On October 17, hundreds of Occupy Wall Street protesters gathered in Liberty Park around cakes that had been donated by local businesses. The group was celebrating the one-month anniversary of the occupation, but the moment was simultaneously both joyous and somber.
Though OWS had won some clear victories against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they had also withstood brutality at the hands of the NYPD.
Each candle glowing atop the cakes represented a protester who had been arrested.
While the Occupy actions have become national symbols of resistance, the movement has also served to underline the problem of America’s massive police state, which is used to suppress freedom of expression and assembly rather than as an instrument to safeguard those liberties.
New York City’s chapter is perhaps the most famous example of this clamp down. The first major media story occurred on September 24 when Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper sprayed five peaceful women who were being held by police officers in orange plastic netting. The clip took Youtube by storm. One of the versions of the video has been viewed more than 1.4 million times.
Bologna, along with a second officer, deputy inspector Johnny Cardona, were placed under investigation by the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board. Ultimately, Bologna only lost ten vacation days for the attack, while Cardona is being investigated over his own Youtube clip sensation featuring an incident in which he punched Felix Rivera Pitre in the face.
There were other incidents, including a police motorcycle running over a National Lawyers Guild member’s leg, reports and video of police wildly beating protesters with their batons, and even charging horses into a crowd of activists.
Horse-mounted police were dispatched during the occupation of Times Square on October 15. Thousands of protesters were pinned inside a relatively tiny space with steel gates, and it was difficult to move at all, let alone run, when the horses charged forward. It was only sheer luck that prevented any major injuries. Nearly 100 people were arrested, including some individuals who attempted to close their Citibank accounts.
“There is no honor in this!” Marine Sergeant Shamar Thomas later screamed at police in a now famous Internet video clip. “How do you do this to people? How do you sleep at night? You’re here to protect them! You’re here to protect us! Why are you hurting US citizens?” The police were eerily silent during the questioning before they walked away from Thomas.
Mixed in with the police mopeds and horses were at least five counterterrorism officers. Much has been made of the $1.9 million the city has shelled out in overtime pay for officers monitoring Liberty Park, but the police presence both at Liberty and the other citywide occupations is vast and overzealous. For an overwhelmingly peaceful movement, the city has unleashed a massive police state, complete with counterterrorism officers, just in case Al Qaeda is huddled in their midst.
Arguably one of the most watched OWS events took place in early October when more than 700 people were detained in a mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge. Before the arrests occurred, NBC’s Richard Engel tweeted that the NYPD told him, “We won’t let what happened in London to go on,” a reference to that city’s own backlash against neoliberal policies.
There are different versions of what happened on the bridge depending on whom you talk to. Police claim protesters wandered into the street despite repeated commands to stay on the designated walkway. Protesters say they were led across the bridge, and then penned in before the arrests started. What is clear is that video has emerged showing the police either leading or passively walking in front of the protesters as they approached the bridge. The NYPD later released video showing an officer warning protesters via bullhorn that they would be arrested, but it’s unclear when this moment took place on the bridge timeline. It’s possible the protesters had already been pinned in at that time. There’s also some likelihood police warnings were made, but that in the fog of protest, many individuals didn’t hear those warnings, or were confused by the chaos around them.
It took over four hours for the NYPD to arrest everyone, including a freelance reporter for the New York Times. Controversy erupted when the Transport Workers Union found out the police used city buses to transfer protesters to jail. The TWU went to court in an attempt to stop the city from forcing union drivers from participating in the mass arrests, a conflict of interest given TWU’s recent endorsement of the movement. But there was another disturbing layer to this discovery: here was the NYPD acting like a counterterrorism unit, and ordering union members to act as an appendage of the police state by assisting them in this violent suppression. It’s no wonder the TWU went ballistic.
OWS isn’t the only occupy chapter dealing with this kind of police oppression. Early on the morning of October 11, police raided the makeshift camp of Occupy Boston and arrested 100 people for the crime of sleeping in the wrong place at the wrong time. Officers claimed the reason behind the mass arrests was due to the group’s location in Rose Kennedy Greenway, which sits across from Congress Street where expensive improvements in renovation were just made. Apparently, a clairvoyant member of the Boston Police had a premonition that the protesters would damage those renovations, and so 100 individuals were arrested for the future crime. Flag-carrying members of Veterans for Peace were pushed to the ground and hauled away.
On October 16, police raided Occupy Chicago’s camp and arrested 175 protesters. This past Sunday, Chicago cops then arrested 130 protesters (including nurses) some of whom complained of cruel treatment, such as being denied access to medication, while in prison. Meanwhile, over a span of two days, fifty people were arrested from Occupy Denver. According to @OccupyArrest, 2,393 arrests have been made globally during the movement’s existance to date.
What needs to be stressed here is the occupations are overwhelmingly peaceful events. Yes, in any mass movement like this there are a handful of delinquents who lash out unthinkingly, but they do not represent the majority of these citizens, whose greatest crimes are gathering and resisting what they perceive to be unjust economic and governmental systems.
Yet, despite this reality, police nationwide are treating the occupiers as though they’re terrorist cells. Governor Hickenlooper sent police dressed in full riot gear to dismantle Denver’s camp, and at the Times Square occupation, police were also dispatched in shields and face helmets. In these instances, the police are acting as though the greatest threat to America’s government is freedom of expression. Maybe they’re right.