Despite the rain and ever-creeping cold, activists continue to occupy Liberty Plaza; slowly coalescing demands, continuing to debate and love and dance. The sheer energy of this movement is utterly undeniable. Occupations, though mostly small in scale, have sprouted up in multiple cities around the country and more are planned as October rolls into the end of 2011. There is a sense in the square now that this is real. The gravity and electricity of what we're building here is bouncing off the buildings all around us. We all feel more alive. There are incredible ups and downs. Elation can very suddenly plunge into abject frustration, and then turn sharply upward again.
Case in point: Saturday's march over the Brooklyn Bridge. Truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was one of the 700 marchers kettled and arrested en-mass by the NYPD on that famed expanse of stone and steel. It began at Liberty Plaza, where thousands gathered to rally in solidarity with the occupation. From there, we marched through the streets of the Financial District and toward City Hall. At the outset the march was united and organized, with none of the weaving through traffic and violent pepper-spray scuffles with police that marked the march of a week earlier. We were determined to get to our destination together this time – just over the Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn Bridge park where another contingent would be waiting for us with food, speakers, and activities. Or at least that was the plan. I was toward the back of marching crowd of some 2,000 people when we arrived at the bridge only a few blocks from Liberty Plaza. The exact details of what happened next are still fuzzy to most. The planned route was for marchers to use the pedestrian walkway to cross the bridge, but at some point a contingent of marchers broke away and took to the roadway, walking past a slew of cars already caught up in the spectacle of the march. Once the initial crowd of protesters marched onto the road, some 500 or more followed, most (including myself) not knowing that they were risking arrest by doing so.
The NYPD claims that they warned the initial group that stormed the road that doing so would mean arrest, but in reality they did little to deter us. In fact, I assumed that they were clearing the pathway for us because there was simply no way 2,000 people were going to use the pedestrian walkway at once. Once on the roadway, we were ecstatic. It was like no other feeling. Here we were, walking with 500 other people over one of the world's most iconic structures. We chanted “Who's bridge? Our bridge!” We drummed loudly and waved fists in the air in solidarity with the marchers 20 feet above us on the pedestrian walkway. Then suddenly, before we had even reached the first stone tower, the march came to a screeching halt. Nobody was really sure what was going on. I couldn't see far enough ahead of me to know that the police had formed a blockade with the same orange nets they used at Union Square the week before. When I looked behind me and saw yet another line of police approaching, I knew that things had suddenly taken a turn for the worse. It wasn't long before they had surrounded us with orange netting and panic overtook the crowd suspended hundreds of feet in the air over the East River on a slab of concrete.
Some 40 feet higher still the marchers who had used the pedestrian walkway luckily had a bird's eye view of what was going on. Using the people's microphone, they kept us updated on what was going on. I could feel the intensity of situation but also felt a wave of calm and solidarity. Like some ragged guardian angels, our fellow protesters were keeping on eye on us, telling us what was happening on either side of us, and livestreaming it all to 30,000 people around the world. We anxiously repeated their updates verbatim. “Mic check! It looks like they have surrounded you on both sides and they're not letting anyone through. The best thing for you to do is to sit down and lock arms!” And so we did.
We spent the next eight hours in anxious limbo. We waited for what seemed like an eternity on the bridge for the police to arrest each and every one of us. They grouped us in fives and cuffed us, then put us on any vehicle they could – I was put with about 30 others on an MTA bus and taken to the 90th Precinct in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Once we arrived at the station we sat on the bus and kept waiting, this time for the police to process the inordinate amount of arrestees. As we waited, all manner of conversations erupted on the bus between protesters – gender rights (the police had separated us by gender before arresting us), organic farming, community organizing – the usual fare at an activist gathering. It was something of a party. Even our arresting officers engaged us in conversations, and they seemed genuinely interested in “what we're all about.” Some were even borderline sympathetic! Others poked fun at our dreadlocks and discussions about GMO foods. “A tomato's a tomato, don't matter how it got there.” One officer, who as one protester later jested was “too Italian for his own good,” was especially talkative. He told us he agreed with the Verizon worker's strike and was disappointed when they returned to work without a deal. I asked if he would arrest the strikers if he was given the orders to do so. He responded with a smirk and said “yeah, it's my job.”
Inside the station, more waiting. First to be searched, then to be put in a one-person cell with 5 or 6 others. We passed the time singing and starting conversations about our lives outside of the occupation. After a while, an officer came by with cheese sandwiches and water and promised us we'd be out “in one or two hours.” Three and half hours later, close to 3:00am, we were finally released into the cold night air. It was heart-warming to find a group of people from the occupation and the National Lawyer's Guild waiting for us.
A group of us took the J train back to Liberty Plaza, laughing and recounting the whole way. Six hours earlier, we had no idea the other existed, now we were the best of friends. This is what the NYPD doesn't understand. The more they arrest us, the more solidarity they create between us. We built a community on that bridge and on that bus and in that cell. All of us went through this experience that was dehumanizing, but also jovial and absurd. All the arrests did was reinforce our resolve, commit us more to the occupation and make us even more connected.
I remember during the intense moments on the bridge when we all knew arrest was imminent someone yelled out and we repeated: “Mic check! It is an honor and a privilege to be arrested with you all today. 50 years from now, when you tell your grandkids about this, you can say that you were a soldier in the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge!” And there among the tears and the worries and the panic, we found a place to cheer and stand together.
Danny Valdes is the host of a weekly radio show called Radio Provocateur*.
*Find out more at http://bit.ly/radioprovo.