NEW YORK -- Nothing galvanizes a leaderless, imprecisely defined protest movement as effectively as 700 questionable arrests. So thanks to the New York City Police Department, Occupy Wall Street is entering its third week with renewed momentum -- despite a still fuzzy set of objectives.
Occupy Wall Street, NYC
On Saturday, the NYPD made mass arrests of the anti-debt, anti-greed, anti-war, pro-employment protesters as they attempted to extend their occupation of a park in lower Manhattan to the neighboring borough of Brooklyn. Police moved in as the protesters took to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic on part of the roadway as the crowd spilled from a pedestrian walkway.
Police say they warned the protesters to stay on the walkway. The protesters, including Bill Johnsen, 62, who knows a thing or two about peaceful assembly having marched with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War back in the late 1960s, insist the police never said a thing.
To be fair, it may have been hard to hear. The protesters were banging drums and chanting "The whole world is watching" and "Take the bridge" even before the police moved in. However it happened, one thing is clear: "It was a fiasco," Johnsen said.
Traffic on the Manhattan-to-Brooklyn bridge stopped for several hours. By the time the cars started moving again, 700 protesters were under arrest -- and several media outlets were arguing, not over the number of people in police custody, but whether they had been "arrested" or "ticketed."
Actually, it was both. Police said eight people were held: three because of outstanding warrants and five others who refused to show any identification. The rest were given desk appearance tickets -- citations that require the person to appear in criminal court to respond to a misdemeanor, a violation, or, occasionally, a felony.
If you get a desk appearance ticket, you've been arrested. As Don Murray, partner in the New York criminal defense law firm, Shalley and Murray, explains, "From now on, no matter what happens to your case, the truthful answer to the question, 'Have you ever been arrested?' will be 'Yes.' "
It's hard to predict what effect Occupy Wall Street or its sister organizations in other cities nationwide might ultimately have on the economy, capitalism, or anything else. But it's already made job hunting a little more complicated for some 700 people, who now have an arrest to add to their resumés.
It's a good thing many of the protesters are already either employed or retired. That's what you discover if you stroll around Zuccotti Park, a private plaza off Broadway in the shadows of the World Trade Center reconstruction.
A growing number of people have been camping here for the past several weeks to voice their frustrations over pretty much everything: corporate greed, social inequality, climate change, unemployment, underemployment, unfair taxation, national debt, paper currency, and wars -- in Iraq, Afghanistan, and anywhere else.
From a handful of loosely organized college students, the protest has grown to include a diverse range of ages and occupations -- from unemployed 20-somethings to the 60-year-olds and beyond, eager to share their knowledge of protests from decades past. Now similar protests are popping up nationwide, in Los Angeles; Boston; Washington; Providence, R.I.; Albuquerque, N.M.; and Spokane and Seattle, Wash.
Many of the protesters have jobs. David Drazal is a social worker in Bridgeport, Conn. John Dennehy works as a copy editor at the United Nations. Nicole Pace is a social networking assistant at a fashion and entertainment Website.
Some are retired. "But I'm worried about my grandchildren, about all children," said Bob Nash of Cold Springs, New York. Moshe Sayer of Manhattan is retired, too. But he said he felt an obligation to join the protest, to express his solidarity with people who are struggling to survive: "It is important for them to realize that they are not alone."
There are a lot of people struggling. Ashton Phillips took a $7.25 an hour job at a pizza shop when he lost his $25 an hour construction job. "And now I got laid off from the pizza shop," he said, taking in the protest with his dog, Beau. Fred Landers worked as an art therapist, helping children with developmental disabilities "until a corporate takeover of the hospital where I worked. They cut the program because it didn't fit its business model."
As they said in Network, a movie made before many of the protesters were born, people are mad as hell, and not gonna take it anymore.
But that's sort of where the protest breaks down. Unlike protests against the Vietnam War or in support of Civil Rights, Occupy Wall Street has no clear objective. It's not that it has no point. The problem is that it has too many points. And because there are so many, none of them are sharp. It's all muted and hazy, as hard to decipher as one of Mel Gibson's drunken phone recordings.
Still, the protest resonates. In the first week or so, it was easy to dismiss Occupy Wall Street as a gathering of bored suburban kids in search of adventure. But there's more to it than that.
Forty years ago, the late Taylor Caldwell wrote Captains and the Kings, a book about an impoverished immigrant turned industrialist power broker. She dedicated it "to the young people of America, who are rebelling because they know something is very wrong in their country, but do not know just what it is."
We still don't know what it is. But we still know something is very wrong.