Occupy Rising: The American Spring Is Here
Mar 2012 23

Occupy Rising: The American Spring Is Here

Posted In Activism,Blog,Politics

by Zach Roberts


You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.
~Pablo Neruda

My head hurts.

Three months after my arrest during an Occupy Wall St. protest on December 17 (see #D17 post) and two days before my meeting with the Assistant DA about said arrest – I got beaten just outside of Zuccotti Park. I wasn’t the only one, and I have no doubt I won’t be the last. Unlike the #D17 protest, this time I had press credentials. It still didn’t matter.

The NYPD has complete authority in this town – I hate using the word police state, but when I saw a girl (23-year old Cecily McMillan) thrown from a bus, in handcuffs having a seizure, tossed to the ground – I really am at a loss for any other words.

Six months ago, I was standing by the Wall Street Bull talking with journalist Allison Kilkenny complaining that this ‘Occupy Wall Street thing’ wasn’t going to last. I mean they were doing yoga in the park. It made for some great photos, but not the best images for the start of a serious movement. Now, six months later, I’m standing on the top of Zuccotti Park looking down at over 500 protestors as they started stringing up a bright yellow banner that reads “OCCUPY WALL ST.”

Well, fuck. I was wrong. Never happier to be so.

The past six months, I’ve been thrown in front of a moving police car, threatened with arrest, told to go fuck off by police, threatened by black bloc and then arrested, thrown in jail and charged with criminal trespassing.

After ten years of covering well organized protests by the corporate entities of Moveon.org and UFJP – a rag tag group of kids called Occupy Wall St. has made me lose my cynicism. Maybe one day I’ll sit down and write about how it changed me as a journalist, a photographer and as a person who gives a shit, but those things are meant to be written about long after the movement is dead. OWS is alive and well.

But the “law enforcement” that transpired as crowd gathered at Zuccotti Park on the evening of Saturday March 17 – a significant date since it marked the six month anniversary of the start of the movement’s flagship Wall Street- adjacent occupation – was different even from that of December 17 (the NYPD aren’t big on anniversaries it seems!).

This was pure fucking brutality. And it was all started by a fucking bagpipe troupe. Man, I wish I was kidding.

Out of the blue a goddamn bagpipe troupe appears at the bottom of the park, to be exact, a French bagpipe troupe from Brittany. (Yeah, I know, WTF?) The moment we see this – we all converge them – the photographers (of course) leading the way. But it seems that the police were already on to the sneaky terrorist bagpipers and had tried to put a stop to their activities. According to one officer that I asked, they objected to the rather competent public bagpipe playing due to some unspecified and vague “safety concern.” Well, like most things at OWS – the NYPD made it a safety concern – ripping the lead bagpipers bagpipe from his hands and breaking it.

The kid whose pipe got broke, no more than 19-years old, ran away from the crowd distraught and afraid. He had no fucking clue what was happening – he didn’t speak English. The police decided not to let it rest and continued to try to push the troupe out of the park, nicer than they would with OWS, but still with a heartlessness that only seems to live in the chest of the NYPD.

Then suddenly, fellow shooter CS Muncy and I turn around at the same moment to see what the plan was. The police were coming in from the other side of the park – barricades were being brought in and dozens of officers were preparing to descend. Protestors who’d been preparing all night for this eventuality were ready though, and looking for a fight. And by “looking for a fight” I mean they were peacefully sitting down, arms locked in the middle of the park singing and chanting, clearly, asking for a beating. And that’s what many of them got.

A dozen of so of the more enterprising and courageous occupiers had rolled out their secret weapon, orange netting with #OWS printed on it. They were prepared to kettle themselves. This sly mocking of police tactics commonly used against occupiers seemed to arouse contempt and the jack booted thugs moved forward en masse, batons in hand. They were going to have this park cleared for their corporate betters; the owners of Zuccotti Park, Brookfield Asset Management, had sent them their orders.

The park must be cleaned. Yes, it must be cleaned on St. Patrick’s Day in the dark. No doubt an annual tradition. (Many an online wag noted that if the protesters had been puking drunk, brawling, and wearing green, the police would have let them stay all night.)

Technically still out on my own recognizance from my previous arrest, my plan was to not do anything stupid. Well, that was before my fight or flight adrenaline started to kick in. If you follow me on twitter (@zdroberts) you know nine times out of ten I put my head down and rush in, camera in hand.

This small park made of marble and brick, once named Liberty, which has become a symbol for free speech amongst the occupiers and amongst many of us in the press, once again became “Zuccotti.” From here, it’s all down hill.

The occupiers scattered, the now zip-tied protestors who refused to leave or failed to escape laid face down on the cold brick, waiting to be dragged, walked or carried towards the top of the square where an MTA bus was waiting to carry them away (which puts a whole new spin on the phrase ‘public transit’). It would be a while before it departed though. More than enough time for those on board to see more abject cruelty and disdain on behalf of the NYPD for the pain of the arrested protestors.

I saw a protestor, no more than 115 pounds picked up by two cops and chucked face down into a pile of other arrestees – she was 4 feet in the air when they launched her. I saw two officers, one female, pick up a metal barricade and slam it into a crowd of people that included protestors, myself and The Guardian’s Laurie Penny (a.k.a. @PennyRed). The female officer seemed to have it in for Penny. I saw several protesters who dared to stand up, quickly tackled and kneed in the back – many of them women half the size of the officers kneeling on their spines.

I saw a girl all in green tossed then dropped out of the doorway of the bus that they’d tried to place her on until she started having a seizure. Cameras and livestreamers documented it. Here’s one of the photos I took:

I can tell you from being there that there wasn’t a single police officer with a look of concern on their face as she continued having a seizure on the cold pavement of Broadway. It took 15 minutes for a ambulance to arrive. I’m told 5 minutes is the usual response time in this part of town.

Sometimes I forget, this is Commissioner Ray Kelly’s city, we’re just tenants here. There was no ambulance needed for me. I was lucky… or maybe just stupid.

After the second cleansing of Zuccotti Park (see my previous report of the first), the police continued their pushback under the guise of ‘safety concerns’ – basically a standard fallback excuse / tactic to keep protesters and journalists from being allowed to witness brutality and arrests, which also provides the NYPD with a premise (however flimsy) to disperse a law abiding crowd from places they should be within their rights to gather.

It works quite well, that is until it doesn’t. The thing is, when you’re pushing back with billy clubs and metal barricades, sometimes people can’t move back quick enough. Or sometimes, people refuse to move from a public sidewalk. Well as a photographer, I get caught in the middle quite often – usually I’m deft enough to get out of the way – this time I wasn’t.

I fell back, and while trying to get up there was another push from the police. They saw me fall, mind you. Just didn’t care.

Two or three people made it over me without falling as well, using me as their sidewalk (they didn’t have any other choice). Then came the rush and four or five people fell on top of me. The police kept pushing. Then came the batons. I couldn’t see if the people that were on top of me previously got hit at all, but I certainly did – twice to the back and once on the head.

I’m not quite sure what the logic is of literally beating a man when he’s down. But once he saw that his baton beating wasn’t getting me going he decided to try to pick me up by my hair. That didn’t work either – but by then I was up enough to get my footing under me as I continued screaming “PRESS!!! PRESS!!!” That was enough to get the beating to stop – but I still was pushed/thrown back into the crowd, again almost losing my footing as I had to leap over a pile of garbage into the street. Being in the street was of course a crime itself, so I was once again thrown back on the sidewalk.

Press tags nearly torn off, bag strap messed up, I staggered out of the crowd towards the stoop of a building (somewhat ironically a Starbucks). Checking my bag and camera for any serious damage and not finding any, I then looked over myself. No visible bruises, it seemed to be a miracle I came out somehow unscathed. It wasn’t until I got back to the office that I found the growing welt on the side of my head like some Looney Toons character that had just been hit by an anvil.

Once I caught my breath, I called my office, reported in, told them what happened. My boss, investigative journalist Greg Palast, and his chief investigatrix Badpenny tried to get me to come in and file the photos. I told them, no, I had to see this out to the end. I was pissed and I wasn’t going to let them get away with anything else; it was nearing the time when the press goes home to file before the papers are put to bed, a phenomenon the NYPD is all to familiar with since they know at this point any action is done out of the glare of the bulk of the mainstream media. Also I knew that the occupiers wouldn’t let this rest, this night wasn’t over just because they lost the park.

This is New York City, there are many parks – Union Square in fact was only a quick 20 blocks away. It was 3 AM, the weather was nice, the streets were clear from traffic and the cops were busy elsewhere. Perfect time for a run straight up Broadway. And so we did running on the sidewalk and running in the street.

“WHO’S STREET??!!! OUR STREET!!! OFF THE SIDEWALKS AND INTO THE STREET!!!”

NEXT: The taking of Union Square…and how I nearly got killed by the OWS Library.

Zach D Roberts is a photo-journalist for SuicideGirls.com, TheMudFlats.net and for GregPalast.com. He is currently working on a photo-essay book with an intro by Greg Palast which can be pre-ordered here which compiles the photos/stories seen on SuicideGirls, TheMudflats, GregPalast.com – and much more.

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#D17 – Sitting on the Group W Bench – Arrested for Committing Journalism
Occupy Wall Street: The Cleansing of Zuccotti Park

More images after the jump.