On Saturday I left the Brooklyn Zen Center at about two in the afternoon, went down to the waterfront park with my friend Jacob, and smoked a joint. “We should go check out that Occupy Wall Street thing,” I said.
We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge and at Zuccotti Park we leaned against a railing and watched protesters pick through a heap of discarded signs in a scene reminiscent of the Rainbow Gathering—tattered tarp structures, five-gallon-bucket drum circles, puffs of smoke rising from clusters of people wearing earth tones. One woman in fishnet stockings held a sign that said “You are Loved.” Some signs condemned the lynching of Troy Davis; others the personhood of corporations. One guy was urging that Kurdistan be set free. One guy was selling falafels.
As we loitered a young woman handed me a flier that described my legal rights and urged me to write down the number of the National Lawyers Guild on my arm.
“You planning on getting arrested today?” I said.
“You never know,” she said.
Just as I was ready to call it quits, a column of protesters began moving north on Broadway. “Wanna go for a walk?” Jacob said.
I fell in next to a hot chick with a designer bag. “This is what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” a pockmarked, limping man kept screaming from behind me. “This is what Lower Manhattan looks like with a bunch of people in it screaming!” I screamed. Someone tried to give a copy of the Occupied Wall Street Journal to a cop, who said “Sorry boss, can’t take anything. Against the law.”
The cops were standing around us with those “command presence” postures where they take a wide stance, hook their thumbs into their tool belts, and push their pelvises out. I felt good about them being there, initially. I figured they kept the angry motorists we were blocking from running us over.
At the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge half the march headed up the walkway, but I followed the half headed out onto the eastbound roadway. Never seen the bridge from this angle, I figured. Jacob had disappeared. “Whose bridge? Our bridge! Whose bridge? Our bridge!” the crowd chanted. A line of cars crawled along in the rightmost lane, their drivers looking dispirited. A guy pumping a sign that said “NYPD Protects and Serves the Rich” screamed repeatedly “Fuck the rich! Let them pay my tuition! Fuck the rich! Let them pay my tuition!”
A few hundred yards up the bridge, a line of scowling white-shirted police brass blocked us. The protesters came to a stop and looked around uncertainly. A bald guy wormed up next to me. “I gotta get rid of this bong,” he said.
“Drop it over the edge,” I said. I looked down. We weren’t quite over the water yet. A group of metal workers were fixing an overpass on the FDR, and one of them looked up and pumped his fist at us, working the crowd into a frenzy. All the rest just kept grinding and welding.
Bong Man did something with his bong, then pissed in a water bottle and stuck it in a crack between two girders. Meanwhile, the cops wrapped up a heated argument they were having amongst themselves, ripped a prominent protester from the front of the crowd, and roughly pinned him down.
I climbed onto a railing and peered back: another row of cops had blocked our retreat. The crowd began to press into itself; garbage and contraband appeared at its fringes. A cop with a video camera kicked at a vial of white power in the gutter. “Hurumph,” he said. “I wonder what that is?”
People began climbing back onto the pedestrian walkway. “Stop climbing! Stop climbing!” some people chanted. Others chanted “Let us go! Let us go!” Others chanted “This is a peaceful protest! This is a peaceful protest!” Others chanted “Sit down! Sit down!” Others chanted “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” I was smushed against a young woman in Chuck Taylors who was screaming “What’s the prob-lem? Capital-ism! What’s the solu-tion? Re-vo-lu-tion!”
The police surrounded us on three sides with ski netting. Then a line of Metro buses began backing down the bridge from Brooklyn. “C’mon, guys,” one white-shirt told the others. “Nab ‘em two at a time! They’re not resisting.”
Not being in the mood for a beating, I turned around and presented my wrists to a gang of hard-asses in leather gloves and black boots. I was bound tightly in zip ties, and Officer Burke—Badge 14131—walked me up the bridge, sat me in a row of other protesters, and took my picture with his iPhone. “Don’t worry guys, I’ll take care of you,” Burke told us. He was chubby and soft-faced. “I’ll get you food. I’ll get you water. I’ll get you taken care of.” Next to me was Bong Man, who wore sunglasses and a scowl. While we waited Burke played with his phone, his other thumb hooked in his tool belt. A wide man in an impeccable green suit and a big gold ring sauntered by holding a long umbrella and touching each of his subordinates on their shoulders softly, like a Don Corleone.
The bus said it was going to Bay Ridge, but instead it turned around in Brooklyn, went back into Manhattan, and then began a torturous journey around town. First we went up to Canal Street, then we turned left on Lafayette, then we went right on Franklin, then we went up and headed east on Canal again, then we wound down to Chatham Square, midway between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges, which is where Bong Man stood up and announced that he could no longer hold it.
“Shut the fuck up and sit down,” a fat and pasty officer named Pak, badge 4240, told him. “It’s all in your head.” But then Bong Man began urinating in his pants, so Pak and Burke brought him outside and behind a phone booth. Pak cut Bong Man’s zip ties off and tossed them in the street, and then had a cigarette.
“Officer Burke!” said Sam, a computer programmer from New Hampshire. “Please tell Officer Pak to pick up the piece of trash that he has just thrown in the street!”
Bong Man got back on the bus with piss all over his pants. “They didn’t get the cuffs off quick enough,” he said, sitting down next to me. “You can’t just violate people’s human rights like this.”
“You think I wanna be here?” Pak said. “You think I fuckin’ want to be here any more than you?” He stared stonily out of the bus.
We crawled through the police headquarters compound, then continued mysteriously past City Hall. We passed close to Zuccotti Park. “Maybe they’ll just drop us off,” Sam said. But then we got on the West Side Highway and headed north. Most of the protesters had figured out how to fish their smart phones from their pockets by then and were texting and tweeting with their heads craned over their shoulders. Whenever Officer Pak saw someone doing this, he said “You can’t do that,” but Burke didn’t care. Burke offered us chewing gum. He placed it into the mouths of the more amiable protesters.
“If you guys wanna smoke, this is your last chance,” Burke said. A protester volunteered that he had a cigarette in his pocket, and in fishing it out Burke found a can of pepper spray.
“Did you know that it’s illegal in New York State to carry Mace?” he said. He threw the canister out of the bus. Then he held the cigarette for each of his prisoners who wanted to smoke.
We stopped in front of the Midtown Precinct on 54th street and idled for an hour or two, while the bus in front of us flashed the message “Call Cops 911.” A black guy who said he’d also been arrested the night before lead us in modified Civil Rights songs. “If I piss my pants/ I’m going to let it shine/ Let it shine/ let it shine/ let it shine” we sang. Burke disclosed that it was his 29th birthday, and the prisoners sang him “Happy Birthday” while he looked at his iPhone.
It was after about five hours on this bus that a man who said he was deathly allergic to peanuts got up with a panicky expression, his face twitching. There was a commotion. Officer Pak threw a bag of peanuts out the door and threatened to charge another protester with murder. Bong Man said, sullenly, “Officer Pak, I need to take medicine with water. I need water.” Another protester who said that his last arrest involved the unfurling of a banner on a coal-fired power plant claimed to be on the verge of fainting for lack of water. A number of half-baked tits-for-tats about human rights violations broke out, with Bong Man always the pro bono prosecutor and a woman with a jade necklace always the police sympathizer. At one point Pak was seen to provide a protester a sip of water. “Did he just do that?” Sam said.
Out of the bus and in the precinct, Burke became steadily less jovial and more focused on his iPhone. Sam and I were cellies. We hooked our hands out of the bars and stared stoically at the convex mirror in the corner of the corridor. The officer on duty let Sam smoke a cigarette, and Sam tried to convince him to come over to our side, claiming that we would never stop protesting until the whole system had been overturned. “Hey man, you’re alright, man,” Sam told the officer. They agreed that it was really the white-shirts who were to blame for the crimes of the police. Another officer said, “Hey man, I’m from Bed-Stuy, do or die. This is all Saturday overtime to me. You guys just put six hundred dollars in my pocket. Keep it coming, man. I’m really on your side.”
Sam and I were released dead last, at around 3:30 a.m.
I think I’ll sell the shares of Bank of America that I have on Scottrade. I bought them in 2008 when the economy bottomed out, thinking they’d have to rebound from there. Actually they’ve tanked about 60 per cent since then. I can use some of the cash to pay for my disorderly conduct fine.
Nathaniel Page is a writer, cartoonist, psychonaut, businesshuman, and freelance philosopher who lives Brooklyn.