"They're Holding Us Hostage!"
UPDATE: As the New York Observer, Capital New York, and Gothamist have pointed out, the NYPD's refusal to allow me into the "frozen zone" where OWS protesters were held last night comes just days after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly sent a memo to officers reminding them not to interfere with meda access during news coverage.
Outside a Manhattan fundraiser attended by President Barack Obama last night, the New York City Police Department deployed a new and legally questionable tactic against Occupy Wall Street demonstrators and the press. Starting at around 9:00 p.m., police barricaded a group of about 50 protesters into a small area on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street. These kinds of designated "free speech zones" have become routine at protests of high-level political events. But here's the twist: Protesters in the NYPD's free speech zone were trapped there. Not only could nobody enter after a certain point, but for about an hour and a half, nobody could leave.
When I arrived outside the Obama event, a $1000-a-head fundraiser at the Sheraton New York, I found that the police had cordoned off the sidewalk a block in all directions and were not admitting the press. Deeper inside this "frozen zone," as the police called it, were the kettled protesters, who occupied a sort of Faberge egg of dissent that was completely inaccessible to anyone not already there. From my vantage point I couldn't even read their signs.
On the sidewalk I ran into Andrew Katz, a Columbia journalism grad student who has gained a following covering OWS on Twitter. We noticed that cars driving down 7th Avenue were getting much closer to the kettled area than pedestrians and hatched a plan to ride a cab into the center of things. Here's the video I shot of hopping out and getting pushed away as I tried to interview trapped protesters:
To be sure, the crackdown on the protest can't help Democrats who want OWS to give them a boost at the ballot box. "Everybody just got really fucked constitutionally," said a woman in a black puffer, summing up the dominant sentiment in the crowd. A spokesman for the NYPD, who would only give his name as Officer Navarro, told me that he was unaware of the events at the Obama protest and could not comment on them.
Many who showed up outside the fundraiser said they'd just wanted to talk about the kind change that Obama had campaigned on. "It's funny that all of us supported Obama and we are now literally being held as prisoners 100 yards from where he'd giving a talk," said Chelsea, a young protester in from Essex County, New Jersey. She'd wanted to tell the president: "If you don't listen to corporate interests, you don't have to take millions of dollars from them. We would actually want to elect you."