Nov 10 2011

The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge

Will Bunch

web exclusive

To the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Brooklyn was a target of both strategic and tactical significance.

One of the protesters’ early frustrations was that to the extent they were getting any play in the mainstream media, it portrayed them as white children of privilege, lacking in diversity. The reason that grated on them was because to a certain degree it was true. Planting their protest flag in Brooklyn would open a new front in the city’s largest borough by population — and the heart of what still remained of its middle class. While the smattering of young white hipsters clustered near the ramps to Brooklyn’s three main bridges got a lot of the ink, it was largely quilted by pockets of blacks and Latinos and by white ethnic enclaves, populated by school teachers and firefighters and janitors…and the urban poor. It would be hard for Occupy Wall Street to stake its claim as the 99 Percenters without some kind of presence in Brooklyn.

The people on OWS’s Direct Action committee shared with some of the hard-core occupiers their idyllic and possibly na´ve vision of Saturday afternoon stoop-sitters running from their Brooklyn brownstones to join this growing line of marchers chanting, “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” The scheme called for ending up at place called Brooklyn Bridge Park on the right bank of the East River, for a late afternoon picnic and an impromptu teach-in. In the liturgical canon of protests, marches are always a form of high Sunday mass, a quasi-religious experience propelled by street theater – the therapy of shouting grievances, the highs and lows of interacting with the exotic rainbow of everyday New Yorkers, all while skating on the constant cusp of confrontation with the cops.


There was no disputing what happened, but how it happened will forever remain Occupy Wall Street’s version of “Rashomon” – with every re-teller’s perspective colored by whether he or she was in the front or the back of the long line of the marchers, how loud and distracting were their surroundings as they first entered the bridge, whether they believed that closing down a major bridge in an act of civil disobedience was a good thing or whether their goal was simply to walk peacefully across the bridge and make it to a picnic in Brooklyn, and whether they thought the cops were playing it by the book — or trying to break Occupy Wall Street, and its spirit, before it got any bigger.

Dustin Slaughter was up at the front, walking backwards and shooting footage. He was near the bridge entrance ramp when he started hearing the chatter. “We should take the road…We should take the road!!!” He couldn’t believe what he’d been hearing. That seemed like a terrible idea to him. But when he got near the vehicle entrance, he thought the whole thing was moot. He saw that cops had the car lanes completely blocked off.

Scattered throughout the crowd were a number of journalists, both photojournalists and print journalists. Among the latter was Natasha Lennard, a young UK native who was phoning in and emailing reports as a freelancer for the New York Times. Now she was right in the middle of the march, and she heard the exact same thing that Slaughter heard, an excited buzz and chants of “Take the bridge! Take the bridge!” She watched people encourage each other to commit what would clearly be an act of civil disobedience. “Don’t be pushed on the sidewalk,” she heard someone say. She said she saw a throng of people – maybe 100 at first – crawl over the rust-covered industrial brown barrier that is supposed to segregate the pedestrians from the cars.

These people are determined to get arrested, Lennard thought.

But the whole scene didn’t make much sense, especially to the large throng in the middle of the pack. They didn’t hear anyone shouting “Take the road!” and, more importantly, they didn’t see the wall of cops that Slaughter and other eyewitnesses had observed. Indeed, they reported something very different – uniformed officers walking into the Brooklyn-bound lanes before any of them did, actually leading the marchers onto the roadway.

One photographer shot a video that clearly shows as many as 10 NYPD officers (and oddly, a very pregnant woman) walking up the vehicle ramp seemingly ahead of any of the protesters. The three lawmen on front of the procession, including a white-shirted command officer and a man in a police windbreaker and a tie, were all talking into their cell phones. Exactly whom they were talking to is unknown.

A police photographer was also shooting video near the foot of the bridge. He captured an officer speaking into a bullhorn directly in front of a group of protesters. “I order you to leave this roadway now,” he commanded. “If you do so voluntarily, no charges will be placed against you. If you refuse to leave, you will be arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.” It’s not clear when the warning was given or how many people actually heard it.

When Eric Hart finally reached the entrance ramps, he saw what other marchers confirmed, that the center path was now completely closed off to pedestrians by the police – meaning the roadway was now the only access to the bridge. The ever-shy Hart didn’t bother to ask anyone for advice. He just kept moving into the vehicle lanes.

Jack Smith must have been close to Hart, because he saw a similar scene – “a big ruckus” on the center walkway and a flow of people on to the roadway. If he’d been advising his union clients a few years back in Seattle, he would have told them to stay on the walkway, not to get arrested. It felt different now.

“Hell, these are my people,” he thought to himself. The 69-year-old climbed halfway over the rusty metal fence – only to cramp up and get stuck. An African-American man picked him up and lifted him over. Jack turned to him: “You are my fucking guardian angel.”

What was happening over these few minutes doesn’t make a lot of sense. There’s no doubt that some of the rapturous marchers indeed wanted to shut down traffic, a clear act of civil disobedience. But how and why did the NYPD allow that, and allow it in such a way that other hundreds of marchers who had no interest in getting arrested ended up in the traffic lanes along with them? Remember, this is the police force that barricaded Wall Street, clamped down One Chase Manhattan Plaza, and even successfully blockaded the bronzed Charging Bull, for Christ’s sake.

It felt a little like the 19th Century’s most famous scam. The NYPD had just “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge to Occupy Wall Street, and they enjoyed their three or four minutes of ownership to the fullest. They were still flying upward, the old cobblestone streets leading down to South Street Seaport down below their feet, the boxy and dehumanizing public housing built by master planner Robert Moses on their left, and the liberating feeling of standing 117 high feet over the flowing East River was just a few short yards ahead of them. Wall Street and the Financial District, the dense forest of impenetrable building blocks where a number of them had been camping, was behind them now, suddenly looking small and inconsequential. Brooklyn, the destination of the march, loomed clearly in the nearing distance, an ominously black cloud hovering overhead.

“Whose bridge?!” they chanted, “Our bridge!”

The crowd surged forward – it was tightly packed now, people carrying signs like “I Hate Mean Cops” and “They Lynched Troy Davis.” At the front, marchers unfurled a giant banner, “We the People.” This was also the spot on the middle of the bridge where – under the wrong circumstances – it could get the most claustrophobic; rows of bulky steel supports now lurked overhead, joined with large metallic “X” beams on the side.

It was at this spot, right over where the East River laps against the Manhattan shore, that everything changed in an instant.

The marchers and their “We the People” banner suddenly ran into a thick, waiting wall of police officers. There were a half-dozen command “white shirts” up front, and many more blue shirts behind them. The marchers in the back turned around, only to see another 20 or so of the blue shirts running up from the Manhattan side, a slew of white plastic handcuffs hanging down from their belts. There was no direction to go, unless you counted “down.”

There was mass confusion at the very center of the condensed pack.

Everyone suddenly stopped and they didn’t know why. People began chanting “March! March!” – but no one was moving. The marchers at the very rear turned around and saw a line of blue cops standing behind them.

Occupy Wall Street had been kettled.

The police concept of kettling was perfected and then grew to be widespread in the era after the out-of-control protests at the World Trade Organization’s meeting in Seattle in 1999. The tactic involves police surrounding a large mass of protesters in a tight confined area, and leaving them there for hours. It’s not surprising that kettling became an accepted and not particularly controversial tactic, at least among the wider masses in the 2000s, the decade of the Patriot Act, color-coded terror alerts, and a shell-shocked general public. Now on the Brooklyn Bridge, the NYPD was attempting to define Occupy Wall Street just as Middle America was starting to learn about it. Lawbreakers.

There were maybe 1,000 protesters of all stripes kettled now, a third of the way across the bridge, as the wind picked up and swirled the large American flag on top of the Manhattan-side tower. The tent-revival euphoria of just minutes earlier had dissolved for most into anger. They chanted “Shame! Shame!” and “The whole world is watching!” And when it was clear that no one was going anywhere for a long time, most sat down. Many locked arms in solidarity.

The young protest veteran Nicole Capobianco calmly sat down on the asphalt, and watched the handful of people climbing up the scaffolding. “Oh my God,” she thought, “somebody’s going to die.” Then she noticed the woman next to her had tears streaming down her face.

“I can’t get arrested,” the woman sobbed.

“Girlfriend,” Nicole responded, “you should have thought about these things.”

Excerpted from a Kindle Single