Photo diary: Occupy Wall Street, November 17, 2011

November 20, 2011

Last Thursday, November 17, was a National Call to Action by Occupy Wall Street, which seemed like a good time to hit the street. There was a 5:00 rally in Foley Square that seemed aimed to manifest a critical mass of citizen participants — numerous labor unions had signed on for the event — so I went down with my friend Jonathan to add my presence and, as he likes to say, “get a sense of the meeting.”

Jonathan (above right) is a certified ’60s radical with plenty of experience with political protest, including tales of being caught in police riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. His comrade-in-arms from those days, Mike (above left), now a lawyer whose office overlooks Zucotti Park, also joined us for the rally. Their war stories are older than mine. Events like this one reminded me a bit of my days with ACT UP. This event did make me long wistfully for the elegance, focus, and theatricality that ACT UP brought to its public actions. In Foley Square, there was pretty much mild chaos. There was a loud, crappy sound system — I couldn’t see where the microphones were stationed, but they mostly broadcast exceedingly mediocre rapping.

It was a cold night but the square filled up with tens of thousands of people — a New York mixture, men and women, all colors, all ages, union members pushing comrades in wheelchairs, elderly women on the march, plus the inevitable ragtag marginal old-school lefty soapboxes (Workers World Party, calling for the Communist Revolution, etc.).

The sentiments were all over the place. Observing myself agree/disagree/agree/disagree with signs pointed up the essential value of Occupy Wall Street, which is not to let Them decide what the issues are and what should be done but to look inside. What do I think is important? What are the burning issues I am willing to devote time, energy, and resources to?

The police presence was insanely out of proportion for what is categorically a peaceful protest situation. The police mounted a miliary campaign of control and containment, looking for all the world like they were expecting to face an army of masked bandits wielding automatic weapons and Molotov cocktails. They had set up Foley Square so there were bizarre pockets of metal barricades with dead space inside. Despite their heavy numbers and the threatening presence of police on horseback, I didn’t witness any disturbances, even when the demonstrators decided to push a bunch of barricades aside and occupy the entire square.

As with the Times Square demo I attended, this one got a boost when a few thousand students showed up who’d marched down Broadway from Union Square. Eventually, a march across the Brooklyn Bridge occurred — I didn’t stick around for that, but I understand that mostly it was a peaceful procession in collaboration with a squadron of NYPD Community Affairs officers in light blue windbreakers. There were some arrests for blocking the roadways, an action that usually strikes me as a relatively lame form of civil disobedience, but I appreciated the sentiment expressed by the woman in the sign above: “Sorry for the inconvenience, we are trying to change the world.”

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