They looked like a small army. Just a few short blocks from Liberty Plaza, where a four-week occupation has spawned the beginnings of a new mini-society, the opposition was gathering. Unlike Occupy Wall Street, this “rally” had no drum circles and no people’s kitchen. They carried no signs and chanted no slogans. What they had were weapons, vehicles and a cohesive look. A not-so-thin blue line, punctuated by white-shirted superiors, carrying out their own occupation with no threat of eviction.
Clustered around the Church of Saint Peter, the New York City Police Department had created a staging ground for the day’s actions. Six NYPD buses, the kind often used to cart mass arrestees to jail, were parked in the vicinity, along with 15 scooters, 12 police vans, two marked and several unmarked SUVs and squad cars, several flatbed trucks overflowing with metal fences, and a bus-sized command unit. More than 70 cops milled around on the street, talking, texting and listening to briefings. Just like at Liberty Plaza, there was energy in the air, but here it was a nervous kind.
The word came down not long after 11am. Something was happening at Zuccotti Park and the cops began piling into their vans and hopping on their scooters. Sirens whooped to life and lights started flashing. The police were on the move and whipped around the block to get to Broadway, only to crawl along, held up by lights, traffic and mostly each other. Outpacing them on foot, I watched the frustration on the faces of the higher ranking officers sitting in their cars. By the time they turned onto Liberty Street next to the park, a raucous group of Occupy Wall Street protesters was streaming out of Liberty Plaza.
“C’mon, c'mon!” a white-shirted commander yelled, trying to hasten his troops along, but they weren’t moving fast enough. The flat-foots had been caught flat-footed and people of the park were in the lead. It would be the same story all afternoon.
The marchers, flying American flags among many others, headed up Cedar Street, away from the park, cheering and chanting, drumming and dancing. “We are the 99 percent,” filled the air as the crowd snaked through the streets of lower Manhattan. Police brass were always ahead of the marchers, who stayed on the sidewalks and were flanked by cops on scooters, but it was painfully apparent the NYPD was along for the ride.
Their first stop of many throughout the day was a Chase Bank branch where the marchers made a statement, just as they have at Liberty Plaza, by staying put. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” the crowd sang as they held their ground.
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Through a megaphone a police commander shouted, “Please keep moving in an orderly fashion, if you don’t move you will be subject to arrest.” But the crowd didn’t listen. He tried again and again and again: eight announcements in all. But the police didn’t have the numbers or the nets or maybe even the stomach for riling the highly energized crowd. When he shouted “Get off the fire hydrant,” at someone perched there to shoot video, his voice cracked and I thought he was going to cry.
Someone at the head of the march announced the group was moving out and the Occupy Wall Streeters were off again. As they wound their way back toward Broadway, the police brass at the head of the march were getting exasperated. I watched a white shirt angrily shoo away a colleague in a suit as he talked on the phone. More than one commander complained that the press – newspaper reporters, video camera crews, still photographers – all clustered at the head of the march were slowing things down and causing the protest to be more disruptive.
“There’s press all over the place, they’re slowing everything down, get them moving,” one gray-suited police official, with a crewcut and a Secret Service-type earpiece, shouted into his cell phone as the march moved up Broadway. A block or so later, I felt a hand on my back. “Walk a little faster, that’s all I’m askin',” said a cop wearing a black jacket bearing a NYPD DCPI patch – indicating he was from the department’s public information outfit.
“Hey boss, I need some community affairs cops,” he yelled over the din to a superior in the street, throwing up his hands in exasperation. “Hey guys,” he shouted at me and some photographers, “we gotta walk.”
It turned out, however, that it was the police – those on scooters, beat cops on foot, NYPD's Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) officers with hand-held video cameras and NYPD vehicles – who clogged the streets and slowed things down, negotiating block to block whether the march would go around this truck or cross this street.
But the march just kept moving at its own pace and the cops kept shouting for the crowd to “keep moving in an orderly fashion.” They’re lucky the marchers did. Had the protesters bolted in all directions at any point, the police would have been lost.
Hours after it kicked off, the march arrived in Washington Square Park, having lost none of its energy. While doctors in white coats, part of the “Heathcare for the 99 percent” movement, shared heartrending stories of patients without adequate insurance and college kids sat in a circle and planned possible school building occupations, the marchers took a breather and the cops grabbed some food.
Then as suddenly as they appeared, the marchers were off again and it was the cops, reacting slowly, who blocked streets and disrupted traffic.
“Whose streets? Our streets!” boomed the protesters as they streamed out of the park toward a rally in Times Square. As they made a right onto 6th Avenue, the Occupy Wall Street crew began chanting, “We are the 99 percent and so are you!” A crowd soon formed across the broad avenue as daytrippers and tourists snapped photos and shot cell phone video of the crowd.
“Stop watching, start walking,” a young woman in the middle of the march yelled, and she was soon joined by a chorus. Across 6th Avenue, some people waved, some smiled and some looked away. But a woman with a small child holding her hand moved forward and took a tentative step into the crosswalk. The crowd beckoned her forward, and while the young boy looked wary, she coaxed him on. In an instant, the crowd erupted in a loud cheer and gleeful applause as the pair crossed the street and joined the march. With two more recruits in tow, the women and men of Occupy Wall Street seemed to double the decibels as they launched into their signature chant: “We are the 99 percent!”
And off they went, heading north to Times Square and beyond.
Editor’s Note: The Occupy Wall Street march culminated with a rally in Times Square that drew thousands. According to wire service reports, 24 people were arrested -- most of them for trespassing, according to police -- at a Citibank branch near Washington Square Park, and another five were taken into custody near Times Square.