Notes on the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge

While crime rates in New York City soar the New York Police Department (NYPD) spent a good part of Saturday entrapping and arresting hundreds of protesters who were moving across the Brooklyn Bridge.  In the process, the police created an extremely dangerous situation for about 800 occupiers of the bridge who were effectively trapped – a police net on one side and the Hudson River on the other.  In the long run, the most dangerous thing the police may have created was opportunities for direct solidarity among hundreds of people who previously had only been united by a demand for an end to the rule of the rich.

On the Bridge

We marched through downtown Manhattan.  There were thousands of us – mostly young, many in the 20-30 year old age group who are facing an economic system that offers no prospects for a future.  The chants on the march were enlivening – “We are the 99%,” “All day, all week!  Occupy Wall Street!.”  Better than just the words was the inviting approach offered by the protesters.  Since we presented our selves as “the 99%”, everyone could, and should, be involved with our march.  Much like previous protest movements in the US, the Occupy Wall Street participants were fighting for a better future for everyone – a future being stolen by the ich and corporations.

Inviting is just what the NYPD had done as the march approached the Brooklyn Bridge.  After a brief stop at the lip of the bridge, cops cleared the way for both the pedestrian entrance and the roadway on to the Bridge.  Protesters surged forward, rushing on to the expanse and claiming it for the people – “Whose Bridge?  Our Bridge!”  A police escort on the right hand side struggled to keep up the pace before disappearing about one-quarter of the way on to the bridge.  With no police on the right hand side, the protest flowed into the far right lane effectively shutting down car traffic while we made our way to Brooklyn Bridge Park.

After a brief stop for an exuberant dance party – this is a fun movement with a healthy sense of the ridiculous – the police re-appeared, this time with the dreaded NYPD nets.  Chaos ensued and the crowd shifted dangerously back and forth, pushing now slightly panicking young people dangerously close the edge of the bridge.  I joined with other more seasoned activists in moving the protesters away from the edge and in asking them to sit down to reduce the possibilities of a tragic accident and to increase the ability to hold the space.

Police began to remove protesters one-by-one based on their gender.  Protesters didn’t resist, but they also made clear that they were not afraid.  Before being arrested most flashed the victory sign to the crowd or raised a fist into the air.  This helped to stiffen the will of a crowd that had previously been in flux as a result of the aggressive police tactics.  We were determined to resist with courage and dignity no matter how the police attempted to terrorize us.

Under Arrest

Once handcuffed and placed inside the van, a new community was created.  People previously detached from one another were swiftly brought into a relationship where they needed mutual support.  Luckily for me, we realized the order the police were arresting people, so I was arrested with three other of my fellow members from the Socialist Party USA.  We were able to know how to support each other instantly and to offer the solidarity we showed toward each other to other people on the bus.  We explained how to ease the pain of the police handcuffs to a slightly frantic teacher and discussed what the next steps of the process would be with someone from Greece who was not as aware of the American legal system.  Plus we sang “This Land is Our Land” and “The Internationale” on the police bus.

The arresting officer was a low on the seniority pole Chinese-American officer who preferred to stay on the back of the bus with us than to fraternize with other cops outside.  His incessant chatting on an IPhone betrayed his real ideas – “Holy shit!  These people are from everywhere.  Even one guy from Greece.”  “This is total stupid.”  “What a waste of time, I’m never getting out of here.”  Direct thoughts from a newbie police officer forced to the dirty work of the Mayor and the Police Chief.

After a little over an hour, we were placed in a larger pen.  An ambitious young occupier took on the task of counting those in the pen – about 116.  We celebrated the fact that we outnumbered the arrest total of last week (80) and cheered and chanted for each person who joined us.  Chants of “All day, All week – Occupy Wall Street!” rang throughout One Police Plaza.  This fighting spirit helped to keep hopes up as we went through the tedious process of booking.

The arresting officer was right.  Our fellow inmates really were from everywhere.  A few short sketches of them will illustrate this.  A monk sitting in the first section of the cell, refused to identify himself to the police – he refused water, food and would not answer any questions they had.  He met police with a blank stare and prepared for two more days in jail.  An electrician from Boston was confident that once “the unions got involved” the Occupation movement would grow rapidly.  A fellow from Ecuador wasn’t even a part of the original protest.  He was headed to Brooklyn when he saw the march and remembered the anti-capitalist marches he had been on in the past.  He seemed proud to join us and sure that capitalism was in the process of devouring itself especially in “the advanced capitalist countries.”  Finally, another teacher who had spent a large chunk of his life in San Diego and had voted for my fellow Socialist Party member when he ran for office there, prepared to spend the entire night in jail as a result of his lack of official identification.

We supported each other in many ways and made sure to share any of the necessary things that were given to us by the police.  I helped to pour the water, delivered in a huge jug.  Others handed out food and milk – each ensuring that others had received enough.  This was a spontaneous ethic of solidarity that defeats that notion that humans are automatically selfish or evil.

Getting Out

After many hours of waiting, slunk down in the holding pen – some able to sleep, others jabbering away about this or that while eating stale peanut butter sandwiches – we were released.  The first exited the cells a little after 2:00 am, some 9 hours after arrest on the bridge.  The young skeptical officer who arrested us screwed up our comrade’s paperwork resulting in him waiting for more than one hour more.  A female Socialist Party member was at a precinct a few blocks away and whisked over to join us.  Finally, at around 4:30 am we had all been freed.

We sat down at a 24-hour Chinese restaurant to compare experiences and charges and enjoy some much deserved beer.  Most of us received minor disorderly conduct charges, but one was faced with a felony charge of criminal riot.  We discussed options we might have for legal representation and swapped stories about our jailers.

Overall, we were, for a moment at least, happy.  Happy to have made a contribution to a movement that so many people are paying attention to.  Hopeful that this movement will grow to share our own anti-capitalist politics and build the power to transform society.  And excited that Occupy Wall Street is employing the same direct action tactics that we have been promoting as democratic socialists for years.  As we shared vegetable low mein and Chinese tea, we reaffirmed our commitment to change the world.  Occupy Wall Street!

Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and co-chair of the Socialist Party USA. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Billy, or visit Billy's website.