Our march arrives at City Hall, distributing itself against the steps and the center fountain. Tensions are high. We’ve arrived, we all know, but the question is now what? The crowd bends itself into a circle, reflexively taking General Assembly form.
MIC CHECK! (. . . )
MIC CHECK! ( . . .)
But everyone is talking among themselves. Marches from other blocks are arriving, adding to the numbers, asking what are we doing? The lack of central leadership – the crucial element of Occupy Wall Street’s direct participatory democracy—is showing its tactical weaknesses. A few people, people I recognize from the park, stand in the center and try to facilitate.
We need to hold City Hall! But if you are going to be arrested, make sure you are doing it because it has meaning!
If you get arrested here, the only thing it’ll mean is that you let yourself get kettled!
Squad cars and vans begin to pour into the plaza, slowly and methodically sealing off one exit after another as the group debates among itself. My friend and I climb the fountain to get a better look. It looks like…
Listen, this is not time for a [expletive] General Assembly, we need to sit down and prepare to hold—
We need to keep moving, draw the cops onto us and off our friends at the—
And so forth and something, I don’t know, because my friend and I are filming the view—helicopter blades and searchlights like disco balls, sirens and flashing lights, police marching in formation, forming ranks or just outright sprinting down side roads—and realizing that very soon this mass of mostly peaceful protestors will be absolutely surrounded; I had a hard time grasping what would be gained by that, innocent or not.
Everyone move in close, get in tight.
No! We need to march to…
There comes a time in every man’s life when he must look into those dark recesses of his soul, when he probes the depths of his character and discovers in a moment of pure, certain action exactly the type of man he has become. For me, this moment occurred at 3:10 a.m. when, faced with the realization that the protest was surrounded except for the tiniest side-road sliver, I said to my dear friend and cameraman, “[Expletive] this, dude, I’ve got a Macbook in my backpack. Not trying to get dropped on my laptop, here.” He must have understood the gravity of the situation (it was a Pro), because he immediately hopped off the fountain, put the camera away, and walked with me to the only road not currently blockaded.
March! March! March!
I mean it was the strangest thing. We were halfway out of the plaza, the police were moving in on the hundred or so protestors who stayed to hold City Hall, and when we looked over our shoulder we saw behind us hundreds of protestors apparently following us. In the most literal and temporal sense possible, we were leading Occupy Wall Street.
I don’t know if the broken-down assembly couldn’t decide on a destination for their march in time or what, but it seemed as though hundreds of people looked around, saw the window to avoid immediate arrest closing, saw two dudes jogging quite confidently in that direction, and just assumed somebody in the mob must have decided on something, so let’s follow the two guys up front. People were rushing up behind us, pumping fists in the air and chanting march! march! march! It was incredible! Like being a hero, a revolutionary, like what it must feel like to be the opposite of LeBron James!
We looked at each other and felt so potent! So sure-footed were we, leading the revolution down the path to freedom, that we began to jog, to wave our arms and shout march! march! march! march! march! until our throats tore hoarse and we realized with soiled-pants certainty that appearing to be sort-of leaders for Occupy Wall Street for even thirty seconds was an incredibly dangerous proposition – one which apparently causes unmarked police cars to hurl themselves at you at full speed, losing control and drifting Fast and Furious-style directly up onto the curb, narrowly avoiding killing you dead and instead blasting through a garbage can, shattering the front headlights and scattering bundles of grimy New York trash across the road.
I responded to the situation by screaming and leaping backwards, which I imagine didn’t appear very heroic to those marching behind me, but which must have looked better than what I did next, which was to inadvertently retreat directly into a cloud of tear gas.
“Wait is th—“ I yelled.
The march gained speed, moved to jogs and sprints, but never faster than the chopper’s searchlight, never faster than squad cars and vans. A winding, terrible half-mile parade twisted its way from the Financial District to Union Square and back: protestors scouting ahead on bicycles, followed by squad cars always one parallel block away, then the march, then the rows of police. When the march jogged down a narrow alley; the police jogged down a narrow alley. When the march broke into sprints; the police broke into sprints. The NYPD were well-trained. They were ready for tonight.
Soon they were walking side-by-side with the march, providing the sort of “escort” which allowed them to detain large portions of protestors at every other crosswalk. The end goal was to put as many gaps in the march as was possible, so those gaps could be filled with more police escorts, which would then divide and delay even smaller groups, and so on and so forth until the protests had fallen apart. It was a strategy they would maintain throughout the night. Divide. Delay. Officers were posted at subway entrances, keeping protestors above ground where they could be tracked. Divided. And delayed. Those who hadn’t killed their phone batteries on GPS and Twitter relayed rumors of police presence at Washington Square Park, Union Square, Tompkins Square Park – anywhere we might want to go.
They would grind down the number of protestors slowly, one block at a time. And while Occupy Wall Street likely wasn’t thrilled with yet again becoming a target of the NYPD, it’s worth noting that the opinion on the ground seemed to be that the NYPD was more professional and less belligerent last night than in past conflicts. Of course that doesn’t mean—as is the case with the protestors – that there wasn’t a percentage whose behavior reflects poorly on the rest.
At 3:35 A.M. on the corner of East 4th St and Broadway, eight to ten blue-shirt NYPD officers charged—and I mean full on, medieval infantry charged—into the rear of what appeared to be a peacefully protesting crowd walking the same direction, catching the protestors seemingly unaware and beating them with batons. There were multiple witnesses, though none were aware of what might have provoked the officers into such a sudden escalation of force. Also, at approximately 3:47 A.M. near the corner of Spring St and Broadway, a glass bottle was hurled at a police escort. Though no officers were harmed, the alleged thrower was arrested and laid face-down in the area of the broken glass.
These actions were uncalled for, but also entirely unnecessary from a tactical standpoint. After three hours of pursuit, most of the hundreds of protestors that began their march off the Fulton Street station were scattered and fatigued, ready to rest, regroup, and reassess things some other time. Occupy Wall Street still had its technical infrastructure, its planned Day of Action, it’s war chest full of donations – with many having worked all day and marched all night, what the movement needed most immediately was food and sleep.
Come sunrise, I put down my notepad and took up with a group handing out bottled water and snacks. Protestors congregated on a nearby stoop, updating Twitter with the next day’s plans. At the end of the street, police officers leaned against a railing. There would be a tomorrow.