Occupy Wall Street is now in its 12th day. This morning brought another march on Wall Street. In other cities, similar efforts are springing up. And, there are now efforts to protest the treatment the protesters have gotten from the NYPD — most dramatically and media-attention-getting, the pepper-spraying of several women who were being corralled by netting. We spoke to Alex Vitale, a CUNY professor who, with Penny Lewis, has organized a demonstration “against police attacks targeting Occupy Wall Street.” The event is scheduled for Friday at 5:30 p.m., at One Police Plaza.
In a press release Vitale issued today, he says that more than 1,000 people, including “dozens of trade union leaders, academics, writers, students, and other New Yorkers” are expected on Friday, to communicate their disagreement with how protests are handled in New York City and, ultimately, to attempt to get “the mayor put together a commission to look at the right way to handle protests.” (Currently, there are 275 who have said they will attend on the event’s Facebook page.)
On September 24th, members of Occupy Wall Street marched to Union Square, and were subsequently met with extreme police violence, including violent arrests of non-violent protesters and pepper-spraying people in police custody.
We are outraged by these police attacks. At the worst protestors were guilty of a minor traffic disruption, which in no way warranted the excessive use of force witnessed on numerous videos. This use of force serves to criminalize dissent and intimidate potential participants.
We call on the NYPD to stop treating dissent as a criminal activity and to acknowledge the legitimacy of non-violent protest–even when it is disruptive. We call on them to end their unreasonably restrictive practices that undermine the very nature of free assembly, such as the use of protest pens, deployment of excessive numbers of officers directly surrounding demonstrations, subdividing of crowds, bag searches, and denials of permits.
As for the rather meta-nature of protesting the treatment of protesters, Vitale told us, “There are people who are maybe supportive in very general terms of the encampment but didn’t feel so directly connected or inspired by that style of protest. So they weren’t likely to wander down to Zuccotti Park and hang out with people, but they do feel a connection with and support for what’s going down out there. When they saw the gross reaction of the police, I think people experienced two things: 1) The feeling that this protest that we support is under assault and needs to be defended, and 2) There’s such a history of police overreaction to protests, either over-the-top micromanagement and crushing the spirit of protesters — or the gross acts of misconduct, like with the 2003 Anti Iraq War protest, in which people were trampled by horses and injured with pepper spray, and the illegal arrests of more than a thousand people during the Republican National Convention in 2004.”
Lewis and Vitale both serve on the Executive Council PSC-CUNY, and decided to organize their protest after hearing from people that they wanted to “do something.” Along with the event’s Facebook page, they have a blog, Solidarity With OWS.
With regard to the pepper-spraying on Saturday, Vitale told us, “If people are on the sidewalk surrounded by orange mesh, they’re in police custody. There is no way [the NYPD] was following NYPD pepper-spray guidelines, which are that they can use it to protect themselves or a third person from bodily injury. It’s an intermediate use of force, for protection, to effect a lawful arrest (if someone has to be subdued and is holding a weapon, to bring someone under control).”
NYPD Spokesman Paul Browne’s comment on the incident was that the officer had used the 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.”
Vitale says of Occupy Wall Street itself, “I’ve been down a couple times to check it out. I think it’s a new generation of young activists who are trying to figure out how to exert some influence over this screwed up political/economic situation we’re in.”
Meanwhile, East Village activist John Penley has a protest event planned for Monday. He’s booked the steps of City Hall for a press conference, starting at 3:30 p.m., “on police misconduct against Occupy Wall Street Protests.” He told us, “Like everyone else I just got so outraged by stuff I’d seen both personally and in some of the videos.”
For a very different view of the protests, read this un-bylined Daily News opinion piece, “Occupy Wall Street protesters are behaving like a bunch of spoiled brats.”