On Saturday afternoon at around 5:15 p.m., five Wesleyan students were arrested along with over 700 other protesters while marching across the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street movement. They were illegally blocking off Brooklyn-bound traffic in the roadway . The students arrested include Luke Harrison ’14, Maxwell Hellmann ’13, Hailey Sowden ’15, Robert Roth ’14, and Erin Newport ’13, who was reporting on the march for The Argus. The arrest marked the beginning of a 12-hour saga for these five students, who were released in the early hours of Sunday morning.
The march started a little after 3 p.m. from the movement’s headquarters in Zuccotti Park and progressed up Broadway and Park Row before arriving at the Brooklyn Bridge. There was a heavy police presence, with officers lined up all along the route of the march.
“Everyone was remaining on the sidewalk and very peaceful,” Hellmann said. “The police were trying to make sure everyone was staying safe and on the sidewalks. There was high energy.”
When protesters reached the bridge, they split up into two groups, some taking the pedestrian walkway, with others marching onto the vehicular roadway. Hellmann said he heard from protesters in front that the police warned marchers over speakerphones that it was illegal to go onto the roadway. The Wesleyan students were closer to the middle of the group and said they did not hear the police give any warning and that the NYPD’s motives were unclear.
“As more and more people came onto the highway, we were taking up about two lanes, and the police were just walking along beside us, the same way that they had been the entire time up until then,” Hellman said. “It seemed like the general feel that they were just escorting us and we were still allowed to be walking there.”
Protesters soon occupied all three lanes, blocking Brooklyn-bound traffic and yelling chants such as “Whose bridge? Our bridge!” The intial euphoria gave way to confusion and some panic as protesters realized that they were no longer moving. The police had set up a roadblock a little less than half way across the bridge.
“I didn’t think much of it and everyone was marching on the roadway so I just kept on going,” Harrison said. “Everything was going really well until it wasn’t going anywhere.”
As some protesters attempted to turn around, police officers cut through the crowd with orange nets, trapping hundreds of people on the bridge. Others tried to scale the framing of the bridge to escape to the walkway.
“[Some protesters climbed] the 10-15 feet of the Brooklyn Bridge to get to the pedestrian walkway, which really made me cringe as there was a big gap to the street, and East River below,” wrote Roth in an email to The Argus. “Thankfully no one was hurt.”
The NYPD proceeded to kettle the protesters, using the nets to push them closer to one another, before beginning to arrest people. Protesters on the walkway took advantage of their elevated vantage point, filming and photographing the arrests. They shouted for the police to free the people in the roadway and cheered on fellow protesters.
“From people up top yelling down at us, we got the sense that the police were starting to arrest people, so we all kind of locked arms and sat down,” Harrison said. “And there was a lot of speech like, ‘They can’t arrest all of us!’ It turns out they can.”
“We had to put our hands on the bridge railing, facing the Statue of Liberty (ironic to say the least), and [we] were patted down for weapons/illegal items,” Roth wrote.
According to Newport and Hellmann, there was some screaming and panicking when protesters realized they were trapped on both sides.
“Most of the protesters weren’t really hardcore activists,” Hellmann said. “They were just people out there marching and expressing their frustration with the current state of the economy…none had intended to have a confrontation with the police by any means.”
Sowden said she was more alarmed than afraid.
“I didn’t feel scared or threatened on the bridge; I was more shocked than anything else,” Sowden wrote in an email to The Argus. “All the same, I was shaking the whole time.”
According to Hellmann, most of the protesters gave themselves up peacefully after witnessing protestors who were resisting be forcibly dragged off. The police sat protesters along the side of the bridge after securing their hands with plastic ties. They were then loaded onto police buses and, once those were all filled, city MTA buses. One young protester inside a police van grinned and made a peace sign to onlookers above on the walkway.
The arrested students were separated into two groups when the police kettled in protesters. Harrison and Roth were together at the time of the arrest and were loaded onto a city bus. Newport, Hellmann, and Sowden convinced a police officer to permit them to stay together even though arrestees are usually divided up according to gender. They were loaded onto a separate city bus.
“We decided that we needed to stick together in order to make sure we were okay and be with each other on the other side,” Hellmann said.
Newport estimates that they spent five hours driving around aimlessly as the police tried to find a free precinct in a police system flooded with 700 new arrests. According to Roth, whose bus was in transit for two hours, police officers were not given clear directions on where to take prisoners.
“The police were just as in the fog about our situation as we were,” Roth wrote. “They hadn’t been given details on how to deal with the 35 prisoners in the bus and were being told to go to different precincts.”
Harrison described the atmosphere on the bus as “jovial.”
“The cops were actually really nice to us,” he said. “Some of them were willing to crack jokes with us and engage us in conversation, which I think really calmed everybody down, since at a movement like this, there were a lot of first time arrestees, myself included.”
At one point, Newport, Hellmann, Sowden and the other arrestees on the bus sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the officers, whose 30th birthday was on Saturday.
“We all sang songs—lots of Beatles and many invented verses of ‘This Little Light of Mine’” Sowden wrote. “The police officers chatted and joked with many of the arrested protesters.”
The police on both buses did not provide food, water, or bathroom stops to protesters, who remained handcuffed the entire time. Harrison described an instance on his bus when an officer unzipped a cuffed protester’s pants and allowed him to urinate down the steps at the back door of the bus. An officer on Hellmann’s bus divided one protester’s bologna sandwich and fed pieces to other protesters.
In the Holding Cells
After arriving at their respective police stations, the arrested students sat in the parked bus for an additional two hours waiting for protesters who arrived earlier to be processed. At the 17th precinct in Midtown, Newport, Sowden, and Hellmann were broken up and placed in separate cells. Meanwhile, Harrison and Roth were taken to the 77th precinct in Brooklyn and placed in adjacent 5 1/2 by 8 foot cells with seven other people.
“It was an interesting bunch,” Harrison said. “We had a couple students, a working class cook at some diner in Rochester, a Chinese immigrant in his 40s, a couple of young unemployed guys. They were all pretty cool people.”
Hellmann, who initially shared a cell with one other person, convinced an officer to move his cellmate to an available vacant cell so they could each use the toilet in private.
Harrison and Roth were released at around 3:30 a.m. after spending about four hours in jail. The three students at the 17th precinct were released at 2:40 a.m., after which they visited a Wendy’s for a late-night snack. They were each given two summonses—one for disorderly conduct/obstructing vehicular traffic and the other for prohibitive use of roadway. Both groups coincidentally converged at Grand Central and took the 5:30 a.m. train back to New Haven together.
Although Harrison said that being arrested was a harrowing experience, he hopes that it does not deter students from taking part in the movement.
“I don’t want Wesleyan students to be discouraged by the fact that five people got arrested,” Harrison said. “I think the Brooklyn Bridge was a stupid place to be because it was an easy way for the cops to corner everyone. So if you’re not looking to be arrested, just be sensible.”
Sowden and Hellman think that the arrests will actually draw more people around the country to the Occupy movement. Sowden said the movement is an indication that protest culture is on the rise.
“What is important to me is that average, everyday Americans see that activism is becoming mainstream, that protest is not a dirty word, and that we are, in fact, capable of action,” she wrote.
While Sowden and Roth said they would definitely like to return to New York City for Occupy Wall Street, Hellman and Harrison said they will support the movement from campus, at least until their summonses are cleared.
“I would be in support of other students going down there to experience it, but personally I hope to focus more on doing things on campus and bringing what we learned [in New York] back to the student body,” Hellmann said.
The “Occupy Wesleyan” group on campus recently gained student group status, which means it qualifies for funding from the Student Budget Committee. According to Hellmann, the group plans to educate University students on activism and what the Occupy movement is about by screening films and inviting professors to conduct teach-ins.
Harrison said he will never forget his Saturday in New York.
“It’s not fun being arrested and I definitely wasn’t looking to get arrested that day, but looking back at it, I certainly don’t regret it,” he said. “It’s such a strong experience. I’ll never forget the day that I got arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge with 700 other people.”
This article was made possible in part by the Argus Special Projects Fund which supports enterprise journalism.