Occupy Trinity and the Vanishing of Halloween

Occupy Wall Street was just blamed for forcing the cancellation of the annual Halloween party held on the premises of Trinity Church. Fox News has dutifully reported this fact to its loyal readers. Or has it?

It is true that Trinity Church’s Rector Cooper has decided to cancel the Halloween event, and Occupiers have camped outside his church since the beginning of June. Many of the protesters are indeed homeless, and a good number of occupiers have been arrested on a variety of disorderly conduct charges, including some open container incidents. However, while not actually lying in a technical sense, Fox News has still managed to distort the facts by telling only part of the story.

Let’s take a closer look at the issue of homelessness, and Fox News’ claim that many of the Trinity Occupiers are resisting help: Many of the protesters, and particularly those who have spent extensive time outside the church, are indeed without a home. Some by choice, others by circumstance. Many of the younger campers are runaways, fleeing abusive homes or being forced out by parents unwilling to accept their sexual orientation. In fact, An Epidemic of Homelessness, a national Gay & Lesbian task force, estimates that 42% of homeless youth nationwide, over half a million, are LGBT. Many of them can’t find a homeless shelter because there are only very few shelter beds available for young homeless and funding has been drastically cut as recently as 2011.

The New York City Council’s Youth Services Committee, estimates that 3,800 of the city’s homeless are teenagers, 40% of them LGBT, many of them forced to engage in ‘survival sex’ to provide for themselves. However, as the Epidemic writes in their report: “New York City and New York State combine funds to support fewer than 200 youth shelter beds. In 2011 Governor Cuomo and the New York State Legislature cut funds for homeless youth by 50%, and Mayor Bloomberg sought to cut funds for homeless youth by 60%. … Family conflict, including conflict over a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, is the primary cause for young people becoming homeless. In one study, 50 percent of gay male teens who came out to their parents experienced a negative reaction and 26 percent of them were told they must leave home.” The Coalition for the Homeless estimates that 20,000 children aged 0-20 currently live in New York City’s streets.

Trinity Church has asked BRC, a homeless outreach organization operating in lower Manhattan, to stop by the occupation on several occasion, and they have been seen talking to a number of the protesters, including Heather, a young mother of two, whom social services found living with her children in her car. Her car was impounded, her children were taken to foster care, and Heather was sent to live in the streets, told by social services she would only get her children back once she has found work and shelter. Heather now has a job, washes herself in Trinity’s guest bathrooms – until the church recently closed it for renovation- and dresses up nicely every morning, and goes to work. She attends all the classes and meetings social services requires her to complete in order to prove that she is indeed a mother fit enough to provide for her children. After several meetings with BRC in which she hoped she would finally be able to find shelter and reclaim her kids, she was told that the group was unable to help her, because – and get this – she wasn’t homeless long enough!

“Most people who do receive help from BRC have been living in the streets 2-5 years, which is their ideal range”, Fathema Shad’idi, a Red Cross medic who lives in the occupation to do homeless outreach and provide medical support, told me. “They get more money if they help someone who’s classified as long-term homeless, and in the end that’s all they care about.” A call to BRC requesting comment was not immediately returned.

A few of the homeless youth that was drawn to Occupy Trinity now have found shelter in the system, and some even have jobs now. “We try to get them help, and in a couple of cases we’ve managed, where it was just very obvious that the kids were struggling out here,” Fathema continued. “But for everyone we get help, there’s many more out here still needing support.” Another issue plaguing the homeless population are mental issues. “Many of them became homeless after being thrown out of mental institutions,” Shad’idi explains. “If they had insurance, they get thrown out when that ends. Others are being kept in Bellevue, drugged up, and then let go again.” A very detailed article on the subject can be found here.

“Also, many of the other homeless shelters are now filled with the working poor,” Fathema continued. “After the Mayor cut funding for rent subsidies checks 23,000 families are now becoming homeless and pushing into a shelter system that already has no room. Drop-in centers require proof that you’re homeless, or you can’t even go in there. They’ll ask you where you lived and tell you to go back there, even if you’ve fled an abusive situation.”

How exactly would one proof homelessness? “The soup kitchen I work at often sees these cases,”  Shad’idi told me. “We would write letters saying we’ve seen that person at this and that location, so and so often over this amount of time. That sometimes helps them to establish a track record of homelessness. But really, they’re putting these poor people on a hamster wheel, where they have to struggle just to maintain their place in the queue. Those who make it into shelter often have to leave by 6am and can’t come back until 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Where are they supposed to go? How are they supposed to be in good enough shape to find work so they can earn enough money to find a place to live? The homeless shelter system in New York City constitutes human warehousing at its worst.”

Another issue with the Fox News article is their insinuation that the camp outside Trinity Church is filthy. Indeed, Trinity Church had hired a company to clean its sidewalk, first once a week, then once and finally twice a day, until the workers refused to continue the job, since there was no need for this excessive cleaning. The Occupiers have had several brooms and mops confiscated by the NYPD, tools they used to clean up the sidewalks themselves. Trash usually piled up in a garbage can further down on the sidewalk, with cardboard next to it. Now workers of the church itself undertake the twice-daily hosing, often, when the boss is not looking, hosing around the Occupiers in order not to disturb them. On two recent trips down to Trinity Church I witnessed food and trash lying in the street on Broadway outside the church, but only after I watched officers of the NYPD throw it into oncoming traffic. The hosing encounters can indeed sometimes be tense, often because NYPD uses these incidents to confiscate personal belongings of the protesters, which then causes tension to rise, as Occupiers protest their treatment, these protests on several incidents bringing on arrests.

Melissa Freedman, a legal observer for the NYCLU, was arrested on one such occasion, as she stood on the sidewalk observing the hosing, shouting at the cops in disproval of their treatment of the Occupiers. “I was told to move, but since I stood on a subway grill, which belongs to the MTA, I didn’t. So I got nabbed.” Other arrests have occurred as protesters tried to hold on to their property as NYPD officers grabbed it, or tried to protect an item left in their care by a fellow Occupier. “If the cops wouldn’t constantly try to grab stuff during the hosings, things really wouldn’t be so bad,” Smiley, another member of the occupation, told me. Recently, NYPD have taken to driving Occupiers and their belongings away from the sidewalk completely during the hosing, with arrests now sometimes taking place across the street from the church.

“People also get weary,” Ed Mortimer comments. “[The NYPD] keep changing the rules on us. First it’s ok to have signs, then we have to hold them, then they snatch the signs or try to ban the cardboard we’re sleeping on. They really have it in for our food and our information table [a tarp on the floor with information flyers spread out on it]. Then they grab our stuff constantly. I’ve personally lost my glasses and two laptops and pretty much everything I own. No wonder people get mad sometimes.”

Not all the officers are comfortable however with the role they need to play in these interactions. On several nights a sergeant would stop by to say “My boss is on the way, so clean up here before he comes. Otherwise we have to throw your stuff out.” Also, some white shirt cops take a more lenient stance with protesters, preferring to reason with them rather than just handing out arrests. Around the corner from Trinity Church Occupiers even observed one NYPD Lieutenant screaming at his captain “we have to stop doing this shit to these people!” That Lieutenant has not been seen down there since, however, and other white shirt cops still do come down hard on the occupation.

As for the open container issue, several individuals living in the occupation have indeed been drunk outside the church on a number of occasions, sometimes leading to conflict within the community. Many Occupiers also suspect that one such individual is in fact a police informant. It should however be noted, that on one occasion, some of the underage Occupiers have been handed cans of beer at a catered event inside Trinity Church’s grounds, without having their IDs checked for age. “We try to keep this space safe for people to be in, both for us and anyone walking by,” Ed Mortimer, a street medic living in the occupation, told me. “Some of these kids really are troubled, and do need help. We do what limited things we can do for them, but obviously, having the church handing out beer doesn’t help.”

“We really try to work with the church workers not to interfere with their services and events,” Fathema added. “When there’s a wedding, we move to the side. When there’s a service, we don’t bother the people coming to attend it. Our beef is not with the couple looking to get married, or the people wanting to worship here. Our beef is with Rector Cooper and his board of directors who try to hide the fact that they’re running a real estate magnate with real-estate assets of more than $1 billion, and is in bed with the fat cats of Wall Street, behind the facade of being a church. We want people to see that this” and she points at the people sitting outside Trinity “is a direct consequence of that” as she points down Wall Street. “People have lost their homes due to the acts of greed of Wall Street bankers. People need to confront that and see the connection.”

Jack Boyle, another frequent visitor to the occupation at Trinity Church, and one of a group of occupiers found guilty for trespassing onto a plot of land owned by the church on December 17th, 2011, thinks the fact that Rector Cooper cancelled the Halloween event is less of a consequence of security concerns and more a matter of shame. “They have eight security cameras up there now, in addition to the ones set up by NYPD and the FBI. Nothing happens here that the government wouldn’t know about, particularly not in the early evening. Also, people here know they’re being watched, so they would be absolutely stupid to try and do something to a kid. Cooper is just ashamed to have people see what’s going on out here.”

The NYPD cameras aimed at the occupation outside Trinity Church are connected to the police’s facial recognition system. Several comments by NYPD white shirt cops to the protesters indicate that the police knows exactly who is who sitting outside this church, and what record they have. Several predators have tried to infiltrate the community, but have been driven away by the Occupiers or by the increasing number of surveillance cameras watching this strip of New York City sidewalk. “Predators are a constant problem for the homeless. Sexual abuse and assault are a huge problem and if you live in the street you have little protection from that,” Fathema told me. “Also, here they make friends with one of the Occupiers and then it’s hard for us to get them out, because we do have the principle of openness and inclusion. But we do try and keep the troublemakers away, because we want this to be a safe place to sleep for people, as we essentially run a drop-in center here. Sometimes the cops have helped us with that, other times they say there’s nothing they can do until these types actually do something. It’s been a huge problem in Zuccotti, and it’s a problem sometimes here. Many of them have taken off though once the cameras went up.”

The caveat of the Fox News article and this story is as readers we do need to remain mindful of which part of the story we are being told, as when one gets the opportunity to look at the complete picture, conclusions often seem less black and white.

NPPA Talks to New York Photographers About Their Rights in the Field

On Monday, October 1 2012, Mickey Oesterreicher, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, and Todd Maisel, NPPA NY Chapter Head and photographer for the Daily News addressed a group of photographers at the Tribes Gallery in Lower Manhattan about the rights of photographers while working in public spaces around New York City, and best practices in dealing with police.

Here’s the complete 90 minute audio of the talk: NPPA Talk (mp3)

Key points:

* Remember, when out in the field it doesn’t matter whether you have the right to photograph or not, it’s about whether the officer commanding the scene cares about that or not. Reasonable requests for distance are ok (two arms lengths or more from a cop are recommended).

* Defining who is a journalist today very difficult. For cops seeing a crowd in a protest, everybody is the enemy. If you can visually distinguish yourself, e.g. by wearing a suit jacket and tie, you will be more easily identifiable as an observer. Also, if at the outset of the event your intent is to document and record, you should qualify as a journalist, whether you have formal credentials or not. However, you can’t go to as a protester with a camera and then claim to be a journalist when you get arrested.

* Work in pairs, groups, watch each other’s back, and make sure somebody is recording video, especially in situation where you expect a confrontational police. Arrest reports are often wonderful works of fictions, and there is a presumption in court that a police officer tells the truth unless you can rebut it. So, if you’re nervous about the police’s reaction to media appearing on the scene, protect yourself by having a video camera rolling from the moment you walk up on to the scene, not just after you or a colleague get arrested.

* Talking back at police will get you in trouble, while you could be out there taking pictures instead of arguing about your rights. That said, if you have a video or audio recording of the police hindering your work, that can always be taken care of later on, in federal court with a 1983 action. However, for you to be able to pursue a 1983 filing, all charges against you have to be either completely dismissed or you have to be found not guilty in court. If you take an ACD or plea down to lower charges, there will be an assumption of wrong doing on your part and any action against your arresting officer will not be successful. A 1983 action claims that your civil rights have been violated under the color of law.

* Often, the police will offer ACD’s to get rid of cases, especially when they just arrested a journalist to stop them from recording what they came to document. NPPA suggests that journalists don’t take ACD’s when they get arrested in the field to reserve the possibility of a 1983 action.

* Key however is, try not to get arrested in the first place. Be respectful and affirmative to police, and don’t waste your time arguing if there’s a way to get a different angle. Your job is to get the pictures or the video, so keep moving and don’t get hung up in an unnecessary argument. Also, try to address officers by their rank. It will get you respect.

* Another caveat: If a journalist is seen as being too close/too friendly to the demonstrators, police starts seeing you as one of them, rather than a neutral observer.

* “Serve & Protect” has evolved in many officers’ minds into “I need to protect this civilian from having their picture taken”, or when they know they’re involved in something they shouldn’t do. Push-back against photographers has definitively increased.

* Link to letter by Mickey Oesterreicher to NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, dated October 1, 2012, following issues and arrests of journalists during the September 17th Occupy Wall Street protests.

Unlaced Photography – The Story of My Arrest by the NYPD


9-20-2012 UPDATED BELOW!

There’s rarely a dull moment when they go marching in the land of Occupy, and the weekend of the 1 – year anniversary ramped up to revive a lot of the energy seen swirling around Zuccotti Park last fall.

After a year of shaping their vision, forming their message, and battling with the police, the movement had a broad range of actions planned for Monday, September 17th, the day of the anniversary of the first tent pitched in Liberty Square. The overall plan showed that the past twelve months have forced Occupiers to evolve. No longer would the activity be focused on one massive march, but rather dispersed and mobile, adapting to responses by the police, but with the same goal they had from the beginning: To protest the machinery of Wall Street finance by shutting it down.

As I arrived near Zuccotti Park around 6 am, NYPD forces where already out and ready, Wall Street barricaded from all sides, as was Zuccotti Park, the bull statue and parts of Broadway. The news media was out in force, with TV trucks clogging both sides of Broadway. Little brings out the news crews in New York City like the possibilities of a potential blood bath … Both the police and mass media seemed ready for that. But the occupiers had other ideas.

By 7 am, about 500 protesters had assembled in this one of four assembly points, and led by Episcopalian bishop George Packard and other clerics, started marching down Broadway towards the intersection with Wall Street. The original plan was to block the intersection by sitting down in the street. However, barricades set up by NYPD forced protesters to stay on the sidewalk, and, rather than – as in the past – trying to battle their way through the barricades, the protesters decided to make their point by sitting down on the sidewalk instead. Still, the arrests quickly began, as now they were obstructing pedestrian traffic. The thought, that maybe the barricades and lines of cops the NYPD had set up might do a better job of blocking passage than anyone sitting on a pavement ever could, probably didn’t occur to the police commander in charge of the scene….

I had found myself stuck in the press penn that was handily provided on one corner of the intersection of Wall St and Broadway, so I couldn’t see the actual arrests, but several arrestees were quickly led away.

Looking for more freedom of movement and better angles for observation and photography, I decided to change venue and moved down Pine Street towards Nassau Avenue. As I reached the intersection of Nassau and Pine, the back side of Federal Hall, another popular flashpoint between OWS and NYPD, I encountered mayhem. Police had started to arrest protesters in this location and cops were grabbing at anything and anyone that couldn’t run fast enough, including a legal observer from the National Lawyers Guild, even though he was clearly marked by wearing a bright green hat marked “NLG Legal Observer”. I took some photos of arrests, but soon decided to move on further down towards Wall Street as I heard there were some activities going on there.

As I walked down Wall Street, protesters were marching on the sidewalk across the street from me, chanting and gearing up to block the intersection of Wall St and Pearl St. A massive contingent of police scooters along with cops in riot gear were standing at the ready for the encounter. A police officer started to read out a dispersal order to the protesters assembled at the street corner, and anticipating a new sit-in and some arrest shots, I crossed the street to photograph the officer with his megaphone, as well as any upcoming interactions. As I arrived on the sidewalk I started photographing the scene: The cop with his megaphone, other officers standing around that looking at the protesters, and I was just about to turn around and photograph the protesters, as I hear the voice over the megaphone saying “if you don’t move, you will be arrested.” I took one more shot of the cops standing at the corner, when the white shirt officer in charge of the scene pointed at me and said: “That’s it. She’s done. Take her,” and he promptly grabbed my hand. I shouted out that I’m an independent photographer, and showed him my credentials from the National Press Photographers’ Association. The officer looked at my badge and said “they’re not ours, so I’m not interested.” (an independent account and a great photo can be found here)

I was spun around and felt the zip ties tighten around my hands. This being my first arrest ever, I was surprised that I felt relatively calm and just let them do their thing, but I did notice that the cuffs were beginning to cut off the circulation in my hands. The white shirt officer handed me off to one of the cops standing next to him in riot helmets, and designated him to be the arresting officer, which meant he was now in charge of bringing me to the station for processing and staying with me until I was either released on a Desk Appearance Ticket or sent to court for arraignment. A couple of legal observers took my name, and information, and several other observers asked for it, too while I was being led away. At least I felt people would know where to look for me.

As I was being led to a van, my arresting officer was told that he couldn’t put me there, as only males were in there. So, the officer turned around and called over the radio “I have a body. I need a car.” — Well, while I was out of commission for the moment as a photographer, I still felt very much alive, and found that description of me rather disconcerting. Yet, the numbness in my hands continued to increase, so I decided that, rather than getting into argument with him over terminology, I’d plea my case for getting the cuffs loosened enough for the blood to be able to flow to my hands. The officer explained to me that the zip cuffs they were using could not be loosened without cutting them, and he couldn’t do that unless I was in a van. We walked back and forth searching for a van for me to be put into for another 10-15 minutes, until I was finally placed in front of a door, photographed with a polaroid camera, and placed into the bus – joining four others already in there – with my backpack still on, and my camera and press pass hanging down in front. When I asked again to get my cuffs loosened, the officer said he didn’t have a knife, so that would have to be done at the station.

Other arrested protesters joined us in the bus and a dialogue started soon amongst everyone: About the day’s protests, occupy’s philosophy and other topics. One of the protesters started making his case for occupy to two of the arresting officers sitting with us in the van, who seemed nice enough to engage in the conversation. Whether any hearts or minds were changed remains to be seen, but it seemed clear that once the confrontation of the actual protest was out the way and a civilized conversation was possible to be had – and the boss wasn’t listening – some rank and file officers were not all that unsympathetic. Blue shirted NYPD officers have been working without a contract for four years now, as their union and police leadership seem unable to come to an agreement over the officers’ compensation terms, pensions being a big part of the contention. The law however forbids providers of essential government services, such as the police department, to strike, so the officers have to keep working while negotiations drag on. And the plans being discussed for potential contract resolutions don’t sound attractive to those in the lower ranks.

Before the cops were ordered out of the van again to accommodate more arrestees, one of them finally cut my cuffs, my hands now a darker shade of blue, and deep imprints from the edges of the cuffs visible on both my wrists. I was allowed to take off the backpack, put the camera into my bag, stretch out my fingers for a second, before I had to be re-cuffed, thankfully looser this time.

Overall the atmosphere in the van was quite festive. The other arrestees seemed to be at peace with their situation and were looking to make the most of it.  One of the late arrivals managed to access his cell phone and started livestreaming from our van. Another one, sitting next to him started reciting some rap poems he had written about Occupy, manifesting some accute wordsmanship and creativity, while another protester accompanied him with a drum beat by banging against the backwall of the van.

About 90 minutes after my arrest, we were finally delivered to Central Booking at 1 Police Plaza for further processing. There I noticed that we were referenced to as “perps”, short for “perpetrator”. While this term may seem a tad less dehumanizing than “body”, it still felt hardly appropriate for a group of people arrested for such “crimes” as sitting down in an intersection, or photographing on the sidewalk.

As we here herded across the outer courtyard of Central Booking, had our names and addresses taken, any cary-ons removed etc, the treatment I received seemed reasonably courteous. I had requested that the Swiss consulate be notified of my arrest, which seemed to make an impression. While I wasn’t necessarily expecting the need of diplomatic interference, I felt it important to ensure access to it, should the need arise. Given how little decision room I was given with every step being pre-ordained (“two steps over here, back against the wall, one step over there) it also felt good to mark at least a little corner of my territory.

I was pulled aside with another arrestee still wearing his press credentials around his neck. He was a livestreamer and reporter for a website based in Portland, Oregon. We were asked as to where our work could be seen and what we were doing exactly, then that officer went away. I’m not sure whether he was a regular plain-clothed officer, from the press office or the legal team, but he was dressed in civilian clothing. Finally, my press pass still hanging around my neck, I was led into the back door of central booking, where my identity was verified, I had to pose for another photo – this time with the arresting officer – and was placed into a holding cell for further processing. My arresting officer seemed pleased with the photo of the two of us and showed it to me. When I jokingly asked him whether we should put that on facebook he laughed but said no, that he didn’t want to be tagged.

In the holding cell I met one of my colleagues from the Occupied Stories website, who is also trained as a legal observer. She was arrested for hoola-hooping while directing pedestrian traffic in an intersection, leading her arresting officer to complain “Lady, I don’t even know what to charge you with”. But, on orders of his white shirt officer, he arrested her anyway.

After a while I was taken out of the holding cell and led past the holding den containing many of the male protesters that had been arrested that morning, by that time around 70 of them. They were having a party in there, cheering on every protester who was led by their den, chanting, drumming and even dancing. One officer passing by along with me shook his head and exclaimed “what a zoo!” Others seemed less amused, but unsure what to do about it, so for the time being they let the protesters be. The holding room had glass windows, not merely bars, so the noise level wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been, but they were clearly heard all the way down to the holding pen I was about to be placed into.

I was led to another intake officer who collected all the possessions from my pockets, my press pass, and also my shoe-laces. I was allowed to make my phone call and rang my godmother, who’s number was the only one within New York City I was able to remember by heart under those circumstances. Other arrestees behind me where not so lucky. Several of the out-of-town protesters who had come to New York for the OWS anniversary didn’t have a local number to call. So, they were sent off to their cells without being able to notify someone outside what had happened.

I was led into a block of 9 cells, each designed for one occupant but allowed to hold up to four, furnished with a wooden blank with some mats on top, a sink at the wall and a toilet besides that which didn’t provide any privacy what so ever. The front wall of the cells were metal bars, so everyone walking by could see right in. My colleague and I were placed into the same cell, along with a sleeping medic and two out of town girls. We could also hear and communicate with the occupants from the other cells, which by that point held around 30 other protesters (we maxed out at 37 in our block). The two female intake officers were in a very foul mood, so any chanting or singing between the cells was met with verbal abuse and threats of delaying our release. We knew they didn’t have the authority to make such decisions, but it clearly put a damper on the festive mood in our corner of the building. Still, we quickly built solidarity around the privacy issue of the toilets that were provided. Every time one of us had to use the bathroom, the others lined up in a wall around her, facing towards the hallway, to shield her from view. We called it our Pee-ples Wall.

As the day dragged on conversations swerved from philosophy to politics. Also, my colleague gave advice to us less familiar with legal proceedings surrounding arrests, as to what to expect in terms of release, possible punishment for different charges etc. While at that time I was not given access to a lawyer (I had asked my godmother to contact a good lawyer we both know on my behalf), it did feel good to have somebody knowledgeable on the subject in the room. Still, time is passing slowly in a prison cell even with the best of conversations, and gradually we all started to chomp at our bits to be released.

Some entertainment was provided by our guards trying to assemble a proper count of all female inmates in our block. First the one officer passed by, counting each head, expecting four arrestees to each cell, as they passed by our cell their count got out of synch with their expectations, since we had five people in ours. However, that would take a moment to sink in, so they passed us by, kept counting, and about 2 cells later started to realize that something was amiss. So, they’d come back and do it again, then send a second counter to do the math, and finally a third, and we still had five ladies in our cell. “But it’s not supposed to be that way”, one of them exclaimed, pointing at one of us. “You were supposed to be in number seven”. After a while of headscratching they gave up and left things as they were.

Around 1pm, we were served “lunch” which consisted of two sorry excuses for Peanut butter-Jelly or Cheese Sandwiches, and a small carton of milk. I didn’t mind the PBJ in principle, but these two consisted basically of two pieces of cardboard that had been dragged past a jar of peanut butter and had gotten a drop of sugary something plopped on top. I was grateful for some food, and I do understand the impact of budget cuts, but this was ridiculous.

As the afternoon dragged on, one of the out-of-town girls got increasingly agitated, as she became worried about what would happen to her and her friend. As she got more and more upset and started screaming at the cops about not getting her phone call, her friend tried to calm her down, but to little avail. Irrespective of the tone in which she asked to make the call, it was indeed disturbing that she was denied what is ultimately one of her fundamental rights.

Around 5 pm I was finally released with what is called a Desk Appearance Ticket and a charge of “Disorderly Conduct”, which photography in public apparently now qualifies as in the City of New York. This DAT gives me a court date for later arraignment, so I wouldn’t have to sit in jail until a judge finally had time to see me. Before I was let out, we had to retake those two polaroid photos I had posed for during my arrest. Apparently, they had gotten lost in the shuffle, but I couldn’t help but notice that this time my press credentials were not hanging around my neck … The entire upper body is captured in these photos, so any press pass hanging around my neck would have been clearly visible.

While I found the experience of this arrest very insightful into a part of America I have never personally encountered before, it also angered me that I lost an entire day’s worth of photographic work over a bullshit arrest. I don’t blame the poor beat cop who got stuck with posing as my arresting officer. This issue begins with his superior who decided to arrest me for whatever reasons he had or was given. I can understand how the prison system can break people, given just how little humanity is allowed to those it oversees and is supposed to reform and prepare for re-admission into the general public. Obviously, with the view from my holding cell I’ve only scratched the surface of what prison life in America can be like, but the stories I’ve heard are beginning to make a whole lot more sense. My spirit is fine but my wrists still hurt, and parts of my hands still have no feeling, which sucks when you’re trying to hold a camera.

Also, if intimidation was the goal of me being snatched off the street, the plan has backfired. I have no intention to interfere with events as they unfold, but I believe that the emergence of a movement like Occupy is one of the largest news stories of our time, and as such it needs to be properly documented. That includes the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, I will keep taking my pictures, like it or not. But obviously, I need to take better care of staying one step ahead of the body snatchers …

UPDATE (9/20/2012):

When I first wrote this account, I was still rather shell shocked from the experience. Obviously, I missed a few surrounding pieces, and the story also had a side aspect I only learned of afterwards.

My arrest on Monday was not my first conflict with the NYPD this weekend. On Saturday evening, after a rather intense march from Washington Square Park down Broadway to Trinity Church, two photojournalists had been arrested within seconds of each other. Cory Clark, an independent writer and photographer from Philadelphia, was taken down rather harshly by Deputy Inspector Edward Winski after being warned earlier that he was being targeted for arrest, and a de-arrest by some activists during the march.

New York-based photographer Charles Meacham moved into position to photograph Clark’s arrest, and was promptly himself arrested by Officer Winski.

As I set up to photograph that arrest, Winski turned to me, pointed at me and said “You’re next!”. I walked away without saying anything and continued to go about my work for the rest of Saturday night and all day Sunday without further incident. I didn’t make the connection originally, but upon further reflection I am now wondering whether my arrest on Monday was not indeed a direct consequence of this Saturday encounter.

As I learned after my release, by arresting me, the NYPD even created a minor international incident. As I was being led away from from the scene of my arrest I walked by a fellow photographer and asked her to contact the Swiss consulate. She took down my information and handed it to the NLG, who quickly called the consular legal department. Apparently they were extremely concerned and promptly contacted the State Department. While in Central Booking, I did notice that NYPD tried rather strenuously to make sure they followed procedure with my intake and holding, a courtesy not extended to all of my fellow arrestees.

When I spoke to the consular lawyer after my release I learned that they were clearly not amused about my treatment. I was also informed that NYPD should have called the consulate immediately after I had requested they contact them. Instead, as I was just about to be released, one cop walked up to me and said “You had a call from the consulate. Do you want us to inform them about your arrest?” And after I said yes, he continued “this got a bit delayed, as we first had to clear this with the Mayor’s office, but since you’re now being released, why don’t you just call them yourself?” — According to the Swiss consular lawyer that was a violation of protocol, and also complete nonsense, as NYPD is well briefed on what to do in such cases.

Last but not least, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry about this hack job by the Breitbart crew. I find myself accused of being an activist, rather than a journalist, because I posted a call to join an anti-Syria protest outside their consulate in Midtown on an Occupy forum, at a time when the slaughter of unarmed protesters in Syria was raging at a breath-taking pace but nobody was paying attention to it. How exactly does that disqualify me as a photojournalist? I suppose, I’ve hit a nerve somewhere …

More than 72 hours after my release my hands are still partially numb …

UPDATE (10/25/2012):

My hands still suffer from partial numbness as a consequence of the super-tight flexi-cuffs (quite the misnomer, actually). My doctor says I suffered nerve damage from the extensive pressure the cuffs placed on the two major nerve strings connecting the hands to the arms. Apparently, nerves grow back at the rate of 1mm a month, so I’ll be dealing with this for quite a while longer. Here meanwhile are photos I took of my wrists the moment I got out of jail. Mind you, these were taken about 7h after the cuffs had been removed.

I now have the identity of the white shirt cop who arrested me. That’s the officer who grabbed me and initiated my arrest, not the poor soul who got stuck with the paperwork and with baby-sitting me through the day as I wound my way through Central Booking. It turns out, he is a Captain reporting directly to Deputy Inspector Winski, the man who had threatened me with arrest as I photographed him arresting another photographer a mere 36 h before I was hand-cuffed. Go figure …

Also, this account of Village Voice writer James King’s experience in Central Booking in Brooklyn is a must read.

Crise alimentaire au Yémen: 10 millions d’affamés

Cette article etait écrit par Omar Mashjari (traduction française : Julia C. Reinhart)


Avec l’attention du monde médiale centrée sur la lutte yéménite contre l’Al-Qaïda, vous seriez probablement pardonné de ne pas savoir que les Yéménites sont confrontés à la pire crise de la faim depuis le début des relevés. «Insécurité alimentaire», c’est le terme de plus en plus associée à Yémen, un pais qui autrefois était auto-suffisante, mais appauvris. En fait, plus de 44% de la population du Yémen se trouvera confronté à un manque de nourriture cette année même et l’ONU affirme que 5 millions des Yéménites sont considérés affectés «d’insécurité alimentaire extrême”. Les causes de cette crise se trouvent dans un manque de stabilité politique provoqué par la révolution pendant le “printemps arabe” en 2011, l’absence de contrôle et le plan au nom du gouvernement yéménite et l’incapacité des états donateurs comme les Etats-Unis au Yémen pour voir au-delà des “lunettes de terrorisme”.


À l’heure actuelle il est ineluctable: Le Yémen n’est plus au bord d’une crise alimentaire catastrophique, mais plutôt maintenant au milieu d’une catastrophe alimentaire. Oxfam, la confédération internationale des ONG pour combattre la pauvreté, en Septembre 2011 a averti que le Yémen était au point de rupture, aujourd’hui, on peut dire franchement que le Yémen a éclaté. Par exemple, dans Hodeidah et al Hajjaj, un enfant sur trois souffre de malnutrition, le double du niveau d’urgence standard. Alors que l’ONU estime que 267 000 enfants yéménites sont confrontés aux niveaux de malnutrition qui mettent leurs vies en danger. La crise alimentaire au Yémen présente plusieures problèmes aux Yéménites à travers les spectres politiques, économiques et sociaux. Ceux qui étaient déjà pauvres sont maintenant aux point de mourir, ceux considérés comme appartenant à une petite classe moyenne ont du mal à payer pour les nécessités de la vie, tandis que les riches et souvent élites trouvent qu’il est beaucoup plus facile de dépenser leur richesse. Mais il sont les enfants qui souffrent le plus de l’escalade des prix alimentaires au Yémen, en tant que les mères retirent leurs enfants de l’école pour les faire mendier dans les rues.


Mais la crise alimentaire au Yémen ne représente pas seulement une menace pour les Yéménites, mais encore plus important, il représente une menace pour les différents acteurs de la région et le reste du monde, allant de voisins riches en pétrole, comme l’ Arabie Saoudite aux États-Unis, des plus en plus preoccupies avec leurs propres intérêts. C’est parce que les Yéménites à travers le pays, mais particulièrement dans le Sud ont perdu la foi et la confiance dans leur gouvernement; au-delà de ce qu’ils sont maintenant désespérés pour tout le soutien de quiconque est prêt à les aider. Lorsque le gouvernement central est incapable de nourrir sa population, aider à réduire l’inflation et de rencontrer les plus élémentaires de sécurité, les organisations extrémistes comme Ansar al-Sharia monopolisent la dure réalité économique en fournissant le plus fondamental des besoins, y compris la nourriture et à son tour, gagner leur confiance. Bien pratique veut que ces opérations extrémistes sont quelque peu limitées aux zones les plus anarchiques du Yémen, le fait demeure que le gouvernement central semblent incapables, ne voulant pas et incapable de former une réponse globale à la catastrophe alimentaire immédiate.


La situation est aggravée par les centaines de milliers de personnes déplacées à l’intérieur de la partie sud d’Aden et d’Abyan à la suite de la guerre contre Al-Qaïda. Sans compter que dans le même temps, des dizaines de milliers de réfugiés de la Corne de l’Afrique arrivent sur les côtes du Yémen. L’envoyé de l’ONU au Yémen, Jamal Ben Omar a déclaré que la situation du Yémen est compliqué à plusieurs niveaux, chaque jour qui passe les complications continuer à combiner violemment au détriment des Yémenites les plus affamés.


Pour mettre la gravité de la question en contexte, 10 millions de personnes ont visité Londres cet été pour les Jeux Olympiques 2012, la même quantité qui mourira de faim cette année au Yémen. Mis à part la possibilité que le désespoir des gens puisse causer s’extrémisme, les conséquences humanitaires d’une telle catastrophe seront sans précédent dans la région arabe. Voici l’impératif de la réponse montée par la communauté internationale. Par exemple, le Royaume-Uni ont annoncé qu’ils fourniront £ 28 millions à la lutte contre la crise, mais ce toujours ce deçà de la 90m £ qu’ils ont promis. En outre, l’Union Européenne a commis des € 5 million supplémentaires, mais cela reste encore insuffisant. Bien que des sommes totalisant $ 4 milliards ont été promis lors de la réunion des Amis du Yémen en mai 2012, ces engagements doivent de toute urgence se materaliser et transformer en aide humanitaire tangible pour garder les gens en vie, car les gens ne peuvent pas survivre sur des promesses. Selon l’ONU, il faut $ 591 millions en aide pour répondre aux besoins actuels, mais il a reçu moins de la moitié de ce montant. Alors que la conférence prochaine des Amis du Yémen a été retardée pour un temps indéterminé, les donateurs doivent répondre maintenant, avant que la crise s’aggrave encore pire.


La communauté yéménite dans la diaspora a également joué un rôle actif pour aider à atténuer la crise. Jusqu’à présent, la communauté anglo-yéménite a réussi a envoyé 40 tonnes de nourriture, de vêtements et de médicaments pour aider les personnes déplacées à partir d’Abyan et a recueilli plus de £ 250,000 pour l’appel islamique de secours du Yémen. Suite à cela, le Forum Yémenite pour le Secours et Developpement, récemment créé comme organisme de bienfaisance parapluie au Royaume-Uni, a également lancé une campagne pour collecter des fonds pour l’aide alimentaire, mais son efficacité est limitée en raison du manque de couverture médiatique adéquate. Oxfam qui, le mois dernier, a publié un appel conjoint avec le Secours islamique de lever £ 38 millions pour l’aide d’urgence de 5 million personnes, a même admis que le cas du Yémen n’est pas émotionnellement suffisamment attrayants pour que les gens donnent de l’argent. Joy Singhal, le responsable de la réponse humanitaire d’Oxfam au Yémen a déclaré que «Ce n’est pas une crise comme le tsunami en Indonésie ou le tremblement de terre en Haïti. Yémen est l’un des deux ou trois pays arabes au Moyen-Orient considéré comme un pays à revenu intermédiaire domaine, car il n’est pas dans les médias ».


Avec le manque d’attention des médias, la communauté internationale et les organisations humanitaires n’ont pas d’autre choix que d’augmenter leurs efforts dans la lutte contre la crise alimentaire au Yémen, tout en veillant à ce qu’ils ne tombent pas dans le piège de considérer le Yémen dans le spectre de la sécurité. Le gouvernement «unité» nouvelle du Yémen est actuellement faible, en général un soutien international fait défaut, alors que les personalités du passé comme Ali Abdullah Saleh continuent de se tenir dans l’ombre, toute politique qui place le terrorisme et les questions de sécurité plus élevés que la situation humanitaire catastrophique ne serait pas seulement une catastrophe pour les populations affamées du Yémen, mais une catastrophe pour les intérêts de sécurité de la communauté internationale.

Video – The First 9 Months of Occupy

Over the course of 2011, as I followed events in the Arab Spring on twitter, facebook, YouTube, and, yes, even the good ol’ TV, I kept wondering whether the wave of upheaval would ever reach the shores of the United States. I recognized many of the complaints about lack of opportunity for the young that people in the Middle East were raising.

Undoubtedly, the pressure of an ever-growing, well-educated, young generation are stronger overseas, where some countries have more than half their population under the age of 30. And, for all its faults and issues, and the constant undermining of civil liberties brought on by the post 9/11 mindset, democracy in this country is still in somewhat better shape. Yet, I’ve watched young people in America struggle increasingly to get a foot on the ground once they’ve completed their education, as lower-level jobs wandered abroad or disappeared during the deepest recession since in almost a century. The jobs that were available were often held by older, more experienced workers who had to settle for lower pay or entry level jobs just to find paid work. The mortgage crisis, coupled with, at least in New York City, a concerted effort by local government to eliminate market controls and government subsidies on housing cost, created an ever-increasing part of society who was out of work, and out of a home. According to the Coalition for the Homeless, the Bloomberg administration cut access to federal housing subsidies to families in 2005. In 2011 state funding was cut, and finally, in early 2012 city funding was eliminated, too. While 43,000 people currently live in shelters around New York City, countless more live on the streets. Nobody really knows how many, as the method the city government is using to estimate its unsheltered homeless population appears to be deeply flawed. Many shook their heads in disbelief as Mayor Bloomberg, in the midst of the country’s worst recession in decades, announced a decrease of 50% in the city’s homeless population between 2005 and 2010. Yet, without accurate data it was hard to argue against his claim.

In the ten years I’ve worked providing arts education services to underprivileged students in New York City public schools, I’ve encountered an education system I increasingly questioned. I saw students who were taught to learn facts by heart without being given the tools to make sense of them, to put them into context with other facts they knew, or how to analyze and interpret them, and ultimately put their knowledge to constructive use. I kept wondering how these children would compete in the fully globalized, interconnected workplace that emerged since I left school about 15 years earlier. Lack of opportunity, combined with a lack of hope is a powerful stimulator for the restive mind. Over the course of history, most revolutions started when enough people with nothing left to loose finally decided they wouldn’t take it any longer.

In early 2011 the state of Wisconsin showed early signs of public upheaval: As Governor Walker tried, and later succeeded, in eliminating collective bargaining rights for Union workers, enraged citizens occupied the state capitol and refused to leave until their grievances were heard. Activists from Tahrir Square ordered pizza online to keep them fed.

Then followed the political summer theater of the debt ceiling negotiation between President Obama and congressional Republicans, that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy before cooler heads finally prevailed over hard-lined idealogical differences. The country is still broke, but at least managed to keep its creditors at bay for now …

Then in mid-September a group of people converged on Zuccotti Park to start what we now all know as Occupy Wall Street. Intrigued by what I saw online, I grabbed my camera and headed downtown about one week later. Over the nine months that followed, I’ve been back countless times, documenting what I found: The broad variety of people, ideas, and explosively expanding set of expectations as people realized how many likeminded souls were out there, alongside the journalists who were trying to capture this story and the cops who were scratching their heads as to what the hell just happened. Along the way I’ve met wonderful people as I marched the length and breath of Manhattan, spent endless nights talking on sidewalks and park benches, endured many miscalculated tactics by the NYPD to grapple with this movement, and gained insight into parts and issues of American society I had not previously encountered so closely.

In honor of its nine months anniversary, I’ve assembled some of the photos I’ve taken into an illustrated video. Enjoy:

Forgive Us Our Trespasses – Protest Outside Trinity Church on Wall Street

I’ve never been much of a church-goer myself, but today’s protest in support of Jack Boyle, an occupier currently on hunger and medication strike in protest against a possible 3-6 months jail sentence for trying to pitch a tent on an empty plot of land owned by Trinity Church did bring me out bright and early on Trinity Sunday. Many were arrested that day in December in an intense standoff with NYPD, amongst them a retired Bishop and other clerics, along with several OWS medics and almost 50 occupiers. My pictures from that day can be found here.

Since then, many of the arrestees were offered so called ACD summonses, where they can get the charges dropped if they stay out of trouble, i.e. don’t get arrested, for a six months period. For many occupiers that requires them to lay low from the movement, a tactic many believe is used to discourage participation in occupy by NYPD and the local judiciary. However, I have met Jack and also Mark, one of the OWS medics arrested that day on a number of occasions. Both are very dedicated members of the movement and decided to take a stand against both the eviction of OWS from a permanent encampment and also against the District Attorney’s office and Trinity Church, who keep pressing charges. On many other large actions, arrest charges get dropped very quickly, but not for December 17th. Mark also believes that he needs to take a stand for all medics. He was arrested as he came to the aid of an arrested protester who needed assistance and feels that medics should not have to fear arrest for providing medical assistance during protests.

As I arrived I found members from the Interfaith Group and other Occupiers picketing St. Paul’s Chapel’s front entrance facing Wall Street with signs referencing the Bible, reminding Trinity Church of their moral obligations and challenging their heavy handed tactics by the real estate group. It should be noted, that Trinity Church is one of largest real estate owners in New York City. It formed as a small Episcopalian Church in the 17th century and was bequeathed vast areas of land by Queen Elizabeth I in 1705. Much of that land is still in the Church’s possession, making it one of the richest congregations in the world.

The protest was high spirited (in more ways than one 🙂 ) and peaceful, as occupiers handed out flyers to church goers and passing tourists, maintained a picket-line singing slightly altered versions of church songs demanding the dropping of the charges, and talked to anyone who wanted to know more about the protest . Nobody has prevented from entering or leaving the church, but the group clearly wanted to make them think about their church elders and what they were doing to occupiers.


Press came out, too. Both the New York Times and the Village Voice sent a reporter. After all, word of Jack’s hunger strike was getting around, and both journalists have been covering the movement long enough to know him and the circumstances of events on December 17th. Also, should Jack or Mark be convicted this would be the first actual conviction of an occupier in New York courts since the movement began. One of the lawyers present told me it is highly unusual for the act of trespassing to actually garner a jail sentence.

We even saw a counter protest that went off without major incident. Two Wall Street employees showed up in full office attire handing out flyers, calling on bankers to unite against Occupy. It’s quite an entertaining read …

After talking to the cops and even OWS medic Captain, they quickly disappeared again.

NYPD for the most part ignored this protest, leaving the event under supervision of one white shirt cop who clearly didn’t want to be there and a couple of beat cops on stand-by should support be needed. Officer Konstantinidis laid low for the most part, with a few short interludes to remind occupiers of his presence and a minor stand-off with OWS medic Captain, who at first refused to get up from the curb he was sitting on when asked to. Ultimately only a few words and stares were exchanged and no arrest ensued.

One occupier, one of the livestreamers who’s name I didn’t get, had managed to enter the church service and suddenly came out back out shouting that she had just been kicked out. Apparently, Reverend Matthew Heyd during his Sunday sermon informed the congregation of why we were protesting and told his flock that the church was not pressing charges and protesters would not be facing any consequences from their December arrests. Since that is clearly not true (certainly as far as the not facing consequences goes, the DA’s office and Trinity clergy are contradicting themselves as to the pressing of charges), she spoke out during the sermon and corrected the chaplain, telling the congregation about Jack and Mark, the hunger strike, and the possible jail sentence. After apologizing to everyone for disrupting their spiritual moment, she was escorted out by church staff. However, one church staffer followed her out and told her that he was trying to get the chaplain to come out afterwards to speak to her.

Lo and behold, after mass ended, the chaplain and several staffers came out to offer communion to the occupiers and to talk to the group. The livestreamer, Jack and Mark got to say their piece, both to Reverend Heyd and even to Church Rector James Cooper, who followed out later. The conversations were intense but civilized and went on for quite some time. Heyd and Cooper insisted that the church was not pressing charges, even though the District Attorney’s office had told so to the protesters’ attorneys. Jack and Mark both demanded that they go back to the DA’s office and request the charges be dropped, even if they, as they said, had already done so.

Whether there will be actual action or changes in the DA’s stance remains to be seen, but at least the conversation was had and Trinity Church clergy and their congregants now knows undoubtedly what the occupiers are facing. Several congregants came up to speak to protesters afterwards. Some seemed in denial (“It can’t be that they would do such a thing”) or surprised (“why would they tell us otherwise”) but at least some seemed to start thinking and ask questions. All in all, a well-spent afternoon.

Tahrir – The Mystical Tale of the Brief Liberation of the Freedom Cage

Sometime in April of 2012, shortly after occupiers started their “sleepful protest” of bedding down on or near the doorstep of the New York Stock exchange, NYPD had chased protesters away, making them seek refuge on the steps of Federal Hall – which is under the jurisdiction of the US Parks Department, not NYPD – the Freedom Cage was born: After a night of several arrests and a large crowd of 100+ protesters congregating on the steps a well-designed (some think) and strictly enforced fenced in area was erected covering half the steps outside the birthplace of the Bill of Rights, allowing 25 or less protesters to be present in what was, in federal plans handed out by NYPD when the barricades went up, referred to as the Free Speech Zone. Thomas Jefferson and his brothers in arms, under the watchful eyes of the bronze statue of George Washington, had given birth to a zoning regulation.

Soon lovingly nicknamed the Freedom Cage, occupiers made it their home, spending days and nights in groups of at least sometimes 25 or less along with a contingent of NYPD and US Park Rangers to keep them safe (and awake). At first, K-9 and SWAT units guarded the area, but as time went on, and cops got bored watching people talking to each other, they disappeared, until finally the Park Rangers stopped showing up completely, and two lowly beat cops sitting in their car around the corner was all that remained.

After the nightly wild-cat march in solidarity with student protests in Quebec on Saturday June 2nd, a group of occupiers had marched down from Washington Square to Zuccotti Park and found its way to the Freedom Cage, ready for another night of quiet but good conversation; face to face with an enormous American flag, placed there by the 1% to remind us who the true patriots were in this country.

But then the magic suddenly happened: By a slight of hand George, ye George of Washington, who had watched over his occupiers night after night, whisked away the front row of the barricades, opening, liberating even, the Freedom Cage and it’s denizens. As is usually the case in open spaces, people and ideas soon flowed freely amongst themselves and with those passersby who were sober enough to notice.

But, as is the norm, with firm regularity the beat cop must emerge from his four-wheeled dwelling, stretch his legs, and stroll to the nearest watering hole for a coffee-refill. On one such journey, our guard noticed, rather unhappily, that an essential part of the Freedom Cage had gone missing. After a gently presented friend request, the hastily called-in supervisor did, after much deliberation, what intrepid leaders do: He called for back-up …

Back-up came in the form of Captain Brooks, a light-hearted variant of his species, who easily connected with the dwellers of the Freedom Cage. He even remembered to place his coffee order for his return a few hours later. And yes, he happily accepted the offer of having a donut included.

So rebuked, Captain Brooks’ troops soon withdrew, making for an entirely peaceful night in what now truly was a free Speech Zone.

And lest we forget our not-so-peaceful encounters with the shirts of white and blue Eric appeared and told the group what he had just been through. The night before he had suffered a seizure while walking down the street, and as he came to he noticed two cops beating him up and placing him under arrest for lying in the street. He tried to stand up and walk away but was thrown down again, tried to stand up again, and was yet again thrown to the ground. Bleeding, he was taken to the hospital where it was confirmed that he had indeed had a seizure and after he was administered five staples into the back of his head (sans sedative or pain-killer, mind you), he was unceremoniously dismissed both from hospital and arrest. He is currently looking for legal representation …

Alas, the freedom of the cage was short-lived. After the near-by picketing protest outside Trinity Church the following morning, the barricades have been restored to their full force. But as the Queen of the Night, that mystical flower that only blooms for one short night, the sweet smell of true freedom still lingers on.

New York At Night

Bridge to the Future? Hunter College congratulates its 2012 graduating class on their passageways crossing Lexington Avenue in New York City.New York City late at night is a world of its own. Very much alive, people come out who don’t usually are visible during the day time. Some stragglers from the daily life still linger on and mingle with the night creatures. It is also a place of a million lights, giving substance to the claim that this is a city that never sleeps. Here are some photos of one of my strolls down Lexington Avenue and into Grand Central Station after work one evening.

What Occupy Can Learn from the Egyptian Presidential Elections

15 months after the revolution that brought down President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian voters went to the polls last week for the first round of voting on a range of some 13 candidates. Now that the votes are counted, the result is a great disappointment to those who started the revolution in Tahrir Square: The two final candidates for the highest civilian job in the land are a radical Islamist and a member of the old regime. The majority of all votes did go to centrist candidates that the mostly secular revolutionaries could have supported, but split up between several candidates, rendering it impossible for any of them to come in at least second to make it into the run-off on June 16/17. Many revolutionaries had boycotted the first round of voting, because they felt none of the candidates represented their demands.

We will never know whether those boycott votes would have pushed the third-placed centrist candidate into the run-off vote, but it clearly leaves the question hanging. Democracy usually works for those who show up at the ballot box. Shouting in the streets beforehand, while important to shape peoples’ opinions, does not automatically translate into electoral votes.

So, what does that have to do with Occupy? A few things:

As was the case with the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, there are a variety of opinions on strategy that Occupy should use to broaden its reach. Some advocate diligent outreach work, while others prefer large protest marches that tend to attract large police and media presences, and then there are those who also support the application of black block tactics.

The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square faced similar divisions. There were those who felt they needed to join the political debate and either ran themselves or worked hard for one of the candidates. Others stayed in Tahrir Square and continued to battle the security forces in often deadly clashes. Some supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s involvement in the democratic process, others didn’t for fear of losing women’s rights and the right for a secular lifestyle.

Why do they now feel that they wound up empty handed after doing all the hard work? Because the mainstream population, which had joined them in Tahrir Square and other cities for demonstrations leading up to the ouster of Mubarak went home afterwards, trying to find a way to reclaim a normal life. What stayed behind in Tahrir Square and the streets were the hardliners who, at great risk to their lives, continued to demand reforms in fear that the army would simply continue to run the country. The revolution continued in the urban areas of Cairo and Alexandria, while the countryside quieted down.

The protesters may have indeed managed to ensure that presidential elections were actually held and not merely indefinitely postponed and slowly forgotten. And, after all, regular Egyptians for the first time in the country’s illustrious history, had a say in the selection of their head of state and suffered through their first presidential debate and the usual media hubris in the run up and post-match analysis of the face-off between the two candidates leading in the polls.

Still, it is unclear what powers the newly elected president will actually hold, and whether he will be a secular or a religious ruler, irrespective of which candidate will win the run-off election. The constitution has still not been rewritten to ensure separation between president and army. The parliament, meanwhile, which runs the constitutional writing committee, is largely comprised of representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Some have therefore concluded that while the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square have brought down the system and the status quo, the fruits of their labors have gone to others; and power has yet to truly leave the hands of the army. But why couldn’t they substantiate their achievements beyond the initial ouster of their dictator?

After the fall of Mubarak they didn’t build a broad base with mainstream Egyptians. After the revolution, the economy stalled, as tourists stayed away over safety concerns. A clashes continued, people started to blame the revolutionaries for the continued economic decline. Meanwhile, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the army used their long established networks to convince (some say forced) their followers to come out and vote for their candidate. The liberal candidates found good support in urban areas and with well educated voters, while rural areas remained the domain of the two consistent forces in Egyptian life: the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army. So, as voters lined up at the ballot boxes, revolutionaries threw the bums out while average Egyptians chose the devil they knew.

Occupy also struggles to build a stronghold in the mainstream. Many of the issues the movement protests against touch most regular Americans (wage decline, lack of jobs, debt, foreclosures, substandard education, lack of healthcare etc), so the potential to reach and recruit a meaningful part of the population is clearly there. However, since much of the little we hear in the news about occupy these days involves bloodied protesters and violent arrests, many are scared to join or are turned away from the movement. This should be particularly concerning, since much valuable and productive outreach work is actually being done by occupy working groups. But to reach critical mass, the conversation needs to be dominated by the good these groups are doing, and not by the latest clashes with authorities.

OccupyOurHomes, a nation-wide alliance of groups working with home-owners to avoid foreclosures and evictions, is one of these productive efforts. A good number of home owners have been able to retain their homes and renegotiate their mortgages with a joint effort of eviction defense teams and negotiators with banks and government officials.

Labor outreach groups have also shown successes, by helping small work places organize themselves in workers collectives and union-like structures to fight for better work conditions. The May 1st march in New York City was co-sponsored by over 100 labor unions, worker’s rights groups, and occupy working groups working on labor matters. Immigrant groups are also joining in, as they are most often the target of unfair labor practices.

Other working groups are working on health care issues or questions surrounding affordable housing. Several media outlets have formed to cover the stories not mentioned in mainstream media, and a handful of farming projects have started in an effort to secure food supplies for the movement. Students have marched in protest against rising tuition costs for substandard education programs, and OccuPrint is one of the first incorporated businesses, collectively owned by its workers, to spring from the encampment at Zuccotti Park. Teach-ins are held at a variety of events to help people understand their rights, learn more about the economy, and other aspects of globalization that affect their daily lives.

All these projects need more hands on deck and more resources to drive momentum in the movement. If people know about these efforts, understand that marching is not all that occupy does these days, and see how this work affects their personal economy, more of them will join. An example of how this worked can currently be observed in Montreal, where students have spent months protesting tuition hikes and reaching out to parents, friends, and relatives, and now have several 100,000 people marching in the streets, banging pots and pans to show their misgivings.

Another intriguing example is the one protester from Los Angeles who was arrested in Chicago during the anti-Nato protests, and had to spend a week in jail, while his friends raised the money for his bail bond. He felt his time was very well spent because he used it to talk to other inmates about the movement and teach them about the issues occupy is concerned with.

If Occupy should draw one lesson from the disappointment of their revolutionary comrades in Egypt, it is that they need to strike a balance in their messaging between outreach and protest and may ultimately have to engage in the political discourse by fielding candidates or forming a party. Big marches are important to rally the troops and make everybody see their growing numbers. But people do need to feel safe enough to come out, as not everybody has broken through their personal walls of fear to deal with  the effects of governmental confrontation. And most importantly, people need to be kept engaged and not sent back home after a large event. They will if they can see that joining in will benefit them more than staying home.

As the upcoming presidential election highlights, the current power structure will not  be dislodged by small protest groups, but needs to be approached and influenced both from without and within to obtain lasting results. In the age of Citizens United and the Super PAC it is easy to mistake the electoral process for a Dutch auction with two undesirable options wrapped into a three-ring circus for public entertainment. But ultimately, lasting change is achieved through pressure on the legislative process, as many in the anti-abortion movement can profess.

The government clearly perceives the occupy movement as a threat, as their concerted surveillance effort and scare tactics highlight. It’s going to be a long road and safety for occupiers will ultimately lie in numbers, both on the street and inside ballot boxes.

May Day Mayday

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.

Occupiers meanwhile showed up with an enormeous “Fuck The Police” banner, goggles, bandanas, and black hoodies. So, what exactly did they expect?

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 …”

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