A snapshot from Tuesday morning at the OWS eviction
This is an excerpt from an email I wrote to a few friends and family members to share my personal reflections about my experience on early Tuesday morning, November 16th, from one corner of a police blockade a block away from Zuccotti Park during the eviction. This is simply a first-hand account which is not meant to, and cannot, be comprehensive coverage of the event or of the movement. I go to medical school in New York City, and have visited OWS several times over the past two months.
It picks up after another long exam weekend: I was exhausted and getting ready for bed when I received an email -
“COME TO ZUCCOTTI RIGHT NOW; COPS CURRENTLY EVICTING OCCUPY WALL STREET”. I immediately jumped online to the livestream, one of the surest ways to know what’s going on 24/7 at OWS. (When I started writing this Tuesday evening, I tuned in and there was a general assembly meeting that had just started in the re-occupied and completely full Zuccotti park. They just broke into groups of 20 to get to know the reasons why each other is there, and they called the facilitators and vote counters to the front. The amount of precision in the process they run is stunning.) When I tuned in that early Tuesday morning, I tuned in to what looked like chaos – the camera was unsteady, there was screaming, a police office was yelling into the camera “Get back! Get back!” For two minutes I debated what to do. I was really low on sleep, already had my pajamas on, and had a lot to study the next day. On the other hand, if there was ever a time to go down and support OWS, it had to be then — if the protest was snuffed out for good, there wouldn’t BE a next time, a chance to “stop by next week”. Besides that, although 1000+ people spend time at Zuccotti every day, the number of people in the park at night is only about 200. Even if I was just one more person, those protesters need to know that even though I can’t camp out with them, I appreciate that they do so, plus the movement is mine too, and someone had to show up to say that it matters to more people than just the 200 overnighters.
So I threw some clothes on, walked to the deserted subway station, and took the local 5 all the way down to Wall Street. The only other people on the train were asleep.
I heard the chanting on the street from underground before I even left the subway station: “We / are / the ninety-nine percent!” And as I stepped out onto Broadway, which I have done many times but during the day when there are men in business suits and tourists walking past the sidewalk of Liberty Park, I saw a completely different picture. People had been pushed away from the park into each of the street corners, and there was a stand-off with lines of policemen and fences. I was curious about the yelling I was hearing, so I poked my way around the side and came out pretty much in the first row, right on the other side of the fence from the cops. I was standing behind two gray-haired women who had come out to show their support, and most directly in front of the police blockade there were 4 or 5 young protesters yelling. They were distressed, one girl was in tears, from what I can only imagine was a traumatizing evening – can you imagine being woken up one night by hundreds of policemen in black riot gear coming for you, tearing up the tent camp you created, batoning people and throwing them on the ground to make arrests? This is a link to a great piece from the point of view of one overnighter who was there when the police raid began; the photo is of the same young woman whose screams greeted me when I joined Occupy on the street. I came too late to see what actually happened in the park, but people who had been there said NYPD had pepper-sprayed the occupiers who were on the sidewalks watching the park as it was being cleared, they had used a sound cannon to disperse the crowd, and they had arrested, with undue force, every one of the 140 (mostly) overnighters who chose to stay in the park when ordered to leave. It dawned on me that the hundreds of people who were now surrounding Wall Street were everyone else, everyone else who had seen the twitter/email/facebook post/blog post and had dropped what they were doing to respond to the call to support.
We stood there and watched as garbage trucks moved around the park. In my mind they were uncommonly enormous, probably for what they represented. They had been loaded with what was left of the small society so carefully crafted by everyone who volunteered over these past two months, in person and by donation from families across the US. I had walked through the little tent city many times; I ran through everything that they were taking: the kitchen, the medical tent, the library, the sleeping bags… In half an hour, one of the garbage trucks turned towards our street. “Move in! Lock arms!” At first I kind of glanced over to see if I might pretend I was just going to spectate from the side. But the guy next to me had linked arms with the rest of crowd, and he was only two feet away, …so I stepped to his side and linked my arm solidly with his. The human mic started listing the number of the lawyer’s guild to call in case of arrest. (Wait, what?) “212…” (Am I going to get arrested? Nah, I’m not going to get arrested tonight, that wouldn’t look good in my residency application.) “If you stay, there is a high probability of arrest,” the people’s mic shouted. (Oh… hm. This could be a problem.) The guy next to me whipped out a pen and started writing the number down. (Huh. If I’m standing next to him, and he’s preparing for arrest, maybe I should prepare for arrest. Although I am not particularly keen on being arrested at the moment.) They repeated the number a few times “212-679-6018″ (Well, I don’t want to be arrested, but I also don’t want to leave… Sooo.. I guess I’d better prepare for arrest.) And so I asked for his pen and wrote the number on the inside of my wrist. (Man. I hope I don’t need to use this.) And that’s how it went. I introduced myself to Grant, and we held on. The garbage truck moved forward, the chanting grew louder, for a moment the barricade was being pushed into us, and there was a lot of yelling, then suddenly the policemen were called off. The garbage truck stopped and started backing away. Everyone cheered. Victory number one.
A lot of people in the first few rows spent a lot of time talking to the police. Since I was in the first row, I was face to face with about six police most directly. The woman cop who joked that she needed a Red Bull, the young black cop who was having a long conversation with the middle-aged female activist holding a videocamera on a stand, the one who looked like Adrian Brody and kept looking at me but never expressed anything, the New York Italian that was chill, the really pale one that was worked up and angry, the taller fuller cop that kept yelling, the shorter white cop with a strong face who kept climbing up onto the barricade to see what was going on at the other end of the crowd. I tried to catch their eyes, trying to read them. What were they thinking? There were a couple that looked back at me, and there were others that were just hardened – those were the ones that exploded whenever someone jumped onto the police van for a better look: “GET OFF THE CAR” they boomed into my face. Ow. Thanks buddy. The protesters encouraged each other to get off and stay off of the car and avoid a silly arrest. Grant tried engaging some of the cops in conversation. He asked whether they agree with the protesters and are kind of just following orders to keep their job, or whether they don’t agree with what people are saying about the situation the country is in. A cop started telling us about working three jobs; I wanted to share this article with him, one of the most eloquent responses I’ve read to the people who don’t understand why people are protesting – I recommend taking a look. I asked one about the differences in their hats, a silly question, but maybe silly enough that they’d not feel threatened by me, a person, not just one in a crowd of protesters; he looked away and ignored me. The human mic asked whether we should stay or go, and the people chose to stay, and once I heard one of the cops mutter “Go” under his breath. They shared with each other how many hours they’d been there (this is all overtime for them), they wondered what time McDonald’s opened for breakfast, and they kept taking off their helmets. One of them in particular, right in front of me, kept taking off his helmet like it hurt him, and then I heard him say that he had a headache. I caught his eye and showed him my hand: “If you press right here, sometimes that can help with headaches. Except,” I laughed, “you have gloves on, sorry. But it does help! Unless you’re dehydrated, then you should try some water.” I grinned, and to my surprise he said thank you, tucked his helmet under his arm, and proceeded to take off both gloves and press on the pressure point. As my uncle would say, “Well, I’ll be darned.” He said he had heard me say I was a medical student, and so he appreciated it. “Yeah, of course,” I said. “I hope it helps. Sorry I don’t have Advil or anything, sometimes I carry it in my bag but not tonight.”
I had to stop for a moment because that interaction blew me away. To be “let in”, to be trusted so readily, by the police, by the guys in riot suits on the other side of the blockade, was huge. For the tough, angry cop who had just torn down tents and wrestled people to the ground, who had just shoved the guy next to me for standing too close, and who had just ignored me the previous moment when he didn’t know I was a medical student, to look me in the eyes and express gratitude — and more, take off part of his uniform to activate pressure points, of all things, because I had said it might help, was unbelievable. *What just happened?* My mind went back to a speaker I had heard at a conference last year, a Bosnian doctor who treated people on both sides of the conflict. He told us that sometimes gunmen would storm in and gun down the patients he had just spent 7 hours operating on to save their lives, and his staff questioned using up beds for the enemy, but he did so because of his oath as a doctor to treat all humans. And in that moment on Broadway, I realized just how much people – even people on the other side of the blockade – trust that doctors serve everyone. AND. And– that I am included in that group. I know that about myself, but it completely blew me away that just overhearing that I am a medical student changed my interaction with that cop so radically so instantly. Then something interesting happened: suddenly I didn’t want to be yelling to repeat just anything that anyone was saying, and I didn’t want to be singing songs making the situation funny or lighter, even though I appreciated that others were doing so. I had been identified by someone outside myself as a “doctor” and I think it changed the way I experienced the next few hours. I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this change.
A lot of press and people with cameras and videocameras (and ipads and cell phones) were trying to document everything, and we let them weave in and out of the crowd. It was neat to see a guy holding one of the OWS livestream cameras; it actually meant a lot that he and his camera were there streaming on the web, just to know there would be witnesses. At one point a reporter from an Australian news source interviewed Grant. These reporters – hired and independent – serve such an important purpose: if you can’t post a video or photo on the web, or on your wall, or to youtube, then it didn’t happen, never happened, and won’t be remembered. Which is why it is so scary that last night they refused to allow any press in to Zuccotti Park. They had a “press pen” down off of one of the streets, but according to one photojournalist, you couldn’t see anything from there. And journalists kept coming by saying they were sent to our intersection, but the police kept sending them “around the corner” – they just kept them circling all night, I’m sure. Earlier, they had thrown some journalists to the ground and arrested others, including one NYTimes reporter. I just need to point out that journalists are supposed to be allowed in. And, in conflicts across the world, journalists are. For reporting to not be allowed in Zuccotti Park last night, for network TV stations to cut out of Occupy Oakland’s live video exactly at the point when they started to use tear gas last month, and most recently for Youtube to remove videos showing police brutality, is not only wrong, but it’s scary. (Have you read about the internet censorship bill, hearing to be held 11/17? Watch the video on this site.)
Slightly off topic, one of the things I’ve learned in the past two months is to search out my own news sources. The first time I started snooping around the web in September was purely out of necessity: *none* of the mainstream media was covering the huge protests. I’m usually pretty lazy about my news, but this forced me to look for what I knew was happening on the ground but nowhere in the corporate media. The Times is finally covering the movement, but it actually does a very poor job of painting the whole picture, and of capturing the actual story – there is no comparison at all between the Times’ articles and the other independent news sources in their ability to capture the story. If anything, that is one success OWS has already achieved – at a growing rate, people in this country are unplugging themselves from “junk media” and joining a conversation that we’ve never had collectively before, and it’s happening face-to-face over dinner, but also with the words shared online by citizen journalists and independent bloggers –and that guy with his ipad.
Back to the corner of Broadway and Pine. There was a lot of human mic action throughout the night, most of it faded out pretty quickly and was not propagated. Some announcements were updates from other street corners about tear-gassing, some voiced frustration about the point of the stand-off, someone pointed out that the cops and protesters were disrupting traffic and maybe we should stay here into the workday, someone else pointed out this was actually the closest the occupation had been to Wall St., and at one point we read and amplified the first amendment. That was great, especially when we got to the part about freedom of speech, of the press, and of Americans to peaceably assemble. At one point the news came about the eviction being temporarily blocked by the judge, and someone yelled “this is illegal”, meaning what the cops were doing. (The next day, Mayor Bloomberg would stall long enough to find a different judge who would rule in Bloomberg’s favor to keep Liberty Square closed.) Many suggestions to hold a general assembly were tossed around, and at one point we were close to having one, and requests for a trained facilitator were made, but we all just stood there in inaction. People kept asking whether we should stay or go and meet others gathering at Foley Square; most people stayed. Some people were keeping themselves entertained: at one point a group of people started singing Broadway songs and older activist songs like “We shall overcome”. West Side Story’s “Stay cool boy” was a timely song at another tense point. I complimented a man on his red-rimmed glasses, and he said these were his revolution glasses. I made friends with a girl who said she had come from a concert in Brooklyn – apparently the lead singer got a text about the evacuation, and he stopped the show, piled everyone into the band’s van, and drove everyone to Wall Street. At one point, one of the groups from a different corner joined us – lots of cheering, our group had grown to about 200. That was followed by one of the scarier moments of the evening: all of a sudden we see a huge wave of policemen running towards us in black riot gear with their face masks on, with those white twist tie handcuffs. Ahh.. Shit, this is it. The anxiety hit me in my stomach and my legs, and I checked all of the cops’ hands and belts hoping to not see any pepper spray or tear gas canisters. Why were they holding their batons like that? We joined arms and started chanting again: “We are peaceful, we are peaceful”. Thank goodness nothing happened after a few minutes; they were probably just redistributing.
Later, the same group that had been singing started a cheer: “You’re sexy, you’re cute, take off your riot suit!” (Say it out loud, it rhymes!) The cops tried for a while to contain their smiles, but after a while they broke down and acknowledged it was funny: “Okay, that was good. I’ll give you that.” My headache cop danced to it for a few beats. There was a crazy man who kept yelling both at the protesters and at the cops; some of the stuff was insulting, and some of it was funny, and both the cops and protesters were laughing albeit tensely. Throughout the night I tried to catch the police’s eyes and share the area’s jokes with them. There has to be some way to connect with them – would they be as violent if they saw the occupiers as people, as gentle people? At one point the crazy man insulted a young guy who started to engage with him, so I leaned over until I caught the young guy’s eye and waved him off, pointing out that it’s not worth it, the dude is crazy. He walked away. At another point, another young man walked over and wrote something on the police van. The closest cop shoved the kid hard into the side of the van and told him to stop, then wiped away what was written; I don’t know what was written, but come on – it doesn’t matter what was written, the shoving was unnecessary.
One of the things I realized quickly was that I needed to tune into myself big time, and use that to decide how much weight I was going to put on the things I was hearing from other occupiers. It’s not that I didn’t believe the girl who was pointing out that “there are/ police moving in/ from behind us/ right now”, but rather that these announcements can be informative but do not need to be said in a way that creates fear. Several times the police started to look ready to do something, and a couple of times the garbage trucks turned down our street, and we all linked arms for that, but I learned very quickly what to respond to and what to let roll away, and how difficult it is to make the distinction between the two especially in such a charged space. The neat thing is that it caused me to shift to my instinct more than my ears for the entire night.
Can you tell it was emotionally a rollercoaster few hours? It was a stand-off, and we didn’t know how it was going to end. Complete uncertainty. Instinct helped, as did actively keeping a small smile on my face, and closing my eyes and doing some breathing meditation for a few minutes every once in a while. I knelt for a while, resting my feet.
Around 5am a cop with a bullhorn walked around yelling into the crowd that we would be allowed back in to Zuccotti Park, we just had to move to the sidewalks. Now, to me that just sounds like your older brother tricking you into doing something you don’t want to do. But some people started yelling “go!”. Others, not believing, yelled “stay!” The cops moved the barricades out, and I would have been one of the first people to move that way. I didn’t move because it was so obviously a lie. A cop came by with a bag full of waterbottles and Vitamin Waters for his buddies. I remember wondering if there was anything in the waters, like antidote to something – my mind was obviously on the tear-gas rumors.
Then the cops started lining up densely. The obvious commotion on that side made people link up again. My headache cop made his way to the second row and to my surprised he mouthed to me, I WOULD GO NOW. I looked at him and he shook his head and mouthed again, I WOULD GO. I smiled with tight lips and looked up at the sky, realizing something was about to happen that I didn’t want to happen, and that although he suggested I go, I didn’t want to go anywhere. Yet again, the anxiety crept up my legs. I held tight to Grant’s arm and peered across the fence looking for the first signs of disturbance from the police. And this time it came.
A flood of police came pouring out of the middle of the blockade fast, shoving the crowd back, pushing and jabbing with their batons. I was fortunate to be at the side, so the initial police impact was at the center of the crowd, and they had to turn back to come towards the corner I was in, but I wasn’t brave and didn’t want to be arrested, so I jumped away right before the first police officer would reach me at arms-length. Aside from a few beatings and a few people hauled off to be arrested, mostly the cops were just pushing us to the sidewalks; I’d like to think that if I had known they were just going to push, I would have stayed. Maybe next time. I watched as people were being pushed onto the sidewalk down the street, then a bunch of cops pushed even further to the sidewalk and blocked off the subway, so there was a rush towards that commotion. The lady in the neon green lawyer’s guild hat ran over to document what she could. A kid right next to me was suddenly grabbed by the hoodie and arrested, and the people around me yelled after the cop who did that. I saw Amy Goodman holding a small camera and stared at her for a few moments (starstruck), then we turned together and watched a man come out of the street looking disoriented, with a few people walking after him asking if he was okay. He was holding his head, and then rolled up his sleeve to get to his arm. An occupier with a red cross safety-pinned to his jacket asked if he was okay, and whether he wanted to be checked out. Another woman from the lawyer’s guild walked up with her notebook and asked if he wanted to make a statement or press charges. Again, in the middle of chaos, the system works – the people who volunteer to take on these roles follow through and take care of each other, of us, of strangers. I walked back towards Zuccotti Park, but they had the barricade up. Some of the protesters were furious. “You lied. You said we could go back! You’re liars!!” The cops were just waving them off: “Yeah, yeah.” And, like that, we were divided on both sides of Broadway, and spread out over a long block, and there seemed so few of us. Did people leave? Were we always so few? I waited, walking around for something to happen. After a while, someone used the human mic to point out that we were all standing around not talking to each other. Finally, someone walked down the sidewalk with his bike, encouraging everyone to “Keep talking, keep walking” and to meet at Foley Square at 7am. At that point I got tired and decided to come back home.
As I walked back to the subway to go home, past the policemen lining the sidewalk, I saw my headache cop in line. I veered closer, and he saw me – I nodded his way and mouthed “thank you”, and then he asked, “Are you okay? Did you get hurt?”
“I’m fine,” I said. “Thank you.” I told him to have a good night, and as I walked away I grinned over my shoulder: “See you tomorrow?”
Today (Thursday), the number in case of arrest has faded on my wrist. But this evening, after our human rights class, I have two things to do: learn about diuretics (drugs that help with blood pressure, among other things) and then go lend my voice to the mass gathering in Foley Square for the two month anniversary of Occupy. Follow us here! http://occupywallst.org/ There’s a link to the livestream, which I overheard someone say is “the best TV show ever”. When I tuned in at 3:30 earlier today, what is normally 4,000 views on the livestream had exploded to 27,000 people watching from their computers as thousands marched from Wall Street to Union Square. (NYPD later reported that 32,500 people took part in person in Thursday’s OWS events.)
And there you have it, my life in a nutshell right now: being inspired by creating a lot of human rights medical education, finding communities with whom to meditate and time to sleep, learning an unbelievable and sometimes impossible amount of material by brute force, and feeling blessed that I am in New York right now, with Wall Street a few train stops down, a living, breathing reminder of the big picture, the point of it all.
Thanks for letting me share this with you.