Mass Arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge> Is This What Democracy Looks Like?

by Nathan Schneider   Published October 1, 2011   Nation of Change

This was the second major Saturday march halted by a mass arrest, largely on account of obstructing traffic.

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News is by now get­ting around that today there were mass ar­rests of Oc­cupy Wall Street pro­test­ers—700 or more—on the Brook­lyn Bridge. As over a thou­sand marchers made their way to­ward the bridge a few min­utes after 3 p.m., they split into two groups. Some fol­lowed mem­bers of the Di­rect Ac­tion Com­mit­tee who led the way up the el­e­vated pedes­trian walk­way in the mid­dle of the bridge. An­other group, how­ever, broke away and took to the Brook­lyn-bound road on the bridge’s south side, even­tu­ally fill­ing the whole road­way so that no traf­fic could get through. The front row of them locked arms and pro­ceeded. At first, po­lice had blocked nei­ther en­trance.

Be­fore the marchers on the road­way reached the first stone tower, and hav­ing been led by a pha­lanx of se­nior po­lice of­fi­cers, they were in­ter­cepted from the other side. (Even The New York Times of­fers ev­i­dence that the po­lice may have pur­posely planned to lure marchers into a trap.) Out came dozens of dark-blue shirted of­fi­cers with plas­tic cuffs—ac­tu­ally, card­board boxes full of them. Some of­fi­cers un­rolled the same type of or­ange nets they had used the pre­vi­ous Sat­ur­day to make nearly 100 ar­rests, while oth­ers lined up op­po­site the pro­test­ers, halted them, and began to ap­pre­hend and cuff them, one by one.

For a few min­utes, the scene was very tense, as could be ob­served from above on the pedes­trian walk­way, where hun­dreds more marchers were pass­ing by. On the road­way, there were scuf­fles as some force used against those being ap­pre­hended. “This Is a Peace­ful Protest!” peo­ple chanted. And: “No! Sleep! Till Brook­lyn!“ But soon the whole process as­sumed the ap­pear­ance of rou­tine, and, for those wait­ing to be taken away, of solemn dig­nity.

 At the front and back, with the crowd of marchers on the road­way sur­rounded on three sides by nets, po­lice con­tin­ued cuff­ing them and lead­ing them away, one at a time. Slowly. Most of the marchers sat down and waited. “If you sit down, there is no fear,” called one marcher, each phrase echoed by the oth­ers in the “peo­ple’s mi­cro­phone.” They talked, and smoked cig­a­rettes, sang songs, and chanted. Many smiled as they were led away.

 Mean­while, more po­lice ar­rived on the pedes­trian walk­way, and they used more nets to cor­don off the area di­rectly in front of where the ar­rests were hap­pen­ing. And so it went on and on over the course of hours, as po­lice vans and city buses ar­rived to take away those ar­rested. It started rain­ing—lightly, at first, and then hard.         

The sev­eral hun­dred marchers who had been on the pedes­trian walk­way and had been turned back down to the Man­hat­tan side ral­lied at the base of the bridge. They marched around some in the rain, in­clud­ing to 1 Po­lice Plaza to de­mand the re­lease of their com­rades. Then they de­bated where to go next, and fi­nally agreed to re­turn to Lib­erty Plaza. On the way, they were joined by sev­eral hun­dred more, who had made it to Brook­lyn on the pedes­trian walk­way and re­turned on the Man­hat­tan Bridge. As a mass, to­gether, they all re­turned with a sense of vic­tory to the plaza.

It was dark by then. Din­ner was ready, and they cel­e­brated and started plan­ning the next move.

This was the sec­ond major Sat­ur­day march halted by a mass ar­rest, largely on ac­count of ob­struct­ing traf­fic. One might won­der, how­ever, whether caus­ing such an ob­struc­tion is re­ally the proper mode of civil dis­obe­di­ence given the pur­poses of the protest. It’s help­ful to re­call a maxim of Gene Sharp’s: “Ei­ther you do some­thing you’re not sup­posed to do, or you don’t some­thing you are sup­posed to do.” To put it an­other way: do some­thing good that’s against the law, or refuse to do some­thing bad that the law de­mands of you.

Cre­at­ing such an ob­struc­tion cer­tainly does ful­fill the pur­pose of oc­cu­pa­tion—it is a way of re­claim­ing pub­lic space, of being heard, and of stop­ping busi­ness as usual. But it also ob­structs a lot of peo­ple who are not the protest’s tar­gets. There­fore, this may not be the most ap­pro­pri­ate law to be ar­rested for break­ing—or at least not the one that sends the clear­est mes­sage. To make the mat­ter even more am­bigu­ous, many peo­ple who fol­lowed the crowd and the po­lice onto the road­way prob­a­bly didn’t know that by doing so they were risk­ing ar­rest.

What might be bet­ter? Per­haps some­thing along the lines of Tim DeChristo­pher’s well-known ob­struc­tion of an il­le­gal oil and gas lease auc­tion, for in­stance. In this and other clas­sic cases of civil dis­obe­di­ence, from Gandhi’s salt march, to the sit-ins at seg­re­gated lunch coun­ters, to the Free­dom Rides, to Rosa Parks’ choice of seat on a Mont­gomery bus, re­sisters took care to break the pre­cise laws or rules or cus­toms that they op­posed. Their mes­sage, even with­out hav­ing to say any­thing, was ab­solutely ev­i­dent. Es­pe­cially since many peo­ple com­plain that there isn’t enough clar­ity of mes­sage from Oc­cupy Wall Street, more clar­ity of ac­tion might go a long way to win­ning even more peo­ple to the rapidly-grow­ing cause.

Today, hun­dreds of peo­ple were ar­rested, many surely for the first time. More seem likely to fol­low. The world was watch­ing (in­clud­ing tens of thou­sands on the move­ment’s livestream TV chan­nel), and what it saw were en­tirely peace­ful pro­test­ers, in the streets to op­pose an un­just econ­omy and a cor­rupt po­lit­i­cal order, being ar­rested en masse while bring­ing their mes­sages across one of New York’s great­est land­marks.

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