A Bridge to Somewhere

From the Brooklyn Bridge to One Police Plaza and back again  

3:00 pm: The crowd at Zuccotti Park, larger than any day except the one immediately preceding, starts circling the park in preparation for a march across the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve heard that organizers talked to the police and assured them we will be walking peacefully on the sidewalk and the bridge’s pedestrian walkway. As it kicks into gear, we lumber down Broadway, a chanting column stretching across blocks. There must be a couple thousand people.

I don’t think there’s another country in the world where a protest march of thousands of citizens would be expected to confine itself to the sidewalks, where the flow of traffic is so sacrosanct that lines of police scooters guard the gutter like we need an escort. I overhear a couple mustachioed union guys talking about militancy and being gruff and fed up. So far the occupation’s direct actions haven’t reflected that ambient anger, leaning instead toward the liberal universalist “We are the 99%” rhetoric in which the police and most bankers are on “our side.” But dissensus is apparent from the way different clusters are shouting slogans. They both start: “How do we fix the deficit?” but the different answers (“End the wars!/Tax the rich!” and “Start the war!/Eat the rich!”) suggest not everyone is feeling as compliant as the organizers may have led the police to believe.

3:30 pm: We reach the entrance to the bridge, and the absurdity of the original plan becomes quickly apparent. The crowd is far too big to fit orderly at the entrance to the pedestrian walkway. A large mass of people overflows onto the entrance to the Brooklyn-bound motorway.

There’s been a lot of questions as to what exactly happened at this point; whether the police read warnings or not, whether the police enticed protesters onto the bridge with candy or not, etc. Here’s what I saw from the front lines: The head of the march fractures at the fork onto the pedestrian walkway and the motorway entrance. The rest of the crowd is behind them and undivided, but the motorway is the bigger of the two outlets. There are a handful of police, mostly senior officers, with a megaphone and only a few zip-ties, blocking it. One of the more senior officers tries to read a warning over his megaphone, telling us to walk on the pedestrian bridge to avoid arrest, but he’s drowned out by chants of “Take the bridge! Take the bridge!” The march marshals who told the police the route in advance give up trying to wave people back onto the approved path, a few of them shrug and join the chant, others are livid.

This is the moment it’s important to understand in terms of the afternoon’s narrative. It’s hard to find footage that shows the concurrent actions of both the police and the protesters, the cameras all seem focused one way or the other. But if you were standing at the entrance to the motorway, this is what you saw: The chanting reaches the back of the crowd, and now it’s a thousand plus yelling to seize the bridge. Protesters on the front lines lock arms and, once they’re sure the march will follow, start a slow, purposeful advance on the police and onto the bridge. The police, shouting on their radios at this point, turn and walk briskly toward Brooklyn.

As it becomes clear we have taken the bridge, marchers who had already entered the walkway jump over the railing and onto the street. I see two teenagers who must be a couple from the rehearsed but nervous “I want to if you want to” look they share before clambering down. The chants are now all about the bridge: “Whose bridge?/Our bridge!” “Occ-Upy!/Brooklyn Bridge!” There is more joy than I’ve seen so far at Occupy Wall Street; no one can quite believe what’s happening.

When we reach about halfway across the bridge, we see the police have called reinforcements and set up an orange mesh barrier preventing our advance. I can’t see the back of the march, but we hear from whispers that we’re enclosed at both ends. Unsure whether we’re safer sitting or standing, we try both in rapid alternating succession. A Latino teenager turns to me, shakes his head and says, “Man, I’ve got priors, I can’t get arrested.” He sighs and pulls out his phone to call his mom. There are a few tense moments. I hesitate, sigh, and pull the small jar of pot out of my bag and drop in inconspicuously on the ground.

4:20 pm: Later at the jail I will see a hand-written sign that informs the buzzing hive of officers to put this as the time of arrest for all of the 700-plus protesters. I wasn’t looking at my watch. The police start grabbing people from the center. There’s a valiant effort from the front lines to grab them back, but we have nowhere to go. A white-shirted officer extends and collapses his metal baton. One by one the police snatch the protesters, and it dawns upon everyone that they have enough zip-tie cuffs for all of us, that they probably have one for each person in the city. One guy resists and a handful of officers slam him head-first to the asphalt.

As we’re cuffed, they line us up on either side of the street facing the middle. We’re separated into groups of five and assigned official arresting officers. Mine is a young woman, maybe late 20s or early 30s, named Jimenez. She seems cheerful and distracted. The tied rows cheer and whistle for the new arrestees, who in turn smile and strut like they’re on a catwalk. Each shouts his or her name to legal observers taking notes on the walkway above. Spirits are surprisingly high, everyone is aware that we’re still occupying the bridge in one way or another. Transport vehicles appear on the other side of the mesh, large prison buses, paddy wagons with their sealed trunks, and even city buses driven by our union allies. I’m loaded into one of the aforementioned wagons with 14 others. We fill the benches and are forced to take turns standing in the middle.

5:00 pm: As soon as the officers shut the heavy metal doors, I slip my right hand out of the plastic cuffs. As it gets incredibly hot, sweat lubricates wrists and 10-12 of us are out of our constraints. I have a few bottles of water in my bag and we pass them around, pouring it into the mouths of those of us still cuffed. We do about five minutes of ideological infighting before laughing it off and sharing names. I’ve never seen a collection of mostly strangers so gracious in doling out and accepting help. Less than an inch of plastic separates the freer from the bound; it only took a few minutes for care to become a collective responsibility.

After about an hour, a trip into Brooklyn and back into Manhattan, we can tell that we have arrived at One Police Plaza and were being stored in the wagon awaiting processing. Fifteen people in an unventilated metal box for hours get really hot, and a few started to get faint. We shifted them to the cooler floor, and tried to conserve water. It wasn’t until later that I thought about what it would have been like had our restraints been tighter. I use my phone to Tweet: “We’re considering calling 911: ‘Help, me and 14 other people have been kidnapped and put into a van by a gang of armed men! Send help!’” Our escorting officers enter and exit the car, but won’t answer any of our yells. We all distinctly hear one on a radio say, “But I still have 15 bodies in the trunk…” I scream back, “We’re not bodies yet!”

But it isn’t all bad. A college student pulls out her phone and plays the classic Against Me! sing-along “Baby I’m An Anarchist”:

Through the best of times,
Through the worst of times,
Through Nixon and through Bush,
Do you remember ‘36?
We went our separate ways.
You fought for Stalin.
I fought for freedom.
You believe in authority.
I believe in myself.
I’m a Molotov cocktail.
You’re Dom Perignon.

We talk about Occupy Wall Street and tactics and who we know in common. It’s like some kind of experimental sauna party.

7:00 pm: We’re out of the wagon and into a courtyard where we’re lined up against a wall and our zip-ties (which we’ve slipped back on) are cut. We go one by one in new groups of five, and we take Polaroids with our new official arresting officers. Mine is named Po Manning, and he’s not much older than the majority of us. His uniform doesn’t have any of the adornments that come with time served, and his cop haircut seems like it could only be the result of a hazing ritual. Officer Manning smirks when he realizes I had leaned in to faux-kiss his cheek in the photo: “That’s fucking cute.” They take our cigarettes, keys, phones, and such, put them in our bags, and throw them in a big pile unsearched. I start to regret ditching my weed on the bridge.

Processing is a slow shuffle from space to space, and the station is packed. We’re drenched with sweat and enjoying the relatively open air. When an officer sneers at my group of 15, “What’s with you people and not showering?” I could have punched him in the face. They have us sign receipts saying they didn’t steal the cash in our pockets, which must have been a frequent problem before this practice. An officer pats my legs for a concealed shotgun and leads me and four others to a cell in the back. I start to regret not sticking my phone in my underwear.

7:40 pm: My cell mates are my two friends and roommates and two guys we don’t know. One is a recent transplant to New York, a structural architect in his mid twenties who works restoring historical buildings; the other is a buff and jocular finance student from Ontario visiting New York for the first time. None of us has been in a cell before, but no one is regretful. During the whole trip through processing, I didn’t hear one person complain that they were tricked or arrested unjustly.

We use my roommate Max’s unintentionally smuggled pen to write out playing cards on the back of our receipt slips. It turns out crazy eights is no more fun behind bars, so we quit without finishing a game. The cell is the classic 8X10 with a non-functional sink, a bench with a pad, and a plain toilet bowl. Fitting five guys in this space is a little tricky, especially since we’re all antsy. An officer comes by with sealed peanut butter or cheese sandwiches and milk cartons for each of us, although the former (from the famous “Rikers Island Bakery”) strain the definition of “sandwich” to its breaking point. From a cell over we hear laughing suggestions that we should reject the 1% milk in solidarity with “the 99%.”

We had heard from our DJ friend in the wagon that a call went out for jail support on the email list for New York Slut Walk, which had happened earlier that day. Apparently the news had gotten around, and the cell on the other side of us is developing an out-loud collective fantasy involving walking out of jail to a crowd of cheering, self-described sluts. For a while we attempt to entertain and exercise ourselves; four of us sit on the bench counting while the fifth does 20 push-ups. Then we rotate. Everyone but the Canadian quits after three cycles. We stop counting.

Officer Manning comes by and takes our IDs, and our push-up champion nervously confesses that he’s a Palestinian, born in Saudi Arabia. We look at each other and hope that there are too many of us arrested for the police to bother causing more hassle, which ends up being largely the case. The engineer didn’t bring his license, which Manning explains will necessitate holding him overnight. He gives us his brother’s number and we promise to call as soon as we get out.

1:00 am: Manning comes by and tells us that we’re almost out, maybe another 30 minutes.

The hour from 1:30 to 2:30 is the worst part of the day.

2:30 am: Manning comes by and tells us it will be a little longer. The police have to share computers.

It’s getting late and we try and put ourselves to sleep. Our tallest member (roommate Will) stretches out on the unpadded bench, while the rest of us scrunch horizontally, our heads on the pad stuffed under the bench. Max suggests that from an aerial view we look like a sow and her piglets. Sleeping curled up in the literal corner of a packed cell right next to the toilet is actually easier than I would have thought, and for a second I almost pull it off.

3:00 am: Our officer finally returns with the key, and lets four of us out. We give our man-left-behind salutes and promise again to get in touch with his people. Shuffling into a line near the door, our backs once again to the wall, we wait. Manning is standing with us, and knowing we’re about to be released more or less without long-term consequences, asks us, “Was it worth it?” We don’t even look at each other, everyone agrees. “Good,” he says, “good work then. And I guess we’ll see you again next week. It works so smooth it makes you wonder why we arrest you in the first place.” I do wonder that.

We move like penguins into a small anteroom before the courtyard where sergeants sign our summonses. One by one we sign forms saying we will appear in front of a judge before a date in mid-November. Our Canadian friend turns to Manning, panicked: “I’m going back to Canada tomorrow. What should I do?” “Are you coming back to New York any time soon?” “Hell no!” “Then just don’t show up. What’re we going to do—get you extradited for a ticket?”

3:30 am: We finally exit the building, grab our bags from the pile, and head for the street. I smoke the best cigarette of my life. Will texts the brother as promised. Across the street we’re met by fellow occupiers who tell us to call the National Lawyers Guild so they won’t be searching the prisons for us, and point us to a corner store where we can grab free coffee and fruit. Instantly all the anxiety peels away and the whole ordeal becomes retrospectively romantic. We chatter back and forth about everything, still incredulous about the bridge—The Brooklyn Bridge! A tall clean-cut guy walking home from a party interrupts, “I couldn’t help but overhear…” and asks us all about the day’s events and the occupation, which he’s been hearing so much about. He walks with us and listens, asking questions, but mostly just enjoying our now boundless energy.

Walking back toward occupied Zuccotti Park, the four of us run into the rest of the Canadian delegation. Our cell mate joins his friends and starts telling our stories; we say our goodbyes and promise to stay in touch. As we reach the park, we see that even with over 700 arrests, the encampment is still going strong. We drop off our new pre-dawn friend at the occupation, and catch a cab back to Brooklyn. As we pass the entrance to the bridge, I see that to my surprise the lanes out of Manhattan are still closed.