Last night

We weren’t sure where they were stopping traffic so we parked near Foley Square and walked in the direction of the park.  It was around 1:45 and the streets were deserted but we could hear a chopper overhead and kids on bikes were swooping past us, headed in the same direction we were.  On Broadway we joined a small crowd of people on the sidewalk. Cops in riot gear, helmets and shields, stood in the street.  A garbage truck was trying to make its way towards the park, presumably to haul occupiers’ things away, and the people on the sidewalk tried to stand in the street and block its path, but the cops pushed them back. 

We tried to get closer to the park, standing on a short block with a bunch of other people under some scaffolding.  Any description of this is going to make it seem like it was going on for longer than it actually was because it happened in seconds. We were in a crowd being pushed by people around us and suddenly it became clear that those people were being pushed by cops. But the people on the other side of us were also being pushed by cops. Each group of cops seemed unaware that it was pushing us towards the other group. “There is no need to push me!” I said, or something equally stupid, to the cop who was roughly grabbing my arm and pulling me, now, off that block and into the crosswalk.  Then we were standing across the street from the scaffolding block, being told to get out of the street, and people who stepped off the sidewalk were being pushed and one guy was hit in the head by the cops. When this happened – whenever anything like this happened, for the rest of the night – people surrounded the cop who’d hurt someone with their phones and cameras clicking and flashing, taking so many photos and videos.  “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” we chanted.  Also “Shame on you! Shame on you!”  The first time I chanted this it seemed true but the second time it seemed like wishful thinking.  The cops did not seem deterred by the idea that the “whole world” was watching, not at all.  

We decided to backtrack a little bit and walked in the opposite direction of what seemed like the frontier of the push towards the park, and ran into some people Keith had been hanging out with as he worked on the book version of n+1’s Occupy Gazette and some other people he’s met writing about OWS, so he talked to them but I don’t know them as well and also was not really capable of making small talk at this point. It seemed weird to be acting casual when there were cops (so many cops!) in riot gear a few feet away.  Maybe the people we were talking to were so used to this that it genuinely didn’t faze them. But I was scared, and for a humiliating moment I started to cry. I only realized I was crying when I chanted something and it sounded very melodramatic. I didn’t chant again til I had calmed down a little and then I acted studiously fake-normal.  This was good timing because in quick succession I met a famous magazine writer and a famous musician but there was nothing really to say to them except “Hi,” and we compared notes about people we knew in common who’d been in the park and whether they were okay.

The news was going through the crowd that we were marching to Foley Square.  It wasn’t clear why we were doing this but it seemed like if we stayed where we were we would definitely just get arrested, so we started marching.  This initial march was the most fun.  People seemed full of adrenaline and righteous anger and no one seemed frightened or sad; it didn’t feel like a march of retreat.  Several people made remarks about what a stupid night Bloomberg had chosen to evict the occupation – the weather was downright summery, it was clear and the moon was out, for a minute it seemed like hanging out in quiet lower-Manhattan streets in the middle of the night, admiring the pretty buildings and the dramatic canyon views near the tip of our island, was something we should just start doing all the time. How fun to walk in a big group down the middle of the street!  Then the cops caught up to us, coming from behind, and then we were made to get back on the sidewalks. 

At this point some people started being dicks, knocking over traffic cones and trashcans and hurling trashbags into the street.  Whenever anyone did this, someone marching behind him picked the can or bag or cone up and put it back where it belonged.  “Don’t give them a reason. They will fuck you up!” a huge and reassuring older black guy kept saying when kids acted out: “Older people, look after these young kids!” 

At Foley Square, three people spoke in the trademark people’s mic style, trying to create a plan.  A woman with cropped gray hair and a trustworthy mien and a younger guy who was less articulate and more upset and redheaded Heywood, an organizer who I recognized from Housingworks’ Occupy panel, all put forth plans.  Staying in Foley Square probably wasn’t a good option: the cops, while we repeated those three people’s words, had mostly surrounded the park. “We should find somewhere to stay that isn’t circular,” one of the guys said. “Our brothers and sisters in Zucotti are being arrested,” said the woman. “We can stay here and get arrested too.” “Or we can take a couple of hundred people,” and, I’m paraphrasing now, march up and down the streets of lower Manhattan all night to make it clear that we are not okay with what happened.  Which is what we did.

Some of the cops were just doing their jobs with clinical detachment or even a vague air of apology.  Some of them were violent, power-tripping sadists. Some of just them seemed like automatons: when you asked them why you now weren’t allowed to cross the street that, moments earlier, you’d been forcibly encouraged to cross, they refused to make eye contact and repeated their earlier orders.  The protesters were also not all one generic type of person. “We’re fighting for your pensions! We love you!” some protesters told the cops.  “Fuck you, assholes! Get a real job!” I heard another guy scream a second later. 

As we got further up Broadway, the cops got more serious about dividing the protesters up into small groups and then not letting us rejoin each other; they also got better at it.  “Y’all being herded like animals,” said one purple-faced guy in a suit who seemed to be on his way home from a long night at the bar.  He was absolutely correct, but what could we do but give up?

Which of course we did – Keith and I did, around 4 – but many others kept marching, going around in circles all night and finally meeting at dawn in Foley Square, I know because I read this in the Times. I also read in the Times about how protesters had “scuffled” with police; most of the photos in the Times’s front-page slideshow seemed to show protesters pushing the cops, not vice versa.  This is not what I saw.  Over and over again, I saw cops being unnecessarily rough with peaceful protesters, refusing to let them assemble, and occasionally reaching into the crowd and fucking with someone just for the hell of it. 

If it hadn’t been for Keith’s involvement (which he would probably call minimal) in OWS I definitely wouldn’t have been there last night; I would have been watching the hashtag on Twitter or watching the jumpy livestream or, likelier, sound asleep.  But I was there, and along with everyone else who was there I am obligated to tell as many people as possible what I saw.  I sat on the subway today and was not even tempted to reach for a book or my phone, I was just thinking about last night, trying to reorganize my memory of it into something that makes more sense, and failing, and I think I will keep doing this for a long time.