April 2012

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by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

On Tuesday November 15, 2011 at about 2 in the morning, I was arrested while standing peacefully at the corner of Broadway and Cortland Street, motionless before a line of helmeted riot police. I was there about a minute before they arrested me; I never shouted, chanted, displayed a sign or spoke to anyone, or made any rapid movement to or away from the cops. I was thinking that I wanted to get to Zuccotti Park, where the protestors were being evicted, and that they were in my way. I had enough time to wonder vaguely if I might get through by telling them I had been an EMT in the 911 system, or if I should simply wait til they broke ranks to chase someone, then try to walk the remaining block to the park.

I had been to Zuccotti several times during the occupation, and met some of the young people there. I waited decades for a genuine American protest movement to begin, and this seemed to be what I had long wanted: people in their twenties and thirties with strength and self confidence, a sense of humor and the courage to put their bodies daily in a risky place, between their tents and the line of cops who stood facing them. I was gripped by their narrative, of the 99% and the 1%, and by a sign a young woman held which said, "There is a 99% chance you should be here with us." One day, I stood in the southeast corner of the park with my cardboard sign which said, "Billionaires or democracy? Your call". I was pleased to be present as an older face, a fellow traveler, someone who understood them, who had been them forty years before, when I led demonstrations outside my high school in May 1970 and slept, with more than one hundred thousand others, by the reflecting pool in Washington in May 1971.

On May 5, 1970, at the breakfast table, I learned from the New York Times which had been delivered to our front stoop, that four young people had been shot to death by the National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio the day before, while demonstrating against the Vietnam war. I started to cry, walked to Midwood High School and instead of going to class, wandered to Brooklyn college next door, where a student strike was being organized, part of a nationwide and spontaneous action which happened that day. A student there gave me a bullhorn, and I walked back to Midwood, stood on the steps, and began to shout to the arriving teenagers that Nixon hated us, he wanted us to throw our lives away uselessly in Vietnam, that we had no business being there and that we should close the school to protest the murder of the kids in Ohio. Within an hour, there were more students with me, than there were inside the school. Our strike lasted four or five days, and each day I was there with the bullhorn. I had never organized anything before, I was doing things I didn't even know I had any ability or longing for; I was doing what I had to, obeying the karma that upwelled in me when I read the Times the first morning. Thoreau said, "There is a tide rising and falling behind every man, which could float the British Empire like a chip."

The moral high point of the week, and of my life until November 15, 2011, came when sixty or seventy ugly, scary people we had never seen before, showed up opposite the school to hold a counter-demonstration. They wore black leather, had shaven heads, and held chains wrapped around their fists. We believed two things: that they were there at the instigation of the authorities, and that they would charge us in a moment while the cops stood by and watched. They got themselves psyched up with some howling and yelling, and after a few minutes they did charge us.

The day before on Wall Street, construction workers had come down from buildings and beaten demonstrators so badly that some were crippled for life, while the N.Y.P.D. stood by and watched. We had heard that the hard-hats were directed by gesturing men in suits and sunglasses, who wore American flag pins: Secret Service or some other kind of feds. A few years later, President Nixon could be heard on the Watergate tapes asking for the Secret Service to beat demonstrators.

When the charge began, one of my co-leaders, a guy named John, shouted, "Link arms!" We did, ineptly, standing with our backs to the attackers, instead of facing them as it was usually done.

A young Italian American cop had been posted outside our school for some years. We feared him but thought that he was fair and careful, a good cop. I had been in the American Museum of Natural History one Sunday, with two long haired friends, looking at the dinosaur skeleton and talking about dropping acid, when we heard a voice: "Do I have to watch you even on my day off?" We turned around and it was the officer, who walked away laughing. This man was outside the school that day, and he wasn't going to let these strangers beat the teenagers over whom he alone had jurisdiction. He and his brethren charged in and pushed them back, and after a while they all left.

I had had a moment, before the cops ran in, arm in arm with other young people I had come to love and trust that week, when I knew we were about to be beaten very badly. I was all right. It wasn't exactly an absence of fear; fear, rather than overmastering me, making me want to drop to the floor or run away, was like a deep anxiety mingled with curiousity about the situation, about what would happen next, and also a calm strength, based on pride, that I was responding to the karma, standing up at that moment to be the person I would most want to be. You can go through life hoping that certain challenges never happen, but that you handle them in a certain way if they do.

Until that other night, I knew during the forty years that followed, that I had never been a finer person than I was at that moment in front of Midwood High in 1970. Life had never presented me with another problem like that one. I wondered if I wasn't lazy in some material way not to have sought other confrontations; but I knew that I hadn't run any from anything, either.

A year later, in May 1971, I caught a ride in a van full of young people to Washington, where, no camper, I rolled out a sleeping bag by the reflecting pool and saw some educational and disturbing things: demontrators rocking a police vehicle, until another man with a bullhorn leapt up on the fender and convinced them not to provide an excuse for attack by the massed police nearby. I went into a cafeteria at Georgetown University, and at a table in the corner, I saw Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, the Yippie leadership, defendants in the Chicago Trials of 1969 and the heroes of the hour.

My parents had put me in therapy, their response to my rebellion, and though I cut school regularly, I liked my therapist and never missed a session. So on Monday morning, I caught a train back to New York to see him, and all my friends stayed in DC and were arrested that afternoon in the massive, Nixon-ordered police sweep which resulted in their being held overnight in a sports stadium, shades of the ones used in the coup in Chile a year or so later. In the 1980's, when I was already a lawyer, people who had been arrested that day, received checks from the settlement of a class action suit which determined that the mass arrests were wholly illegitimate. My remorse at having left my friends and gone home only intensified: I was the only kid on my block who didn't get arrested in Washington in May 1971. I felt very left out.

I had never been arrested at all, for anything, despite some fairly wild and illegal behavior between 1969 and 1972, when I went straight. The night in 2011 was my first time; I was fifty-seven. In a karmic sense, what I experienced that night was the 1971 arrest I had inadvertently avoided, which had been following me, quietly reproachful, all those years. I had to wait, as Arlo Guthrie talk-sang in "Alice's Restaurant", until it came "around again on the guitar".

I will tell you the next piece of this with a slight trepidation, because you may conclude I am crazy (if you haven't already). I had dreamed I would be arrested at the Zuccotti eviction about a month before. In that dream, the role of Zuccotti was played by a park near my home in Astoria: concrete, swings, handball courts.

The cops outside had just issued an ultimatum that anyone remaining inside the park would be busted in fifteen minutes. I walked in past exiting people and said the nicely resonant words, "I need a sign". Someone handed me a densely lettered piece of poster board and though I was unable to read the words on it, I was certain they contained a message of great importance to me. Only seven people had remained inside the park in defiance of the ultimatum. I sat down with them and said to a young man next to me: "Are we going to stay?" "I haven't decided yet," he replied. "Its a thousand dollar fine." I answered: "Your friends and family will help", and woke. Within a night or two I had another startling dream, which I will not describe in detail, because friends of mine with nouns as names were in it. But the drift was that something significant and complicated was about to happen, which was required of me by destiny or karma.

On the Occupy Wall Street web site, I signed up for a service to receive a text message in the event of an eviction attempt. The protestors had successfully stood up, on a Friday morning a week or so before the eviction, to an apparent trick, an ultimatum to vacate the park so it could be cleaned. Encampments in other cities were being rousted, one after another.

On Saturday November 12, my wife and I went to our home in Amagansett. On Monday morning, she suggested we stay over that night, ordinarily a pleasing prospect, but I had a free floating anxious feeling that I needed to get back to New York City, unrelated to Occupy or any sense the eviction was imminent (as it had now been on the horizon for some weeks, and the timing was a complete surprise). We respect these impulses in one another, and we drove back home.

At 1:08 a.m. on the following morning, Tuesday, November 15, I received the following text: "OccupyNYC: URGENT: Hundreds of police mobilizing around Zuccotti. Eviction in progress!" I said to my wife, "I have to go there." And this incomparable spouse of my life and for life, said: "Be careful."

"I will."

"Try not to get arrested."

"I'll try."

She thought a moment: "I'm not going to come with you."

"I don't expect you to."

"You would be thinking about me, rather than your reason for being there." Which was true.

Fifteen minutes later, I was on the N train. At 1:36, another text: "We need people to come to the park and peacefully surround it! Eviction in progress!"

Around 2 a.m., I arrived at Broadway and Cortlandt from the north and west, and found a line of cops preventing access to the park, one short block downtown. I stood on the sidewalk, a few feet away from the line of helmeted officers, pondering what to do next. I could hear other people--about 200 of us were there--chanting or talking to the cops. I observed no violence or threats, heard no police instructions or warnings, and never spoke to or was spoken to by any officer during the events of the next moments.

The police advanced on us without warning and a helmeted riot officer began to push me on the right shoulder with his plastic shield.

And I stood there.

I hadn't anticipated this, thought it through or made any decision. I didn't know what I would do until I did it.

He pushed me three times or so, and when I didn't budge--I didn't speak, push back, or move in any way, just stood immobile--he got angry. He struck me three or four more times with his shield, harder, and my glasses flew away. Everything happened very rapidly, and my impressions become fragmentary, but I remember him making a grunting noise as he hit me with the shield. It didn't hurt and I had no bruises afterwards, but it takes a certain amount of force to knock someone's glasses off.

Why didn't I budge? I have several overlapping explanations.

My reflexes are slow and I usually respond to sudden events by standing there and processing what is happening. I know that under certain circumstances this is not a good survival mechanism, but in other cases, lack of an impulsive response has served just fine.

I was not frightened of him so had no fight or flight response whatever.

He never spoke to me, and there had been no prior warning, so as a method of communicating with me, striking me with his shield was sub-optimal. It was not clear whether he wanted me to walk away, run, or fall to the ground weeping, nor could I foresee what the consequences of any of these actions would be.

And I don't like being bullied, by people in uniform or out.

A moment later, I heard a voice yelling, "Pull him out! Pull him out!" I heard someone say that a deputy commissioner had pointed me out for arrest. We know now, from mine and hundreds of other arrests, that the NYPD has a "smash and grab" methodology. A white shirt (lieutenant or captain, less often a deputy commissioner) stands fifty feet away from the action, and points out people as targets; a wedge of uniformed officers then takes them. That night, many of the people I spoke to, including working reporters and photojournalists engaged in reporting, had been seized from behind by cops with no prior warning.

The cop whom I had encountered in mutual silence (but for the grunting) moved on, presumably in search of other people to strike with his shield. A polite, easygoing uniformed officer handcuffed me, my hands behind me, with a plastic tie and said, "We are going to walk across Cortland now, and you will sit down against that wall." I was perfectly calm and cooperative. As I sat down, I said, "Could you try to find my glasses for me?" He went to look for them and brought them back. Someone had stepped on them and the frame was badly bent, so, unable to put them on my face, he placed them in my jacket pocket.

Then someone came over and stood looking at me and said: "You're one of them."

I can't say for sure it wasn't the deputy commissioner, except I have the vague impression the person was wearing a blue uniform.

This made me angry and I responded sharply: "One of whom?"

"A piece of shit".

"I am a retired emergency medical technician in the New York City 911 system. I had your back. I carried injured cops and I once helped rescue a shot cop."

"Good for you," he said walking away.

As the first officer, the one who handcuffed me, walked me to the van, he said, "When you were an EMT, did you ever do a job you wished you had never been dispatched to?"


"This is one of those."

I was probably the first person arrested at Zuccotti that night. I have already written about the experience of spending a night in the holding cell at Police Plaza, and the people I met there.

Almost everyone else I met that night had been hit with batons, thrown to the ground, stepped on. I suppose the cops were more careful of my gray hair. There was a city councilman in our cell who had cuts and abrasions on his face from being hit by cops, but he also was younger than me and not gray-haired.

I got new glasses a few days later, and kept the twisted frames as a memento, so that from time to time I can show them to people: "The NYPD happened to my glasses."

I went to Manhattan criminal court on January 17, the return date of my desk appearance ticket for disorderly conduct, looked for the green-hatted National Law Guild volunteer, and stood up before the judge as the prosecutor said, "I move for an ACD," an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. In return for an admission of guilt, they give you a deal in which, if you don't get arrested again for six months, the whole thing goes away and the file is sealed. Its a pretty good deal, and as a lawyer years ago I had helped other people take it when arrested for pot smoking or petty theft. But I turned it down now, and so did all my new friends and about half of the Occupy arrestees. I said no because I hadn't done anything: I stood still on the sidewalk, a pedestrian trying to walk downtown. I had nothing to explain: the cops needed to explain why they blocked access to Zuccotti, charged into and beat peaceful protestors, and methodically arrested every working reporter in sight, including a Times blogger and a WBAI reporter about to go on air (both of whom I met that night or subsequently).

My volunteer attorney was great, experienced, confidence inspiring, and possibly a bit over-burdened, by the sheer volume of arrestees divided among the few volunteers. I wanted to help, but was told I couldn't, so long as I was in the process myself. We went back, on Monday morning, March 5, to a different courtroom, where all the Occupy cases are being heard by one designated judge, and this time, as I half expected, I heard the prosecutor say:

"Though Mr. Wallace was arrested among a large crowd blocking pedestrian and vehicular passage, the People are unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt his own individual actions." And he moved for dismissal, which was instantly granted.

I was ready to go to trial and already reviewing in my head what I wanted to say. But I knew that the prosecutor probably didn't know the name of the cop who hit me with his shield. Was the deputy commissioner prepared to testify that he pointed me out because he thought I was one of a mystical "them"? (Whom? The Illuminati?) What would he say I did? I had been warned to expect that the cops would lie about what they saw; it happens every day.

I resented the prosecutor's innuendo, as he moved for dismissal, that I had been involved blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic. I was on the sidewalk, never in the street. The only people blocking traffic, were the cops. I was the pedestrian, they were the obstacle. They charged into a crowd of peaceful demonstrators without warning, arrested working journalists, beat scores of people, and broke my glasses. What I witnessed that night, was a police riot.

I'm glad I was there; it was very interesting and educational. I don't think anyone knows how their city works, how their world operates, until they have seen it from the inside of a holding cell. I learned from the cop who called me a piece of shit, and the one who apologized. The physical part was very trivial, compared to the people who were beaten, the ones the cops shoot from time to time without justification ( Amadou Diallo, reaching for his identification), the black and Latino kids searched without probable cause on street corners (their offense walking while dark-skinned) and then sent away, not for a night in prison, but for actual jail terms. So, it was minor, but as a symbol of the way the world works, my twisted glasses frames are very eloquent.

Most of all, the experience was about becoming that person again, the one I wanted to be. I grew up fearful, I was raised to be frightened of everything. As a child, I lay awake all night, terrified that the Loch Ness monster would stick its head in my window, the Abominable Snowman come in by the door. I spent decades dealing with that, as the world proved to be almost as dangerous as predicted. No supernatural monsters, at least none I could see, but people pointed guns at me twice, I have been punched by strangers, I came out to the street at the World Trade Center a minute after the second plane hit. That was the moment in which life cleared the table, threw all the crockery to the floor and said, "well, what the fuck are you gonna do about it?" Eighteen months later, I was sitting in a Manhattan-bound ambulance, next to a partner who relentlessly obsessed about dirty radioactive bombs and anthrax, and I looked at the sun glinting off the skyscrapers and realized I wasn't afraid any more. It wasn't actually a decision, I didn't say, "I am afraid, I won't be any more." It was more a release, a lifting away, like a batwinged fear that had been clinging to my back for eighteen months, for a lifetime, now reared up and flew from me. And I threw myself into the work with a will, and walked in my uniform into dirty and dangerous places, and I wasn't afraid. I treated the stabbed and shot, and people who had lost fingers and hands, I worked on the dead and attended at the final removal of the long dead.

At Broadway and Cortland, a cop who never spoke to me, never said, "Move back" or "Sit down", pushed and then hit me with his plastic shield, a unique communication: "I want you to be frightened now." In my silence, I answered, "Sorry, I would really like to oblige you, but I'm not." At that moment, I didn't actually become the boy of 1970; but I went within a few feet of him, and we looked at one another and smiled.