As Mayday Approaches, We’re Still fighting for the Right to Protest Wall Street
It’s hard to predict what May Day will be like, but you can probably expect two things: massive crowds, and plenty of arrests. The city’s strategy seems to be ‘when in doubt, arrest them all—and sort it later in court.’ The NYPD have already set plenty of precedent for mass arrests like what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge last year, and the RNC in 2004— for which there are still open lawsuits— and there are rumors today that ‘pre-emptive arrests’ have already begun.
Arrests have become so normal here, that many core organizers have already been to jail half a dozen times since September, mostly for obscure low-level misdemeanors (like the now-favorite Obstructing a Government Administration) or various petty violations. Some of these charges are finally beginning to go to trial as the National Lawyer’s Guild scrambles to represent hundreds of cases at once. In the fight to keep protesting Wall Street, the word ‘attrition’ comes to mind.
Last Friday, I committed civil disobedience by laying on the sidewalk across from the New York Stock Exchange. There were six of us, an unlikely crowd that included a couple of house-moms from Long Island, a young woman from Occupy Boston, and two other women in their forties. Though hundreds of photos were taken of our arrests, the story didn’t make the news.
We were fighting for the ability to protest Wall Street, where there are plenty of bigger criminals worth arresting.
When we unfolded our signs and went horizontal on our half of the sidewalk— observing the law as we knew it— we didn’t last more than a couple of minutes before several dozen police officers surrounded us, clearing the sidewalk of journalists, protesters and tourists alike. They shouted at us with a megaphone, and then as we continued to lay on the cement, they arrested us.
Two weeks ago I’d been wrapped up in a sleeping bag on that same scrap of sidewalk, looking up at the pillars of the exchange and trying to fall asleep despite the excitement of finally feeling like occupy had found it’s next best tactic. Two days after that, when they cleared sidewalks, it became a bazaar battle of jurisdiction, where-in protestors would retreat to the steps of Federal Hall— the Bill of Rights was written there— where we were told we could stay, but not fall asleep or hold signs. Either of those offenses would land us for a night in the federal penitentiary.
Before we lost the sidewalks, we thought we might have found the new tactic we’d been waiting for at Occupy. So did the media. Images of bankers walking past sleeping bags and signs on their way to work were back in the news, and organizers were talking about how nearly every place of power and greed in the country has a sidewalk in front of it, and all you need is a pillow and a sign.
Then the arrests began again. The NYPD, arbitrarily and without explanation, decided that a law passed in 2000 that allowed for people to occupy sidewalks (as long as they didn’t interrupt pedestrian traffic) as a form of protest was no longer valid.
At night I watched “white-shirts” circling the steps like wolves, occasionally grabbing those who, when stepping too far away from the steps, raised their voice, or just happened to look at an officer the wrong way. After work one evening I was about a half of a block from the steps when a white-shirt stepped in front of me and said, “time to go home.” I had a cardboard sign under my arm.
“Why,” I asked him, “aren’t I at least allowed to walk on the sidewalk?”
“Why? Because I don’t want you here!” he shouted, giving me a good shove on my way to remove any doubt.
Sometime after that, Federal Hall declared that protesters could only take up half the steps— a new “first amendment area.” They published a little map, for clarity, and I imagined that the authors of the Bill of Rights were rolling in their graves. The big statue of George Washington on the steps seemed to gain a new ironic quality. With his stern and proud expression he looked like an occupier surrounded by police, waiting to be arrested.
On Friday I taped a drawing of sign-waving protestors that my eight year old nephew had sent me from New Mexico to a piece of cardboard and wrote above it “I won’t go home until my nephew has a better future.” It felt right, and I even put on slacks and a tie for good measure, to avoid stereotypes.
I had also thought about writing something more specific and policy-oriented on my sign, since the popular line still seems to be that we don’t have enough demands, but that’s not what this is really about for me. It’s bigger, and right now, sadly, it involves our right to protest. The least I could do was lay on the sidewalk, and I don’t want to try to explain to my nephew ten years from now, during a great depression, or worse, that I didn’t do my best.
When we got out of jail, there was a small crowd of occupiers waiting for us with food. It was encouraging. I’ll be volunteering for Jail Support tomorrow night, if the NYPD tries to sweep the streets (and sidewalks) clean of protesters again.