“The First Amendment Steps Are Over There:” With a Heavy Police Presence, Occupy’s Second Birthday Begins


Occupy Wall Street’s terrible twos began this morning with a familiar set of scenes: protesters holding signs. Protesters glaring at cops. Cops glaring at protesters. Dozens of metal barricades lining the streets between them. Everyone pausing to look in unison at the Hipster Cop and his improbably tight pants. After a rowdy first anniversary last year that began on the wrong foot with some two dozen arrests, this morning’s march looked downright serene by comparison. The only real moment of tension came on the steps of Wall Street’s National Federal Hall Memorial, when the police and park rangers decided together, in a seemingly impromptu sort of way, that only one side of the monument’s broad stone steps could be used for free speech purposes.

Many of the protesters started their morning demonstrating in front of a McDonald’s near Zuccotti Park. Signs shaped to look like speech bubbles spelled out their grievances, against the chain and more generally: income disparity, racism, ecological responsibility (that one is probably more of a goal). There were about 75 people demonstrating to start, watched by at least 30 stone-faced officers clustered around the McDonald’s door. As the crowd started to grow and march down past Zuccotti Park, the police presence grew too: motorcycle cops, officers on horseback, white shirts — who always seem eager to hang out with Occupy — blue-jacketed community affairs officers, and, back in Zuccotti a little later, the least-subtle undercover officers in the universe, out of uniform and dressed down, but wandering over periodically to chat with the men and women in blue. Most uniformed officers had thick bunches of zip-ties, used for handcuffs in larger crowds, hanging at their belts.

As the crowd headed down Wall Street, a traveling jazz band started to play an uptempo version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” A few puppets by street theater group Money Warz joined the march: Nosferatu with dollar signs in his eyes, and a giant roll of toilet paper to symbolize the Trans-Pacific Partnership. A tiny woman with grey hair in a long tan trench coat raised her fist and kept it there. People squeezed by the other way in droves to head to work, some of them more sympathetic to the revolution than others.

“This is so fucking unnecessary,” growled one guy, twisting his briefcase to stay out of the jazz band’s line of fire. Another middle-aged man said nothing, just did his best to bump into as many protesters as he could, quite hard, on his way past.

“It’s less people this year, but maybe it’s more effective,” said a marcher named Mike. “It’s more concentrated, you know?” A moment later, he and the others, now numbering around 200, arrived at the Federal Hall and hopped up on the steps, an enormous statute of George Washington seemingly dribbling an imaginary basketball behind them. The band started in on “Down by the Riverside.”

“Ain’t gonna study war no more,” one person sang, then everyone.

“It’s thinner this year,” said Wayne Alterisio. “A lot thinner.” He’s a 66-year-old postal worker and labor activist; he and a few others postal worker buddies left New Hampshire at 2 a.m. to be on Wall Street by 8. He didn’t look too worried.

“I’m not disappointed,” he said. “Eventually, something is going to happen, and it’s going to come from the streets. I consider this just keeping the bus running till it happens.” He blamed the cops for the turnout. “The intimidation factor scares people away. They target leaders.”

On cue, a national park ranger bustled over, backed up by a few police officers. “You have to move,” he told Alterisio. “That’s our First Amendment Side.” He gestured to the opposite side of George Washington, at an identical set of steps to the ones Alterisio was standing on.

Alterisio looked at him, deadpan. “Is this… the Second Amendment side, then?” he asked. It didn’t get a laugh.

With a little shouting and arguing and some light threatening, the cops managed to get most of the protesters over to the correct side of George Washington. (Fun fact: Federal Hall was once the site of the John Peter Zenger trial, which helped pave the way for the First Amendment.)

Soon, most of the crowd moved on, the police bottle-necking them as they marched slowly down Wall Street, around in a loop, and eventually back up Broadway towards Zuccotti. Now numbering at least 300, the crowd started to gather for the speeches. In a little while, famous war journalist Chris Hedges would urge them to “overthrow the corporate state.” In the meantime, Occupy’s street medics gathered in a group, their services not needed for the time being. One of them wore a green fatigue jacket, a bit of red duct tape making a cross on his sleeve. He had Chinese symbols painted on his face.

“Come back tonight,” he said. “The party’s just getting started.”

Later, as I walked back by Federal Hall, I noticed that the police had moved the metal barricades, setting them directly in front of the steps. They were zip-tied together.