In the earliest hours of November 15, 2011, I finally drifted off to sleep after the NHL Network had looped for perhaps a third time. The mumbling TV probably caused me to miss my phone’s space-agey text message notification, even though it lay inches from my head. It wasn’t until a half hour later that I awoke and noticed the flashing. The message was from a fellow NLG observer: cops raiding occupy right now. 1:25 am.
A month earlier I had reluctantly willed myself from bed at a similarly ungodly hour and trudged down to Zuccotti Park (a little over a mile south from my apartment in the West Village) to witness—to legally observe—the planned eviction of the Occupy Wall Street protesters, announced for 6:00 am, October 14. I arrived a half hour early. The massive police presence I expected was nowhere in sight. If something was going to happen at 6:00 am, it would have to step on the gas because the fifty or so police sprinkled randomly throughout the park were ill-equipped to dislodge hundreds of civilly disobedient protesters. And those police didn’t seem to be on edge.
But also lined up Cedar Street, the park’s southern boundary, were at least eight media trucks. Inside the park media weren’t hard to miss either; it was still dim enough at that hour that interviewees faced both cameras and harsh lighting. An AP reporter struggled to establish a connection between her phone and laptop, which was sitting on a garbage can, while ten feet away a handful of protesters patiently waited in line to stand on a masking-taped X, and speechify into a livestreaming laptop suspended at eye-level.
I found out that the eviction had been canceled by overhearing the AP reporter on her phone. Judging from the approving roar at the east end of the park seconds later, the General Assembly must have relayed the good news via human mic only seconds later.
I contemplated going home, being likewise reprieved, but recognized some people and went over to discuss the about-face. We all speculated what was next; there were rumors that the eviction would happen later that day. We next speculated as to why it was called off—I suggested that they failed to calculate the presence of the media, who would collectively broadcast all day Friday hundreds of civil disobedience arrests, some which surely would be messy. I suggested they’d evict sometime in the wee hours over the weekend, without advance warning, when the media would be nowhere in sight.
ONE MONTH LATER, not that weekend, my premonition became reality. I reread the text message and then consulted Twitter, debating whether to go downtown. Could I even get there? As Twitter relayed the situation on the ground, the genius of police commissioner Ray Kelly became (again) apparent. Downtown was inaccessible by subway, the inbound Brooklyn Bridge was closed (I think it regularly is these days though), and most importantly, a moat of inaccessibility was created effectively isolating Zuccotti Park—rendering it near impossible to get there. There was also a rumor that the NYPD prohibited news helicopters from covering the eviction from above. I traveled light; shorts, sneakers, hooded sweatshirt, and camera. I’d regret not grabbing my sunglasses later—who leaves the apartment with sunglasses at 2 am?
I walked down Greenwich instead of the West Side Highway, trying get there—wherever there was going to be—as soon as I could. At Murray Street I saw a convoy of eight garbage trucks cross West Broadway, undoubtedly on their way to Zuccotti Park. Church and Cortlandt was the end of the line, evidently—three cops stood behind metal barricades. I asked whether I could go down, showing my legal observer credentials. No. So you’re not permitting press or legal observers down there? No. What’s your name? Sergeant Kelly. Which wasn’t true, I’d seen his badge already. The three cops chuckled to themselves as I walked away, over Cortlandt to the corner of Broadway, where I would spend the next few hours.
Others had gathered at Cortlandt and Broadway because it was as near as you could get to Zuccotti Park, from the north at least. Most were protesters who’d been forced from the park, the ones who hadn’t affixed themselves to trees with kryptonite locks around their necks. Others were gawkers and sympathizers who’d been somehow woken, kind of like me, only without the fluorescent green hat the NLG provides to us. And of course, on other side of the barricades stood at least one riot-gear-clad cop for every remaining protester; in numerous scenarios I’ve witnessed a similar 1 to 1 protester/police ratio, which of course is more source of than salve to the problem.
I contemplated circumnavigating the barricaded moat to approach from the south, perhaps, or east, but nixed the idea, figuring that a perimeter is a perimeter and if Ray Kelly was going so far to keep news copters from hovering over, I wasn’t going to get any closer than where I already stood. No one was going to bear witness to this eviction except the police executing it. Besides, if police/protester interaction was going to happen, it was going to happen here, and I was the only legal observer present, so far as I could tell, at that point. I did run into a few over the next few hours, though.
There were some minor flare-ups there on the corner, some resulting in arrests. Some people were pissed and vocal, but there wasn’t much cohesion. Mic checks prompted everyone to go here or there, but not much came of it. The most interesting moment occurred around 5:30 am, as the skies slowly lightened and commuters began to trickle in: a man wearing an expensive gray suit purposefully strode past me on Broadway, and as he approached the corner to go right, instead of walking around a few seated near the corner, viciously kicked a young woman in her side, then walked fast down Cortlandt. A number of people angrily confronted this asshole engaging in his own private counter-protest, before police settled things down and, to their credit, arrested him.
There was also a tense standoff with twenty-plus riot police who’d blocked the entire width of sidewalk on Broadway between Cortlandt and Fulton, effectively trapping myself and others between its line and barricades behind us. It was an odd and intimidating and thankfully only lasted perhaps ten minutes before they filed into the street permitting us the freedom to walk back to the corner of Cortlandt.
Gradually the police outnumbered the dissipating crowd, so I walked north (not far) to Foley Square, which Twitter suggested had become the de facto rendezvous point. It was almost fully light by the time I arrived and there was a sizeable number there. There were also a number of other NLG observers, some whom I knew, so I brought myself, and them, up to speed, comparing notes of all that had happened. It was here I found out that the NLG was trying to obtain an injunction to enable the protesters’ return to Zuccotti Park.
Another strong rumor was that at 7:00 am there was a planned rendezvous at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, at an odd, triangular stretch of empty lot space owned by Trinity Church, whose venerable, beautiful church bookends Wall Street’s west end. The church also owns a ton of Manhattan property, much of it downtown. I suspect that the protesters thought that this lot—which I only found out that day was called Duarte Square—was similar to Zuccottti Park for its private/public character. Apparently no one bothered to ask Trinity what it thought about this idea because hours after the protesters marched there (I marched with, arriving at), I heard it reported that Trinity wanted them all gone.
Before Trinity could throw the anti-moneychangers out from their empty lot of a temple, though, another interesting thing happened: the injunction was granted, we found out. Copies of it were distributed to NLG observers, and news of it was human mic’d to the now sizable crowd—besides those who marched from Foley Square, others had marched from other locations. The triumphant but wary protesters made a decision to split up; some would stay there and a smaller contingent would march back to Zuccotti Park. It was decided that I and a few other NLG observers would march back to Zuccotti, about a mile away, with this group.
I was pretty shot by this point, but also curious to see what would happen upon the protesters’ return to Zuccotti, so I walked in the front of the pack. An older officer with a bullhorn—a short, stout, burr-headed Ralph Steadman caricature—angrily screamed at the marchers to stay on the sidewalk, which has become standard operating procedure for all marches. I tried to engage him but he wasn’t having it. Did the NYPD plan on honoring the injunction when we all got to the Park? He responded with an even angrier look (to the sky, not me, eye contact is studiously avoided by most police) and went back on script: Get on the sidewalk!
A protester asked whether I would address the legal issues with the other protesters upon our arrival—there as to be a hearing at 11:30 and everything could change depending on that hearing’s outcome. I said sure. A few blocks later, walking south on Church, past Century 21, we could see Zuccotti ahead of us. There was plenty of media tagging along at the front but they scrambled ahead to anchor themselves to get a shot of the protesters reentering the park. It was only when we were feet away from the media gaggle that I realized that behind them were barricades. Simonetti, the bullhorn cop, directed us left into a narrow barricaded corridor running up Pine Street, Zuccotti’s northern border. A barricaded dead end. The kids call this “kettling.”
I walked left and looked for police captains, or higher. Spotting a few (they were all inside Zuccotti Park), I made my case: “You do know you’re violating an injunction, right?” Stone-faced silence. I made the argument to some media, pointing out the operative language of the injunction, which couldn’t have been clearer. Behind me the protesters chanted “WE. HAVE. A COURT. ORDER.” I spoke to other police—didn’t they realize denying the protesters reentry amounted to contempt?
Some police responded that there was a hearing at 11:30 and that the injunction was meaningless until that was decided, which of course was exactly wrong—the injunction was explicitly drafted to return the protesters to the pre-eviction status quo, and it was signed by a Justice of the Supreme Court of New York State. There’s a plausible argument that the injunction should have held off allowing protesters to return to the park pending the hearing’s outcome, but it didn’t do that: it allowed them to return—with tents even—and a hearing would then decide whether they would be allowed to continue to stay.
I eventually gave up trying to convince everyone and became more concerned for my safety, as it was becoming clear that the group that had marched down was larger than this barricade corridor reserved for it. I was also tired—it was 10 am and I’d been up and out walking all over downtown for eight hours. But I was also disgusted. The city, or rather Bloomberg, had obviously made the imperious decision that a judicial order didn’t apply to him.
A core running theme of the Occupy protests is that politics is rigged to favor the money. There have been so many instances where this dynamic has played out, where the symbolic overtones are no longer parable but reality. The double-barricaded Wall Street Bull, for example, is guarded by two officers at all times. Police arrest bank customers audacious enough to cancel their accounts. Now it was the police who occupied Zuccotti Park, safely barricaded in after their methodic, disgracefully secret, eviction, despite that I held in my hand a lawful court order requiring precisely the opposite. The protesters played by the rules and still lost even when the scoreboard supposedly registered a win.
I stuck around for another hour, pled my case to more deaf police ears, and finally gave up and went home. I would find out later that afternoon that the city argued to remove the judge who had signed the injunction—she had been an ACLU attorney prior to becoming a judge, as if that should have even mattered. Until U.S. Supreme Court justices begin recusing themselves for real reasons, such as financial self-interest or prior involvement in the instant case, it’s difficult to take seriously more tenuous connections, such as supposed ideological biases, especially when the only ideological bases seen as disqualifying are on the left. Ex-Federalist Society member judges aren’t asked to recuse themselves from tort cases.
Justice Billings was replaced (I’m still unclear whether she recused herself or whether an administrative judge/panel removed her) by Justice Michael Stallman, who heard both sides of the freedom of assembly versus reasonable time/manner/place restrictions and ruled, without offering a reasoned basis, for the city. The city’s blatant contempt of Billings’ order went unmentioned in the written decision and was barely discussed in the press. The only lawlessness that can’t be excused, as any Occupy protester will tell you, is the lawlessness committed by the poor. For everyone else, it’s Calvinball over and over and over again.
[The above photos from the eviction night are included in my larger album of #ows photos here]