Harsh NYPD Action May Reinvigorate Occupy Wall Street Movement

The New York cops’ overwrought crackdown on Occupy Wall Street may breathe new life into the movement just when it seemed to be losing momentum. Plus, John Avlon says there's no right to sleep in parks.

Preston Rescigno / Getty Images

Before a New York City cop pepper-sprayed peaceful female demonstrators at Occupy Wall Street in September, few were paying attention to the movement. It didn’t really start gaining momentum until police arrested more than 700 people during a march across the Brooklyn Bridge in October. Now, once again, the New York Police Department, with its wildly overwrought response to civil disobedience, may have reinvigorated the movement it meant to crush.

Until Tuesday, Occupy Wall Street seemed, at least from the outside, to be entering a stage of entropy. The weather was turning. As vagrants and lowlifes migrated to Zuccotti Park, the scene was getting sketchier. There reportedly were several rapes and sexual assaults. In parts of the surrounding community, hostility to the occupiers was growing—on Monday, a handful of local business owners and their supporters held a rally at City Hall demanding that Mayor Michael Bloomberg evict the encampment. Around the country, things looked even worse—there was a murder near Occupy Oakland, a suicide at Occupy Burlington, and a man at Occupy Salt Lake City dead of a combination of drug overdose and carbon-monoxide poisoning. It was as if the Occupy movement had gone from Summer of Love to Altamont in the span of 60 days.

Then came the middle-of-the-night raid on Tuesday in New York. The police went in with little notice, and barred journalists from the scene. According to the Washington Post, NYPD helicopters even refused to allow CBS News helicopters to film from above. A reporter from the New York Post—easily the paper most sympathetic to the cops—was roughed up; he told the New York Times’ Brian Stelter that the violence was “completely deliberate.” At least half a dozen journalists were arrested, including reporters from the New York Daily News and the Associated Press. During a press conference in New York’s Foley Square on Tuesday afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said he’d never seen such an attack on journalists trying to cover a demonstration in all his years in politics.

Because there were so few journalistic witnesses, it’s hard to get a read on just how much violence the police used. But amateur video from the confrontation is harrowing, suggesting that serious force was deployed against the demonstrators. New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez was injured in the raid, and was still bleeding from the head when he was arrested and jailed. As of Tuesday afternoon, his lawyers had still been unable to see him, which one of them, Andrew Stoll, said was unprecedented in his dealings with One Police Plaza. “It is simply outrageous that this action was taken with a show of force that resembles what the military would call shock and awe,” said City Comptroller John Liu.

Thanks to anger over the raid, an anti–Wall Street demonstration planned for Thursday is likely to draw far more people than it would have otherwise. Speaking at the press conference Tuesday, Jumaane Williams, a city councilman from Brooklyn, called on everyone to turn out for the protest, quoting Public Enemy: “Shut 'em down! Shut 'em shut 'em down!” The small crowd took up the chant.

For most of the day Tuesday, Occupy Wall Street expected to resume its encampment at Zuccotti Park. Early in the morning, a judge had issued a temporary restraining order against the police, saying that demonstrators must be allowed to return with their tents and belongings. But at a hearing on the order, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Michael Stallman ruled that the protesters “have not demonstrated that they have a First Amendment right to remain in Zuccotti Park, along with their tents, structures, generators and other installations.” By evening, police had let people into the park, but it’s hard to imagine how the occupation can continue without even the minimal infrastructure it has had so far.

Those who’ve been living in the park will surely mourn the end of the grubby utopia that they built, astonishingly, amid the financial district’s uninviting concrete brutalism. But it couldn’t have lasted, and it’s better for it to end on a note of righteousness than to become increasingly squalid and then peter out. “When the first news of the raid came, I said, I hope there’s a raid, because we did need to shake that park up,” says Mike Esperson, a 22-year-old from Queens who had been living in the park since the beginning. “I wasn’t satisfied with the status quo there. This is a great opportunity to start fresh.”

Esperson was part of a group of Occupiers contemplating a new encampment on an empty lot at the corner of Canal Street and Sixth Avenue—like most people I spoke with, he’s still committed to the idea of a physical occupation. Still, there’s a fairly broad acknowledgment, at least among those more interested in political change than subcultural self-expression, that the camp was a tactic, not a goal. “The point is not to sleep in tents,” says Jesse LaGreca. “The point is to challenge power.”

The quixotic little village in Zuccotti Park may be gone. The movement isn’t.