Guest Post: Zuccotti Eviction - And The Fog Of Protest: An Eyewitness Account
Submitted by Ash Bennington
Zuccotti Eviction - And The Fog Of Protest
At 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning, a massive contingent of NYPD officers converged on Zuccotti Park to forcibly evict the Occupy Wall Street protesters who had been encamped there for many weeks.
Minutes after the police raid began the Twitter stream flowed with the news.
I arrived near Zuccotti Park just after 1:30 a.m. Civilians, including reporters with valid NYPD press passes, were being held back at a police perimeter several blocks away from the park itself. This meant that few reporters were able to witness or record the eviction of the protesters from the park. I was told by a police officer that a “frozen zone” had been put into effect for several blocks in each direction of Zuccotti Park.
I decided to wander around on the side streets. At first, I didn’t see any protesters: The only people who were visible outside the perimeter were other journalists and the NYPD.
After about twenty minutes of walking, I found a side street that had been gated off with barricades and was being guarded by the police. I decided to wait there. Within a few minutes, I saw a group of about one hundred protesters who had been in Zuccotti Park being expelled from the area behind the police cordon. A few of the protesters were furious -- most just seemed sleepy and confused. One of the cops told me that the protesters were already out of Zuccotti Park itself, and that the park was being washed with fire hoses. Most of the protesters seemed to leave the cordoned area peacefully when the police arrived in the park. It was around 2:00 a.m.
As the protesters spilled out to the area beyond the perimeter, the defining feature of the night became a kind of loosely connected chaos.
One block felt as though a riot might break out at any moment. The next block was empty. A policeman would tell you that you could walk down a street, and at the end of the same street you would find another policeman who would tell you to go back where you came from.
It was said by many protesters that a hardcore contingent of activists remained in the park “u-locking” their arms together with bicycle locks, waiting for the police to pry them apart and then arrest them.
The police kept telling the protesters to disperse.
A rumor went up that the protesters were going to converge on Wall Street, at the statue of the Charging Bull.
But after a crowd of people advanced in that direction the rumor changed: Now, it was chanted, the protesters were marching on Foley Square, near the Brooklyn Bridge, in front of the New York County Supreme Court.
The second rumor proved justified. When I arrived at Foley Square, on the corner of Center Street and Pearl Street, there were perhaps 1,000 protesters. A massive phalanx of police officers stood motionless watching the crowd. Officers from the U.S. Marshal’s Service stood behind barricades in front of the courthouse. A helicopter circled overhead, its spotlight flashing across the court house steps.
Then, at almost exactly 3:00 a.m., the protesters began to march. The crowd had the appearance of migrating birds, all changing direction at once. The police began marching after them, scrambling to keep up. A huge contingent of officers ran the wrong way down Worth Street and turned onto Broadway. (The crowd of protesters were marching in the opposite direction.) I followed the crowd, like chasing the tail of a snake.
As I walked north on Broadway, a searchlight from a helicopter flooded the street from overhead. I turned right onto White Street at around3:15 a.m.
The crowd kept marching: It was getting thicker and wider. And then the protesters stopped walking. A wild cheer went up among the crowd. It seemed to be inspired by the fact that the protesters now outnumbered the police. A couple of protesters threw trash bags from the corner into the street.
Suddenly the crowd began chanting “March! March! March!” and started moving again.
I couldn’t tell which way we were going. There seemed to be a kind of general ecstasy about the absence of direction.
Then the police came charging down the street. There seemed to be as many police as protesters in the crowd -- but the police were in riot gear.
The police sensed that control might be lost and seemed willing to use force: Their truncheons were flailing in their fists, as their arms pumped while they ran.
It felt unwise to be near the front of the group. (You didn’t know where you might get penned in.) I noticed for the first time that a few members of the crowd had their faces covered with scarves and bandanas. The tension seemed to increase. Some marchers screamed at the police.
The crowd started moving again and the tension seemed to pass.
I saw a cab stop at the next cross street with its on-duty lamp illuminated. I got in.
The driver was from Sudan. He told me the protests reminded him of the Arab Spring. He said he liked the excitement, and would take me wherever I wanted to go.
We drove north on Center Street, past Canal Street.
Then a convoy of police vehicles forced our cab to stop in the shoulder. I counted at least forty police cars, trucks, and vans as they passed us. They were also heading north on Center Street. We waited as the convoy drove ahead of us, passing us with their lights flashing.
When we began driving again, I told the driver to follow the police. The crowd was no longer in view: They were too far in front of us.
We drove about six blocks behind the police vehicles.
At the corner of Center Street and Grand Street all the police cars stopped. Then the police officers began piling out of their cars. In the police vans, there were about eight officers to each vehicle, and the streets were soon swarming with police. Then another police van passed in front of us and stopped; I lost our sightline to the convoy.
When the vehicle in front of us finally allowed us to pass through, the crowd of police officers seemed to have melted into the side streets.
We continued north, past where Center Street becomes Cleveland Place at Broom Street. As we approached Broom Street, near the SoHoshopping district, I saw the flashing lights of police cars. But the protesters appear to be ahead of the police, and also ahead of us. Cleveland Place became Lafayette Street at Spring Street. (The jumble of road names in lower Manhattan seemed, to my mind, to mirror the chaos in the streets.)
At Spring Street, the police convoy stopped in front of us. The police again get out of their vehicles and begin marching north.
Suddenly, the police charge up the sidewalk at a full running pace. They are running in a way that conveyed the impression of immediate danger. The running is contagious: When an officer sees his fellow officer running he responds in kind. Their truncheons scrape the metal car doors as they sprint by our cab.
The Sudanese cab driver inexplicably tells me “The Whole World is Watching!”
Then the police all stop running. There is apparently nothing wrong after all. The cops are now shrugging, and panting, and some are chuckling a little at their wasted effort.
When the police in front of our cab allow us to move again, we turn right on Spring Street, then left onto Mulberry. We’re in Little Italy now.
As we turn the corner, I hear through the open window of our cab a woman shouting into her cell phone: “Drew just got arrested! Drew just got arrested! And my battery is dying!”
I can see the group of protesters again now. It looks massive. Hundreds of protesters are walking North on Lafayette Street one block to the left.
We turn left onto Houston then right again back onto Lafayette Street. When I look left, there appear to be hundreds more protesters marching up Broadway. By the time we reach Fourth Street, we’re now ahead of the marchers and the police. I tell the cab driver to pull over and wait.
When the crowd catches up with us, I hear them shouting about marching to Union Square.
The kids in the crowd are giving the cab drivers the thumbs up sign now. The cab drivers are honking their approval. For a moment it feels like a wave is moving north. It feels like something important may happen in Union Square. The crowd bursts into applause. It’s 3:30 in the morning.
I tell the cab driver to head straight to Union Square.
But the crowd never makes it there: When the cab arrives at Fourteenth Street and Broadway, on the southeast corner of Union Square, the park is empty.There are no police in sight. And no protesters.
I ask the cab driver to double back and head South down Broadway.
On Broadway, I see why the protesters never arrived. The police are dividing up the crowd. They hold up a group of protesters, perhaps eighty or a hundred at a time, until the crowd becomes a group, then they direct them down the side streets.
This dilutes the crowd’s enthusiasm as well as their number. There is a helicopter overhead. Police cars are converging, after driving the wrong way down one way streets. The crowd seems to thin. Then it appears to swell. Then it definitively thins as the police again begin to divide it into still smaller groups.
The road ahead is blocked. I ask the cab driver to head west down a side street. We pass through the blocks that contain NYU. The campus looks sleepy. A few kids are in front of their dormitories smoking cigarettes. They seem unaware of what’s just happened only a few blocks away.
We head back east. On the southwest corner of East Fourth and Lafayette the crowd is yelling at a small group of police officers. Then the crowd melts away as police reinforcements arrive.
At about 4:00 a.m., many smaller groups converge on one block on Lafayette Street. For a few minutes, they again number in the hundreds. At one point, the crowd chants at a skirmish line of police officers who are surrounding them: “Overworked and underpaid: We’re doing this for you!”
I ask the cab driver to pass Washington Square Park around 4:15 a.m. I can’t see any protesters from my vantage point on the North Side of Washington Square, but there is a heavy presence of police vehicles in the center of the park.
We head back to Foley Square around 4:30 a.m. There still appears to be a couple of hundred protesters there. The television trucks are congregating waiting to do live satellites hits for the morning news shows.
One of the kids down at Foley Square tells me that the protesters are communicating on Facebook, Twitter, text messaging -- and even using bicycle messengers as scouts to coordinate their movements.
At around 4:45 a.m. we take a final drive past Zuccotti Park. At the corner of Broadway and Vesey there are still many cops in riot gear. There are even more police in riot gear at the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane. A crowd of people are being held in front of police lines.
But this crowd doesn’t appear to be composed of protesters. The people look like tourists who have come out to gawk and rubberneck, perhaps after hearing about the crowd on television or the internet. When I pass through the intersection, the crowd is smiling and applauding and waving at my cab. The police truncheons are in their belt holsters.
On the cab ride back uptown, I decide to take a final pass through Washington Square Park. I see a crowd of about twenty young protesters on Thompson Street, just south of the park. I decide to have the cab drop me off so I can talk to them.
The protesters tell me that they’ve been given shelter by Judson Memorial Church. The church is just a short way up Thompson Street so I walk there, though I’m now very tired.
Inside the church there are about eighty protesters -- most of them under twenty five years old.
They seem exhausted too. Many are lying on the carpet. A few in the corner are uploading videos of the protest from their cell phones to a laptop computer.
One of them introduces me to The Reverend Michael Ellick, a minister at the church.
Ellick tells me that the church has given the protesters use of their facilities to rest and regroup. He says he hasn’t seen anyone seriously injured. But a couple of the kids came in with their eyes red and swollen from the police pepper spray. By the time I’m done interviewing Ellick it’s after five o’clock in the morning.
The protesters seem ready to go to sleep: But most vow to regroup later in the morning and return to the streets. Everyone I ask seems to tell me a different time and a different location for where they’ve heard the protests will resume. Some say the crowd is reuniting at Sixth Avenue and Canal Street, others say Foley Square, while some say Zuccotti Park itself.