Emir Hodzic in NY: Police violence on the anniversary of OWS
Occupy Wall Street and the American SpringPolice violence on the anniversary of OWS
Story and photos by Emir Hodzic
The 17th of March marked a six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a movement that had spread throughout the United States like wildfire. It was to be a joyous reunion of former Zuccotti Park community residents, but what proceeded was one of the most violent police crackdowns since its inception.
As the movement grew across the United States, and indeed the world, so did the authoritative repression, and thus it was of no surprise to anyone that the New York Police Department came to the anniversary party. However, the numbers and aggressiveness of the NYPD surprised many, including myself. Ironically, only a few weeks back I was at the solidarity concert against the suppression of OWS.
The Call for Mass Action against the Suppression of the Occupy Movement, was organized by supporters and concerned citizens, including actress Susan Sarandon, who spoke at the gathering alongside other performers. The Call for Action read, “The state planned and unleashed naked and systematic violence and repression against people attempting to exercise rights that are supposed to be legally guaranteed. This response by those who wield power in this society is utterly shameful from a moral standpoint, and thoroughly illegitimate from a legal and political one.” The NYPD kept its distance that day.
Six months since the beginning of the movement and four months since the violent eviction from Zuccotti Park, protestors came back to mark the six-month anniversary of OWS. Staging a 24-hour temporary occupation, veteran protestors came out to celebrate the arrival of an American Spring. Fellow Occupiers acknowledged each other, parents brought their kids, some danced to familiar beats—it almost felt like the community that was created six months ago on this day. I say almost, as there was no people’s library, no people’s kitchen, and no media tent buzzing with activity. Instead, Occupiers drew chalk outlines of where the people’s library once stood, someone even wrote, “I slept here.”
The festive mood soon changed when a dozen officers stormed the park to arrest someone who was seen lying down. That is correct, a person was arrested for lying down. Since the eviction of OWS from Zuccotti Park, a number of new rules have come to light to prevent protestors “reoccupying” the park, and one of the comical new rules is no lying down. After the chase and ultimate arrests of not only the man the officers were initially after but also several other individuals who got in the way, a girl using people’s mic suggested a solidarity mass one-minute lie down, calling for all to lie down in protest to the unprovoked arrests. I joined the others for a lie-down, admittedly looking over my shoulder.
There were a few other arrests for minor offences throughout the day and continuous heavy police presence around the park, including the number of officers in civilian clothing scattered about. By the evening, the number of people at Zuccotti Park grew to about 600, and the mood remained relatively festive and defiant—it was absolutely peaceful. In defiance of the NYPD’s banning tents in the park, some erected mock tents on poles with “you cannot evict an idea whose time has come” written on them.
I watched a couple performing a capoeira when unrelated cheering erupted behind me. The cheering increased and many ran towards the unmistakable sound of bagpipes. The approaching local Irish band, dressed in traditional clothing, marched around downtown New York City and made their way towards Zuccotti Park. Just as they were about to enter the park (much to the people’s delight), the pipes fell silent. It quickly became clear that the police intercepted the band and ordered them to stop playing. On St. Patrick’s Day, a traditional Irish band was ordered to stop playing in public! I later heard that one of the players who objected had been arrested.
Needless to say that everyone (but the police) was enraged, and erupted in unison shouting “shame, shame!!” and “let them play!!” Indeed, it was a shameful exercise of power over the protestors who had lawfully gathered, as is their right. The arrival of an Irish band, on St. Patrick’s Day, would obviously lift the occupiers’ spirits and they had to be stopped—clear and simple.
However, what soon followed was a much worse example of the exercise of power over people. Around 10:40pm, the police started gathering, and it became obvious that they were about to start an eviction. The park is open to the public and protestors can be there until midnight as long as they do not sleep there or put up tents. Therefore, the police had no legal grounds for the totally unwarranted crackdown. Knowing well enough from past experience that the question of legality and justification never prevented the NYPD from cracking the whip, dozens of people in the park spontaneously gathered in the center, sat down and locked arms. The others made a human shield around them.
I stood on one of the concrete tables facing the stairs with people sitting down behind me. As someone in the front shouted, “Here they come,” I turned around and took a photo of the police officers descending the stairs. I remember feeling unease at the site. Usually when one looks at the world through a camera lens, there is a certain detachment from what others perceive to be the real world and what one sees as subject matter. After taking the photo, I had to lower the camera and look at the world with my own eyes. There were hundreds of NYPD officers, tightly positioned next to each other, slowly marching down the stairs. For some reason, the scene prompted me to think of 1980’s sci-fi films.
Soon the first person was dragged in front of me, forcing me to regain my composure and make a move. One by one, protestors who were sitting down were dragged away. The police broke the human chain by punching the arms of those siting down until they let go, and then they proceeded to drag and carry them away. People were thrown against the concrete, dragged and pushed. Many of the arrested were “roughed up,” receiving numerous injuries. One of the “roughed up” girls had a seizure on the sidewalk, and, still handcuffed, lay there deprived of any medical attention for several minutes. It took about 20 minutes before the ambulance arrived.
Several individuals wanted to get to the girl but were prevented from doing so by the police. Even the press was not allowed to enter the square, where she and others sat or lay handcuffed, for “safety reasons”. We watched on as they loaded those being arrested onto hired buses. As I tried to take a photo of the girl who was lying down on the footpath, I heard a policeman next to me shout, “Move!” I looked up and saw a line of policemen behind him pushing us back while yelling, “Move, move!” At that point, there was nowhere to move, because there were still droves of people on the footpath behind us. The next push knocked me down to the ground and others started falling over me. Some were pleading to be picked up in fear for their safety.
I also feared being trampled as several attempts to get up failed, and I kept falling over and others over me. Total panic ensued as the police, unmoved by the fallen and injured, kept hitting and shoving people in their way. Once we were pushed two blocks away from Zuccotti Park, they simply stopped, blocking anyone trying to walk back. A journalist next to me was repeatedly hit with a baton. Later he approached one of the volunteers from the legal team vowing to press charges.
The NYPD reported that a total of 73 people were arrested that night. Several were injured during the ordeal, including three women, who were taken away in ambulances. There were also reports of someone leaving with a broken arm.
The New York Civil Liberties Union, in response to a weekend of violence, arrests, and the closure of Zuccotti Park, issued a call for an appointment of an Inspector General to bring strong, meaningful NYPD oversight. “The weekend raid on Occupy Wall Street is just the latest in a stream of scandals and abuse that has marred New York City’s Police Department. From surveillance of New York City’s Muslim and South Asian communities to the routine street interrogations of New York City’s black and Latino men, the NYPD is out of control.” The Executive Director of NYCLU, Donna Lieberman, said in her public statement.
Somehow, I do not think that the statement issued by NYCLU is going to worry New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg. Last night, only days after the unwarranted and brutal raid on Zuccotti Park, the police have again made a number of arbitrary arrests at the park. A group of about 30 protestors that arrived at Zuccotti Park after a march from Union Square was greeted by 40 police officers. Some time before midnight, the officers came into the park randomly inspecting their bags and arresting about eight people for arbitrary reasons, including the possession of blankets. The show of force is not unsystematic or from a few rogue officers. It is a planned and systematic tactic aimed at thwarting the movement, as they have been trying to do for the past six months.
In other U.S. cities, Occupy demonstrators are facing the similar difficulty—police brutality, mass arrests, punitive detention, and trap-and-detain tactics. Planned and executed in order to scare away others who might consider joining, their actions discredit the movement by providing the media with smear material. And, the corporate media lap it up. Framing the police crackdowns as “clashes” with the police, somehow insinuating that the bashed are equally responsible as those doing the bashing. Blaming the protestors for the violence and describing them as hippies or unemployed bums, the police justify future brutality and attempts to damage the widespread support for the movement. Leaving out entirely the reasons protestors are there to begin with.
Since the beginning of the movement, police brutality only invigorated the protest by making the protestors even more determined to fight on. There is a long and hard road ahead, being made harder with reports from Homeland Security and the FBI being involved in spying on Occupy members. Leaked documents published by Rolling Stone show Homeland Security having concerns about OWS’s growth and using federal resources in following OWS social media posts. On top of the spying, new bills are being introduced that aim at restricting the popular movement, discouraging others in joining, and preventing larger demonstrations. Municipalities are adopting local ordinances that require protestors to apply for permits weeks or months in advance. There are moves to charge protestors for the costs of police escorts and other fees. Even leafleting and postering is subjected to new rules obviously aimed at hampering the Occupy movement.
Rather than scare people away, all these efforts to suppress Occupy Wall Street might agitate enough people to actually join in on the demonstrations. The erosion of civil rights and the repression of constitutional rights to protest is, to put it mildly, alarming. I remember seeing a banner at Zuccotti Park that read, “You arrest 1 of us, and 2 more will appear.”
The American Spring is here, and there are many protests and activities being planned, including the May Day general strike, or the #GlobalSpring. The upcoming NATO meeting, scheduled for the first of May in Chicago, has recently been moved to the secluded and secured Camp David. President Obama has ensured us that the move is not in response to planned protests in Chicago.
Occupy Wall Street has vowed to continue its bold efforts to expose the rot in the ruling financial system. This May Day is an international day of action with demonstrations planned in many American cities, Europe, and elsewhere. The call from OWS is sent out to the whole world—Join us.
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