Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Video by Jeanne Mansfield
My boyfriend Frank and I are heading toward Liberty Square to check out what’s going on at the Occupy Wall Street protest, when we stumble upon the afternoon march toward Union Square. So we join up and walk along behind. The crowd looks like maybe 300 people, mostly punk-styled kids and folks carrying their computers (for live streaming, we found out later) and some aging-hippie types. People are beating drums, blowing whistles, carrying signs, and chanting: “Banks got bailed out, you got sold out!” and “We are the 99 percent!” and “All day, all week, occupy Wall Street!” and of course the classic “This is what democracy looks like!”
All in all, it starts out as a pretty good time. There are police, but for the most part they are walking behind the group casually, just beat cops bantering and laughing, keeping an eye on things. There are around 30 of them. We reach Union Square, circle it a couple times, and join the human microphone. The human microphone consists of one person speaking or shouting, and then everyone within earshot repeating, thus, a human amplifier, albeit with some delay. After about fifteen minutes, we are on the move again, the crowd spurred toward the United Nations by the messages transmitted from the human microphone.
As we circle Union Square, about twenty NYPD officers haul out orange plastic nets (the kind used to fence off construction sites) and close off the road, diverting the crowd. But the detour, too, is closed, leaving us only one option: straight down Broadway. The lighthearted carnival air begins to get very heavy as it becomes clear that we are being corralled. The main group, about 150 protesters, keeps on down the street, but the police are running behind with the orange nets, siphoning off groups of fifteen to twenty people at a time, classic crowd control.
A new group of police officers arrives in white shirts, as opposed to dark blue. These guys are completely undiscerning in their aggression. If someone gets in their way, they shove them headfirst into the nearest parked car, at which point the officers are immediately surrounded by camera phones and shouts of “Shame! Shame!”
Up until this point, Frank and I have managed to stay ahead of the nets, but as we hit what I think is 12th Street, they’ve caught up. The blue-shirts aren’t being too forceful, so we manage to run free, but stay behind to see what happens. Then things go nuts.
The white-shirted cops are shouting at us to get off the street as they corral us onto the sidewalk. One African American man gets on the curb but refuses to be pushed up against the wall of the building; they throw him into the street, and five cops tackle him. As he’s being cuffed, a white kid with a video camera asks him “What’s your name?! What’s your name?!” One of the blue-shirted cops thinks he’s too close and gives him a little shove. A white-shirt sees this, grabs the kid and without hesitation billy-clubs him in the stomach.
One of the blue-shirts, tall and bald, stares in disbelief and says, ‘I can’t believe he just fuckin’ maced us.’
At this point, the crowd of twenty or so caught in the orange fence is shouting “Shame! Shame! Who are you protecting?! YOU are the 99 percent! You’re fighting your own people!” A white-shirt, now known to be NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna, comes from the left, walks straight up to the three young girls at the front of the crowd, and pepper-sprays them in the face for a few seconds, continuing as they scream “No! Why are you doing that?!” The rest of us in the crowd turn away from the spray, but it’s unavoidable. My left eye burns and goes blind and tears start streaming down my face. Frank grabs my arm and shoves us through the small gap between the orange fence and the brick wall while everyone stares in shock and horror at the two girls on the ground and two more doubled over screaming as their eyes ooze. In the street I shout for water to rinse my eyes or give to the girls on the ground, but no one responds. One of the blue-shirts, tall and bald, stares in disbelief and says, “I can’t believe he just fuckin’ maced us.” And it becomes clear that the white-shirts are a different species. We need to get out of there.
The other end of the street is also closed off, and we are trapped on this one block along with about twenty frustrated pedestrians. My eye is killing me and I’m crying, partially from the pain and partially from the shock of the violence displayed by these police. A shirtless young “medic” with ripped cargo shorts, matted brown hair, and two plastic bottles slung around his neck runs up to me and says, “Did you get pepper sprayed? Okay here, tilt your head to the side, this isn’t going to feel great,” at which point he squirts one of the plastic bottles of white liquid into my left eye, then tilts my head the other way and does the other eye, then repeats with water. Then he unties the white bandana from his wrist and wipes my eyes with it saying, “You’ll be okay, this is my grandfather’s bandana, he got through Korea with it, and if he got through that, then you’re going to get through this. Just keep blinking.” Thanks to the treatment—liquid antacid, pepper-spray antidote—the burning behind my eyes subsides.
A woman with two little girls in tow walks up to a cop at the end of the block and explains that they just need to get to ballet, but he won’t let them through. The woman seems to accept this, turns to the girls, thinks for a second, then marches straight to the edge of the fence at the corner of the building. A different officer sees them coming and, understanding their situation, lets them through. So Frank and I bolt for the same opening and escape.
The farther away we get, the more normal everyone starts to look. People have no clue about what’s happening just five or six blocks down. Frank and I say maybe two words to each other the whole five-hour bus ride home.
Just for the record, I love cops. I do, my mother worked in the justice system for 30 years, and I’ve known a lot of really good cops, really good honorable people just doing their jobs. I’ve never agreed with the sentiment, “Fuck the Po-lice,” and I still don’t. But these guys are fucked up. There was an anger in those white-shirt’s eyes that said, “You don’t matter.” And whether they were just scared or irrational or looking for a target for their rage, there was no excuse for their abuse of authority. I had always thought that people who complained about police brutality must have done something to provoke it, that surely cops wouldn’t hurt people without a really good reason. But they do. We were on the curb, we were contained, we were unarmed. Pepper spray hurts like hell, and the experience only makes me wish I’d done something more to deserve it.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.