“You’re arresting the wrong people,” I said.
“I know,” responded the officer. And then he handcuffed and arrested me.
I began my day in SoHo on lower Broadway. I’d arrived in New York a week earlier but had not yet had time to go down to the Occupy Wall Street protests to see first hand what it was all about. I was aware that they were broadly on the same side as me, but I had no idea if I’d agree with their tactics, their strategy, or their identity. So after grabbing lunch at a street fair I decided I’d head down to the bottom of the island to check it out for myself.
I never had to go down to Wall St. though, because about two minutes later it came to me. I began to hear chanting from the south. Moments later I saw the placards coming up Broadway, and moments after that my camera was out and I was back-peddling in front of the marchers as they swept their way uptown. Ahead of the marchers were hundreds of people lining the streets taking pictures, smiling, and often chanting along. Many were pulled into the crowd and began marching themselves. There were also a lot of people who had no idea what was going on, why there were people taking over the western sidewalk of Broadway, and some were trying to outpace the marchers so as not to be inconvenienced by them. But at no point did I see anyone boo, shake their head in disgust, or utter a disapproving word.
As for me, my role began as a journalist, a documenter. I wasn’t really part of the march and I wasn’t chanting, I was just taking pictures of it all. I tried to gauge the movement by the placards and signs people were carrying. As has often been the critique of the Occupiers, the range of grievances was wide. Many were accusing Wall St. of being criminals, but there were others demanding we end our wars and occupations overseas, pleading for better treatment of the environment, more money for education and healthcare, etc.
When so much is wrong, it’s hard to fit it all onto one sign.
The march made it’s way to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village where a few thousand had already gathered. It was there that I first got to witness “The People’s Mic.” Megaphones are illegal in New York now, so the protestors found a clever workaround. A speaker will stand and shout “Mic check!” Those around him will echo him, and those around them will echo them. It may go back into the crowd four or five levels. This is their cue to listen and repeat, and it works anywhere. The speaker then speaks slowly, breaking up his sentences into smaller chunks that can be easily be repeated by the crowd. Through the people’s mic an individual with no amplification can be heard by thousands. It’s surreal at first, then beautiful. Above all, it is highly effective. Through this technique the speakers gave motivational speeches. They gave statistics supporting their message. They told us about the protestors who'd just been arrested at a nearby Citibank branch after being locked inside for twenty minutes. And they disseminated information such as where the march would proceed from there, what to bring with you, and (rather ominously) the phone number of the National Lawyers Guild should anyone find themselves in legal trouble.
At around 3:30 the march headed up 6th Ave. towards Times Square where a large assembly was planned. Once again I stayed ahead of the crowd, trying to find defining moments and the best angles from which to capture them. A photographer has to hope that he’ll catch the iconic image, the one that will make the cover of Time Magazine, the one that will be displayed in textbooks 50 years later (will there still be textbooks 50 years from now?). But in an environment where every single person has a camera that’s a bit like winning the lottery; I still play, but mostly I’m just trying to get good composition and light and hope that “the moment” will find me.
After about an hour of walking in and around the marchers I got bored though. All my shots were looking the same and we were still a mile away from Times Square, so I decided to break from the crowd and head up there myself.
When I got to Times Square it was already packed with thousands of people. Moving around was a slow and deliberate process. I was looking for an elevated position from which to shoot, but climbing on anything was impossible. There were police everywhere doing their best to guide the crowd and control street traffic. Ultimately I ended up against a steel barricade on the corner of an island at 44th St. & 7th Ave. – smack in the center of the center of the city. All around me were protestors waving American flags, holding signs and chanting:
“Show me what democracy looks like.”
“THIS IS WHAT DEMOCRACY LOOKS LIKE!”
And of course...
“WE. ARE. THE 99 PERCENT!!!”
I was positioned near the ABC News studio, and every few minutes the crowd would roar when the message “OCCUPY WALL STREET MOVEMENT GOES WORLDWIDE” scrolled by on the LED news ticker. It was all very impressive, very impressive indeed.
But it lacked something. It lacked unison. Across the street a group would begin one chant, and then on our side we’d start another chant. Small drum circles everywhere gave the place a very organic and tribal feel but meant that no one was in sync. And the fact was that a lot of people in the crowd were just tourists who had no idea what they were a part of. Many appreciated being there, witnessing a small slice of history, while others were simply annoyed that they were going to be late to see The Lion King on Broadway. Several factors prevented the crowd from speaking with one voice to the world, but the greatest was the lack of any leadership.
Two nearby police officers agreed and asked what we were hoping to accomplish because, frankly, they were expecting something bigger. Not in terms of sheer numbers, mind you. The number of protestors well exceeded the the NYPD’s expectations according to several officers that I spoke to. But these two female officers said they were expecting something more grand and wondered what it was all for. They really didn’t have any idea why legions of people would flood the tourism headquarter of the city or even what we were protesting. I found it difficult to articulate to people who have no idea at all. The short answer: everything is fucked up. The long answer: well, how long do you have? I gave them some stats, some bad Supreme Court decisions, but ultimately asked them to trust that something has to be wrong for this many angry, frustrated people to shut down the middle of Manhattan and suggested they do their own research. They said they didn’t see the point, that protesting doesn’t solve anything. “If that were true,” I said, “neither of you would be able to vote.” They raised their eyebrows and nodded their heads and I’d like to think that for just a moment they got it.
But as great a scene as it was, I couldn’t help but imagine how many orders of magnitude more powerful the scene would have been if someone could lead the 20,000 or so people to chant in one voice “We. Are. The 99%!” Many people shouted “Mic check” in an effort to focus attention on a single individual, a single message, but their efforts never made it very far. I tried myself by starting a coordinated shushing effort. I figured if all of Times Square could be silent for a moment maybe we could make something truly amazing happen. My group hush probably made it a hundred feet or so, which was better than I’d expected, but in the end the drum circles and street noise were too loud and it was not to be. I will forever fantasize about what it would have been like if my effort had succeeded. I mean, just imagine the sound of your own voice amplified by tens of thousands of people in Times Square! I dream of the sensation it would have given me and the impact that such an iconic moment might have had on the world. But, for now, it remains a fantasy.
Ultimately, I will think of Occupy Times Square as a missed opportunity. We were too separated by police barricades and too involved in our own local chanting to make the most of what could have been an unimaginably inspiring moment. And it was because, quite simply, there was no one to lead. In that way the event was a microcosm of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself: very impressive, but without leadership it’s still just a bunch of people standing around shouting. Anti-climactic, really.
At around 8PM the crowd had started thinning out a bit. I mobilized and began looking for action somewhere else, but most places I went were similarly winding down. I decided to head along 46th St. towards 6th Ave. to make my way out of the area. I still didn’t have “The Shot,” but had resigned that tonight it just wasn’t going to happen.
It was around that time that I noticed quite a ruckus taking place to my left. NYPD in riot gear was forcing their way into a crowd of protestors who were trying to hold their ground. Held above the front line were dozens of flashes going off as cameras and cell phones captured every push, every shove, every swing of every police baton.
This, I thought, is where the action is, and entered the fray.
Within the crowd the chants were very different from those that I’d been hearing all day. They weren’t marching slogans, they were efforts to reason with the police. “We are peaceful protestors!” we shouted over and over. “This is a public sidewalk!” we reminded. No one seemed to be sure why we were being forcefully ushered away from Times Square. I suspect that at some point someone made too much contact with an officer, and regardless of which side was at fault it was clear that the police had had enough and wanted this particular group to get the hell out of there. Slowly and reluctantly we were obliging, shuffling our way backwards towards 6th Ave. with dozens of cameras recording every second as we chanted “The whole world is watching!”
That’s when things got scary. Underneath some scaffolding the pressure on us began to build. There was nowhere left to move. We were yelling to the police that we had hit the rest of the crowd and couldn’t retreat any further. They kept advancing as we told them we were being crushed, and I really expected them to stand back and relieve the pressure. I thought this would be the end of their aggression. But when I looked the other way I saw that we hadn’t hit the rest of the crowd. We’d hit another wall of cops. We were, quite literally, entrapped.
“Everyone in here is under arrest!” an officer in a white shirt yelled. The white-shirts are the high ranking ones, the ones who give the orders, and the blue-shirts are the foot soldiers who carry them out. This, obviously, caused some distress among the protestors. People began to panic and that only made things worse. Some made a break for it but I didn’t see anyone succeed in escaping. A blue-shirted officer came into the crowd to arrest someone, was pushed and fell backwards towards me. I reached out to catch him from falling and immediately wondered if I’d just committed some kind of felony. As he regained his balance he looked back and acknowledged me. So, feeling like he sort of owed me one, I asked him to just let us go.
“I’m just trying to get out of here, there’s no need to arrest anyone.”
“You’re already under arrest, no one’s going anywhere.”
“You don’t have to do this!” I implored.
“I’m just following orders. I’ve got a job and I want to keep it,” he replied. It’s an easy enough sentiment to empathize with, but many an injustice has been committed in the name of “just following orders.” Still, this was not the place to debate such things.
Eventually I found myself face to face with an officer in white. Our faces no more than six inches apart, I put both hands up to let him know that I meant him no harm, that I just wanted to peacefully leave. But others around me had no intention of going quietly. One shook his arm to get out of the grip of an officer, and the man in white took this as a sign of aggression. “That’s good, that’s all I need,” he shouted and grabbed the kid by his neck and threw him into a swarm of officers who proceeded to subdue him with great force. Still, I held my hands up as if this would somehow give them a unique, friendlier opinion of me.
I was yelled at to put my hands behind my back. “You don’t have to do this,” I said calmly but firmly, because the truth is he didn’t have the right to do it. But I was again ordered to put my hands behind my back and this time did so. I was thrown out into the street where a blue-shirt placed plastic riot cuffs around my wrists.
“You’re arresting the wrong people,” I said over my shoulder. I’d like to stress that at no point was I resisting or even raising my voice louder than I needed to be heard. I hadn’t harmed anyone, I hadn’t broken any laws, and I sure as hell hadn’t crashed the global economy and forced thousands out of their homes. So I wanted this particular officer to know that, globally and in so many ways, the wrong people are being punished.
“I know,” he responded, and not in a patronizing way but as a man who’s familiar with the message of these protests. He was agreeing with me. But he had a job to do and a family to feed. I saw his face only long enough to know for sure that I didn’t see him again that night. I stood there in the street for a moment before another officer led me by the arm to the paddy wagon.
Not everyone was as lucky. A protestor next to me was led away by the scruff of his neck by a white-shirt who shouted at him “I’ve been babysitting you motherfuckers for weeks and I’m sick of it so now you get what’s coming.” I hated that some of these assholes were enjoying this, totally ignorant that they were hurting people who are trying to improve their lives.
We were taken to Central Booking in lower Manhattan, and if you’ve ever been arrested you know the routine. You sit in a cell with a bunch of other people without a belt or shoelaces (the “suicide kit”) while your arresting officer (A.O.) fills out paperwork. All of us remained in good spirits the whole time. Every time a new person was put in the cell the group would applaud. Most of them were younger than me and many had been a part of the movement from the beginning. Some were charged with more serious crimes and would spend the weekend in jail (like, real jail, not the holding cell I was in). But nearly all of them were discussing strategy, how to improve the effectiveness of their message, and of course how to avoid ending up back in this cell. Upon release, most of them would return to Zuccotti Park where the rest of the Occupy Wall Street protestors are camped out. Whether you agree with their methods or not, I think you have to admire that even in jail these guys were discussing how to effect positive change for America.
The police staff was courteous and kind, though the food was every bit as undesirable as you’d expect prison food would be. If you haven’t done anything wrong they let you go, and in my case I was released after about four hours. This was stunning given that it was a Saturday night. I was charged with disorderly conduct for “blocking pedestrian traffic.” This is of course very ironic because we were the pedestrians and it was the police who were blocking us. My possessions, my camera, and my shoelaces were all returned to me before my A.O. escorted the three of us that he’d arrested out of the building. I shook his hand when we parted ways and thanked him for being “one of the good ones.” He appreciated this and wished us all good luck. It wasn’t an endorsement of the cause, but it wasn’t “yeah yeah, go to hell” either.
The final surprise of the night was just up the street. Waiting there in the crisp fall air at 1:30 in the morning were half a dozen protestors. They had free food, coffee, cigarettes, and warm blankets for anyone being released from jail. A guy greeted me with a hug and girl whose name I don’t remember took down our phone numbers and court dates to contact us later regarding legal representation. I never could have imagined how wonderful it would be to see a friendly face after going through such an ordeal, even if the ordeal only lasted five hours and the friendly face belonged to a complete stranger.
I never did get “The Shot.” I didn’t really come away with any photos that were worth getting arrested for. But I’d go as far as to say that the selflessness I encountered in the last five minutes of my night made the whole episode worth it.