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Published: September 6th 2004
After the Man in Black Bloc at Sotheby's auction house, I headed downtown to the 42nd Street Library at Bryant Park, (site of library lions made infamous (to me) in "Ghostbusters"). A vigil was supposed to take place on the steps, and I figured it might be a good photo op. The police were blocking the top of the stairs, and so the typical standoff was taking place between nonviolent protesters and (momentarily) nonviolent protesters. But when the protesters called for a march, they were met at the end of the block by a squad of police officers and told to turn back. When they decided to instead turn the corner, the police decided to round them all up. Orange plastic net fencing, of the kind seen around sports fields and construction sites, was used by police officers to encircle the offending individuals. A white-shirted officer announced through a bullhorn. "Everybody who stays on this side of the street will be arrested. Leave now! "
I considered my puny credentials for only a second and stepped across the street in the comforting presence of several other photographers, all of us shooting pictures with every backwards step away from the police.
"Keep it moving! If you stay in the street, you're gonna get arrested! On the sidewalk, now! MOVE IT!"
The white-shirted police officer in charge of the scene motioned to a nearby idling, empty tour bus, which soon pulled up to the corner, blocking our view of the proceedings from across the street. Another empty tour bus pulled up right behind the first one, causing a rush of photographers crossing the street to a new, unblocked vista of the arrests. By now the offending protesters were encircled by uniformed police officers in riot helmets, night sticks at the ready. A line of bicycle cops held the periphery, motioning innocent pedestrians away and directing traffic away from the fleet of paddy wagons, many unmarked, that were arriving and blocking the road. All the while plainclothes officers on unmarked bicycles and scooters zipped around, threatening to arrest any media that stepped out into the street for a photograph. Within a few more minutes more empty tour buses had arrived to once again block the view of the media. I saw at least one credentialed videographer with his hands ziptied behind his back being loaded into a paddy wagon, and a volunteer medic (plainly identified by the word "MEDIC" stenciled on shirt) was also being arrested.
As I stood with the rest of the media and not a few curious pedestrians, I confirmed what I had seen with the other people who had been there: the protesters had tried to walk down the sidewalk. There is no law against walking down the sidewalk in New York City. I don't know what the arrested will be charged with in court, but I doubt that they'll be convicted. The police seemed intent on squelching any possible dissent and aborting any possible acts of civil disobedience that could possibly disrupt the flow of traffic into the convention.
As I was standing at the curb with my camera on a monopod, waiting for another shot, a tourist of typically rotund American proportions came up to me and asked, "What happened?" I told him what I had seen and, in the ensuing conversation found out that he lived with his family in California, but worked in Connecticut (talk about a long commute). When he mentioned that he was a registered Republican I couldn't help but ask, "What to you think of the Republican National Convention taking place in New York City?"
"Oh, I don't think it's appropriate."
"Really? Why don't you think it's appropriate?"
"Well, after all, New York is a state that historically votes democratic."
I considered for a moment how to tactfully ask a question that he seemed oblivious to,
"...So, what do you think of the RNC being held in New York in the context of 9/11?"
"Oh. Well, I suppose it's appropriate. I mean, George Bush was the president at the time."
And that to me seemed to sum up a general Republican attitude to the whole issue: what issue? Why wouldn't it be appropriate to hold the Republican National Convention in New York City? Why shouldn't the president use the grief of thousands of families as fodder for his election campaign? What subversive, sensitive, terrorist-loving Francophile would suggest otherwise?
After the last of the detained were loaded up and driven off, I headed down to Union Square to see what might be happening there. While I had gotten used to the presence of police officers in the New York subway stations, I was not prepared for the sight of a dozen officers with clubs in hand standing at the top of the station stairs, nor did I expect to see at least a hundred cops huddled in groups around Union Square. A street on the eastern edge of the square had been blocked off by at least twenty police vehicles, and a crowd was milling about a couple of agitating speakers. I asked another Indy Media photographer what had happened, and he told me that at least a couple of hundred people had been arrested as they had tried to march to Madison Square Garden. The police had blocked off the street at either end and were in the process of arresting everybody in sight.
I still had yet to take what I hoped would be a great photograph of an arrest, and so I decided to stay in Union Square until I found a good picture. With a line of angry leftists forming behind a girl beating a snare drum, I did not think I would have long to wait. The leaders of the crowd seemed to be aware of the limitations of the law, and, for instance, would not take the crowd into Union Square since they numbered more than 20 people, and would thus be subject to arrest for gathering without a permit. Determined to avoid any charge of obstructing pedestrian traffic, the leaders also kept calling out, "Two abreast, two abreast on the sidewalk!" But when they tried to march north out of Union Square to Madison Square Garden, they were met by a line of police officers and told, "There will be no marches tonight."
"But we're going to stay on the sidewalk and march two abreast."
"Your march is over."
"Can't you just make a phone call? We're not interested in breaking any laws, we just want to march to the Garden."
"No phone calls. No marches."
The marchers turned the corner and headed west on a side street, where they were promptly met at the end of the block by a line of police officers who were already deploying metal barriers and orange netting. Once again I was forced to consider the inefficacy of my puny Indy Media badge in light of a mass arrest, and so I asked the cop standing at the edge of the barrier, "Can I slip by? I'm media."
"No one comes past here," he answered in apparent imitation of the order he had received. Not ten seconds later though, he moved the barrier aside for another cop to pass through, and without a word I slipped in behind and to the other, safer side of the thin blue line.
My view from the other side wasn't as great, but I stood less chance of being caught up in a literal dragnet as I photographed fifty or so protesters, hands in the air, lined up on the edge of the sidewalk and, one by one, ziptied and photographed with a Polaroid camera. In past years the police were unable to identify the mass numbers of detainees in court, and thus the charges against them were thrown out. Having learned from their mistakes, the police now take a Polaroid photograph of each arrestee next to his or her arresting officer, thus the arresting officer can say in court, "Gosh, your honor, I must have arrested that person because here I am in a picture with them, and you know a picture can't lie!" For added measure each officers personalized his or her plastic ziptie handcuffs with their name and badge number, thus creating another record of who arrested whom.
After shooting two or three rolls of film I hopped into a taxicab and sped east to First Avenue to catch the last moments of the Ring of Hope, a candlelight vigil that was suppose to stretch around Manhattan. Not a single police officer was in sight, apparently a candlelight vigil was deemed too insignificant of a threat to bother with. Even blocks away from Union Square the traffic was still knotted up from all of the road closures, and so I barely arrived at First Avenue before the vigil was supposed to end at 9:30 PM. I hopped out of the cab, quickly paid my driver, and ran over to the corner where I introduced myself to Tsuya, Abigail, Elizabeth and Jane, saying, "My name's Wes, and I'm a Quaker here to take pictures of the vigil."
The four women had already turned off their flashlights, but when I told them why I was there, as well as what had detained me in Union Square, they happily turned their flashlights back on and pointed them towards the sky. As I fiddled with my cameras, flash and monopod, they told me that they were contemplating coming out again and repeating what had been planned as a one-time event. Many of their neighbors had come by to tell them how happy they were to see "something being done." While these were not the people to try to shut down traffic in Times Square or encircle Fox News and tell Bill O'Reilly to "shut up," they still wanted o express thei hope for a more peaceful future in some manner, and perhaps by their witness encourage others to more fully live out their convictions.
Their hopes were my hopes. While I had no desire to be arrested for civil disobedience myself, at least not while I was working as a photographer, I also hoped that perhaps my actions, my pictures, would inspire other people to also have the courage of their convictions, especially if that meant that they would vote in the next election.
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