“What is overwhelming about the climate challenge is that it requires breaking so many rules at once.” – Naomi Klein
Early Monday evening I sat down in the street at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street with a polar bear, two women dressed as Captain Planet, and almost 100 other people. Following a vibrant day of unpermitted Flood Wall Street protests that drew as many as 3,000 demonstrators to Lower Manhattan, we locked arms and insisted that this symbolic piece of real estate should remain occupied through the following day when world leaders were scheduled to gather at the United Nations to continue discussions about how to address climate change.
With its outsized political influence and its funding of companies pursuing dirty energy projects around the world, Wall Street was an obvious target for protesters insisting on capitalism’s central role in the climate crisis.
A song that had been sung throughout the day by protesters burbled up again among the people sitting around me: “The people are rising like water/We gotta calm this crisis down/I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter saying / Shut down Wall Street now."
Once I made my decision to sit in the street, I felt calm and relaxed. It had been almost 15 years since I had last participated in a mass sit-in. Yet, the scene was familiar: the defiant singing and chanting of protesters as well as supporters standing on a nearby sidewalk; hordes of photographers jumping forward looking for the money shot; a phalanx of riot police standing nearby at attention; tense, stone-faced police commanders barking out instructions to their subordinates; the order to disperse or face arrest read several times over a police bullhorn.
“We won’t move! We won’t move! Arrest Wall Street!” Was the response hurled back at the police.
* * *
The People’s Climate March consumed much of my summer. In mid-August The Indypendent became the first paper in the city to cover the climate march extensively. We followed up in September with a 60,000-copy special issue that we distributed around the city in the final 10 days before the march. After helping to put tens of thousands of words out into the world, I wanted to do something more.
This goes against the traditional maxim that journalists should be above the fray and cover the news, not make it. Yet, we are also citizens of this country and inhabitants of this planet. With an overwhelming scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is real and likely to get much worse if greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically reduced, we should all be outraged that the oil, gas and coal industries have been able to use its massive wealth and influence to perpetuate a disingenuous “debate” about whether climate change is real — abetted in many cases by journalists who have felt obligated to give both sides of the issue equal credence when they bother to pay attention to the issue at all.
Once the arrests began, the police preceded quickly and efficiently taking five “collars” away at a time. As I waited, I gazed up at the clear patches of sky that peaked between Broadway’s tall buildings and slowly breathed in the fresh air with an extra measure of gratitude. The polar bear was sitting one row in front of me. His sad, weary face was stunningly lifelike, as if he had just spent days swimming in search of an ice floe. He ignored police orders to take off his mask before his paws were zipcuffed. When the police unmasked the sweat-soaked, middle-aged man inside the costume, the crowd erupted in jeers.
My turn soon came. As I stood up to get arrested, I tapped my right shoe against the pavement several times. “Your foot fall asleep while you were down there?” A white-shirted police captain asked solicitously.
I was led about 100 feet down Broadway and placed in a line with four other collars as we waited to be photographed.
“You got any sharp objects on you?” Asked the police officer who rummaged through my pockets. “Knives, needles, anything that could be used to hurt us?”
Several friends from the union I used to work for called out from the sidewalk and asked to take my picture. The cops around me obligingly stepped aside. “Wow, you’ve got a lot of fans,” one of them said before I was led away to a waiting police van.
* * *
All of us arrestees were taken to a processing center located inside the 1 Police Plaza compound. Standing in the parking lot, I overheard a white shirt instruct a subordinate to have everyone processed and sent home with a desk appearance ticket instead of running us through Manhattan Central Booking (aka The Tombs) and having us arraigned before a judge, a process that could drag well into the next day.
This was the first mass civil disobedience carried out since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office almost nine months ago. It appeared that our predominantly white contingent was going to be treated with kid gloves. However, in what appears to be an outrageous double standard, details have since emerged of female arrestees being subjected to intrusive questions about their personal relationships and their employers. Refusing to answer police questions, they were warned, would get them sent to central booking.
“We gave them the information because we were all exhausted and tired and wanted to go home,” Kim Fraczek, an arrestee, told me afterwards. “I feel taken aback, now realizing that I wasn’t obligated to give them that information.”
“Who you associate with is not the Police Department’s business unless it’s related to the commission of a crime,” said Martin Stolar of the National Lawyers Guild’s Mass Defense Committee. “For them to [ask personal questions] after people are arrested for disorderly conduct at a political protest is unacceptable.”
* * *
The processing center itself was out of an earlier era. There were no computers visible and piles of paperwork were all done by hand. The police took pictures of each us with our arresting officers using Polaroid-type film. After our personal possessions were taken (shoelaces included), the men were deposited in one long, rectangular holding cell. Women arrestees, however, were locked up in groups of three in cramped cells that reeked of urine, Fraczek said.
The best part of my seven hours in custody was spent talking with other arrestees. We had time on our hands, nowhere to go and no electronic devices to distract us. Among our ranks were veteran organizers, artists, college students attending their first big protest, battle-hardened Occupy veterans, a former Vermont state senator and the man who donned the polar bear suit. People were tired but upbeat. The afterglow from Sunday’s mass march and Monday’s Flood Wall Street action animated the room.
The police offered each arrestee who entered the holding cell the choice of a peanut butter or cheese sandwich, a small carton of lukewarm milk and a tiny red and green apple. For those who weren’t interested in the jail food, a “food bank” was created off to one side for people to put their food out for others.
At the urging of longtime organizer David Solnit, we also formed a circle and did a go-around in which each arrestee said a few words about themselves and what brought them to this place. The first several speakers said predictably noble things. Then, just as the next man started to say, “I’m…”, the toilet behind a low wall at the far end of the holding cell roared to life.
“Well that’s his story!” Someone joked.
“Yeah, he’s from Flushing!” A second person called out, sending everyone into gales of laughter.
* * *
The hours drifted by. There was no clock in the holding cell. The lone pay phone had an “I <3 class warfare” sticker on it, but no dial tone.
Some of us napped on the wooden benches while others continued to talk in small groups. When I felt like being quiet, I observed the 50 or so police in the open office area outside our holding cell. While some sat at their desks like schoolboys and diligently filled out paperwork, others waited to be told what to do or circulated in and out of the room like navy blue ants. Back in their own domain, they were visibly more relaxed than a few hours before, enjoying each other’s company after a tiring day in the streets.
Watching their movements, I wondered to myself, who becomes an NYPD cop? The pay is good, the pension is great. There’s real camaraderie with one’s co-workers. A lot of people see you as a hero. Yet, the job means being a tool whose days and nights are filled with long stretches of tedium punctuated by occasional moments of real danger.
“Tarleton! Come on. You’re out!”
I was to be one of the first prisoners to be set free. After signing my desk appearance ticket, I was escorted from the building down an empty roadway. It was almost 2am and the cool air sliced through the thin shirt I was wearing.
“You’re free to be you,” said the cop who was leading me along.
“Yeah, but we still need to do something about climate change,” I replied, not wanting to lose sight of the larger reason I was here. The cop said he respected our right to protest, but didn’t understand why we had to sit down in the middle of the street.
“It doesn’t accomplish anything,” he said.
“Sometimes it does,” I said, thinking of how acts of mass civil disobedience have helped fuel various social justice movements over the decades. He shook his head and disagreed. It just meant more work for him.
“Well, time will tell,” I added. A moment later I passed through a final police checkpoint and continued walking alone toward a small band of supporters who were waiting at an empty street corner to greet each of us as we were released.
John Tarleton is a co-founder of The Indypendent and the paper’s executive editor.