Volume 81, Number 20 | October 20 - 26, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Protesters and police face off in Washington Sq. Park
By Aline Reynolds
This past weekend was yet another eventful one for the Occupy Wall Street protestors, whose rapidly expanding movement is now in its fifth week of existence.
On Saturday afternoon, an estimated 6,000 demonstrators marched up to Times Square along Sixth Ave., then headed back Downtown via Herald Square and Washington Square Park. They ended the daylong march back at Zuccotti Park, which has served as O.W.S.’s base since the movement’s inception on Sept. 17.
Starting at around 11:15 p.m., police announced through bullhorns the closure of Washington Square Park, where ralliers were chanting and demonstrating their rights since earlier that evening.
“They said that anyone remaining in the park would be subject to arrest,” said Michael Tracey, a local freelance journalist and a supporter of the O.W.S. movement.
There was no shortage of police on hand. Minutes before midnight, hordes of policemen and policewomen on horse, foot and in vans began to corral the demonstrators onto the neighboring sidewalks, where the demonstrators huddled for a while until they were ordered to clear the streets.
“It was pseudo-military theater going on,” said protester Ned Resnikoff, who was escorted with the masses out of the park, which was emptied by midnight.
“I really thought the police took it to a comical extreme.”
The multitude of cops were assigned to the park as an intimidation tactic, in Resnikoff’s view.
“It was pretty clear they weren’t there to protect people but to control people,” he asserted.
“We tried to help convey to the Police Department how absurd the whole concept of public servants defending the public park against unarmed peaceful citizens was,” he said. “They stood in formation and didn’t say anything.”
To jumpstart the ralliers on their way down the sidewalks and out of the park, the police used bright Klieg lights that some of the demonstrators felt were inappropriate.
While one demonstrator called a “mic check,” another started a chant, “Whose streets! Our streets!” Still others began singing Woody Guthrie’s 1940 anthem “This Land Is Your Land.”
Anytime the protesters experienced or witnessed what they considered roughness from the police, they cried out, “Shame! Shame!” and, “This is not illegal!”
“I was literally blinded by the lights — I couldn’t see for a full minute,” said Tracey. “It was obviously not used to brighten the area. It was a crowd-control tactic.”
When Tracey complained to the officers about the light, he said one of them began mocking him.
“He was trying to start up something with me like I’m a crybaby,” said Tracey. “I was pretty annoyed.”
Another cop intervened to prevent a potential argument from breaking out between Tracey and the officer.
Despite the occasional confrontation, however, Tracey said the police were generally calm that night.
“Compared to the way some of these cops have treated people, it was a drop in the bucket,” he said. “I’ve seen cops throw young women headfirst into the hood of a car, steer people into walls, pummel photographers and beat journalists with batons.”
So far, the most high-profile incidents captured on video and widely viewed on YouTube have been the pepper-spraying of four young female protesters who were being held in an orange police net, and another officer punching a protester in the face. In both cases, supervising officers (“white shirts”) were involved.
Tracey charged that he has been mildly abused by police officers a couple of times during the O.W.S. movement. He said he was backed into a wall on one occasion, struck in the shoulder on another, and even verbally threatened with violence.
However, Ryan Devereaux, a journalist for “Democracy Now,” a daily TV and radio news program, said he didn’t witness police brutality in or around Washington Square Park last weekend.
“Compared to other marches I’ve seen, there was a lot of cooperation,” Devereaux said. “It was just clear that both the protesters and the N.Y.P.D. were making an effort to communicate with each other.”
At around 12:30 a.m., the protesters finally began marching away from the park’s perimeter, causing splinter groups to form as they headed back to the Financial District. One of the groups that headed down Broadway was surrounded by a procession of police officers in vehicles and motorcycles.
One protester was arrested for interfering with vehicular traffic down Broadway — to which the other protesters chanted, “N.Y.P.D., protect the Bill of Rights!”
“Everyone here just seems very, very pissed,” said a 19-year-old New York University sophomore student who only gave his name as Eric. The large police presence, he said, was “overkill” compared to the small number of ralliers that were marching down Broadway.
Eric, who slept in Zuccotti Park four nights in a row last week, said he has been playing hooky from classes to join in the protests.
“I’m already strapped for time,” he said, “but I come to this every day because I believe in this — the idea of stopping corporate greed and getting the rest of the world to start thinking about sharing, giving and caring about the environment.”
Fourteen people were arrested around midnight when they refused to leave Washington Square Park, while 92 O.W.S. protesters were arrested earlier that day around the city, according to Detective Brian Sessa.
The park’s midnight curfew, he said, is enforced on a nightly basis.