The march was then diverted onto 16th Street as police on scooters started driving through the crowd beeping wildly. 16th Street began to fill up with people, both on the street and sidewalk. Apart from police driving their scooters at high speeds down the sidewalk and one person running across a parked car, the mood remained calm. A woman was walking with her dog, who was as relaxed as the marching humans.
At the intersection of 16th and Irving Place, I saw what the police had done. They had cleverly parked all of their Vespas across the street so that nobody could get by. Of course, a rampaging mob would have had no trouble at all tossing those little Italian scooters to the ground and continuing on their way. But this was a slow moving, orderly procession. They simply turned around and started to head back towards the park. That's when the realization of what had just happened hit. The road had been blocked on both ends. Everyone was now trapped.
Apparently, somebody at the police department discovered this year that orange construction netting could be used to control crowds. They would pick a location and unravel this netting for the entire width of the street so nobody could get by. That's what they had done on 16th Street. (Never mind that in this case nobody was even trying to get past the scooters in the first place.) Right after they unrolled it on the Irving Place side, a cop announced to half a dozen of us within earshot that accredited press could get out if they left now. Then he immediately disappeared. Even if anybody had taken him up on that offer, they wouldn't have made it past the cop holding the orange netting who wasn't one of the people within earshot of that announcement. Not to mention the "accredited" thing which I was soon to find out all about.
The one thing you learn when you're part of the press is that you don't run away from a story. This was obviously something worth covering and, since I wasn't even in the street, there wasn't any law that I was breaking. I never thought that I was in any sort of danger. There was nothing to worry about as this was clearly not a violent crowd. Not to mention the fact that there was no order to disperse given to anybody, whether they were on the street or the sidewalk. So I continued to film and record, as did many others.
There were certainly people there who intended to get arrested or at least engage in some form of civil disobedience. The people in the very front of the march sat down in the middle of the street which seemed a bit pointless since the street was already being blocked by the cops. I counted about a dozen people who did this. But within a couple of minutes they all got up and went onto the sidewalk for some reason. Meanwhile there were several hundred others milling around on what was now a double dead end street.
The cops began screaming at people to stay on the sidewalk while they occupied the street. OK, whatever. It seemed to make them scream less so people obliged. I had no desire to move into the street but I did have a desire to capture as many images and as much sound as I could. This was riveting.
But then things started to go badly. I'd seen this happen before. Police would pick a person, either at total random or for a reason that only they could grasp, and charge at them, grabbing them off the sidewalk and throwing them face down onto the street. This didn't do much to ingratiate the crowd but people remarkably kept their cool, perhaps because they were transfixed with terror. I saw about three or four of these "grabs" before my video camera's battery died. I cursed my lack of preparedness but was able to catch a couple of other instances on my digital camera's thirty second movie mode. And throughout it all, I still had sound. Being in radio, that was what really mattered to me.
Things were starting to get pretty scary and I wanted to recharge my battery and head uptown to cover whatever was happening at the Garden. Another part of me wanted to stay and see how this all played out. Then I heard a cop nearby saying that press could leave. I decided to go for it. "Back in," he growled before I could even show him any press ID. "You're not press," he said conclusively. I wondered what gave it away - the recorder, the video camera, maybe the hair? I had all kinds of witty retorts in mind but I chose instead to go to someone who seemed a little less pissed off with the world. I said I was with the press and he asked who I worked for. I told him: WBAI and Indymedia, both of which I had identification from. "Do you have an NYPD press card?" he asked. "No," I said, incredulously. NYPD press cards are only given to corporate media types, full time reporters who have beats and retirement plans. You also have to have a proven need to get behind police lines, which I didn't have any interest in doing. And what I was covering here wasn't even behind a police line. It was in the middle of a police circle. "Sorry," he said. I was apparently out of luck because I wasn't a full time, paid reporter at a big media outlet. Since I was a part time volunteer with a non commercial station who could never qualify for that magic NYPD card, I was now going to be treated as a criminal. I filed my first report with WBAI.
I've covered a good number of demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience over the years and I'd never seen anything go down quite like this. It was, in a word, bizarre. All of these people had been led down a street only to be captured with orange nets like a school of fish. Reporters, legal observers, people coming home from work, delivery boys, tourists. It didn't matter at all. If you were on this street without a pass from the NYPD, you were going away. And even with this knowledge, the people managed to remained calm. Everyone tried to comfort one another. After a while, even the police seemed to relax a bit. The diving into the crowd stopped. They kept telling us to sit down, then to stand up, over and over. I made some phone calls and got an SMS or two out so that people would know what was happening to me. I expected to be jumped upon at any moment for daring to communicate but there comes a point where you just don't care, especially if you believe you have every right to do what you're doing. I carefully put both of my phones into silent mode and hid one in my sock in case the one they expected to find got taken. For me the most important thing was to remain in contact and to record whatever I could. My video camera was now useless but the two tapes I had already made weren't. I hid them in a hard to find section of my backpack.
We had been there for nearly two hours at this point and dusk had settled in. In fact, the police had even brought in portable spotlights so they could see us all. That seemed a little too planned out for my tastes. I was aware that people were slowly disappearing on the eastern half of the block as the cops slowly processed everyone and took them someplace. My tape recorder was still rolling but I knew that wasn't going to last if it was spotted hanging around my neck. So I quietly stuffed it into my backpack and stuck the microphone through a hole that had been developing. Since it was getting dark and all of my equipment along with the bag was black, this was almost not visible. I then hung my backpack around my neck with the microphone right in my face. I was cuffed about five minutes later, my bag untouched.
Strange as it may seem, this was the most pleasant part of the whole ordeal. The police were almost friendly as they tied our hands behind our backs with thick plastic tie wraps. I don't even think these guys had been around when the streets were first blocked. Not that it mattered; there wasn't a damn thing any of them could do for us. They had their orders.
We all got asked if we had any weapons on us and then they fished around in our pockets for ID. They insisted on putting everyone's belongings into a plastic bag. They did this to my backpack and then put it down on the ground. I spent the next couple of minutes struggling to cut a hole in the plastic over the microphone while my hands were tied behind my back. As my tape ran out in the remaining half hour or so of sitting on the street, I was able to capture the sounds of activist cheerleading songs and, disturbingly, the ignored pleas of a woman whose handcuffs were on way too tight. You could see that it was cutting off her circulation but the pleasant cops didn't let that detract them from their job.
We then got to pose for several Polaroid pictures standing next to our arresting officers. Apparently this is how they make sure bags get back to the rightful owners, by attaching a picture to each bag and comparing them to the faces of the people who claim them. In the 1950's, this probably would have been considered cutting edge technology. After this was done, we were led to the end of the block where I got two surprises. One was seeing a couple of my friends, waving and shouting my name. I felt a wave of happiness, fear, and intense sadness all at once. I also was frustrated because I couldn't wave back with my hands tied behind my back. The other surprise was the vehicle we were being led to. It was a city bus which had, instead of the route number and destination, the words "Emergency. Call Police." flashing on the front. They actually had commandeered city buses.
One thing that's always amazed me about city buses is the way that they're able to negotiate narrow turns despite their extra length. It's a skill that bus drivers develop. The guy driving us was not a bus driver. We kept having to back up and try things again when it didn't work out the first time. I realized later that this would pretty much be the theme of the entire ordeal. But at least we had a police escort and our bus was able to run red lights. I tried to hit the next stop button. That little familiar ding would have provided some much needed levity for my fellow passengers. But the button was disabled. And the mood remained grim. We knew where they were taking us.