PA system or electric generators. After the “Mic Check” a call and response continued as the man relayed information about what was happening on the Manhattan side of the bridge. A few words at a time, the crowd repeated his words, hence amplifying them for everyone to hear. It was a pretty powerful thing to experience. He told us to wait patiently and that the cops were escorting us one by one off the bridge. He told us that we wouldn’t be arrested, just removed. The crowd started chanting “Let Us Go! Let Us Go!” and the man’s ongoing instructions seemed to alternate between calming and inciting us.
At that point I noticed that all traffic on the eastbound side of the bridge had been blocked and the road behind us was filling up with white NYPD busses. I could see that the cops were lining people up on the south side of the bridge, padding them down, cuffing them, giving them back their bags to hold behind their backs, and escorting them onto the busses. Evan and I watched this for a while and although he hesitated I said, “let’s just get this over with.” We walked towards the cops and lined up with others waiting to be frisked. A few girls in front of us were visibly upset and explaining to the cops that they were college students from Bard. The cops counted them off and let them walk off the bridge hand in hand. There was an uproar from the crowd and a woman behind me yelled, “I’m a college student too!” So I yelled, “I’m a college professor!” not expecting anything to come of it. Next thing I knew the cops were counting off a few more women, me included, and told us to step aside. Next we were told to hold hands and walk off the bridge and to not let go of our hands until we reached the end of the busses. We were all confused; we didn’t know if we were going to be told to get on a bus or not. It wasn’t until we got closer to the last bus that we realized they were letting us go. I texted Evan to tell him and he responded, “I think I won’t be. Can you call Liz?” Some of the women I was with were pissed for being released while our male friends were still being detained on the bridge. I was worried about Evan, but relieved to have been released and able to call Liz and tell her what was going on. It was around 6:30pm by then.
After speaking to Liz, I waited in the rain on the Manhattan side of the bridge for a long time until my phone battery was clearly dying. I went back to my hotel in Chelsea to charge it and kept trying to reach Evan, with no avail. Liz called once she got home and said she had biked downtown and saw the busses containing all the protesters. She couldn’t tell if Evan was in any of them, but could see that the bridge was pretty much empty. Several hours later she heard from him, via text, that he hoped to get out that night. He wasn’t released until 1:45am. He told me the next day, “It kinda sucked, but in the end I’m glad it happened. The braces were super tight & I was in them for 5 hours… then 3 [hours] in a cell with 6 other guys.”
By now you’ve all seen the news reports. Democracy Now! Is calling this “one of the largest arrests of non-violent protesters in U.S. history,” with over 700 protesters detained. I’m glad to be home safe and sound, and understand my husband’s concerns that “it was a stupid thing to get involved with while traveling out of state,” but I’m proud to have participated and can’t deny its importance.
I am the 99%. I was raised in a single parent household on food stamps, free lunches, and unemployment benefits. I was educated in public K-12 schools and private colleges with extensive financial aid. I know what it is like to go to a low income health clinic because I couldn’t afford health insurance. I know what it is like to have to (illegally) purchase medications from Canada because the American pharmaceutical companies lobby the FDA against providing our citizens with access to generic drugs. I am dismayed that once married our allowable student loan tax deduction was cut in half. I am discouraged to see my students drop out of college, because the tuition is too high, and their financial aid package has decreased. I am annoyed that Bank of America has decided to charge customers $5 a month for debit card purchases in order to decrease fees for corporations like Wal Mart. I am furious that federal money is spent on war instead of education, social services and environmental protection.
Yet I am inspired by the power of collective action and proposals for alternatives to Capitalism and Corporate Greed. This is the NGB spirit.