My intention here is not to diminish the importance of art. I am of the opinion that art is inherently political and that art is the currency of a civilization. We don’t go to museums to look at bank accounts. What I am trying to emphasize here is how little I have done for progressive causes in general, even though I believe in them very strongly. When Occupy Wall Street came to
life in Zuccotti Park, I was skeptical. Not about the message exactly, but about how serious these occupiers were in seeing this movement through. With so much happening around the world such as the Tunisian & Egyptian revolutions, the riots and uprisings throughout Europe, a resurgence of the Left in Latin America, I did wonder if these young activists were ready to join what has come to be viewed as an international struggle. I have often been discouraged when it came to the inactions of my apathetic generation when it came to the Afghan & Iraqi wars, so I think I was understandably cynical when Occupy Wall Street was born. But after a week of following their actions and after I saw the ruthless and brutal treatment of peaceful protestors by the New York Police Department, I knew that I could not stand back and watch these heinous crimes continue, whether they were committed by the NYPD or Wall Street bankers. I had to do something. I had to get involved.
For the past several months I have been cheering on Occupy Wall Street: I have defended their message in my own intellectual and artistic circles; I have supported their stances on social and economic justice; I have defended the movement to anyone I know who has questioned or doubted their motives; I have studied the similarities between the Occupy movement and what most pundits have come to regard as the Arab Spring; and I am proud to say that I have participated in several marches and demonstrations (both massive and minimal). I have been involved in several Occupy general assemblies and even sat in on a couple of think tank discussions. I have never directly participated in any work groups, committees or things of that nature. The truth is I’m scared to get involved that deeply. The efforts of this new generation of activists have been astounding and I fear my own efforts may slow down their work and progress. At the very least I felt my presence at Occupy demonstrations would show stronger solidarity with the movement than just giving them a ‘thumbs up’ on facebook.
March 17th was different.
As a former graduate student of Pace University, I was able to attend The Left Forum 2012. For those who may not know
The Left Forum is a conference of radical Leftists ranging from academics to intellectuals to activists and so on. It lasts for a weekend at Pace University, which is located in the financial district of Manhattan (ironically) and I usually find it to be highly engaging and educational. The conference consists of many panels. Everything from the environment to the wars to civil rights to social media is discussed and debated from a Leftist perspective. I attended the conference all throughout graduate school and this was my first year attending the conference without being a student. I was excited. Artists like Amiri Baraka would discuss the historical legacy of figures such as Malcolm X and Wallace Shawn was set to do a reading from his new book of essays. The theatre nerd in me rejoiced!
On the second day of the conference Michael Moore was set to speak. I wasn’t particularly enthralled by his presence. Not that I don’t appreciate his films or some of the work he has done in the past, but I wasn’t really interested in hearing him lecture. It just wasn’t appealing to me. The last panel for the day ended at 7pm. Moore was scheduled to speak at 7:30pm. Once the clock hit 7pm the halls of Pace University were quickly flooded with people. Leftists of all branches and kinds were still in engaging in dialogue and still entrenched in their dialectical nature as they exited the classrooms where the panels took place. At that moment, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do next. I had been at the conference almost all day (I slipped out briefly to attend a rehearsal for a play I was in) and, more than anything, I felt odd. I wasn’t interested in seeing Moore speak, but I didn’t feel right about going home either. Much of the conference was spent speaking to and about Occupy Wall Street. It felt almost
wrong to be a part of this conference and then go home and not do anything. But, then, something happened. As I was trying to exit Pace, a large group of Occupy activists started chanting,
“Out of the forum and into
the streets! Out of the forum
and into the streets!”
The occupiers were dancing in the streets outside of Pace University. They had made signs and banners and they were encouraging the Leftists waiting to see Michael Moore speak to join them instead.
“You talk the talk! Now walk
the walk! You talk the talk!
Now walk the walk!”
The energy was incredible. The question didn’t even dawn on me whether I should join the occupiers or try to see Michael
Moore. It was no contest. The time for talk and praise of the Occupy movement was done for the day. We had to march. Only so much can be accomplished with intellectual analyses and academic discussions; only so much can be done with praise or criticism from a comfortable distance; only so much can be gained with inactive dissent. The moment was now and, as an actor, I know that if a moment so precious comes along, one must seize it.
We tried to get as many people as we could to march with us to Zuccotti Park, which is about a five minute walk away from Pace University. Many joined us. Many would later join us. We marched on the New York City streets and declared them as our own. Oddly enough, I found myself near the front of the march. When I realized it I was suddenly struck with worry. I had been following the brutality which had been visited upon Occupy demonstrators all throughout the country and it deeply disturbed me. My instinct of reluctance was proven correct. The NYPD’s response to the march was almost immediate. With little warning, police officers started to push and shove marchers onto the sidewalk violently. Police officers started to swing batons at the marchers in order to force them into submission. The response was, without a doubt, excessive, but we kept marching. If I remember correctly about two marchers were arrested on our way to Zuccotti Park. People were terrified, but they stood their ground. Cameras appeared everywhere instantly and recorded these brutal actions by the police. People shouted,“Shame! Shame! Shame!” to the officers, but it had little impact on their intention to repress. I was unaware that blocking traffic and/or
jaywalking in New York City is an arrestable offense and is deemed so dangerous that the violator(s) must be subjected to police brutality and then violently detained. Or maybe that’s naïve.
But this was only the beginning.
As we marched on, an almost endless string of NYPD motorcycles trailed the march very closely. When we finally reached Zuccotti park there were already many people there. They welcomed us with open arms. The NYPD eventually surrounded the park. Most of us reached the park safely. I breathed in a sigh of relief. I was glad I arrived safely. It’s always a strange feeling for me personally when I go Occupy Wall Street demonstrations alone. Not a bad a feeling, but strange. I feel I belong and don’t belong at the same time. I have so much to say in moments like that, but, when I’m there, I become particularly quiet. I always find I learn more when I listen to other people and that’s exactly what I did at Liberty Square a.k.a. Zuccotti Park. Soon after the march arrived, an Occupy General Assembly began. It was declared that this would be a 24 hour occupation. People cheered. I began to walk around the park and notice the eclectic collection of people Occupy has attracted. I saw musicians play songs, artists choreograph tableaus, people played a game called Silent Ninja, and a young woman led a very large and elaborate exercise, which, I believe, has come to be known as Spring Training. It was more than thrilling. The energy was unmatched compared to anything at The Left Forum. I began to strike up conversations with people and many of them were completely fascinating and many of them were as ordinary as any Jane or John Doe. The diversity of people seemed infinite and, all in all, it was a fun time. There were points where I was entirely content just sitting and observing people. And as I sat and witnessed this movement grow before my very eyes, I realized that I had been wrong. I was not a part of an apathetic generation. My generation would not sit by silently and watch our world be destroyed by the corruption of those who hold power. My generation would fight back. And it seemed, for the briefest of moments, that we had reclaimed our public space.
The triumph was short lived. As I wandered through the park observing and taking note, I saw a marching band on the other end of the square. The band was across the street and it looked like an Irish bagpipe marching band. Why not? It was Saint Patrick’s Day after all. They began to play their music as they marched toward the upper end of the square where most of the people in the park were standing. People became ecstatic when they started to play. People ran toward the marching band in order to welcome them. But, again, the excitement was short lived. Soon after the band started playing, the NYPD stopped them. The band didn’t even reach the park. We started chanting, “Let them play! Let them play!”It was no use. Lawyers from Occupy crossed the street in order to make sure none of them were detained. I don’t think any of them were arrested, but I could be wrong.
I was furious. Not allowing people to play music in a public park on St. Patrick’s Day? It was nothing short of despicable. And it only got worse.
It was around this time that uncertainty started to fill the park. I got worried. I wasn’t sure what exactly was about to happen, but I had a pretty good idea. The NYPD started to surround the park on a greater level. More and more of them came. The officers marched almost like soldiers with guns, handcuffs, and batons. The people in the park started to worry. One of the high ranking police officers in a white shirt used a megaphone to make an announcement, but the volume wasn’t nearly loud enough. It would have been impossible for most people to hear him. I only saw him make the announcement once and, shortly thereafter, the NYPD started to raid the park. The officers tore at people with a kind of vengeance as they destroyed signs, ripped banners, and assaulted peaceful demonstrators. Officers were followed by more and more officers and they were clearly armed.
The park was thrown into a great unease. No one knew what to do. Finally, someone yelled, “Sit down!” Almost immediately people sat down and locked arms. I looked over at the police who were approaching us like a wave. They were already manhandling people and hitting them with batons. They were anxious to clear the park and were going to do so violently. That much was clear. What was unclear was what I was going to do.
I froze. As I stood in the middle of the park, the air became thick. Time didn’t slow down, but it certainly seemed out of measure. But, then, something interesting happened. It’s hard to explain in so many words, but the best way I can describe it is that I shut down. I mean, in that moment, I emotionally and intellectually shut down. Many people were screaming at the police, others were chanting, and everyone who sat down prepared himself or herself for what was about to happen. And in my strange state all I could do was join them. I sat down with the protestors in solidarity. I had to do this. Because we had every right to be in a public park; we had every right to participate in a general assembly. This was not about confronting the police. This was about protecting and exercising our right to freedom of speech. The actions of the NYPD were wrong. I knew that. But none of this rhetorical thinking absolved my fear. There were quite a number of people sitting in front of me as the police officers made their way toward us. Police officers struck people with their batons, other officers threw protestors tothe ground, punched people, etc. The scene was ugly, but I had no emotion. I would sit there. I would exercise my rights in the face of tyrannical gestures. And I was willing to suffer the consequences of my decision.
By the time the police reached me I think I was the only quiet person in the park, even with all of the intensity surrounding me. There was a young man in front of me with an orange helmet who was being dragged and pulled by the police. They eventually detained him. I was next. I took a breath. Everything was happening so fast; it was difficult to process. But, according to my own memory, this is what happened next. After the young man in the orange helmet was detained, a police officer struck me with a baton. I think he was attempting to hit my left arm. He didn’t really get a good shot at me. I felt it mildly, but I’m sure the person next to me felt it fully. He then grabbed very forcefully and pulled me up. I didn’t resist. In fact, I put up my hands immediately and said very loudly, “I’m not resisting arrest!” He proceeded to throw me to the ground, get on top of me, ram his knee into the lower part of my back while handcuffing me, all the while another police officer stepped on my face and pushed my head into the concrete with his foot. I was screaming, “Jesus Christ! I’m not resisting arrest!” The officer who had handcuffed me got me to my feet. My right knee was already bleeding from having been thrown to the ground and my jeans started to soak up the blood. The officer said, “Let’s go!” He took me to a curb outside the park where the police officers were stashing those they were arresting.
I sat on the curb. Still, I remained fairly quiet. Many of the protestors (arrested and not) were screaming at the police officers. They were consumed with anger and they had every right to be. I wasn’t. I just sat quietly. I accepted what was happening to me. More than anything I was nervous about what would happen to me and to the rest of the arrested protestors. As I looked around I saw police officers laughing and taking pleasure in what they were doing. That disgusted me. I couldn’t say I was surprised, but watching them laugh about what was happening to us was truly appalling.
I had no idea what to do. It was around this time I noticed the handcuffs on me were made of plastic and were on extremely tight. They were on so tight that I was in agonizing physical pain. I started vocalizing my pain a bit, but I tried to keep quiet. (Eventually, the handcuffs would cut off blood circulation almost entirely and my hands would remain numb for weeks.) I politely greeted some of my fellow arrested protestors. I gave them a smile and a couple of them smiled back. They were not quite as calm as I was, but it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone and that they were all in solidarity. I noticed to my left that there was a young woman who looked like there was something dramatically wrong. I found out later that she was in the first stages of having a seizure. She was begging to have her handcuffs taken off. The police officer standing in front of us refused her request. She kept begging and pleading and he would not help her. At one point she got up and tried to run to a medic and was quickly and viciously pushed to the ground. Her body seemed like it was about to start convulsing. At the time I didn’t understand why, but it was clear she needed some kind of medical attention. After she was thrown back to the ground, her body couldn’t stop moving. I was scared for her. I looked up and saw the police officer, to whom she had been pleading, and he was reaching for his gun. It was at this point that I and a couple of other protestors started yelling at him.
“Why are you reaching for your gun?!?! She’s already in handcuffs! Why do you need your gun? She’s
detained! Why are you reaching for your gun?!?!”
He took notice of us and stopped. It turns out this young woman’s name is Cecily McMillan. I’m not sure what the updates on her are aside from that she was arrested, sent to the hospital, and the New York City chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (Occupy’s legal team) had a difficult time getting into contact with her while she was in jail. She was eventually released and is being charged with assaulting a police officer while she was having a seizure.
More details on Cecily McMillan:
It was around this time I noticed a public MTA bus had stopped in front of us. It was empty. I quickly became confused. I assumed we would be taken in a police wagon. But a public bus? I wasn’t even sure if that was legal. As the officers began to put people on the bus, a few demonstrators went limp and refused to give any assistance to the police. Because of their civil disobedience police ruthlessly tried to get detained protestors onto the bus in the only way they know how: violently. I complied. But as I saw the police manhandle people in order to force them on the MTA bus, I became increasingly frightened for my own safety and for the safety of the other peaceful demonstrators
I walked to the end of the bus and sat down. I was soon joined by others in handcuffs. The bus soon became filled with sound and fury, signifying everything. Many of the protestors were still yelling at the police. They accused the police of being corrupt, of being fascists, of being the pets of tyrants, etc. I didn’t participate in the name calling. I didn’t see a point. Nothing I could have said at that point would have changed my fate. And, frankly, I was so completely repulsed by the vulgar actions of the
NYPD. No words would have been sufficient enough to express what I felt. But I remained calm. As the police brought in more and more protestors, their treatment only got worse. The police slammed one protestor’s head into each step while they dragged him on the bus and I was terrified they were going to break his neck. This was another point where I shouted at the police officers. They eventually got him to a seat. The bus was put into motion. We received cheers from the demonstrators outside of the bus. They celebrated us. That felt nice. This was, indeed, my first arrest.
As the noise on the bus died down and as the protestors calmed down, we became creative. Most of us began to sing
together. Everything from Queen to Bob Marley was sung. One occupier laid down a beat and another started to freestyle as they hauled us off to jail. At one point, I said something entirely in character of myself. I waited until the bus became quiet for a moment and then I yelled, “So, does anyone know any showtunes?!?!” The occupier in front of me said, “Only one.”
“Do you hear the people sing? Singing the song of angry men.
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drum,
there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!”
It was magical.
As I’m writing this my hands still feel numb from the handcuffs, even though it has been almost a month since my arrest. I visited a doctor and she told me there was no nerve damage, but I’m growing more and more concerned that the marks on my wrists caused by the tightness of the handcuffs may be permanent.
More than one person has asked me, directly or indirectly, whether all of this was worth it. Whether it was worth being arrested for this cause; I find it to be a strange question. My civil rights were violated: my right to sit in a public park, my right to exercise my freedom of speech, and my right to peacefully participate in a general assembly. Was it worth it? By bringing this next example up I am by no means comparing myself to the brave and honorable civil rights activists of the 1950’s & 60’s who intentionally broke laws in the segregated south by sitting in segregated lunch counters, but I’m sure at one point each of them was asked the same question: was it worth it? Well, fifty years later, what do you think? Was it worth them getting beaten ruthlessly by police and then being hauled off to jail? Again, I’m not comparing myself to these civil rights activists, but I’m sure each of them found the question to be just as absurd as I do.
It’s safe to say, however, the events of March 17th 2012 have changed me and I will never be the same. Whatever your feelings are about Occupy Wall Street, I think any rational person can see the tactics used by the NYPD are absolutely unacceptable. Cecily McMillan left for the hospital on a stretcher with a broken rib. Another protestor suffered a panic attack and
was manhandled for it. One protestor had a black eye and marks all over his face from police officers punching him. One occupier suffered a broken thumb and an injured jaw. It was a disgraceful scene and the NYPD was entirely responsible for creating it.
I don’t believe my efforts here were remarkable. I simply did what I had to. In truth, I chose to be arrested. I chose to stand up for what I believed to be right and I stand by my decision. I was told that all of the charges were dropped, but, in fact, they were never even brought. I spent roughly 29 hours in jail before I was released. Any citizen of the world should be concerned with the corruption of power and what it has done to our supposed democracy. Our economic system has been destroyed for a generation because of people like Charles Prince, Hank Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and many others who have not seen an hour in jail for theft, corruption, and fraud. This is what really angers me. According to the established order, it’s fine to steal billions of dollars and destroy the lives of millions people, but it’s not okay to speak out against it. What I learned on March 17th was that I have civil rights as long as I don’t exercise them. Was it worth it? Needless to say, I have gone back and participated more at Occupy demonstrations. And I will continue to do so. Because a profound change in this world is not just inevitable, it’s for our very survival.
“Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.”