As Occupy Wall Street protesters marched toward Central Booking the evening of March 18, many took a short cut at Lafayette and Houston through the BP gas station, chanting, “Fuck BP.” In a spur-of-the-moment show of anti-corporate solidarity, a South Asian clerk ran outside from his post, waving a peace sign at the marchers, and shouted back, “Fuck BP.” It was a validation of the feeling of general outrage against the corporate state that so many feel, but yet so few often feel voicing to strangers in public. It was a reminder to this small band of protesters that they were not alone in their outrage.
The crowd of about 200 people came out as a direct response to the previous night’s violent arrest of 90 demonstrators, who had come to Zuccotti Park, the site of the original occupation, to celebrate the movement’s six-month anniversary. It all could have been a non-event. Protesters would have had some fun in Zuccotti Park March 17, gotten cold, and probably would have gone back to Left Forum at Pace University the next day leaving the small park more or less who they found it. But the cops decided to send as a message, and as a result, occupiers and the issues of police blocking access to the public space were back in the mainstream news. And more than that, the footage of police violence inspired a kind of rage that had been dying out over the summer.
As the months since the encampment was evicted in November, the OWS movement has gone in various directions: working with labor unions, targeting the education system, and even starting worker cooperatives. Had nothing happen March 17 OWS energy would have shot off in various directions, toward specific, short-term political goals. But the decision to beat, tackle and arrest a group of individuals for standing in a park in the middle of the night garnered the protest energy back to the original purpose, to occupy a physical space and to confront the capitalist system that is the root cause of all these problems that these smaller “occupy” groups are trying to confront.
The march was a direct response to police brutality, but what came alive that weekend was the centrality of the Zuccotti Park as a meeting point and the police force as a symbolic being of OWS rage. The park was completely empty that Sunday afternoon as police barricades kept anyone from coming inside and was surrounded by uniformed officers. It was a reminder of the warmer, revolutionary days of September and October. The protesters, inspired by the previous night’s violence and the cool evening air, chanted, “This is just Spring training.”
On the night of six-month anniversary, video footage showing two riot cops taking a protester into restraint and ramming his head against a glass door, smashing some of the glass, went viral, as did footage of a female protester being tackled. The next day, as the OWS protesters marched in the street in defiance, cops started their detail subdued, supported by its protest monitoring bureau, the Technical Assistance Response Unit. But as the group approached Central Booking, where arrested OWS protesters were still held and awaiting arraignment, cops began to hit and push non-violent participants. One Police Officer and a commanding officer (white shirt) took particular interest in assaulting an African American woman who wore a shirt protesting the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. One protester was arrested.
The already agitated crowded convened at Central Booking, by one window the demonstrators were able to see several protesters in a holding cell, who flashed peace signs to the chanting masses. This physical show of force from the cops, but more importantly the emotional response of being together, with comrades demonstrating directly before the eyes of those swept up on the amorphously defined charge of Disorderly Conduct, reignited a passion of the movement that began to die out after the eviction.
There was a sense even before the eviction that as cold weather approached, perhaps the physical occupation of Zuccotti Park, and in other parks and public spaces in other cities, wouldn’t be necessary. These encampments were a start, but the real fights were in government halls, neighborhoods with foreclosed homes, the courts and in front of the banks, people thought. This made practical sense, but it came at a cost: it lost the community space that invigorated so many people, brought people from different backgrounds together to see that others around them were frustrated with both corporatism the milquetoast and feckless approach of liberal reform.
This is all the more important when the OWS movement is looking toward a general strike and various disruptive actions against banks on May 1, International Solidarity Day. The more the state agitates demonstrators, the more inspired they will be to up the ante.
Ari Paul is a contributor to Free Speech Radio News and the Indypendent. His articles have also appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Z Magazine and The American Prospect.