As midnight approached in New York City's Washington Square Park on Saturday, 14 occupiers sat in the center of an empty fountain playing Woody Guthrie songs. "If you would like to remain in the park past midnight, you will be subject to arrest," a policeman had just broadcast through a bullhorn, sending thousands who'd come for a political rally fleeing. Backed by some 100 riot cops in face shields, an exhausted-looking community affairs officer moved in to try to talk reason. "We marched with you guys; we treated you with respect," he said, pointing out that some officers had been on duty since 3 a.m. "We understand your cause. We understand your voice. We understand what you are saying. But all we want is for you to vacate the park."
"This is political," said a man in black glasses, between drags on a cigarette.
"C'mon guys," the officer pleaded. "Why get arrested?"
The New York City Police Department has dealt with a heavy dose of criticism for the way that it has handled the Occupy Wall Street protests, with an unprovoked pepper spraying, questionably legal arrests, and a dressing down by a US Marine at Times Square all caught on videotape. But in the interactions with police that I have witnessed and the conversations I've had with officers, a more nuanced picture has emerged: one of overworked rank-and-file cops torn between following orders and sympathizing with the movement and its goals.
Protesters hold signs in Zuccotti Park. VBlessNYC/Flickr"What is our one demand?"
That question, put forth by one of the original and most iconic posters advertising the occupation of Zuccotti Park, still hasn't been answered. Many veteran occupiers believe that making specific demands would be counterproductive, while others are working hard to craft concrete proposals they think everyone can agree on.
One of the latter is Eric Lerner, a middle-aged physicist and active member of Occupy Wall Street's Demands Working Group, which on Sunday voted to push for a New Deal-style work program funded largely by ending America's wars and taxing the rich. "I think among the general public, this would have enormous support," Lerner says. "The biggest need in this country and in the world at this time is jobs."
The Demands group, first publicized yesterday by the New York Times, hasn't shared its proposal until now. The plan would involve the federal government raising about $1.5 trillion in new revenue and using it to create 25 million new public-sector jobs paying union-level wages. It would put Americans to work building bridges, roads, and affordable housing; providing free public transportation and free university education for all; staffing a single-payer health care system; and pursuing clean-energy research.
Last night, capping off a long day of protests around Manhattan and the world, Occupy Wall Street held a meeting in Washington Square Park to discuss whether to set up a permanent occupation there. Unlike the park that houses the original OWS occupation near Wall Street, Washington Square is a publicly-owned space that's subject to a 12 a.m. closing time imposed by New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation. As midnight approached, the New York City Police Department dispatched more than 100 police officers in riot gear to push out the occupiers. Some of them chose to resist, and I was there inside the police cordon to capture this exclusive video (the confrontation with police happens near the end):
That, in two words chanted and rechanted through the crowd, is how the news sank in early this morning that Occupy Wall Street would emerge from a harrowing night still fully in control of Zuccotti Park. At around 6:30 a.m., a half hour before an eviction operation was expected to begin, New York City Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway called it off. The owner of the park, Brookfield Office Properties, had withdrawn its request for police assistance. "Our position has been consistent throughout: the city's role is to protect public health and safety, to enforce the law, and guarantee the rights of all New Yorkers," Holloway said in a statement. "Brookfield believes they can work out an arrangement with the protesters that will ensure the park remains clean, safe, available for public use, and that the situation is respectful of residences and businesses downtown."
The news electrified a crowd of about 3,000 occupiers that had steadily grown in numbers as the wet night brightened into dawn. Many of them had worked nonstop since Thursday evening sweeping the park and scouring its granite walkways with brushes—a calculated attempt to deprive Brookfield Office Properties of its main justification for evicting them. While the company had claimed that it only wanted to move the occupiers to conduct a thorough cleaning, it has also issued a set of rules that would effectively prevent them from returning by banning camping, tarps, and sleeping bags.