Wednesday’s March to Foley Square: The Calm Before The Storm

On Wednesday evening, arrests, beatings, and pepper spray marred what was otherwise a largely peaceful march. The protesters spilled into the street and blocked traffic during most of the afternoon, but police violence occurred later, once “some activists tried to storm barricades blocking them from Wall Street and the Stock Exchange” while on their way back to Zuccotti Park, according to the NY Daily News.

Among those beaten and maced were a Fox 5 reporter and camera man. Unconfirmed reports on Twitter and this photo also suggest that an armless man was also arrested. A YouTube video posted to Occupy Wall Street’s website shows an NYPD police officer saying, “my little night-stick’s going to get a workout.”

Before these troubling and confusing developments, NYULocal followed the march from Washington Square Park to Foley Square, where union permits would ward off the chance of arrest. At 4:00pm on Wednesday, participating NYU students left their classes early as a part of the NYU Student Walkout and met at the fountain in Washington Square Park.

After the arrival of New School students, who were repeatedly referred to as “comrades,” and general safety guidelines, the march began toward Foley Square. Along the way, chants of “Show me what democracy looks like/This is what democracy looks like,” and the Occupy Wall Street protest staple, “We/Are/The 99 Percent” led spectators to cheer, grumble, and watch the procession through the cameras on their phones.

While the march on West 4th St. toward Lafayette was passing NYU’s Stern School of Business, we took the opportunity to talk to students who hope to derive their future livelihoods from the financial industry, which was being vilified by their fellow students marching past. “I think that a lot of people — if they sat in on our classes — would understand that it’s not just the bankers’ fault,” one undergraduate said. “There’s a lot of things that people did themselves.”

Another said that while he doesn’t see “malicious intent” on the part of the financial industry, he thinks “people are just frustrated with the malaise in our economy and our government.”

The crowd finally spilled out into Foley Square. Protesters from all walks of life made up the march. With the involvement of unions and others who were drawn by the march event, it was clear this wasn’t a twentysomething movement anymore.

Others were still unconvinced, however. A photographer who said he will move to Denmark to seek a more fair social welfare system didn’t think this was the way to do it. He said he had become disaffected by a protest culture which was “just like the rest of human society. People come down with their friends, and all the bystanders don’t get reached out to. They see it, but it doesn’t spread beyond students, unions, and filthy hippies.”

An elderly man from the East Village offered some of the more practical thoughts on governance we’ve heard in some time. “Everyone’s got to give a little bit. Higher taxes, definitely,” he said with the casual candor only those who pretend that crippling partisan polarization doesn’t exist can muster, “but entitlements have to be kept under control. There has to be a general willingness across the board for everyone to work toward a common goal. That’s what happened in World War II.” Despite our cajoling, he refused to consider running for public office.

Two members of the Grannie Peace Brigade said they “have to be here because we wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Occupy Wall Street is one of the best things that has happened in a long, long time.” They pinched our cheeks and told us, “You’re the future. You’re the hope.”

Extracting ourselves from the throbbing mass of outrage and jubilation, we made our way to the steps of the New York County Courthouse, where we spoke with men in military uniform holding a “Veterans for Peace” banner. One young man had joined the military at seventeen, having received parental permission. Now, at 22, he had fought in two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I’m here today because I didn’t go to Iraq and Afghanistan for Wall Street, I went for the American public as a whole,” he said.

A former U.S. Air Force officer who served in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, and now studies Creative Writing as a graduate student at NYU, expressed similar concerns about rising inequality. “For many of us it’s frustrating to return to war after having deployed during a time of economic plenty, and to see so much money squandered in invasions and subsequent occupations of two of the poorest countries on earth.”

“I deployed to Afghanistan whole-heartedly because I wanted to help kill the people responsible for 9/11,” he said, before a woman interrupted us to thank him for being at the protest. He continued, “a lot of us are frustrated to come back and find that suddenly, you know, for all of our ills, the middle class is at fault. Unions, public employees — middle class workers are being blamed.”

In front of the courthouse, four high school students crowded around a cardboard sign. “My sign,” the boy proudly explained to us, “says I’m sick and tired of the corporate machine grinding my balls.” Next to this text was a marker drawing of a scrotum. The boy explained that his parents can’t afford to send him to college, where he had hoped to study agricultural engineering.

Police officers, traffic cops, and Department of Justice security guards outside of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals on Foley Square were generally unwilling to talk. One female police officer responded to a request for comment just outside of Washington Square Park with such an unblinking, almost threatening glare that we quickly scurried across the street. We did, however, receive multiple thumbs-up after requesting a non-verbal display of support, which apparently does not violate whatever regulation bars these law enforcement officials from speaking with the press.

One white-shirt police officer did respond when asked what he thought of the level of organization, saying, “Unfortunately this is just not the time to have that conversation. We’re here to facilitate peaceful protests. These seem to be peaceful so far.” He then let us give him our email. We hope that he contacts us later.

By 6:45 PM, almost all protesters had started their march back down to Zuccotti Park, where only hours later some would face night sticks, pepper spray, and handcuffs. The police re-opened the streets that had been closed off for the protest, and the empty square quickly reverted to its austere geometry, columns in front of the courts taking on a new grandeur in the absence of people. At Foley Square, only the fliers on the ground and the abundance of police officers remained as obvious evidence of the mass civic participation which had occurred.

A group of Transit Worker Union members nearby were packing up their pick-up truck near the center fountain. When we approached them to ask what advice they might give young people for the future, an older man in the group replied, “The future belongs to you, and it is good that you are here.”

One stay-behind, a frighteningly confident man in his mid-20s who identified himself as having helped organize Occupy Wall Street operations at Zuccotti Park, spoke to us candidly about where he thinks these public displays of discontent can take the country. “My prediction,” he said, “is social revolution, here in this country. I think if this movement doesn’t necessarily make a revolution happen, it’s certainly a precursor to it… I think that once we become too large, and pose a real, real threat to the elite interests that control the police and control the military, then some kind of repression is inevitable and that begets violence.”

“I am [prepared] personally, yes. I don’t know how prepared the rest of that mass is, but I guess we’ll see,” he said.

What followed that night, as the wind picked up and the sky dimmed, was a massive, chanting march back to camp and a scene of revelry once at Zuccotti park. Some estimated 15,000 people, others said more. Signs were raised as the stopped crowd became thick, and a funk band lead an impromptu dance party on one end of the square. A meditation circle hummed in unison. Helicopters, maybe 6 of them, seemed to be paused overhead. An NYPD watchtower hung over the scene.

The mood that would follow would not be so festive. Videos would emerge online of baton-swing cops and handcuffed protesters in vans. Though onlookers and protesters alike had at times seemed unsure of the mass assembly’s motives, the presence of thousands of people suggested a transition from rage to outrage. Whatever this movement is — a left wing response to the Tea Party, a genuine cry for a more egalitarian economic system, or a confused group of young people whose economic frustrations are being utilized by those with more radical designs —  it shows that our generation is capable of more political expression than we had previously given ourselves credit for. What will become of this newfound capacity is anyone’s guess.

Photos and video by Isaac Green.

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    10 Comments

  1. sam geane says

    I liked the part where you described why the super awesome historymaking circlrjerk turned into stupid people inciting violence from the police. oh wait.

  2. mary sync says

    This appears to be a well-research story with no fewer than 11 unnamed people interviewed. However, I have never read an article that purports to interview nearly a dozen people and does not name at least one of them. Did all 11 refuse to give their full names? Refuse to give even a first name or their initials? I realize that some people may decline to be identified because they don’t want to be associated with a protest. However, for all 11 to decline to give any form of identification seems quite unlikely. Jayson Blair much?

  3. Zach Halberg says

    Mary – you’re right, the anonymous comments were a big mistake on my part. To clarify, NYU Local doesn’t have a policy which supports anonymous comments. You recognized the issue, though – many people don’t want to be identified at protests, so at a certain point I stopped requiring people give me their names (big embarrassing inexcusable journalistic failure, I know.) I have the audio recorded of all of these interviews, so if you’d like to listen to it to reassure yourself that I didn’t fabricate eleven sources, please feel free to contact me on twitter: @zachhalberg.

    Sam – Your guess is as good as mine on how things devolved so quickly after the rally in Foley Sq. Let me know if you have any more insight.

    Willis – Thank you.

  4. Hilary G says

    I’d like to clarify a couple things about Occupy Wall street that seemed obscured by this article’s description of an interaction with an ‘elderly man on the lower east side':

    Occupy Wall st is about the failures of our electoral system, about looking to popular participatory democracy rather than the traditional corrupted and non-representational electoral system; “cajoling” someone to “run for public office” whose opinion you agree with demonstrates exactly the opposite understanding,

    secondly,

    Occupy Wall st is about changing the terms of the debate. Social Security/medicare/medicaide are not negotiable “entitlements.” This man’s “practical” statement that “entitlements have to be kept under control” which this article endorses is a regurgitation of the corporate narrative that demands the poor, the elderly and the working class suffer for a crisis they had nothing to do with.

  5. Zach Halberg says

    Hi Hilary, thank you for your comments.

    As far as the article accurately representing the goals or aims of the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, I want to clarify that the article itself is written neither in support or dismissal of the movement and should not be read as such. I went to an event, spoke to people who were participating in the protest, and typed up what they told me. I’m confused if you are suggesting that your description of what the movement is “about” is a definitive, uniform stance for the movement generally, because individuals participating in these protests appear to have a wide variety of concerns and grievances.

    Regarding the older man’s comments regarding entitlements, it is difficult for me to accept that any sentiment expressed is a “regurgitation of the corporate narrative” if it doesn’t favor a redistribution of wealth through government programs. While I personally consider the aim of a robust social welfare system as legitimate and necessary for the the improvement of general quality of life and opportunity, I am troubled by your characterization of any argument as unjust or dishonest if it favors improving efficiency within or even curtailing those initiatives. That sort of a characterization, to me, negatively (or even undemocratically) limits the scope of debate.

  6. Hilary G says

    Thanks Zach,
    i appreciate your response, and i’m sorry if i mischaracterized the article’s response to this man’s views as representative of the occupy wall street movement; I should have clarified that my frustration was more that this response seemed to pass a verdict on the protests (namely, a preference for ‘practical’, electoral-based centrism) that I did not agree with. while certainly the movement has no leaders and no platform, many hours i have spent at wall street have lead me to understand that some of the predominant objections raised to our current crisis can in fact be characterized by those that i stated in my previous comment. and i think that the discussions of curtailing entitlements is indeed a manufactured narrative that works to confuse the fact that while some programs may be inefficient, there is more than enough wealth in the hands of a few elite individuals and corporations and in vast amounts of money that get channeled into our nation’s wars to fund them and more. I’m not sure how my opinion (or yours) is undemocratic, but certainly my comments and yours have opened up a debate that i’d encourage everyone to join.

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