Police crackdown on OWS protestors

Only weeks ago I wrote that it is only matter of time before someone gets killed. I thought that after witnessing police on horses charge into the crowd. Tonight Scott Olsen, 24, still remains at Oakland’s Highland Hospital in a critical condition after being hit in the head by a Police projectile.

On Tuesday the Oakland Police Department decided to raid the Occupy Oakland movement and evict them from their encampment. Initially the City Council was supportive, read tolerant, of protestors presence. However, the current view of the City of Oakland is that the conditions have become unsafe and people have to be removed.

Many were arrested during the morning raid in what was clearly an attempt to break the demonstrators’ resolve and send a message to other occupations around the US. Activists responded by staging a march that evening in a show of defiance. The march ended as riot police showered them with tear gas and stun grenades. In one graphic video of the attacks, demonstrators are seen helping an unconscious woman while a stun grenade explodes right next to her face. It was during this evening’s police crackdown on demonstrators that Scott Olsen was hit by a police projectile in the head, and is still in hospital.

On Wednesday night Occupy Wall Street decided to hold a march in solidarity with Oakland demonstrators who have been arrested and hurt. The news of police heavy-handed tactics in Oakland resounded across the American cities and other occupations. “We stand with Oakland as one” the sign read at the entrance to Liberty Plaza.

During the General Assembly at the park, the people’s mic echoed demonstrator’s concerns for future protests and their solidarity with their Oakland comrades. While people voted on whether to send $20,000 from the OWS donations fund to Oakland, I looked at the metal barricades separating the park from the rest of the city. As numerous voices carried fears of future police arrests to my ears, I wondered about the barricades surrounding the plaza. Grey steel structures locked in place, fencing in the community and restricting access to and from the park. I also wondered about the meaning behind their presence? What is the psychological effect on people sleeping within the fenced concrete paddock? Sometimes your mind wanders during General Assemblies.

Looking around lower Manhattan, it is the heavy police presence that is noticed first, followed by hundreds of infamous FX-7 steel barricades blocking off Wall St and enclosing Liberty Plaza. Protesters themselves are caged in the park, surrounded by police watch-towers, surveillance trucks and stationary cameras. Ironically, this movement is called Occupy Wall Street, but it is actually the police who have occupied Wall St. It is the extraordinary police presence that is restricting the traffic on lower Manhattan and creating a feeling of uneasiness for the locals. It is the police who militarized the movement that started as a peaceful demonstration against corruption and corporate greed.

Briefly my mind wandered off into theoretical land, pondering acquisition of valuable property, inequality, astonishing affluence of a small minority, and authorities in place to protect their interests. I was about to get lost at the left-right up-down intersection when drummers reminded me it is time to march.

Hundreds of people started to march from Liberty Plaza down to Broadway just after 9pm. The general feeling was festive and at the same time defiant. However, things quickly changed when NYPD made their first arrests. When I got to the front of the procession I saw approximately 5 police officers on top of a protestor being handcuffed. For some reason I developed a feeling that there is something different about tonight’s march, something different from the previous ones I attended. I couldn’t put my finger on it as I was too occupied taking photos and avoiding police batons being swung to make room between the arresting officers and the protesters shouting “Shame! Shame!”

I think someone yelled “Keep on marching!” and the people responded in agreement. As several protesters were led to the van, hundreds of others decided to keep on going. That’s when I saw the infamous orange net blocking the entrance into the next street. I read the loud orange message and was about to turn back when I saw a group of protesters rush the nets, trying to get under it to the other side. It is only a plastic net I thought. I guess you can lift it. A meter away from me a lone young man looked straight at me while holding the net above his head, the expression on his face wasn’t aggressive, panicked, but calm. As I looked back at him and accepted his offer to go under the net, it occurred to me why tonight was different.

Unlike previous marches, this time (empowered by the plight of their Oakland friends) nobody seemed to be afraid of the police. They were not willing to engage the police, but also not unwilling to disobey.

Police tried to prevent others from passing the net, but were quickly overwhelmed by the sheer number of protestors. I was caught up in the commotion and fell down. In that moment a thought came to me, it would be regrettable to be kicked or hit over the head right now. However, some of the protestors helped me up and I found myself on the other side of the orange divide.

The streets were full of people with banners and flags, zigzagging through car traffic, shouting “Oakland is New York, New York is Oakland!!” Even though some in their cars appeared shocked to see hundreds of people marching against the traffic, walking past their cars, no one committed any damage to any vehicle nor threatened anyone. I wasn’t surprised that the march didn’t erupt into a violent mob, as protesters often screamed out “this is a peaceful protest”, but I was surprised that taxi and truck drivers were honking in support. Some truck drivers had their fists raised out of their windows. I guess the police crackdown on the Occupy movement has evoked some sympathy from those that were, up until now, sitting on the fence.

Police helicopters above our heads directed the police on the ground in order to block the marches progression into Manhattan. However, every time police on scooters tried to block the street, protestors were jumping through the blockade, even over the scooters. One of the protestors stood in front of a police officer holding a peace sign when 2 policemen pushed him to the ground and attempted to arrest him. At that point a number of protesters jumped over parked police scooters and pulled the protestor to his feet and away from the police.

OWS demonstrators continued their march in solidarity with Oakland through lower Manhattan, eventually returning to Liberty Plaza where those holding the fort met them with applause and cheers. Occupy Wall Street is now a community, a mini-village that is in constant contact with other occupations around the country, and what happened in Oakland on Tuesday night has hit the nerve center of the movement. New York responded in solidarity, echoing “We are all in this together!!”

I wonder if the police will realize that they are only invigorating the movement and strengthening people’s resolve with every show of unnecessary force and brutality.
OWS is growing in popularity while the police are becoming increasingly militant in their treatment of the protestors. Police have even accused the OWS of being responsible for the increase in gun violence across New York City!

First they blamed the protestors for forcing the police to spend millions, now the police accuse OWS of being responsible for the increase in violence around New York City. I think the logic goes something like this: If it wasn’t for the OWS, police could better appropriate their resources and fight crime more effectively. Though no one is asking why there is such a heavy police presence around the park? Why are there cameras, watchtowers, barricades, surveillance trucks, communication trucks, and hundreds of armed police surrounding a few hundred protesters assembled peacefully, as is their constitutional right? Are they really such a security threat? Have they destroyed any property or hurt anyone?

Why is the system so afraid of a few hundred die-hard protestors demanding social justice and calling for regulations on corporate donations to politicians? No matter what happens, OWS has already exposed cracks in the US system and has empowered many to speak out. Last week I was in Harlem at the anti-‘stop and frisk’ march, where dozens of activists were willingly arrested outside the Harlem police precinct. OWS supported the protest against racial profiling and the amendment, which permits the police to randomly stop and frisk people.

As Adam Smith said, “Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many”. These days one can see an increase of signs around Liberty Plaza that read, “NYPD protects the rich.” In the face of recent police actions against the movement, why shouldn’t demonstrators ask “who are you protecting?!”

As Hillary Clinton and Obama criticized the police crackdowns in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere, where people took to the streets to demand change, the police in the US are cracking down on Occupy protestors around the country in an attempt to end the occupations. However, protestors in Oakland, and other cities, have vowed to continue protesting and occupying other areas. Here in New York there is talk of occupying Central Park. Somehow I don’t think that the NYPD will be very accommodating if such an occupation is attempted this weekend. ‘Which of us’, said the Lord Hamlet, ‘shall ‘scape whipping?’

-Emir Hodzic, an Aucklander participating in OWS. All photos by Emir.


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