A writer reflects on her arrest at Occupy Wall Street’s protest near Times Square on October 15th.
By **Katie Ryder**
Photograph via Flickr by Eric Socolofsky.
I walked through the security entrance to the lower Manhattan courthouse at 100 Centre Street and set off the metal detectors.
I looked to the supervising cop, wondering where to put down my coffee.
“It’s your boots, honey. It’s probably your boots.” He waved me through with a slightly impatient hand flapping.
In the gray green atrium I turned around a few times, followed a hallway to its end and came back. I went to the circular Information desk and spoke to the middle-aged cop reading the paper.
“Hi, I have a desk appearance ticket, and I’m not sure where to go.”
He took the ticket and looked at it.
“Oh. Blocking the bridge.”
“Blocking the bridge.”
“No. It was a different day. Times Square.”
“The protest,” he said, deciding that I was a true idiot.
“Yeah, sort of,” I replied. Because the two events were, in some world, sort of the same thing, and this man seemed to have a sort of grasp on his role at the Information desk.
“Well then sort of the fifth floor.”
I saw a teenage girl crying and screaming at an officer to let her out of the back, saying she just wanted to go home.
This was my court date for a “desk appearance ticket” resulting from my arrest near Times Square on October 15th. 41 other people were arrested with me for—bear with me now—continuing to try to walk forward on a public sidewalk. I’d actually been on my way home—I had been at the Times Square Occupy Wall Street protest for hours—and walking down 46th street toward 6th avenue, I saw that police were blocking a clump of 20 or so people from moving forward. At this point the street was closed to traffic, and well-heeled New Yorkers and tourists on their way to trains, shows and steakhouse dinners, were walking in the middle of the street in both directions.
The cluster of people being blocked looked to the police like protestors trying to reach the dispersing gathering at Times Square, and most of them were just that. They were spotted and pushed to the sidewalk with riot shields. Seeing what was happening, departing protestors like me changed our minds and went over to join them. The small cluster grew to a crowd of about 60 or so, and police began the bizarre push-o’-war that now seems to precede many OWS arrests. First, they demand that people leave public places, like sidewalks next to Times Square. Then they shove civilians with riot shields, hit civilians with batons, and punch civilians in the gut, sometimes the face. Meanwhile, those civilians attempt to hold their patch of land through non-violent physical force, like leaning back into the shields.
In this case, the police pushed us back into an area of sidewalk under scaffolding. So, as the pushing and nightstick jabbing grew more aggressive, the crowd, walled on three sides, was packed tighter, and people who wanted out had to try to make their way to the back of the pack. Pretty soon cops blocked the remaining opening, and we were penned—twisting, falling and clinging to scaffolding —as we were pushed tighter and tighter together. At this point I saw a teenage girl crying and screaming at an officer to let her out of the back, saying she just wanted to go home. Gripping onto strangers’ shoulders and waists, I made my way back to her and spoke directly to the four officers blocking the exit.
“Can she go? You’ve been asking us to leave.”
No response. No eye contact.
“She’s a kid and you’ve been asking us to leave. Can she go?” I was so close to the first officer I could have given him a hickey.
His face flinched slightly. The other blocking officers who could hear me just as well blinked as they stared forward. The crowd behind us was a slow motion blender, and I was getting closer and closer to this man’s naked neck. The girl next to me was hysterical. I was definitely shouting.
“Can you answer a question? I’m asking a question. You’ve asked us to leave. She wants to leave.”
Then there was the voice of a new officer, and he was awfully tired of me.
“Get her out of there.” A white-shirted arm reached through the riot shields and pulled me, somehow, over the shoulders of the other cops. I was cuffed, and luckily my torn-off sweatshirt and the strap of my purse were locked to my hands. Then, along with my new 16-year old friend, I got to see the inside of a paddy wagon.
So, here I was a month and a half later at 100 Centre Street. On the fifth floor, representatives from the National Lawyer’s Guild, NYC Chapter checked us in and told us to wait in the courtroom. We were all assigned to pro-bono lawyers through NLG, each of whom proved to be sharp, attentive and righteous—seeming to run on empathy on one level and hyper-informed sarcasm on another. My lawyer was a broad-shouldered man in his fifties, with combed-back silver hair, a pinstriped suit, and one small hoop earring. The website on his business card was womensrightsny.com. I was extremely pleased.
Each defendant stood in front of the judge, alongside our new legal representation, as an Assistant District Attorney charged us with 1-2 counts of disorderly conduct. My 16-year old buddy, who seemed not to recognize me, sat in the front with someone that might have been her mother. When her turn was up, she accepted the arranged deal—an ACD, or Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal. In our case this meant that the defendant would not plead guilty or otherwise, but promised that she would not be arrested for the next 6 months. At the end of that arrest-free period, the charges would be dropped. To refuse the ACD would mean to schedule another court date, at which time the defendant might enter a plea and be sentenced. The case might also be dismissed, or, yet another, future court appearance might be scheduled. The murmurs were that these repeated court dates—attributed to various ambivalent motivations of “the City” – would go on for some time. Another high school student, in a suit and tie, with his mother and a hired lawyer, also accepted the ACD. A third high schooler—a small, Hispanic 17-year old—arrived with her extremely anxious mother, who seemed to be a recent immigrant, and her young sister. Upon her turn she refused the ACD. A man on the other side of the room pumped his fist in the air silently.
Throughout the morning, I saw three or four non-teenage defendants accept the deal. All others refused. After each acceptance, the judge looked down over his glasses and asked with a level of self-congratulatory sympathy that the defendant “stay out of trouble”. One who took the ACD was a young man I’d been watching. He’d been in my paddy wagon, and had been silent while the rest of us were telling stories about where we’d been hit, by which cop, and helping each other, with our plastic-cuffed hands, send alarming, stunted text messages to friends and family. The young man hadn’t looked anxious so much as grim and genuinely scared. His jaw was set, pushed forward, and his shoulders were defiantly hunched. The posture did not seem new or temporary. In the courtroom, he was pale and expressionless. I was relieved when he accepted the deal.
Two burly young men, both with short dark hair and black button-up shirts, were at court for a different crime at a different location. They had been wearing Guy Fawkes caricature masks —now associated with OWS—outside of a mask store. The two were being charged under a statute created in 1845 to stop tenant farmers from dressing up as American Indians (in leather masks and calico gowns) and attacking landlords and police. True story. As evidence for the charges, the Assistant District Attorney read the testimony of an officer who “saw them go into the mask store and buy masks.”
During the turn of another young man being charged for OWS-related disorderly conduct, his lawyer called attention to a discrepancy in police accounts of what had happened. With this in mind, he questioned if the ticket was “factually sufficient”. In the natural time for a response and in the cadence of a rebuttal, the Assistant District Attorney read aloud from her notes. “An officer reported that the defendant said to him, ‘You should support us. You should come out on your days off.’” She then looked up, apparently to see how the judge would handle this little nugget of incrimination.
When my turn came, I stood next to my new attorney and thought about what to do with my arms. I tried to stand up straight with my shoulders back without allowing my chest too much of a presence. I made eye contact with the judge, who looked at me just as judges do in movies—as if appearances generally told him the truth.
“And will Katherine be taking the ACD?” asked the judge.
“She respectfully declines, your honor.”
Katie Ryder is a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.