Earlier today we posted the video above from USLaw, in which an NYPD officer appears to walk up to a group of cordoned-off Occupy Wall Street protesters (most of them young women) near Union Square and spray them without warning with a can of pepper spray or possibly mace. They drop to the ground screaming, in obvious pain. We got in touch with one of the women, Chelsea Elliott, 25, a freelance digital imager who lives in Greenpoint — she’s the one in the front, with the long hair, wearing the crop tank top. After the jump, her retelling of the incident.
Tell us what led up to this.
We’d marched to Union Square, and we were dancing. We’d walked 2.4 miles, and I was on, I think, 12th Street. These cops [in the blue shirts] were in front of me and told me not to move. They pulled out the net. I was trying to reason with them, saying, “We’re pedestrians, we’re here for you too, we know your pensions are being cut, your friends are losing their jobs…” They were kind of unresponsive. This girl behind me was getting upset. We were penned off on the sidewalk, and I couldn’t really see, but I’ve seen video since, and there was a kid being beat up in the street*.
I heard screams near me, and this young girl near me was shoved down [by the police] — their hands were on her head until she reached the pavement (she was yelling because the cops were beating up some 19-year-old kid). I screamed something like, “Stop! Why are you doing this?” There was blood and shit; it was terrifying. I looked at the cop I’d been talking to, and he had a blank but worried expression. Then this cop in a white collared shirt came around and just sprayed us, not even one steady stream, more like you were spraying a plant — me and three or four other girls. I fell to the ground, and the girl behind me, this pretty, thin girl, a total hippie, with short hair and a gray tank top, they got her so bad! We were just lying on the ground, it was extremely painful. The cop I was talking to, he talked to the cop who sprayed us, and was like, “Thanks for the warning.” I think he got maced in the eye, too.
What happened then?
We lay on the ground like little worms. One of the other girls was a medic, and was able to pour milk in her eyes. The cops left. They moved the net. All I know from what happened afterward, I watched on YouTube. For like 15 minutes, I couldn’t see; I couldn’t breathe at first. It was so out of the ordinary and unprovoked. Our medical group poured milk into my eyes for like 10 minutes, and apple cider vinegar on my face.
What did the spray feel like? Do you know if it was pepper spray or mace**?
It was incredibly painful. The pain in my face went away after about an hour; my ears felt like the worst sunburn of my life. It feels like pouring a bottle of Tabasco all over your eyes and face, and I have a really high pain tolerance. I was on the ground sobbing. It was so bad. The short-haired girl, after watching the video, I know she had it worse than me….
It was a white spray bottle. People told me it was pepper spray when I described my reaction, but I can’t confirm. All I know is that it hurt and took a few seconds for me to realize that my face was on fire, so probably pepper spray…
When we got up I realized they had another part of the street blocked off and a line of 50 19- to 26-year-olds handcuffed with those cheap plastic things, against the wall, sitting down. One of my friends, Katie, was there. They took them to jail on an MTA bus. I don’t know all the details, but she didn’t get home until 2 a.m. Such a waste of resources.
How does this make you feel about the NYPD?
I still can’t believe that it happened. Most of the cops are really not like that. Most of the time they’re with us. The cops around me were pissed that it happened. Yesterday, I think they were scared, and under a lot of pressure. Ironically enough, and unfortunately, the cops spraying a bunch of white girls, well, our donations have tripled. We’re getting media attention. This provokes momentum. It sucks that it had to get to this point, but people aren’t going to leave. Even if it doesn’t get huge, it’s about endurance.
How did you get involved with Occupy Wall Street?
This is the first protest I’ve ever been involved in. This has been one of the greatest things I’ve done for myself. I have a point. Little problems and work bullshit don’t bother me anymore.
How are you managing to do this and your job?
I’m a freelancer, and I show up at the protest whenever I don’t have work to do, or I work at night. I’ve put my social life on hold. It’s totally worth it. We’re not just a bunch of crazy kids who are pissed because we don’t have jobs. A lot of people there are very highly educated.
What do you hope to achieve?
I really just want to create some kind of dialogue. I feel like our government is being run by the people they are supposed to be regulating. They’re being careless with money. We have 7 hour [general assembly] meetings about why we’re here, what our demand is. It’s so much bigger than just a simple demand. It’s about the demise of the middle class…in every civilization, you’re only as healthy as your middle class, and our middle class is in trouble. People have not been held accountable, and companies that should be paying taxes are not paying taxes. Alan Greenspan used to work at Goldman Sachs! I’m here for my grandparents, who are too old to protest. I feel like this should have been done a long time ago.
Can you describe the cop who sprayed you?
He was a typical cop guy. Buzz cut, white guy, probably like late 30s/mid 40s. The stereotype. He had a white collared shirt, which I think means he’s a higher up.
Is he the guy in this photo, the cop laughing while texting***?
I think that’s him.**** I think he was really confused. If anything, I would like to thank him for giving us media attention. There’s a few rotten apples in every bunch. I’m sure there are people out there protesting who were violent. I don’t want his actions to take away from the rest of the police. We’re designing flyers to give out to the police, flyers for every different type of worker — teachers, firemen, etc. — to explain “this is what our economy has done to you.” We’re on their side.
You’re okay — your eyes are okay?
I had some nasty eye boogers this a.m. but all is fine. My parents are freaking out. I’m like, don’t worry, I’ll wear sunglasses next time.
*Video of the girl being slammed to the ground, and the “kid being beat up in the street.”
**Per Esther’s post this weekend, the NYPD has said they use pepper spray, but don’t use mace, and declined comment on the events yesterday.
****Update: Anonymous has released information about the cop they think is the one who sprayed Elliott and the other women; he is not the one in the photo texting and laughing.
Update: Here’s another video of the events leading up to the spraying.
Update 2: Per the New York Times, NYPD chief spokesman Paul Browne said the police had used the pepper spray “appropriately.”
“Pepper spray was used once,” he added, “after individuals confronted officers and tried to prevent them from deploying a mesh barrier — something that was edited out or otherwise not captured in the video.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 25, 2011