Wall Street protesters bullied by police

New York police beat, pepper spray, and arrest protesters, leading activists to wonder who the cops are protecting.

occupy wall street protester with sign
Hundreds of protesters were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City on October 1 [GALLO/GETTY]

Maybe it was the unrestrained swinging of batons or the indiscriminate use of pepper-spray on a crowd of peaceful people. Maybe it was the scores of police officers doing their best to intimidate the public. Maybe it was the homemade drum accompaniment. Whatever it was, one chant in particular – directed at the NYPD – seemed to resonate with the hundreds upon hundreds of protesters gathered at the intersection of Wall Street and Broadway last night, “Who the f**k are you protecting?”

It was a reasonable enough question.

The NYPD claims to have arrested 23 people – most on charges of disorderly conduct – after thousands of demonstrators with the growing Occupy Wall Street movement gathered at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street on Wednesday night, October 5. The protesters intended to march down the symbolic thoroughfare, which has been blocked off by barricades and a continual police presence since the Occupy Wall Street campaign began on September 17.

Protester Monica Lopez, a 25-year-old journalist from Spain, described what she witnessed: “We were in the march and we decided to come to Wall Street and then we got here and they absolutely blocked everything, both parts, the sidewalk and the street.” Lopez added, “We didn’t know what to do.”

With as many 2,000 protesters packed along both sides of Broadway at approximately 7:30PM, and a growing concentration of people gathering at the entrance to Wall Street, the demonstrators took to the so-called Peoples’ Mic; a call-and-response system used to communicate in the absence of amplification equipment. A call was issued for an on-the-spot consensus meeting. A contingent of the protesters ultimately decided to attempt a push through the police barricades and the scores of officers standing behind them. A young man hanging from scaffolding above the sidewalk announced the decision, warning those who did not wish to be arrested to step back and calling on those willing to take the risk to step forward.

The protesters made the push and police responded with immediate force. Within moments a cloud of pepper-spray appeared above the front of the crowd, as police indiscriminately sprayed into the faces of protesters. A police barricade was knocked down from the officers’ side and members of the NYPD surged into the crowd. Protesters chanted in volume, “We are the 99 per cent!” What followed, from eyewitness accounts, was a brutal beating of demonstrators on the part of NYPD officers, assaults on journalists and several heavy-handed arrests.

Officers mandated to protect the public, but well-trained in ways to hurt people, displayed little restraint as they beat, dragged and arrested dissenting citizens. Lopez says some protesters attempted to peacefully sit down but were targeted with violence regardless. She claims injured demonstrators were pulled beyond the barricade to prevent them from being helped by the crowd.

Speaking to Democracy Now! shortly after the melee, protester David Suker claimed to have witnessed an NYPD deputy inspector with a club, “swinging wildly” in the tightly-packed area.

Media attempting to document the crackdown were not spared from harm. Journalist Luke Rudowski with We Are Change, says he was rammed in the stomach with a club and thrown to the ground, despite repeatedly making it clear that he was with the media. A pair of local Fox News reporters were also hit with pepper spray and at least one police club.

Despite the initial violence, the bulk of the protesters stood their ground shoulder-to-shoulder on both sides of Broadway, separated by scores of police officers and emergency vehicles. At one point the crowd began to recite the 1st Amendment to the gathered officers.

One young woman claimed to have been arrested for “standing on the sidewalk.” As police pulled her towards an unmarked car, onlookers and journalists asked for her name. With her hands flexed-cuffed behind her back and officers attempting to force her into the waiting vehicle, the woman replied, “Troy Davis, Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King.”

Protester Hero Vincent was visibly frustrated with the heavy-handed police tactics. Speaking to Democracy Now!, Vincent pleaded, “People should not have been pepper sprayed in the face, should not have been slammed to the ground. We did absolutely nothing wrong. We came peacefully, and it’s gone on long enough. We just want peace. We just want change.”

Vincent added, “I’m tired of seeing it. I’m tired of seeing this abuse. They do not run this country. This is our country, and I’m tired of it. I am tired of it. This can’t happen no more.”

The robust police defense of the empty public street caused many to call into question the NYPD’s priorities. Protesters accused the officers of defending the interests of Wall Street and the upper echelons of America’s ruling class over the general public.

A passer-by to the scene, a man who identified himself as George and said he was a, “concerned citizen in his 40s,” attempted to get some answers from senior officers present at the scene, “I just approached a police officer and very civilly asked him why the street was cordoned off. I was completely ignored. It was just very off-putting. They’re supposed to be about courtesy, professionalism, respect, that is supposed to be their credo.”

The violence marred an otherwise peaceful day of mass political engagement in which tens of thousands of people marched in solidarity with the three-week old Occupy Wall Street Movement. Supporters included scores of labor unions, students, individuals of varying political views, veterans from World II and Iraq, education activists and countless others. The arrests came less than one week after over 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were arrested attempting to march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Criticism of the NYPD’s handling of the demonstration has been fierce since multiple videos emerged depicting Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna pepper-spraying protesters – including a number of young women penned-in by police nets – during a mass arrest of over 80 demonstrators late last month.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent al Jazeera’s editorial policy.