A Tale of Two Rallies

Spearheaded by the Granny Peace Brigade, 2,000 protestors marched from Liberty Plaza to join an anti-police brutality demonstration called in response to New York Police Department (NYPD) Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna’s world famous pepper spray rampage against peaceful Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestors the Saturday prior.

The character of the two protests could not be more different.

Liberty Plaza was stuffed with people like a rush hour subway car. I did a couple counts from different vantage points and came up with about 2,000 people both times, well above the normal the 200-300 who march near the stock exchange for the opening and closing bells every day or the 100-200 occupants who have made it their business to stay in the park until something in this country change. People were packed tightly on all four edges of the park, and quite a few protestors were on the sidewalks adjacent to the park, unsure of whether the NYPD would keep us bottled up there or begin arresting us.

Before the Granny Peace Brigade stepped up Broadway toward 1 Police Plaza, the crowd at OWS commemorated past victims of police brutality – Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, and many, many others. Soon after, they heard from New York City’s most powerful union, Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100, who represent the workers who operate the city’s massive public transit system.

TWU speakers made militant speeches in solidarity with OWS, denounced police brutality, and loudly asserted that people have the right to protest without fear of being attacked. Most of their speakers were black and seemed pleasantly surprised when the mostly white crowd repeated their every word using the “human microphone” tactic that was invented to get around the NYPD’s ban on megaphones. Local 100’s support came after OWS disrupted a Sotheby’s art auction in solidarity with their locked out union workers and marched to a postal workers’ rally against the fake crisis aimed at smashing the postal unions.

It seems solidarity is contagious, and it’s spreading all over the country.

As the march made its way up Broadway, the NYPD lined the street, separating protestors on the sidewalk from passing traffic. They were almost downright polite when they asked marchers to stay on the sidewalk in stark contrast to the heavy-handed tactics they used less than a week ago.

It’s obvious that there is no consistent tactical police policy coming from NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. They are playing it by ear day by day, just as the activists are. Like in Egypt, every time they back down and let marches happen it bolsters the confidence of OWS; every time they clamp down, it infuriates people who are barely paying attention and support for OWS grows.

A few elderly women (not the peace grannies) tried to tell people in the crowd to hush up, that this was a “silent march,” but the much younger crowd would have none of it. The most popular chant I heard in my section was “banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”

As the march passed Vesey Street, I realized they intended to march up Broadway and take a right on Chambers Street in order to pass City Hall before reaching 1 Police Plaza. The solid police line next to the march became ever thinner and eventually ceased to exist as they struggled to contain the front of the procession, allowing myself, photographers, and fellow protestors freedom to maneuver. I opted to head directly to the plaza to see what the rally looked like before the two groups merged.

As I approached the Manhattan Municipal Building that stands between City Hall and 1 Police Plaza, I was struck by the NYPD’s absence. Not a cop in sight. The last time I was at a march here was after the murder of Sean Bell in 2006. Back then, the place was locked down with cops standing in tight formation blocking our procession to their headquarters.

I made my way under the building’s arch and came upon a crowd of 50-100 or so of long-time leftists, most of them middle-aged or older, many of them with their children. A couple dozen of them walked in a slow circle chanting in unison somewhat dejectedly against police brutality. I saw veteran socialists Louis Proyect, Sam Farber, Sandy Boyer, and long-time activists in the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), the union of faculty and staff of the city’s public higher education system. It was PSC members who called the rally.

PSC member Penny Lewis gave a great speech while tending to her young daughter. She pointed out the fact that Mayor Bloomberg and right-wing extremist David Koch were the two richest men in the city and that Bloomberg, like his predecessor Rudy Giuliani, consistently used the NYPD to harass, intimidate, hamper, and pen-up any and all protests. The spirit of militant defiance of OWS in the face of the NYPD’s typical tactics was a breath of fresh air for this crowd. I also detected a mood of apprehension since they had no idea how big the OWS feeder march would be.

The merger of the two groups was triumphant. The NYPD may have tried to keep the two groups separate by blocking the grannies at the entrance of the Manhattan Municipal Building’s arch, but apparently the NYPD relented. Perhaps Bologna ran out of pepper spray. A huge mass of people chanting, “we, are, the 99%!” made their way into the plaza area and occupied it. The chant dominating the end of the feeder march was new and a bit shocking: “students, and labor, can shut this city down!”

Let’s hope so.

On Saturday, the police allowed hundreds from OWS to march onto the Brooklyn Bridge only to trap them once they reached the middle of the bridge. They arrested many people, possibly hundreds, including a New York Times reporter. Marchers locked arms, forming a human chain in an attempt to make it harder for the cops to divide protestors so they could snatch and grab people as they did last Saturday. It’s amazing how fast people are learning to adapt their tactics.

Of course, the cops will claim the activists were “blocking traffic,” but why let them march onto the bridge to begin with if that was really the concern? Most likely, this is a test to see how OWS reacts and how the public reacts.

OWS struck back by releasing its first official statement outlining the grievances of the 99%. Releasing this concise document with grievances that literally hundreds of millions of Americans share at the height of media attention that the latest round of arrests will attract is nothing short of a brilliant public relations move.

Meanwhile, the OWS movement is coming to a town near you. If not, start an event on your own in your area. The pickets of Woolworth’s department store in solidarity with black and white students who defied segregation at Woolworth’s lunch counters throughout the Jim Crow South in the 50s did not just happen. They were organized. People stopped complaining and started doing something, first in handfuls, then in dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands.

As one OWS speaker put it at Liberty Park, “we’ve been waiting our whole lives for this.”

Now is the time. Now is our time.

Pham Binh is an activist and recent graduate of Hunter College in NYC. His articles have been published at Znet, Asia Times Online, Dissident Voice, and Monthly Review Online. He can be reached at: anita_job@yahoo.com. Read other articles by Pham, or visit Pham's website.