Ever since their attempt to re-occupy Zuccotti Park in March was prevented by police arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters have been engaged in a series of skirmishes with the NYPD over exercising their First Amendment rights.
Police officials want to prevent occupiers from having a visible base in the city because any resurgence of the movement will interfere with a political strategy to segregate Wall Streeters from the victims of the recession and from the poverty of inner-city communities. There are tensions, however, between the brute-force approach of the NYPD and the more sophisticated containment tactics of federal agencies.
After being evicted a second time from Zuccotti Park, protesters moved to Union Square in midtown Manhattan, but were not allowed tents or anything signifying permanence, and police began to enforce a midnight park closing rule. Occupiers ingeneously found a legal loophole: a 2000 New York court decision that allows for sleeping on the sidewalk as a form of symbolic political protest. They started a novel protest tactic on April 10 by sleeping on Wall Street across from the New York Stock Exchange, which enabled them to engage with Wall Streeters and the public and defend themselves from police with the legal decision.
However, on Monday morning, April16, the NYPD began arresting occupiers again, disregarding the judiciary. It’s not clear why the police started to make these illegal arrests after leaving the protesters alone for a week, but New York Magazine writer Joe Coscarelli thinks that the decision came from city authorities: “Controlling the narrative seems important for the city in the wake of last fall’s turbulent clearing of Zuccotti Park … For the city, fighting a few demonstrators in court might be preferable to facing growing numbers of them on the streets again.”
Protesters retreated to the nearby steps of Federal Hall, a National Park site which is under the jurisdiction of the federal government and not the NYPD. The Gothamist reported: “For the most part, U.S. Park Police tolerated their presence, provided they didn’t violate a ‘no sleeping or camping’ rule. But as day turned to night, the NYPD continued to make arrests, frequently singling out protesters who seemingly did nothing wrong, and in some cases violently detaining them. … Around 9:40 p.m., police began arresting protesters in front of Federal Hall, some for disorderly conduct, others for unreasonable noise. One woman who was crying was singled out for unreasonable noise.”
A Village Voice reporter noted: “ ‘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.”
The NYPD then placed barricades across the steps to create a ‘protest’ and ‘non-protest’ side. According to the Gothamist, “protesters were told they could not ‘sleep’ or ‘camp’ on the stairs, and [demonstrator Jo] Robin says she was told last night that if she fell asleep, Parks Police would ‘remove, but not arrest me’.”
By Friday, April 20, the situation had an unexpected twist: the U.S. Park Police release a six-page set of regulations for protesters on federal property, which made the barricaded protest area an official “First Amendment Rights” zone, but imposed onerous restrictions on the occupiers. According to the Gothamist: “if there are more than 25 protesters on the steps, they require a permit, or face arrest. So the protesters are now working it like a nightclub at capacity, by having one protester enter the ‘Free Speech Cage’ whenever one exits.” The limits placed on the occupiers’ free speech rights put the federal authorities within the letter but against the spirit of the First Amendment.
Charlie Grapski gives a blow-by-blow account of Friday’s events: “With the NYPD in dark blue, its senior officers in their notorious ‘White Shirts’, lined up and gathered at the center of the street, others in either the brown of Park Rangers or the light blue of Federal Park Police stationed themselves around the perimeter of the ‘Free Speech Zone.’ The center of American capitalism took on an appearance more like that of a demilitarized zone precariously situated between two hostile nations.
“Eventually, as could also have been predicted from the start, individual police officers took umbrage with those who did not as fully or quickly comply with their orders to disperse as they wished. … Tensions remained high throughout the stand-off, several times NYPD officers appeared ready to take action to evict or arrest those constituting the Occupy 25 of the moment stationed and standing their ground on the steps.
“Each time the NYPD appeared ready to move in, however, a ranking member of the Park Police would walk up to the gathered officers apparently engaged in the planning with a piece of paper in his hand. The paper’s function was to communicate to the members of the City’s force that the Occupiers in fact had a right to be there, guaranteed by the First Amendment, recognized by the Park Service, and that the Federal officials were there to protect that right.”
The NYPD have committed a great deal of resources to monitoring OWS protesters – $17 million in overtime alone since the protests began. Elected officials are objecting to these large sums being committed without any legislative input, and are resisting police commissioner Kelly’s proposals for large increases in the department’s budget. The NY Metro reported Park Slope councilman Brad Lander saying: “Commissioner Kelly asks us to trust him that NYPD officers are following the law, but he either could not or would not tell us what the NYPD is spending our money on. This is at a time when resources for patrol officers, after-school programs, and summer jobs have all been decreased dramatically.”
Large federal grants have enabled the NYPD to achieve a relative independence from the scrutiny of elected officials; the department used $24.3 million in federal homeland security grants to pay overtime in 2011. According to AOL Government ”some believe the NYPD has made a deliberate effort to avoid federal oversight by not participating in the Department of Homeland Security’s national Fusion Center effort, which would open the department’s surveillance programs to greater scrutiny and legal challenges.”
They also maintain a consistent ideological campaign to retain legitimacy, according to John Whitehead using “crackdowns and scare tactics that keep New Yorkers in a state of compliance. A 60 Minutes report describes the police state atmosphere: ‘At random, 100 police cars will swarm part of town just to make a scene. It happens with complete unpredictability. Cops signal subway trains to stop to be searched. And sometimes they hold the trains until they’ve eyeballed every passenger’.”