How I Ended Up in Handcuffs on the Brooklyn Bridge
I was suspended 135 feet over the East River, stuck in the middle of a crowd so tightly packed I could barely move.
“Let us go! Let us go!” Occupy Wall Street Protesters chanted around me.
Only minutes earlier, I could feel the Brooklyn Bridge shaking under the protesters' jumps of triumph as the crowd shut down the third and final lane of eastbound traffic. Now the group of marchers was bound together by a strip of plastic orange netting and locked in by rows of NYPD officers on both sides. I stood in the middle of the sweaty, rowdy mass of 700 people.
We were all under arrest.
An Unexpected Development
When I drove to New York on Saturday morning with Argus photographer Andy Ribner ’14, videographer Reid Hildebrand ’15, and fellow reporter Pei Xiong Liu ’12, I couldn’t have guessed that I would be spending Saturday night in jail. Our little Argus contingent planned to document the Wall Street protest by following the Wesleyan students in attendance, some of whom were returning to the Occupy Wall Street outpost in Zuccotti Park for their second or third weekend.
While we did all that we could to maintain an objective distance and a journalistic perspective, my physical proximity to the protest proved to be my undoing.
At approximately 5:15 p.m., I was handcuffed along with two other Wesleyan students and escorted to an MTA bus that had been converted into an arrest vehicle. (Two other Wesleyan students were arrested within twenty minutes of that time). I was released from the Midtown North Precinct on 54th Street over nine hours later.
We arrived at Zuccotti Park around 2:30 on Saturday afternoon, a half an hour before a march was scheduled to begin. The square, which was filled with sleeping bags, piles of signs constructed from empty pizza boxes, and mounds of donated food, has been Occupy Wall Street's home base since the movement started on Sept. 17. The protest, which is described on its website as a leaderless resistance movement, has no specific goal, except to protest the "greed and corruption of the [richest] 1%."
As I entered the park, a meeting of the protest’s governing body, the General Assembly, was just coming to a close. General Assembly meetings, which are held twice daily, function on a “human-microphone” basis, which means that the crowd restates every word said by the speaker. In order to call the crowd’s attention, the speaker shouts, “mic check,” which is then echoed by the assembly. This particular meeting was focused on advising marchers what to do in the case of arrest, Robert Commiso, a protester who was standing near the speaker, told me.
Commiso, a 48-year-old construction manager who was laid off in 2009, said that he didn’t consider Occupy Wall Street to be anti-business.
“We represent 99 percent of the people and there is no bullet point or catchphrase that could encapsulate what we want,” he said. “There is a lot that we need. We’re not here against Wall Street or against Wall Street workers.”
Commiso said that he hopes to support the core group of primarily young people who have been camping out in the park.
“I think a lot of people have gone to college and the future that they had planned for no longer exists,” he said. “This is a concern that all of us have.”
Tasks are divided among a variety of committees, which including the Media Committee, Arts & Culture Working Group, and Internet Committee.
One encampment was devoted specifically to sign-making. Rob McMahon, a shaman/musician from Brooklyn, sat on the ground with a paintbrush and a can of blue paint.
He was painting a sign that read, “Wall Street is a Projection of My Unknown Greed.”
“I wanted to see firsthand what was going on and bring a spiritual element to what’s going on here,” McMahon said. “Collectively, as individuals we each have a lot of greed that we’re not willing to own so we project it onto some institution like Wall Street.”
Alan Yang, an architect volunteering at the overflowing donations booth, said that food contributions come in about every 15 to 20 minutes. This amounts to over 200 pizzas a day, one student protester told me.
“I’m here to change the system,” Yang said. “It’s not working, especially for our young people. We’re hoping to get somewhere—we just don’t know where yet.”
I tracked down the group of 15 or so Wes students who were gathered on the damp pavement, penning a canvas banner that read, “Wesleyan supports the 99%.” An ’05 Wes alum approached them and took a picture.
Anwar Batte ’13 waved a bucket of chalk over his head, telling the group that chalkers were some of the first arrested in last week’s protest.
Undaunted by torrential downpours, some members of the group had slept in the park the night before, along with an estimated 500 other protesters. They crowded under umbrellas and tarps, as tents and other structures are prohibited in the park by law.
“It started pouring and we were searching for a place to sleep,” said Natalia Manetti-Lax ’14. “We were soaking and freezing. We slept in Grand Central Station for two hours, then we got kicked out of there. We then slept in front of a department store and then a deli, and they kicked us out of there too.”
Manetti-Lax’s bedraggled group of companions sought shelter at a friend’s apartment at 4 a.m. before returning to the park several hours later. However, Manetti-Lax, who was returning to her second weekend at the protest, said that Friday night’s weather wasn’t her only concern upon arrival.
“Last night when we got here, at first I got kind of worried because it seemed like we had shifted focus to this movement being about police brutality instead of economic injustice,” she said. “It didn’t seem as communal as it was before.”
Luke Harrison ’14, who had arrived in the city earlier that day, commented on the diversity of the group.
“I feel like this is the first real protest of our generation,” he said. “I think this has the potential to bring a real sense of protest culture to a generation known for its apathy and its laziness. This is the kind of thing that I know I’d regret missing.”
The next time I remember seeing Harrison, he was standing over me as I tried to sleep in the entranceway of Grand Central Station at 4:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, both of us fresh out of jail and waiting for the 5:30 a.m. train to New Haven.
By 2:55 p.m., there were at least two thousand people in the park, many of them holding signs and heading towards the street as anticipation for the march grew. I passed a man with a giant U.S. penny mask obscuring his face, and another with a poster that read, “Wall Street is Nero and Rome is Burning.”
A double-decker tourist bus drove by, its upper-deck occupants snapping photos of the spectacle.
I tagged along as the Wes students paraded through the streets, chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!” and “We are the 99 percent,” at points accompanied by a drummer and trumpeter. My best estimate is that we were located in the front third of the pack, which numbered in the thousands.
The stream of people bottlenecked at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge. Just after we arrived, someone shouted, “Take the bridge!” and we followed the crowd, which was headed up the pedestrian walkway and eastbound roadway. Chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” morphed into “Whose bridge? Our bridge!” as outbound traffic was stalled.
Though there have been reports of police wielding megaphones and warning protesters not to take the road, I did not see any. Police officers were walking alongside us at a slightly faster pass, though I did not witness them stopping or warning any members of the crowd.
As the chanting mass headed up the roadway, the Wesleyan group began to fragment. Two students turned around and more were absorbed into the crowd until Maxwell Hellmann '13 was the only Wesleyan student in sight, though we later caught up with Hailey Sowden ’15.
When we were one-third of the way across the bridge, the crowd blocked off the final lane of traffic. The mob whooped and jumped, shaking the roadway below us. The crowd had taken over.
Or so it seemed.
Soon after protesters spread into the rightmost lane, the march slowed, then eventually came to a halt. As the stream of people continued to flow in, we were crammed closer and closer together. I was squished between Sowden, Hellmann, a recent college grad named Sean who was holding a sign that read “Unfuck the World,” and a Russian man named Max, who had long hair, a full beard, and a mustache that turned up slightly at the ends.
At this point, confusion overtook the crowd. Someone on the pedestrian walkway called “mic check,” and the crowd below echoed back. The protesters repeated his words as the man told us it appeared that police were barricading the crowd on either end. The crowd erupted into chants of “Let us go! Let us go!” and someone near me unnecessarily yelled, “We’re all going to die!”
Hellmann starting singing kumbaya, which caught on in our section of the crowd.
A speaker suggested that everyone link arms and sit down, which was met with varying degrees of success because the group was so tightly packed. Max the Russian and I made eye contact, which I found to be strangely reassuring. I wanted to take off my now sweaty rain jacket but didn’t have enough space.
The man called for another mic check. It seemed they were letting people go on the Manhattan side of the bridge. Then another mic check. No, actually they weren’t.
People passed around a water bottle. The police squished everyone a little closer together as they roped in the entire crowd with plastic orange netting. Looking towards the edge of the bridge, I crossed my fingers, hoping that no one would panic, that there wouldn’t be a stampede. There were rumors of a few first arrests.
I kneeled on the pavement, and Sowden, who I had met two hours before, sat on top of me. Another man on the pediestrian walkway tried to use the “human mic” to tell us not to worry because there were more protesters than policemen. No one repeated his words.
Sean, who was visiting New York for the weekend, told me that his parents didn’t know he was there.
“If there is ever something to be arrested for, this is it,” he said. “Your first time being arrested should mean something.”
I texted my friend who I was planning to meet after the protest:
“Going to jail. Might have to postpone dinner.”
This article was made possible in part by the Argus Special Projects Fund which supports enterprise journalism.