Seven months after they first set up camp in Zuccotti Park, Occupy Wall Street protesters are actually occupying Wall Street. But after a relatively uneventful week of lawfully sleeping on the sidewalk near the New York Stock Exchange, the protesters have been met with a strong police response over the past two nights.
“I think it’s good we’re back down here at Wall Street,” said David Intrator, a frequent protest participant. “We’re literally confronting the powers that be. “It’s good for people who work on Wall Street to see every day and every night a different point of view.”
Occupiers are relying on a 2000 federal ruling, Met Council v. Safir, which held that protesters occupying no more than half the sidewalk and not otherwise being disruptive are protected from arrest by the first amendment; sleeping on the street is a form of political speech.
But that ruling didn’t stop police from arresting (and punching) protesters as they disrupted the sleeping group at 6 a.m. Monday morning.
Why the police shut the sleep-out down after allowing it for a week isn’t clear, but activists speculate that they may have left themselves open to arrest by sleeping in a group of more than 25, the limit set by the Met Council ruling.
After Monday morning’s arrests, protesters retreated to the nearby steps of Federal Hall, which, as a National Park site, is under the authority of the federal government and thus outside the immediate jurisdiction of the New York Police Department.
At 5 p.m., Park rangers told the protesters the site was closed, and that sleeping or camping on the steps was forbidden. While many occupiers initially wanted to return to the city sidewalks, effectively daring the police to arrest them in violation of the Met Council ruling, others were committed to staying on the steps, under the sheltering hand of an enormous statue of George Washington.
With more than a dozen officers and metal barricades blocking access to the patch of sidewalk where they had slept for the past week, protesters opted to stay on the steps, singing and sharing inspirational quotations into the evening. City police looked on from the street, but took no action.
At 9 p.m., half a dozen federal parks police climbed the stairs of the Greek-revival structure and lined up behind the protesters. But trouble didn’t come until a half hour later, when a handful of neighborhood residents charged out of their buildings, shouting that they were trying to sleep and the occupiers weren’t welcome.
Some protesters responded with derision, noting the early hour and accusing the residents of being one-percenters who plunged the country into recession. One resident waded through a line of police and assaulted one of the vocal occupiers before officers could tear him away. Minutes later, the protester was arrested, cuffed, and thrown into the back of a police truck. Officers took no action against the resident, who stayed on the scene, declining in colorful terms to speak to the press.
The fracas opened a period of heavy police action, as “White-shirt” officers pointed out protesters they wanted arrested — in many cases for “excessive noise” violations — and sent less senior officers to arrest them. In at least one instance, city police made an arrest on federal property, at the top of the stairs.
“I’m really glad the police are being proactive,” said Matt, a resident of 45 Wall Street, who appeared to be enjoying the scene as he looked on in a baby-blue polo shirt embroidered with “1%” on the breast. “The first amendment is not a blanket permission for misbehavior. I do respect their right to protest, but I think the way they’re going about it is disrespectful and disruptive. They make the sidewalks narrower, and a lot of them don’t shower regularly.”
But Fatima Roland, who lives around the corner at 15 Broad Street, disagreed. “Sure, it’s a little inconvenient that they’re here, but I’m sorry, that’s the price of democracy,” she said. “The people who are out here complaining tonight are all the One Percent. Anyone who knows anything about what’s going on in this country should be out here supporting these people, not complaining.”
At 10:30, several occupiers attempted to return to the sidewalk corner at Wall and Nassau Streets where they had been sleeping for the past week. Police immediately responded. “This is a high security area, you are not allowed to sit here,” one officer told them, giving them a moment to move and then arresting them.
As the night wore on and the activists tired, they considered their options, ultimately opting to sleep on a distant stretch of sidewalk near the east side waterfront.
Bill Dobbs, who brings decades of activism and civil-rights work to his involvement in Occupy Wall Street, said he was frustrated that the evening’s events once again centered around protesters’ clashes with the police rather than the movement’s larger messages, but he conceded the occupiers might have little choice in the matter.
“People say, ‘Well, why do they have to be here?'” Dobbs said. “But the alternative is you’re in your house, where you can’t change anything, except by clicking online petitions. There’s something special about these camps: It means the people have power. That’s why the police want to make sure no one can get out of their house and gather.”