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Reflections from the "OWS Holding Commons"

I first got arrested in 1969. Yesterday's arrest at Broadway & Wall was, well, another one. What follows are a few reflections on what's changed, what's the same, and a few things I learned along the way, all of which hopefully can be used as OWS strategically assesses our next steps.

The strategic lesson from this is clear: while the ACLU and Lawyers' Guild need to fight these grave abridgements of freedom in the courts, OWS will need to adapt more and more flash mob tactics that maximize surprise and flexibility if we are to allow disruptive assembly to occur.  While this requires strategic discussion, we can learn form Egyptian and Tunisian activists who undermined dictatorial authority through such planned spontaneity. While yesterday was an admirable strategic advance on the triumphalism of May 1st's "general strike" marches, our planned spontaneity through the use of technology, careful planning, and decentralized-yet-connected mass actions will have to grow, too.

Even worse, at least half of those in the holding cell were arrested for a whole new set of Security State reasons: illegally walking on William Street, illegally walking past the statue of the Wall Street Bull, illegally going to a hair appointment (a young woman artist who lived downtown). A young man on Pine Street was tackled, his knee ripped open, and one of his shoes lost for the illegal act of being black while peacefully walking toward a bank. The same crime was committed by a young Latino after he gave a short speech on student debt. His wrists had red welts on them six hours later, his hands so swollen he couldn't make a fist.

at least half of those in the holding cell were arrested for a whole new set of Security State reasons

The lesson is obvious: the vast security state's resources will be used to make the appearance of violence and abridgement of rights less obvious, while all the while our fundamental Constitutional rights are being greatly diminished.

  1. Cops are better trained…and the police state more powerful. In 1969, getting arrested pretty much meant an equal opportunity moment for everyone to get beaten up or manhandled by the cops. In 2012, cops are trained in mass arrest procedures, where most don't begin by roughing up everyone. Today, they pick and choose: old white guys in suits like me or religious cassocks like Bishop Packard are privileged to get picked up and handcuffed where we only lose a little circulation on our hands and arms. As you could tell in talking with the 120 of us in the Police Plaza holding cell, young white guys with lots of tattoos, openly gay or transgender folks, and every person of color could expect damage to their wrists and serious circulation issues that could and did cause real harm. Unlike the past, most of this violence appears out of sight, and thus away from the public eye. How could we even complain about police violence if no one sees it?

  2. Back in the olden days—1969, 2000—there were at least token attempts at large demonstrations to allow for 1st Amendment rights of free assembly. Not any more. Yesterday, those of us practicing civil disobedience never got an option from a white shirt or anyone else to stop if we wished to avoid arrest. When the ten or so of us at Broadway and Wall sat down, a white shirt commanded officers to arrest us immediately. We sat for 30 seconds, tops, before the arrests began.

  3. This security state violation extends to some bizarre form of  "security eminent domain."  I first saw this emerge during anti-WTO demonstrations held in the mod-90's. Whole streets were commandeered for ‘protection,' where those of who looked like we were headed to the march were not allowed to walk down streets, while tourists and better-dressed folk were let through.  Having been successful then, yesterday the state simply wouldn't let people without workplace IDs walk down streets near the stock exchange. Bowling Green, the oldest public park in the city, was placed off limits because OWS planned events there throughout the day.

  4. Yesterday showed us how high the mountain is that we have to climb—and that it's worth it. The harshness of police response, as I have written elsewhere, is inevitable due to the underlying threat that OWS continues to be. That threat is not that we will actually close the stock exchange, any more than that Rosa Parks' refusal to move back on the bus was simply about seating arrangement on public transportation. State violence escalates when a movement threatens the authority of political and economic elites…not just about who owns stock and where people sit, but about everything: elections and levels of profit, who should pay for our debt and who deserves to be in jail. As long as OWs threatens to create this new discourse, we will continue to be met with violence and repression. We're just going to have t get used to it as we grow.

But yesterday down in that holding cell, I saw again why OWS is worth it. Early on I got to have a long talk with Dien, a resident at Montefiore with an 11-day old daughter, who sat down near me because he sees what our health care system is doing to poor people. He plans to be practicing social medicine some day, a program build on the liberational work of the Brazilian educator Paulo Friere—the same work that I use in my community organizing classes. About five hours into a long day, Luis, the young Latino arrested by the Wall Street bull, energized us all with two powerful OWS raps filled with rage about the present and hope for a better future. 15 guys, ranging in age from 21 to 71, sat and talked for an hour about strategies for our future—we listened and learned form each other, a rainbow of possibility sitting in a small, cramped circle.

Sure, there were a few guys in there whose style  drove me nuts, some crusties I'm convinced use their constant rage for personal, not political reasons. But you know what? About four hours in, we were all kinda' down: we'd eaten those god-awful pb & j or American cheese sandwiches (now, thanks to Bloomberg, with tasteless wheat rather than white bread), it was clear we were not leaving for a while, and everyone was bored. One of those crusties had a better idea.  He walked over to the empty water cooler jug and began to drum.  Another guy joined in on the stand, getting into a nice, solid rhythm that carried throughout the cell. We began to pick it up, tapping on our benches in response. Soon the beat was everywhere, loud and strong, and fast.

Two cops entered, pissed off, and took the water jug out. The drummer smiled, and walked over to the garbage can. Carefully removing the liner filled with leftovers (including empty 1%—1 per cent!—milk cartons) and began to drum again. The sound filled the room, even louder this time.  120 pairs of hands joined in, a little singing and whooping thrown in across the space.

That drum soon left the room, too. Then Luis gave us his first OWS rap song. We all were talking again. The strategy group formed. Two high school kids from Pennsylvania were let in the room, a little scared. A cheer went and embraced them in welcome. They smiled, happy, aware that they were safe, too. For a few hours on September 17, 2012, 1 Police Plaza's holding cell was transformed. It was OWS's Holding Commons, where unity was possible and hope lived, too.

Photo credit: Armando Gallardo
Steve B
Professor Steve B.

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Professor Steve B, arrested