As part of their city-wide “Day of Action” Thursday, protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement brought the conflict and disorder that have simmered in Lower Manhattan for the last two months to the rest of New York City. They gathered at bridges, subways and in major thoroughfares. Thousands descended on Foley Square, across from City Hall, and on Union Square, the epicenter of so much political and social unrest over the years. As protesters streamed onto Fifth Avenue, snarling traffic and stoking a tense stand-off with police, I overheard an NYPD Community Affairs officer on the phone describe the situation this way: “The city is in chaos right now.”
The afternoon rally at Union Square, in particular, offered an especially revealing look at the two-month-old movement, which has refocused the national political dialogue on the growing wealth disparity between the rich and the poor, the unprecedented levels of student and household debt and the collusion among bankers and their patrons in Washington, D.C. As many have noted, the movement finds itself at a crossroads, having been dislodged, somewhat unceremoniously, from its home in Zuccotti Park. Polls show that many Americans remain skeptical of the movement’s tactics, even if they agree with its goals.
There is, perhaps, reason for them to be skeptical. What I saw in Union Square, and what I saw as the protesters, thousands of them, pushed through police lines, spilling out onto 15th Street and briefly seizing Fifth Avenue, were two sides of the Occupy Wall Street movement. There were protesters who talked intelligently about important issues, even if their views could be considered “radical” by mainstream Americans. And then there were those who seemed intent on provoking violent clashes with the police, storming bank branches and other civilian buildings, climbing up onto phone booths and barricades, verbally harassing officers.
Many protested peacefully at subway stops across the city. At a station in Chelsea, for example, there were about a dozen protesters handing out fliers to the public and chatting amiably with the handful of police officers who had been assigned to watch them. Clergy from the nearby General Theological Seminary, the first Episcopal seminary in the country, had gathered there to offer “spiritual support” to the protesters, or to anyone struggling with financial hardship in these turbulent times.
“We stand against the injustice in the system,” said Robert Solon, an ordained Episcopal priest and student at the seminary. “But God does not stand against any one person.” Solon and his colleagues from the seminary said they had never attended an Occupy Wall Street rally before Thursday. In the eyes of Jesus, they said, there was no difference between the one percent and the “99 percent” who comprise the core of the Occupy movement. People of faith seek justice and liberation for all, Solon said — not only in the afterlife, but “justice and liberation now.” And the church’s role, he said, was to affirm that message. “The church, at a minimum, witnesses to that,” Solon said.
The Union Square rally, by contrast, was more boisterous. Thousands of protesters and students thronged to the pavilion at the north end of the park, chanting through a “human microphone.” As protesters took turns commanding the crowd, others mingled, playing music, distributing fliers and engaging each other in dialogue about social and political issues. Suzanne Collado, a protester who was part of the Occupy encampment’s education working group, was advertising an open forum and rally in Zuccotti Park next week to focus attention on the mounting levels of student debt in the country.
“It’s unfair that students who are just basically trying to become members of this community, our global community, are personally taking on debt that will impoverish them and their families for the unforeseeable future,” Collado said. “You’re talking about people who are fresh out of high school, who are, in that moment, being handed off to private banks who are predatory in their attempts to get people indebted. And that’s straight out of high school.”
As we finished talking, a handful of self-appointed heralds began corralling the rest of the protesters, commanding them to march down to Foley Square. Soon, thousands of people were pushing through police lines, spilling out onto busy intersections and pouring onto 15th Street. At first, when it seemed as though the police were powerless to stop them, raucous cheers rippled through the crowd, peppered with chants of “Whose streets? Our streets!” Lines of NYPD officers flanked the crowds on either side as they snaked onto Fifth Avenue, choking off traffic.
The police, it turned out, had anticipated them, hastily setting up barricades at 14th Street, guarded by lines of police in helmets and wielding batons. Penned in, some of the protesters began to lash out. They tried to storm a New School building, shoving past a security guard at the front door, and attempted to “occupy” a branch of TD Bank. Police swarmed both entrances. Scuffles ensued. Many were arrested. They were clearly trying to seize private property, and in some cases physically instigating the police offers protecting the buildings.
The stand-off revealed a side of the Occupy Wall Street movement that, while small, has the potential to discredit the protests in the eyes of many Americans. When police dislodged the protesters from their home in Zuccotti Park in an overnight raid, the heavy-handed tactics and instances of brutality galvanized supporters of the Occupy movement across the country. Police arrested journalists or blocked them from documenting the operation, conducted unauthorized surveillance in churches, beat protesters who staged sit-ins on public streets. Those abuses earned the Occupy protesters the sympathy of many onlookers. Now, the protesters risk losing that sympathy if they needlessly provoke confrontation, as some of them did on Thursday.