I woke up early this morning with my head on a pillow located in the East Village of Manhattan. I had made the short trek from Jersey the night before to assure an early start, not for a protest of the state of affairs in this country, but rather a celebration.
I was to witness the marriage of two friends at city hall. The experience was wonderful, and when the officiant emphasized the power given him by the great state of New York, we truly felt proud, proud of the system of governance that recognizes the responsibilities and benefits of a beautiful union. My civic pride would take a turn in the afternoon, however.
My participation in the Occupy Wall Street day of action was severely limited due to the wedding, a business meeting and most of all, the fact that I was heavy laden with luggage for my trip back to Jersey. Undaunted, I decided to attempt to join the Student-Faculty centered protest in Union Square as this meshed best with my location and one of my specific interests in the movement. As a first-time union member (Rutgers- AAUP), I was also pumped to represent the power of Labor. However, my meeting at NYU ran late. My phone was acting up. I wasn’t sure if the protest was still in progress. I began to cut through Washington Square Park when my question was answered from above. Four helicopters were hovering around what I reasoned must be the Union Square protest.
The sound and look of the choppers was eerie. Strange how one technology can save lives, kill in combat, and engage in a softer kind of menace: watching. I began to play an easy game in my head I call, “Guess the media coverage.” With several blocks ahead of me, I’d won my game with a blandly partisan-spiced narrative that essentially said the protests were disruptive of commerce, and therefore bad. Never mind that the most famous protest in our history involved the literal dumping of commodities into a bay, a moment itself now twisted and co-opted by a corrupt cause. (My proof of hollow victory would come later after watching news reports, but this is for another post.)
About three blocks away, walking up 5th Avenue, I could feel the mood shift. This kind of “feeling the city” has always been one of my favorite, if bewildering, facets of New York City in particular. The electricity of the place is the stuff of cliché, however the urbanity here achieves a kind of language. I sensed the tension from the people coming toward me. I felt the excitement of fellow travelers uptown. I could see police cars in the distance blocking the street. The old stone buildings had a different presence this day.
And that hum, the sound of the totalizing media eye hovering above, whispered that I might be heading into trouble.
As I got a block away, a kind woman, likely concerned about me and all my literal baggage, shouted to me, “Be careful going up there.” “Maybe I should rethink this,” I thought to myself. In addition to logistical issues, I am a novice when it comes to civil disobedience. I have participated in protests in Portland and Salem, Oregon, but not without a blanket permit. The injustices of the police raid on Zuccotti park three days prior however, spurred me forward. I wanted solidarity. I wanted a collective voice.
I met a wall of onlookers (or participants? The line between the two was blurry-another groovy aspect of NYC) at 5th and 13th. I could not physically move forward, nor could I turn my gaze any other direction, but to my right. There behind a construction zone, facing uptown, was a formation of maybe 100 police officers in riot gear. I immediately began to take pictures, as did many around me. I felt compelled to capture this omen. I was afraid. Keep in mind they were just standing there waiting for orders, but they had their shields on and batons ready. I had never seen anything like it without mediation. There, unfiltered and without any action on their part, I was spooked by the police. People like to remind us that the police are part of the 99%, yet watching them was a nauseating feeling of “us versus them.” The picture shown here is terrible in terms of composition—I was too short to capture the breadth of the assembled force and my camera phone was not up to the task. Yet, this is not my point. Taking pictures allowed me some sense of control, and strength in numbers pushed back what might have been a greater fear of calling attention to myself.
Concern for my wellbeing was momentarily interrupted by the recollection of a friend who was almost certainly in the thick of the protest. I texted her a picture of the ominous force, the location and a nudge to take care. In hindsight, the text was a bit naïve, as she has no doubt seen much worse in person, and again, they weren’t doing anything. But I was genuinely freaked out. Were the police scared? How did they feel lined up there with hundreds of people photographing them in a sea of palpable fear?
I stood at the edge of the protest, still unable to move to the Square, and began to look around. There were students in an academic building above W 14th street holding signs in the windows, one urging all students to occupy their classrooms. A small band of protesters, disconnected from the main body I suppose, began to chant below the windows. A passer-by said to a friend, “Good for them. Bloomberg made it worse by kicking them out of the park.” This was indeed a delicious truth.
I felt like I was observing one suction cup on one tentacle of a giant 1%, mainstream media,Corporate-State eating squid, one of hundreds unleashed across the country. Fear began to yield to excitement and hope.
Sadly (or maybe fortunately based on my luggage-laden state), I had to make my way West to honor commitments in Jersey (and avoid a nasty parking ticket). I still feel energized though, sitting here in my cozy college town apartment, and determined to fully participate next time when I am better prepared for the risks.