Sunday, October 2, 2011

Incident at the Brooklyn Bridge

Photo: James Fassinger, Guardian UK

The inexplicable brutality of the NYPD toward the #occupywallstreet marchers in New York on September 24 may now be overshadowed by the inexplicable interference with the #occupywallstreet march over the Brooklyn Bridge leading to the arrest of several hundred marchers... for being on the Bridge.

The arbitrariness of it all is quite striking. Useful, in fact, in understanding what has happened to the 99% of the People who have been shafted, exploited and plundered by the 1%. It's useful for understanding the nature of the arbitrary imposition of authority which has long been a hallmark of Rule in this country (and around the world.) It is useful for understanding that this time... it's not going to work.

These three videos are among the most detailed documents of what happened yesterday leading up to and then on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Most of the testimony of those who participated in the march -- and had any idea what was happening -- was that the NYPD themselves split the marchers between those who were guided to the upper level pedestrian walkway and the lower level traffic lanes east to Brooklyn. It appears to my eye that perhaps half the marchers (totaling approximately 3,000 -- 1,500 + 1,500) went to the upper level, and approximately half went to the traffic lanes. The police had already stopped motor traffic into Brooklyn on the bridge, so the way along the traffic lanes were clear.

Accounts differ on whether there was any warning from the police not to use the traffic lanes prior to marchers assembling and marching on the lower level. There may have been, but if there was, it was ineffective. Marchers at the front may have heard such warnings, if they were issued, but the actions of the marchers and the police themselves made any such warnings moot.

From the testimony I've seen, the marchers thought that the police had deliberately split the march into two columns so as to get the marchers across the bridge as quickly as possible -- and with the least interference with traffic. The police were leading the procession in the traffic lanes. This has been widely interpreted as an "escort." From the point of view of those watching this incident unfold, it appeared that the police had taken a rather surprising (but appreciated) tack of assisting the marchers in getting to their destination.

Imagine their surprise therefore when the police stopped the march in the traffic lanes about a third of the way across the bridge, got out their kettling mesh, and began to surround the marchers with it. You can see in the videos -- and there are many more than these on the YouTube -- that it seemed everything was fine until this action by the police.

Testimony suggests that at this point, more and more police arrived from the Brooklyn side, and after some consultation among themselves, they commenced pulling individuals from among the marchers and arresting them. One by one. So far as I've seen, the marchers -- once they realized what was up -- attempted passive resistance (with much loud protest both among the marchers on the lower level and among the marchers on the upper level who had stopped themselves to witness). The marchers clearly were not adept at passive resistance tactics, but they tried, and the police, for their part, appeared to be relatively calm throughout. Nevertheless, even without overt brutality, their actions were inexplicable, for the arrest of marchers, one by one, at least one of which appeared to be a child, took hours. And hours. Blocking motor traffic to Brooklyn for all that time.

If the march had been allowed to proceed on both levels simultaneously, it might have taken no more than half an hour or forty minutes to get across the bridge, thus inconveniencing New Yorkers for the minimum of time. As it was, the reports are that traffic into Brooklyn was held up for over four hours while the police arrested at least 400 marchers on the lower level, tried to scrounge up transport for them (to somewhere for detention), hauled them away, and then, inexplicably, let the remainder of about 1,000 marchers who had been held in place on the bridge all during this operation go.

What happened has been compared, I think somewhat inappropriately, to the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965. In that notorious incident, hundreds of marchers were physically assaulted and brutalized by police as they tried to cross the bridge. They were subjected to billy clubs, tear gas, police on horseback and worse.

It might also be compared with the efforts of the Egyptians to cross the Kasr al Nile bridge in Cairo in January of this year.

Again, nothing like that happened on the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday, and we should be careful of getting overwrought with comparisons. What did happen, on its own account, was bad enough.

"Crossing the Bridge" is a fundamental action taken by activists in the pursuit of larger goals. It's a visually and emotionally dramatic way to demonstrate that the action being undertaken is a Movement that cannot be stopped. It physicalizes what is happening. Thwarting marches and demonstrations "on the bridge" or "at the bridge" almost always turn out poorly for the authorities, even if they are not as brutal and deadly as the authorities were in Selma in 1965 and in Cairo in 2011. It is the actual act of thwarting the march that causes authority to lose credibility. If it is a brutal action, the loss for authority is quicker. But even so, the inexplicable actions of the NYPD yesterday in thwarting the march across the Brooklyn Bridge and arresting so many hundreds -- thus causing much more disruption for New Yorkers than simply letting the marchers pass over the bridge would have -- is among the events that will be remembered as this nascent revolution gathers strength.

There's no turning back.

As in Selma, as in Cairo, the authorities in New York (and it is not just the police) have acted inappropriately to undermine their own credibility and authority.

What happens now remains to be seen.

But the moral authority has now shifted completely to the #occupywallstreet demonstrators.

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