NEW YORK, NY—In May, in response to the Arizona law on immigration, somebody in New York City had the idea that they should get arrested. They themselves, that is. It would be a way to bring attention to the issue, show that New Yorkers wouldn’t stand for this (“New York Is Not Arizona!”). They’d do it in Federal Plaza, link arms to stop traffic on Broadway, go to the pen for a few hours in solidarity, until someone, somewhere, got the message.
I was doing Press for the City Council at the time, so I got involved when the photographer, who sat in the cubicle next to mine, got a call to go take pictures. “Some council members going to get arrested,” he’d said. “Tuesday at twelve.” They’d done it the week before but my photographer friend had been busy, so this time he’d promised he’d come. I asked if I could go and the photographer said, “Sure, just stay behind me. I’ll take care of you.”
Federal Plaza is only a few blocks from City Hall, but by the time we arrived there were crowds of people around the podium. A few council members stood behind it, along with two of the borough presidents. It is an interesting fact that many of these local politicians are below average height. It was a hot day out and the elected officials were bleeding bottles of Poland Spring through their navy suits, although every once in a while the sun dipped behind the Federal Building, and then it would get chilly and windy for a moment so people’s ties flapped around.
This is 26 Federal Plaza where the black SUV’s come out of the underground garage, and the windows are all tinted, and up by the 20th floor or so there’s a row of black vents. Far below, where we were, the west-side sidewalk was pulsing with people: union organizers, ministers scratching their collars, activists, reporters with their pads hanging from their necks on yellow cords. A Councilwoman in the center translating her words from English to Spanish and back. An old black man with a construction cap on screaming through a bullhorn, “Si, se, puede!”
What’s striking is how little this felt like one of those protests: a sixties one, radical. First off, the organizers had called the police early. There were squads of them, smiling pleasantly, coming out of cop vans carrying rows and rows of plastic handcuffs on their elbows. It’s how, when it all started, the pigs helped the protestors into the vans with both hands, a short-sleeved detective filming to make sure no rights violations were taking place. One cop, patting an old white man on the back, adjusted his cap for him because his hands were behind his back.
But the way it all began was different, as if there were still some revolution left in the American people: starting in a rush—the linked hands, the jogging forward. Shouting for equal rights, and freedom, and how this was the cause. Catching the journalists and the camera-crews unawares, the reporters backpedaling with their mics held in front of them. We shall overcome, the protestors sang, as they crossed over the double yellow lines, as the traffic came to a halt—one arm-linker said, “Oh, let the tour bus through,” but it was too late, the street was dead. Far down the traffic extended, nothing moving for a mile. Drivers jumping onto their hoods to see what exactly was happening. The blinking traffic lights reflected in the plastic buttons, “I Am An Illegal Immigrant.” The bullhorns, the camera flashes—my friend the photographer racing behind a cop car to get a picture inside the processing van, a lieutenant saying, “You better back up!”—the sergeant reading people their rights, the rows of people in the street.
I went back the next week because they said they’d be doing it again. Every week someone gets arrested until Obama shows us reform. After jogging over there I thought I’d missed it. Broadway was bumper to bumper and there was a gaggle of walkers coming from the Federal Building. A car full of auxiliary cops was making its way away. But the plaza was empty, more or less, and I asked a Homeland Security trooper if the protest had been earlier that morning. He looked over his attack rifle and said, no. Nothing. Maybe I’d gotten the wrong time. Maybe I did. While he talked he kept his eyes swiveling back and forth.
I walked to the bench where the podium had been seven days before, and I sat and ate my lunch. I’d just come from another protest, to save child-care centers, and I’d left my photographer friend on the way over. He’d had something else to shoot. Someone going by knocked over someone else’s Starbucks. Next to them, parallel, the cars on Broadway went by.