I have avoided May Day marches like the plague ever since I nearly choked on teargas deployed at a May 1st march on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. Mind you, I wasn’t actually IN the march, just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had been window shopping on my way to a dinner meeting with a friend, when suddenly I noticed a group of masked protesters pass by behind me, and before I could think “I’m so outta here” I found myself kettled inside a wall of blue, Zurich PD’s riot squad with shields and helmets mounted, and teargas started flying. While May Day marches in Zurich always had a violent streak from what I could remember, this was a particularly vicious one. A few days earlier the local cops had stormed several squats near Zurich Main Station, because UBS, the owner of the buildings, wanted to redevelop them for residential purposes.
The squatters, a group of artists and anarchists who had lived there for years, did not take kindly to their eviction. They had been marching down the Bahnhofstrasse breaking shop windows and throwing trash around and Zurich police was desperately trying to stop them from doing any further damage.
I tried to negotiate with the cops to let me out of the kettle, but they weren’t having it. Instead, after getting gassed with everyone else, I found myself hauled off to the local precinct and questioned as to what I was doing here (an excellent question, I had to agree). Fortunately, after a while they did determine that I was not one of the anarchists they were pursuing (hint: I was wearing a pant suit and a designer scarf at the time), and let me go without further ado.
I did make my dinner date, and as we sat and regaled on the story, we heard sirens scream outside as cops and protesters ran by underneath our second story window. As I walked home sometime after midnight down the Niederdorfgasse in Zurich’s Old Town, I waded through a never ending sea of broken glass … One single shop window along my route home that night had managed to stay unbroken.
A few years later I walked into a May Day dispute between Kosovars and Serbs in Vienna. Both sides were holding protest marches to raise their grievances over how the war in the former Yugoslavian territory was proceeding and their marching routes coincided on the Stephansplatz outside the Stephansdom. Viennese police was desperately trying to keep the two groups apart, as several demonstrators had started to swing their protest signs at each other. After some shoving and shouting some teargas and pepper spray ultimately settled the matter and mostly a few egos got bruised …
From that perspective what happened this May Day in New York City was relatively sedate. Still, the day turned out to be far more violent than necessary. A group from Occupy Wall Street had announced a so-called Wildcat March and promised some shenanigans. Whether that prospect alone put the NYPD response into overdrive, I do not know, but the level of force on display was hardly proportional to the threat the marches actually posed.
Mind you, I don’t want to walk down Fifth Avenue through a sea of broken glass. I don’t condone violent tactics, and forgive my French, but if you start breaking shit, you loose me. Yet, I can’t help but wonder if the very tactics NYPD deployed may not ultimately bring that scenario about. After all, actio = reactio, as the old saying goes. And both sides have been ramping up their antics.
NYPD ground troops were observed conducting exercise drills in full riot gear on Randall Island in the days leading up to May Day, while their Intelligence Unit stormed the homes of several known organizers on a variety of pretenses (More on that here, and here if you like). And finally, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly deployed his second in command, Deputy Ray Esposito, in person to supervise police actions in response to the Wildcat march. So, whatever happened that day was not only approved, but implemented from the very top of the chain of command.
I had tried to meet the march from Brooklyn across the Williamsburg Bridge on the bridge itself, walking up from the
Manhattan side. But I was blocked from entry and made to wait at the foot of the bridge, along with Deputy Commissioner Esposito, Captain Lombardo (more on him here) and 100+ riot cops.
As the march finally arrived, three protesters had already been arrested on the bridge and were brought down first. Later on, about 300 marchers came along, chanting slogans, carrying signs, and generally doing what peaceful protest marchers do. Hardly cause to deploy 100 riot cops.
A bike squad was also part of the march, and they gave the scooter cops a good run for their money riding up and down Houston Street, having NYPD quite literally run in circles. The mood until then had been fairly relaxed. Deputy Commissioner Esposito was busy talking on his phone, while everyone else basically waited to see what would happen.
All that changed the moment the hoodies appeared. After a peaceful assembly in Sarah D. Roosevelt Park on Houston Street and 2nd Avenue, a group of protesters emerged in black hoodies and goggles. They barely made it to the street corner, when the first shoving match ensued, leading to several arrests. While the police was making their first collars, and a group of protesters tried to hold them back, the rest of the marchers snuck out the back entrance of the park and started running through Chinatown.
What followed was a cat and mouse game between cops and protesters with some trash cans and some paint bombs thrown about. I didn’t hear any glass break, but not for lack of trying. Both protesters and police were agitated, one side
trying to get away with taunts and running in the street, and the other side hellbent on shutting down any such action. Also, Deputy Commissioner Esposito did not go back to his office. He rolled up his sleeves and went right in there.
Further up, around the corner of 8th Street and 6th Avenue, the next major melee occured, as protesters tried to run up 6th against traffic – a tactic that had proven successful in avoiding kettles and being herded into unwanted directions. One protester was slammed to the ground so hard, he wound up with a bloody nose. Another had suspicious discoloring on his torso, after he emerged back on his feet, hands cuffed in the back.
Finally, a bit further up the road towards Union Square, four protesters were arrested for “blocking the sidewalk”. After being told all morning that they were supposed to stay on the sidewalk, these protesters walked where they were told to, chanting “We refuse to obey by your laws” and waving a flag. A white shirt cop on a scooter came up behind me riding on the sidewalk and drove up to them. Next thing I know, they were arrested again rather brutally. And, again, Ray Esposito was right there.
I wondered what he was thinking this display of force might actually achieve, other than further radicalizing a group of protesters already willing to push the envelope. I walked over to the Deputy to ask him, but he was busy shoving a protester. And as I waited for him to finish, I was pushed away by another cop. I looked for Esposito later on to ask him that question, but that was the last time I saw him that day.
Union Square was packed! I’ve never seen so many people there or at any Occupy event I have attended. The atmosphere was festive and the usual diversity of people and ideas was very well present. An odd dichotomy to the past few hours I had just spent running around downtown Manhattan. The oddity of the situation was rounded out when I went into Whole Foods on 14th Street to grab a drink. There was a long line for the restrooms. And after chasing each other through the streets, I found cops and protesters quietly lining up for the same bathrooms …
The march down Broadway included an estimated 30,000 people, protesting for workers’ rights, immigrant rights, and for social justice. About 100 labor unions and affinity groups had sponsored this march, and turned out in force. Jesus and Captain America came along, too.
As the march reached downtown Manhattan, we found Zucotti Park barricaded off from the marching route (not that 30,000 people would have fit in there, anyway), and the procession moved on towards Wall Street. As had been the case during the Liberty Square occupation, the street was barricaded off for any pedestrian traffic. Somewhat odd, given that for the past three weeks, Occupiers had held a 24 hour vigil on the sidewalks and later on the steps of Federal Hall). Consequently, 30,000 people suddenly had nowhere to go, and a shoving match ensued again, as protesters voiced their anger at the protection Wall Street was receiving, both physically and figuratively.
The march finally moved on toward Bowling Green, where several union members held speeches. Afterwards about 1,000 of the Occupiers marched on toward the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Water Street for a People’s Assembly. The amphitheater behind the memorial wall was packed, as people caught up on events of the day around the country, and started to wind down and relax after a long day of marching. New York City councilmen Jumaane Williams and Ydanis Rodriguez, both plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NYPD over their forceful tactics (more on that here), were at the assembly.
Councilman Williams urged everyone to “keep agitating, as change doesn’t come quietly.” The memorial however closes to the public at 10pm, and so again, NYPD assembled over 200 cops in riot gear outside the memorial to move in shortly after 10 to close the park. Questions whether NYPD actually had jurisdiction over the area remained unresolved, given that war memorials tend to be federal properties.
Most protesters left before much trouble could arise, but some did get arrested. What followed was the truly saddening part of the day’s events. Admittedly everybody was tired at that point – cops and protesters both had been on 17 hour shifts – but arresting people brutally for no reason has no place in a democratic society. Had causes for arrests during the day been thin at times, at this point they were completely non existent. One man was arrested for walking his bike on a sidewalk. Seriously.
A group of protesters sought refuge near South Street Seaport at the Waterfront, but was driven away again, at which point I called it a day and went home. All in all, 97 people had been arrested that day, many under the direct supervision of the NYPD’s Deputy Chief. I wonder whether he needed to be there to make sure these arrests were happening. Several beat cops looked uncomfortable doing what they were told to do.
A friend later told me that as she was sitting with others in Zucotti Park around 2am, a white shirt cop walked by her and said “Ok folks, you stay here as long as you like. We’re going to bed …”