Spring uprising: is Occupy Wall Street back?
Back? Some say it never left, but simply went underground after November’s mass evictions to regroup, reenergize and emerge into the warm spring sunshine after months of general assemblies and strategy-making.
But its tracks have been halted; its wings barely unfurled. Graphic details of the violent scenes in Zuccotti Park that erupted on the six month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street peppered conversations at a OWS fundraiser I attended in lower Manhattan’s Yippie Cafe last week.
More than 700 hundred had gathered on Saturday 17 March to re-establish an Occupy camp at its birthplace in Zuccotti Park, steps away from Wall Street. But the police were having none of it, arresting 73 occupiers, with reports of excessive force being used. One young woman suffered a seizure after being handcuffed on the ground, and another protester was allegedly thrown into a glass door by police before being arrested.
Clarke relies solely on his iPhone to shoot images of OWS as it catches the true essence of the protesters ‘who would otherwise be put off if I pointed a big lens in their faces’. Further exhibitions are planned for Munich in May, and Tehran before the summer.
I stood outside talking with Giles Clarke, 46, a British photographer whose captivating images depicting the movement over its three month occupation of Zuccotti spanned the yellowing walls of the legendary counterculture cafe. Each image tells a story, and on sale in an effort to raise bail funds to secure the release of protestors still in jail.
An OWS march up to Union Square was taking place in the distance, Clarke clapped loudly before describing how he himself had narrowly avoided arrest last Saturday while taking shots of the reoccupation. What disturbed him most was the way the NYPD treated the female protestors: “I saw that woman (Cecily McMillan) being rammed onto the ground and plastic handcuffed from behind…and then she started having a seizure that lasted about 30 minutes, all the while the police just looked on, refusing to let any of the OWS medics present help her.” Video footage of the OWS activist violently shaking is posted on YouTube.
An ambulance finally took the 23-year-old to Bellevue Hospital, a psychiatric center, where she was allegedly held in solitary confinement “without access to family, friends or legal advice” for two days Clarke explained.
The lively buzz inside the crowded cafe quietened as the towering figure of a uniformed police officer made his way to the front stage.
Captain Ray Lewis, a retired police officer who served 24 years with the Philadelphia Police Department, said it felt good to be in a room of “like minded-people”.
Lewis says his ‘commitment to social justice is primary’.
“It really shocked me when I saw the police storm Zuccotti Park Saturday night, to my knowledge it was open to the public 24 hours, provided no-one was sleeping, had tents or sleeping bags.”
Like others, the 60-year-old had headed to the park that evening after attending a speech by the activist and filmmaker Michael Moore at NYC’s PACE University. The police were awaiting their arrival. In a show of solidarity with protestors “who risked arrest for social justice”, he remained with them until the early hours, “running from one corner of the park to another.” He wasn’t arrested; a fortuitous outcome given he’s on a six-month probation period following his arrest for civil disobedience on Wall Street last November.
He’s a rare breed all right. Inspired by the OWS, a protest of a magnitude he has never witnessed before, he left his mountain retreat in upstate New York to support the movement.
“I’ve always had a progressive bend”, but one kept in check while serving in the force. He disagrees with the unhealthy relationship that exists between America’s financial institutions and the government: “The major campaign donations they, and the big corporations, give to the government are effectively bribes…they rot this country to its core.”
“The Protestor”, as he was named in Time magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year award, has received threatening letters from Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner “to immediately cease and desist” from wearing his old uniform at protests, his own police union is preparing to reprimand him by removing his retirement benefits or worse and many in the force have labelled him a “traitor”.
It’s not stopped Lewis from donning his uniform and joining the new protest site at Union Square, which kicked off a day after the arrests. The numbers are low and “made up of the leftovers—the drug-users, homeless people, persons with mental health problems and troublemakers”. “People the general public cannot easily relate to; exactly what the NYPD hoped to achieve,” he added.
OWS activist Lauren Digioia, 27, speaking at Yippie Cafe. Arrested four times — for dancing, speaking, sitting on the sidewalk and once for being on top of a barricade in Zuccotti Park — she’s planning a civil suit against the NYPD for their ‘unlawful arrests’.
The brutality of the arrests a fortnight ago has left many protestors “scared to death of the police” and unwilling, at least for now, to return Clarke lamented. But spring has only just arrived, and just as the weather is sure to improve, so too will the occupiers’ resolve.