Another world is possible. This was the message carried by the thousands of protesters who swelled New York’s Times Square a little over a week ago, participating in a peaceful march from Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan to this city’s main public square as a part of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has emerged in the last month. This movement, unclear in its demands but clear in its insistence that the status quo cannot continue and that another world is necessary, has spread to nearly 1,500 cities across the country and globe. It has captured the imagination of a generation and challenged us to rethink how we understand politics as usual. One of the more startling aspects to the movement, however, has been the brutal response.
From the beginning, police have made it clear that members of the public with political demands will be treated as criminals, despite all evidence that the protesters in Occupy Wall Street are not. Police have repeatedly entrapped protesters and arrested them at random, letting them off in the subsequent days only to be offered plea bargains that make obvious the hollow nature of the charges levied against them.
On Oct. 2, for example, more than 700 protesters attempted to march peacefully across the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite initial police orders for them to use the pedestrian walkway (which would have been an extremely tight space for such a crowd), some marchers walked on the roadway. The police walked alongside them, guarding them and, after their initial demand, not repeating the orders to leave. At the end of the bridge, 700 people were arrested for having walked across the bridge under police escort. All of them were released in the coming days, many bruised, but none with any serious charges to speak of.
The scenes on Oct. 15 in New York City were an escalation of violence on the part of the police that has little precedent in recent years. In the early afternoon, thousands met in Zucotti Park, renamed by protesters “Liberty Park,” to begin a peaceful march to Times Square. Protesters were forced to stay on sidewalks as they marched north; on an average Manhattan sidewalk this is a tough job but with the number of protesters ranging from between 6,000 to 15,000 this was an absurd restriction.
Once in Times Square, the protesters began to occupy the sidewalks, allowing automobile traffic to pass through while attempting to demonstrate. Police began to block the protest and set up barricades, and soon they had brought out cavalry to intimidate the protesters. From here, the situation fell apart rapidly; video footage documents the descent into madness as police on horseback rode through the crowds, terrifying marchers, and repeatedly charged the crowds, arresting dozens and brutalizing many more, as captured on numerous recordings.
The scenes were reminiscent of the kind of attacks Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square and their counterparts across the Arab World have been subject to since the Arab Spring began nearly a year ago. There is a difference in magnitude and the kind of opponent Occupy Wall Street is facing. But the response to the protests has revealed very disturbing realities for American protesters.
It has become painfully clear in the last month that many of the civil liberties we take for granted do not in fact exist anymore. Last week for example, 24 people were arrested for entering a Citibank branch to close their accounts. Undercover policemen forcibly locked them into the bank branch and then hauled them off to a police station for the crime of closing their bank accounts en masse. The police, it seems, were there to protect the banks, not the people.
Less than two weeks ago, protesters in Boston were forced out of the Kennedy Greenway, and nearly 150 were arrested after they had been given explicit permission to stay by the park’s owners. Parks across the country have been closed off and protesters cleared out of public spaces they intended to peacefully occupy, including last Monday night in Worcester.
How is it that the U.S. government and many members of the American public could denounce Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak for not allowing protesters to peacefully assemble in Tahrir Square, but have only biting words for American protesters seeking to do the same in their own country?
How can Americans of good conscience support the police in this spiral towards a police state? How can we possibly justify the mass arrests of young people calling for change in the most pacifist way possible? Agree or disagree with the protesters’ message and methods, what is happening today in our city and in our country is a betrayal of the American values of freedom of association and freedom of expression we all claim to hold dear.
Alex R. Shams is an A.M. candidate in Middle Eastern Studies.