I came to report on the occupation of Zuccotti Park expecting it would pass in a matter of days, like the stillborn movements before it.
In spite of its self-celebrated cosmopolitanism, New York after 9/11 has become an arid environment for protest under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. The press and the public yawned through the massive anti–Iraq War march in 2003 and the excessive police response to the 2004 RNC protesters (the city is still dealing with those lawsuits). Even after the Wall Street meltdown, an eerie silence prevailed.
Zuccotti was something else: a physical presence, symbolically charged by its location a stone’s throw from both Ground Zero and Wall Street, with no end date to wait out and no demand to be placated.
While the act of occupation had little to do with the broader complaint—at the core, unhealthy economic distribution perpetuated by increasingly unresponsive elected “representatives”—it proved a dramatic setting for airing them, and for bringing participants together. For one season the park took on a life of its own, before reverting to a place for “passive recreation.”
In the course of that season, though, the scene aged badly. With a big push from the Bloomberg administration and tabloid coverage fixated on civic order, Zuccotti Park descended from a new public commons to a fever dream.
I surveyed the scene for the first time about a week after it started. In that first of what became many such visits, I stayed from early afternoon through the next morning, listening to professors, students, union members, veterans, homeless women, eccentrics, lunatics, librarians, old colleagues from other newspapers, members of various working groups and even a neighbor from Brooklyn there to take it in.
Occupy Wall Street had yet to draw the high-profile NYPD abuses and errors—the pepper spraying and Brooklyn Bridge arrests—that would give them a shape and purpose they couldn’t sustain themselves. But amid the drum circles and music festival “model society” absurdity of the park, people who’d been at a loss until now about how to express an array of concerns sensed an opening.
I was less interested in the protest itself than in the creation within Zuccotti of the sort of freewheeling commons New York City has lost under this mayor, even as the Internet and mobile devices eroded what was left of a shared café culture.
That shift is epitomized by the increasing commercialization of public spaces like the generator-powered gift market at Union Square. But it left a hole that the occupiers briefly filled.
The handmade cardboard signs, the conversations with engaging strangers, the library, even the General Assembly all seemed like flashes of the participant city that’s hunkered down to wait out an unpopular mayor. Bloomberg has built an ever-expanding safe space for the very well-off at the expense of the rest of us, using his private fortune to encourage New Yorkers to simply leave the city’s civic life in his hands.
Problems in Zucotti stemmed in no small part from the massively disproportionate police response, intended in part to limit the size and scope of the protests by warning the economically marginal, the physically frail, and the meek about the bad things that might happen to those who participated.
That tactic backfired. As the occupation grew, the would-be political participants found themselves starved for space, overwhelmed by their own tents and by an excess of hangers-on, panhandlers and carnival-goers unsober in all senses. They were ringed by barricades and police officers, blinded by spotlights aimed into the park at all hours, and eyed at all times by dozens of NYPD cameras carried by officers and atop a 20-foot pole on an unmarked police truck.
“Just because you’re paranoid,” one Occupier said, sweeping her arm across the park, “doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
The NYPD response was a far more significant disruption to the life of the city than the protesters themselves—for the first time since 9/11 penning off streets to those without IDs to prove they “belonged” there, erecting barricades that starved businesses of customers, sending so many officers to “protect” the demonstrably nonviolent marches that crime rates went up elsewhere.
In turn, the occupiers became fixated on the police department. At each march, rumors would swirl about brutality, arrests and reports that “they’re taking the park.” Crowds would at times work themselves into mobs, facing off with the NYPD as though they were in Oakland or Egypt. Yet they failed to notice—let alone respond to—the tactics used to manage them, like complicated penning schemes that broke bigger groups into smaller ones or tricked protesters into separating themselves from the rest of the city instead of showing they were just like everyone else.
After I reported that the police were exacerbating a split between participants and nonparticipants in Zuccotti by encouraging drunks and rowdies to head down there, the NYPD’s main mouthpiece issued a tepid denial. “Not true,” he said, without specifying what exactly wasn’t true, adding that those types would of course find their way there.
Explaining his decision to finally clear the park, Bloomberg pointed to the EMT who broke his leg on the sidewalk just outside the park (but inside the barriers separating the police from the protesters) a week earlier, in the middle of the night.
I was the only reporter on the scene when that happened. My colleagues had dispersed around the park to track a spate of seemingly contagious violent incidents on an especially ugly night.
Two very large OWS “community watch” members were patiently working to calm down and eject from the park a crazed 20-year-old, Joshua Ehrenberg, who I was told had punched his girlfriend in the face earlier that night. Just outside the barriers separating the sidewalk from the street, officers watched the crowd swelling around the scene.
The police ignored requests to move on as Ehrenberg kept playing to them, spitting out slogans of the occupation: “The process is being disrespected” since “the community hasn’t consented to this,” trying to get friends to form a human chain with him. As ever, the gawkers accused each other of being infiltrators and police agents.
As that scene played out, two huge men in still another fight emerged behind us, inside the park, throwing ineffective haymakers at each other, nearly toppling tents. One of the OWS security members left to try to handle that, while his partner finally asked the police, watching from outside the barriers, to come in and remove Ehrenberg.
Despite the invitation, the crowd swarmed around the entering officers, yelling “Pig!” and the like as the police carried the struggling, still slogan-shouting would-be Occupier out by his arms and legs.
An EMT there to take him for a psychiatric evaluation, walking backward just ahead of the swollen group of police, protesters and park campers, put his foot through the rungs of a ladder that for some reason was leaning against the sidewalk.
As he wailed in agony, the crowd gave no space—even as the police calmly asked them to give him room, pushing those who wouldn’t listen back with measured force.
In press reports about the incident, a city spokesperson incorrectly claimed that the EMT was shoved or assaulted, while Occupation sources peddled the line that this was just one of those things, an unavoidable accident unrelated to the occupation.
Did he fall or was he pushed? Yes.
Would the Occupation movement—really, a moment—have collapsed under its own weight without the city’s heavy-handed help? Thanks to that help, we’ll never know.
This piece first appeared at City and State New York.