(This story was published on Mr Beller’s Neighborhood on September 8, 2012).
Two days after the Occupy Oakland police raid, where an Iraq War vet was shot in the head with a police projectile and hundreds more were sprayed with tear gas while they were sleeping, I get a text from Denise as I’m wrapping up dinner with some friends at Teresa’s Diner in Brooklyn Heights: Show the police and the world that we are not afraid. March in solidarity with Occupy Oakland tonight from Zucotti Park at 9. It is your personal responsibility to be there.
I show Sydney.
“Only slightly chastising,” I say.
“Yeah, but let’s go,” she says.
“Should we?” I say as I sop up the last of my pink borscht.
Nancy starts chanting from across the table: “Occupy Wall Street! We are the 99 percent. But I have to skip this one.” She puts on her safari jacket, which Patricia from Portugal has promised makes her look like a young Katherine Hepburn.
Patricia says: “I’m renovating my green card so I can’t go. But you guys should go!”
“Should we?” I ask Sydney more directly this time, remembering my freelance editing job tomorrow starts earlier than usual.
She presses her brown bangs into her eyes and bites her lip. “It seems like a good one to go to. But I can’t believe I’ll have to carry this stupid soymilk I have in my bag.” She gets up and bends forward letting her backpack drop around her head to illustrate the load. “Maybe I should just give it away.”
“I think you’ll be okay, buddy,” I lift one strap of her backpack and make like I’m dragging her out of the restaurant. “Bye guys!”
We walk down Montague Street past the brick Episcopalian church and the vegetarian Chinese and the glass doors of the TD Bank. The washed-out dusk sky blends with the murky-white stucco on the bank building.
When we come out the subway at Zucotti Park, the sky has turned dark blue and there’s no one around. It’s a warm October night and with the usually buzzing park so empty you can see the yellow leaves from the gingko trees covering the ground. We try and listen for some noise, or any indication of where the march might have headed.
A guy with sunglasses and a long gray beard and not a lot of teeth sits at a table marked Veterans for Peace. “They went north, up Broadway,” he says covering the mouthpiece of his flip-phone to help us. “Just some kids looking for the march,” he says, removing his hand from the receiver.
We come out of the City Hall station to the vibrations of chants from above. “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Police brutality has got to go!” Sydney starts yelling along with them as we stomp up the stairs.
When we get aboveground, Denise is there as if we had planned it. “It’s Svetlana!” she says.
“Fancy that,” I say, and give her a hug. She smells faintly of men’s deodorant and her dog.
We move briskly up a street I’m unfamiliar with, a gated park stretching interminably to our left. “Are we walking in a circle?” I ask Sydney. I will never understand the financial district.
“No we’re heading up to SoHo.”
The chants keep changing. “Fuck the Police” keeps getting picked up then dropped. “I don’t like that. It makes me want to leave,” Sydney says.
“I know what you mean. I have mixed feelings,” I say. “It makes me think of a passage at the beginning of a Pema Chodron book where she talks about a Buddhist monk watching the news without the volume on. First there’s a neo-Nazi rally with lots of people screaming and yelling. Then there’s an anti-war protest with lots of people screaming and yelling. And the monk says something to the effect of, no matter the cause I see the same angry faces.”
“There’s a time and a place for anger but this feels like posturing.”
“But does it? A guy was almost killed. But it doesn’t sit well with me to say it either.”
We link arms tightly. Soon the crowd picks up another chant, “We are the 99 percent,” and then, in the direction of the police corralling us on our right, “and so are you!” I stare into the stony face of one cop who clearly plucks his eyebrows. His brown eyes are clear, young and expressionless.
“We are unstoppable, another world is possible!”
As we get firmly into SoHo I see my friend Sahar. We hug. Her hair is in its new straightened style—choppy. “We get to be the 99 percent together,” I say. “We didn’t have to try very hard.” She introduces me to her friend Penny who’s definitely a dyke. “I’m sure I’ve met you before,” I yell over the shouting. But she is looking up ahead. “What’s going on up there?”»
A block up, people are shining lights from their camera phones onto the police arresting a handful of people. The golden light from the streetlamps and the flashing cameras light up the crowds and the cobblestone streets, making it look as though we are on a film set. Sydney and I run and crash into the crowd as it rolls back and forth.
“The whole world is watching!” we shout. My voice breaks as I see someone I recognize from the Stop Stop and Frisk meetings being pushed into the back of a fluorescent lit van. A wiry guy in a beanie hangs from a lamppost yelling, “Shame, Shame, Shame!”
“March, march, march!” rolls over the crowd getting louder.
“They want to split us up,” a protestor in a black T-shirt says.
“New York is Oakland. Oakland is New York!”
The march is on two sides of the street now. We fear crossing to the other side with more people since neither one of us wants to get arrested.
“March, march, march!” I get drawn into another police–protestor face-off under some scaffolding. A police officer pushes a protestor’s cheek into the cobblestones at the intersection of Mercer and Spring with his boot. “Shame, shame, shame!” I yell. Sydney pulls me out of the circle.
The same protestor shouts as we turn around: “What you’ve never seen someone get arrested before? March, march, march! Union Square! Don’t let them split us up.”
“Union square. Union Square!” I shout and the same kid who was hanging from a pole earlier joins in and jumps off the pole.
“Which way do we go? Straight or right?”
“Right, right, right.” And we all turn right.
Now we walk up Broadway. A calm has descended onto the crowd like something’s been won. A red-faced guy in an Adidas tracksuit with a loud pizzeria voice yells, “Whose streets? Our streets!”
“I love it,” Sydney says. “Like, who is that guy and how do we end up in the same march?”
“Well, who are we?” I say.
“I’m some scrappy queer—I feel like I blend in more.”
“That’s what’s cool about it, right? Everyone’s here.”
“Well, some more than others.”
The same kid in the beanie says, “Come on, guys! We could, like, take over Broadway right now. Fuck it, I’m doing it. “And he runs into traffic like it’s an extreme sport. Many pour into the streets after him.
I ask a blond guy with glasses how he got here. “I was at the General Assembly meeting tonight when they spontaneously called the march. I was filming this particular G.A. and I had to stop filming to realize, Oh, wait, I want to march, too.”
As we get closer to Union Square, everyone has moved into the streets with the traffic, long lines of people snake around the cars chanting. I make peace signs into the windows of cars as I pass by. I get the idea from a woman up ahead in a headscarf; she walks up to car after car knocks on the window and says, “Hello, 99%. How are you doing tonight? I’m doing great. We’re doing great.”
The street flickers with cameras flashing. We pass the Ibiza hair salon, where I used to get my hair cut by a young guy named Alex from Brighton Beach. I remember him telling me his mother was a Nazi resistance fighter in Georgia.
We pass the Strand Bookstore and the megaplex movie theater, finally getting to Union Square, where hundreds of people are milling around waiting for a Mic Check. I meet back up with Denise and spot Sahar a few feet over, sitting on the concrete steps writing in her journal.
“We’ve just received word that there are 400 cops waiting for us in Washington Square! The cops went to the wrong place! Victory!” Everyone in the crowd roars.
“Fuck the police,” a man yells out.
“Fuck the police,” the crowd halfheartedly repeats, many with their fingers waving down in protest of the statement.
“Fuck police brutality,” comes a singular amendment to the last chant.
“Fuck police brutality,” the crowd agrees.
Sydney and I squeeze hands.