On Occupy Wall Street’s Six Month Anniversary, NYPD Opts for Another Violent Crackdown
It was déjà vu at Zuccotti Park.
During the six-month anniversary celebration of Occupy Wall Street’s creation over the weekend, the New York City Police Department demonstrated—as they had during the eviction of Zuccotti Park months ago—that its officers seem to think forgiveness is easier than permission.
Cringing at the thought of policing another occupation? Clear out those pesky protesters by beating them first and answering lawyers later.
Freedom of the press? Optional—journalists can whine on Twitter about suppression all they want, but they still couldn’t get that big arrest video.
Brookfield Properties required to keep Zuccotti Park open to the public, and protests, at all hours? Well, make up an excuse to throw the bums out now and let the courts sort it out later. (Police on a bullhorn said the park was “closed for cleaning,” while Brookfield security told The Guardian that occupiers had violated ordinances against structures and camping materials. NYPD officials refused to comment to Campus Progress on the reason for closing the park.)
Of course there will be consequences for violating civil liberties. There will be outrage. There will be Tweets, petitions, articles, and maybe even lawsuits. But the NYPD has seen all that before and seemingly hasn’t changed the way it treats protesters and journalists during Occupy actions.
Streaming and YouTube video, eyewitness reports, and Tweets from those on the scene in New York City on March 17 showed a picture of massive and often arbitrary-seeming force, including towards some journalists. At around 11:30 p.m., with no violent provocation from occupiers, hundreds of police swarmed into the park, issuing dispersal orders and often enforcing those orders with fists and batons.
Journalists chronicled the violence and suppression against them through Tweets. Several reporters were reportedly grabbed or pushed to the ground. One says she had her breast grabbed, one was allegedly hit in the shoulder, and one Tweeted that she hurt her leg. Yet another, BBC photographer Zach Balast, said he was hit in the head with a baton and had his hair pulled by an officer while he screamed that he was a member of the press. In total, three journalists were arrested.
Sarah Leonard, associate editor of Dissent magazine who was on the scene, told Campus Progress that the park had been peaceful and celebratory. Protesters addressed the crowd, saying the park felt like home for the first time since the eviction.
“Then the cops got involved, which was the turning point of the evening.” she said. “There were just so many cops. Ten of us who didn’t want to be arrested went out to a side street, and 20 cops followed.”
“We couldn’t even stand on the sidewalk,” recalled one activist (at 6:14). “I’m literally a block away, I’m just eating something, and all of a sudden I’ve got a baton at my back, and this cop is pushing me repeatedly, hitting me in my kidneys.”
J.A. Myerson of Truthout reported: “I watched the police break up the group [of seated protesters refusing to leave the park] by punching protesters about the head, repeatedly stomping on shoulders and arms, grabbing throats, dragging protesters by the hair and clawing at their faces.”
Miriam Rosenberg Rocek, an Occupy Wall Street medic, described her experience with violent arrest to Campus Progress:
As the police started coming down the stairs into the park [other medics and I] found ourselves stuck between hundreds of seated protestors and hundreds of oncoming police. Not knowing what else to do, we sat down. A white-shirted officer pointed at me and said "start with her, get her first." I'm not sure why, I can only assume it was because I was marked as a medic. I wasn't able to see much after that, I was dragged up and thrown to the ground really quickly. ...
I'm being charged with resisting arrest, apparently defined by New York City Police as “lying face down on the ground with at least one large police officers kneeling on your back, slamming your head repeatedly against the paving stones while twisting your arm up behind your back and screaming ‘stop resisting’ over and over at you.”
This video, at 4:06, shows a young man being forcefully grabbed and arrested by a small mob of officers on Saturday afternoon for no apparent reason. And the only broken window was caused by a protester’s head while he was handcuffed and being shoved by police.
Events like this make common occupier accusations of “police riots” seem like less than hyperbole.
But the most outrage erupted over protester Cecily McMillan, who had a seizure while in handcuffs and later hyperventilated, apparently struggling to breathe with broken ribs. Protesters were screaming at police to remove her handcuffs and call for medical help. Police seemed not to comply for several minutes, according to witnesses and YouTube video, nor did they allow members of the crowd who said they were trained EMTs to come forward. An ambulance reportedly took almost 20 minutes to arrive.
But McMillan’s case is complicated by the existence of this video, which appears to show her throwing an elbow at a police officer’s face before she is tackled by several officers. Still, while it’s unclear whether her action was a deliberate act of violence or a reflexive move of self-defense after being grabbed, that should have had no bearing on whether she received prompt and proper medical care.
And the press material NYPD’s public information office provided to Campus Progress seemed like a poor attempt to excuse the reports of police violence: An attached video of McMillan’s elbow-throw, a report of a Twitter comment expressing violent sentiment towards police, and reports of at least two Occupy-related telephone threats against officers.
But no comment on why the park was closed. No comment on the arrests of other, nonviolent protesters or the suppression of journalists. Just hand-waving and grasping for provocations by Occupiers.
Two dozen NYPD cops were also part of the unnecessarily violent raid on Occupy DC’s McPherson Square encampment, where I was knocked down by police while filming a confrontation. Park Police hadn’t shown Occupy DC that much force before then. That day, too, cops seemed to be overreacting to “intelligence” suggesting protesters might act radically.
An important caveat: Many NYPD officers were not violent and did not act inappropriately during the incident on Saturday. But those who did are products of a consistent culture in the NYPD of violent suspicion towards protesters. The inappropriate use of force has just been too widespread to be isolated, and it’s not just limited to Occupy.
“What's happening to OWS isn't special,” cautioned Rocek, the medic. “‘Arrested and beaten for no reason’ is something that happens to people of color all the time.”
There are, it seems, two major forces contributing to violent crackdowns specifically at Occupy protests.
The first: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD’s attitude that the Occupy movement is a huge hassle and an eyesore, a repeat performance of which must be avoided at all costs. An overwhelming show of force, the theory goes, will discourage any attempts at reoccupation of Zuccotti Park and keep the city looking clean and bright for the one percent.
The second: More than mere nuisance, both police and city officials seem to fear the growth of a population of angry protesters that could, in theory, give rise to domestic terrorism. The NYPD has been teaching counterterrorism measures in trainings since the fall, when Occupy began. But a group of happy people dancing, talking, and playing with tarps and giant puppets in a public park hardly seems a threat to national security.
Something has to change about the way the NYPD, as an organization, views the people it polices and is supposed to protect. If officers are regarding every protester as a potential terrorist, it’s almost no wonder batons go flying when the adrenaline starts to run high.
Yes, consequences could come later, but if the NYPD abuses its power now, they still get what they want—a protest-free park and content-deprived journalists. All the outrage in the world can’t turn back the clock.
Outrage and its results can only accomplish one thing, and New York City police officers cannot be shamed or coerced into behaving better. Their behavior will only change when their rational self-interest dictates doing so: When, in the commanding officers’ minds, the hassle posed by allowing occupiers to occupy is outweighed by the hassle that violent crackdowns end up causing the department.
UPDATE: The Mass Defense Coordination Committee (MDCC) of the New York City Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild issued a statement Tuesday condemning the “violent mass arrest of over 90 peaceful protesters” over the weekend, some of whom were held for more than 40 hours while others were released in the middle of the night after being held without food for 20 hours. “The NYPD’s egregious behavior toward protesters this weekend is merely one highly visible instance of their larger program of the arbitrary and brutal behavior that disrupts the health and welfare of communities city-wide,” the statement read. “Such alarming behavior on the part of law enforcement must end."
Emily Crockett is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter @emilycrockett.
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