Occupy Wall Street: From March To Melee

Occupy Wall Street: From March To Melee

Wednesday's anti-Wall Street protest was not one march but two. The first was an orderly, permitted procession on Broadway led by leading local labor unions that boasted 10,000 participants, according to the Associated Press. The second was a quick-moving series of confrontations that resulted in around 28 arrests, accusations of police brutality and fears that Zuccotti Park could soon be cleared out by force.

The day's activities began in Zuccotti Park around 3:30 p.m. EDT. A massive crowd populated "Liberty Square" with a buzz of activity in preparation for the big community and labor march that many thought could serve as a turning point in the movement's impact. The mostly young occupiers were headed north to a union rally in Foley Square. Then, together, the two groups would turn to march back down Broadway to to exchange ideas over what has been dubbed the people's microphone.

Eleanor Moriarty, a 70-year-old retired social worker who was visiting Zuccotti Park for the first time, said she was taken by "the younger people and their energy." Inside the park, Erica Basco, a 21-year-old Purchase College student, painted a pro-union sign and explained that her mother, while a Communications Workers of America member, couldn't attend the rally because she was working a late shift.

"Everybody's been really supportive; everybody's been really great," Basco said of the reaction to her union boosting. "It's heartening for me."

How the mostly young, un-unionized occupiers would mix with the older union members was an open question before the march -- not the least because union tactics, at least in the 21st century, are often so much more staid than last weekend's march onto the Brooklyn Bridge. As for whether there would be arrests, Occupy Wall Street's spokesman, Patrick Bruner, told HuffPost early in the afternoon, "I hope not, but you can never tell."

The scene in Foley Square, when occupiers and unionists became one, was an eclectic mish-mash of ages, races and ideas. Spartacists competed with Socialists, who in turn bumped into strollers. The sounds of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a radical marching band, carried over the droning rhythms of the Zuccotti Park drummers and the soul songs of the unions' singers. On the courthouse steps nearby a group of younger people had a banner that read, simply, "REVOLT." National Nurses United's priorities lay closer to "Tax Wall Street Transactions," according to their signs.

Max Breslow, a 29-year-old stagehand sporting sunglasses, a handlebar mustache and a Holga film camera, was impressed. This was the first time he'd made it out to Occupy Wall Street, or to any union rally in the United States, and he thought "the movement's gonna get larger, and the message is going to get more concise."

As a token to just how concise or even downright wonky some would like its message to be, a man nearby was holding a cardboard sign that said "Kill the OTC Derivative Market -- Outlaw Credit Default Swaps."

The 52-year-old actor who was holding the default swap sign, Joe Urla, acknowledged that "people don't realize what the derivatives market is."

Nevertheless, Urla added, "from a political standpoint it boils down to corruption" -- and he thought the people around him, from all their various backgrounds, recognized that problem well.

Everyone seemed to want to connect. A leader from Service Employees International Union 32BJ Local of custodial workers told the crowd "I see in the media, in the news, they say labor's joined the fight. I think that's a poor characterization. Labor's always been in the fight!"

"We're tired of the greedy sons of bitches taking our money," he added. "Does this movement have legs? Shit, Look around you!"

The crowd roared. The president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union used language equally designed to appeal to the assembled audience.

"If your police department ever, ever reacts again like it did last Saturday," Stuart Applebaum warned Mayor Bloomberg, "stifling dissent and limiting free speech, New Yorkers will not tolerate it!"

Before the night's end, Applebaum's promise would arguably be put to the test. Thousands of New Yorkers streamed out of Foley Square and south towards Zuccotti. Their numbers were so great that progress was painfully slow, and traffic on the thoroughfare was at a standstill.

Inside a Duane Reade on Broadway, a woman in office attire whose bus to Staten Island was disrupted because of the protest shook her head.

"My daughter's involved with this. If I thought it would make a difference, I wouldn't care," she said, obviously holding out far less hope for Occupy Wall Street's long term prospects.

Once they made it down to Zuccotti Park, the union leaders did indeed take to the people's mike. And so did filmmaker Michael Moore, who led the crowd in a rabble-rousing speech aimed at Wall Street.

"I love the human microphone," Moore said. "This isn't just my voice or his voice or her voice, it's all of our voices. Let's keep the movement like this. Let's not let it be corrupted by politicians."

Moore proceeded to make a series of statements about Goldman Sachs and the other Big Banks, words that would not go over well in a Senate Cloakroom.

"They are responsible for ruining millions of lives, hundreds of millions of lives," Moore said, pointing to the office towers that loom over the park. "They organized this. They took their boot and put it on the necks of the American people, and now the American people want that boot removed, now!"

"Come back President Obama," he wistfully concluded, "a lonely nation turns its eyes to you."

Almost immediately after Moore laid down the microphone, people started shouting.

"March on Wall Street! March on Wall Street!" the chant went out. This wasn't in the plan -- in fact, just as the cry went out at 7:30 p.m., the rally was supposed to be ending.

"They can't arrest us all," a girl nearby said. That's also what someone told a freelance reporter for The New York Times before she and 743 other people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Thousands of people streamed out of the park and south on Broadway. These people did not seem to be, by and large, the union members who had started in Foley Square. Instead they were the occupiers and other young people, looking for a confrontation.

Where to go was obvious. But what to do near Wall Street was less so, particularly since the NYPD had erected a well-manned barricade at the street's intersection with Broadway. On May 12, for another major union-backed rally, police allowed demonstrators to walk Wall Street's length -- but it was entirely blocked off tonight. Two sit-down sidewalk assemblies later, the group slowly reached a consensus.

The protesters and the media -- HuffPost included -- were cut off from the west side of Broadway by barricades. The atmosphere was tense and claustrophobic.

At 7:48 p.m., a protester near the barrier made an announcement: "If you're willing to get arrested, go in front." The crowd shuffled a little bit, and then with a chant of "three, two, one," scores of protesters attempted to storm the barricades.

The police pushed back, shoving and spraying pepper spray. One white-shirted officer almost immediately started swinging a baton that hit numerous protesters and a Fox 5 reporter. The heavy sound of the baton's contact with human bodies has already reverberated online, spawning accusations of unnecessary force.

Nobody made it over onto Wall Street without being arrested; at least four were taken into custody immediately. For hours afterward, several hundred protesters played a game of cat-and-mouse with police that seemed to stretch all over Lower Manhattan. Setting off on unpredictable, quick-paced marches, the protesters loped around corners and ran through streets, daring the police to arrest them. Sometimes the police did, using batons and force in the process.

There were reports of an attempt to enter Wall Street from another intersection that also ended in arrests. At Beaver and Marketfield the protesters somehow overturned police motorcycles. The department responded by sending in officers on horseback. Twenty minutes or so later, near State Street at Pearl Street, another one of the running sallies resulted in approximately five arrests. The police repeatedly told HuffPost they were only arresting people who left the sidewalks -- but why it was illegal to leave the sidewalks was not explained.

A CBS helicopter caught images of "an officer with a baton hitting a protester as other police surrounded him and tossed the protester to the ground."

By the end of the night, as local TV networks like WABC talked about the evening as "easily one of the most violent confrontations between police and protesters so far," the running marches and the resulting police reaction had cast a shadow over the peaceful, thousands-strong labor and community rally earlier in the day.

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