“It’s 7 o’clock. Do you know where your cleaners are?” That was the jubilant cry from Occupy Wall Street protestors to the cops surrounding Zuccotti Park early Friday as the deadline for an announced “clean-up” came and went. Within a half hour much of the crowd, which numbered in the thousands in the park and surrounding areas, had dispersed – some apparently to march down Broadway in celebration of what looked like a victory over Mayor Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties, which owns the park. Peace reigned as exhausted protestors collapsed onto makeshift pallets, ignoring the “No lying down in the park” order issued last night by Mayor Bloomberg.
I was chatting with a friend on the Broadway end of the park when suddenly the mood shifted. He was just telling me how a lawyer had been around earlier writing down a phone number on the arms of protestors in case of arrest, and I was smiling at the thought that it looked like there wouldn’t be any. Seconds later a guy walked briskly through the park shouting, “Forty cops in riot gear approaching!” Within minutes there was shouting as a group of five or six cops with batons raised chased someone from the sidewalk area into the park, clearly in attack mode. A crowd swelled around shouting, “The whole world is watching!” I was temporarily crushed in the crowd. Word went around that the police were setting up barricades and attempting to restrict movement from the park to the sidewalk, blocking off entrances.
Had the cops done a bait and switch, letting everyone thing that the standoff was over, only to round us all up now that our numbers were more manageable?
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Reports circulated that the person targeted by the cops was arrested for jumping over a barrier. Another clash reportedly involved an older woman who was grabbed by the police. I witnessed a tense shouting match between a man attempting to cross the sidewalk and a policeman trying to herd him. Throughout all of this, the protestors remained non-violent. An assembly of protestors gathered in the middle of the park and cranked up the ‘human microphone’ (a system of repeating phrases of the speaker so that the crowd can hear). A young woman thanked the crowd for remaining calm despite the police, and a young man called for everyone with cell phones to send word to friends and family that people were needed and that the entrance on Trinity Street was now the only way into the park. Within ten to fifteen minutes, the park was once again full of people – too many for any raid the police might have thought to undertake with the smaller crowd. It appeared that at least for the moment technology had triumphed, and that if the cops became aggressive there would likely be a similar call and response.
The image of those cops suddenly erupting into aggressive action with their clubs out in the midst of a peaceful protest will stay with me for a long time. And so will the image of a young man reading Voltaire a little while later, immersed in the words of an Enlightenment philosopher who said, among other things: “It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong.”