May 1, 2012, New York — Surrounded by hundreds of police officers and protesters, I was sitting on the steps of Sara D. Roosevelt Park, on the south side of Houston between Chrystie and Forsyth, eating half of a tangerine. It was 1 p.m., and I was there for a rally that was unpermitted by the New York Police Department and unsanctioned by Occupy Wall Street (whatever that means).
Waiting for the rally to start, I noticed more and more protesters arriving in all black clothing, their heads covered with hoods, masked with bandannas or balaclavas. They were in small clusters of friends, each group seemingly unfamiliar with the rest of the demonstrators and even most of their black-clad peers. The crowd swelled to three or four hundred protesters, surrounded to the north, east and west by a hundred police officers. Banners were unfurled with slogans like “Kill Capitalism, Save the World” and “F-ck the Police.”
At 2 o’clock, the march commenced. A push was made by the head of the march to cross east against a line of police officers. A shoving match ensued between protesters wanting to make their way across the street and the police officers stopping them. Individual demonstrators were picked off by the police, pulled from the crowd into a swarm of hands and batons, pinned face down to the asphalt with knees on their backs, cuffed with thick plastic ties and dragged away. Some managed to get free and dove into the anonymity of the crowd, like calves returning to the herd for protection after a close call with the wolves. In this fashion, the standoff took on a particular dynamic: The front line of protesters crashed against a line of police officers, who attempted to sequester and subdue individuals, who in turn retreated farther back into the crowd while a wall of shoulder-to-shoulder protesters impeded the pursuing officer.
When police officers from all sides — north, east and west — advanced against the crowd, a collective fight-or-flight response gripped everyone: the protesters, the reporters, the photographers, the legal observers. Hundreds of us began streaming back into the park, running south, the only direction not cordoned off by police. We jumped the park rails to the east, rushing onto Chrystie Street against traffic, which came to a standstill. For the moment, we had lost the cops.
Traveling south on Chrystie, we organized again into a march, with banners at the fore and chants picking up. Zigzagging through Chinatown, a scuffle broke out amongst us: a demonstrator wishing to remain anonymous and a photographer cataloging the scene. Punches were thrown, but the two were quickly separated, and we continued on.
We reached Canal Street, overtaking a lone traffic cop and all of the westbound lanes to march through Chinatown. Our side of the avenue was devoid of cars, all replaced with hundreds of bodies. When a chant of “F-CK THE POLICE” was taken up, bystanders sang along. Reaching Broadway, we turned north, the flood of us pouring up in between the stalled oncoming vehicles, shoppers, tourists and department stores.
Throughout the entire procession, there was nothing leading us. There was no parade route to follow nor conductor who decided which direction the lot of us would go. One of us would simply run into the approaching intersection, survey the options and shout back recommendations — “Cops to the left! Go straight!” Their advice fell to whoever heard and was combined with the common wisdom — another shout: “The park is ahead but it’s fenced off! Go right!” — and the unwieldy will of the masses to determine which direction the march should go.
Like rabid dogs nipping at the feet of their fleeing victims, the police would occasionally catch up with us, tearing an individual from the crowd to be collared. They sped up behind us on scooters and sprung out on top of us from undercover vehicles, mostly Ford Econoline vans, Kia minivans and Impalas in white, silver and grey. We told ourselves to stay in a tight formation to prevent being isolated, we picked ourselves up when we fell, we tore ourselves free.
The rear was watched nervously and a cry was raised each time the police approached, sending us stampeding down avenues as far as our burning lungs and raw legs could take us. To cover the rear from encroaching police vehicles, we laid obstacles in the street — things that were easy enough to avoid on foot, but would be difficult for a scooter or car to maneuver around: trash cans; newspaper dispensers; metal barricades that we found stacked on corners around Broadway and Prince by the NYPD in anticipation of a permitted march from Union Square to the Financial District that was to begin at 4.
We zigzagged through Greenwich Village, marching, chanting, waving banners and flags, raising our fists, linking our arms together. Somewhere in the back of our minds, we knew that we weren’t doing much — walking, talking, making gestures, holding up signs, helping each other when we needed it and, of course, running from the police — but those doubts were suppressed by the simple freedom to walk in the streets and say to ourselves “Whose streets? Our streets!” without being penned in on all sides by cops. It was a silly thing to relish, but it was even more absurd that we couldn’t enjoy it every day.
Traveling west in the Village, I had sprinted ahead of the march before an intersection and was suddenly left alone when the entire procession turned north towards Washington Square Park. I kept going west, thinking I would come around the block to meet them once more. As I approached Sixth Avenue, I noticed a grey minivan speeding down the street behind me. When I stopped at a newsstand, it pulled over. When I continued to walk, it suddenly began driving. Unnerved, I ran down into the West 4th Street subway station, through the turnstile and caught a Brooklyn-bound C train that was just pulling in. Standing in the corner of the subway car, I realized that my shirt was soaked through with sweat, that I was panting, that my hands trembled.
After getting off at Spring Street and stopping by a bar to change my shirt in the bathroom, I made my way to Washington Square Park. An NYU-related demonstration was going on at its center, with speeches being made through the human microphone to a patient crowd. I recognized a few unmasked people from the Wildcat rally, who were now sitting at picnic tables, laying in the sun or calmly walking about. Even more uncanny, I noticed people laughing, jubilant and carefree, though with familiar backpacks, worn shoes and steely eyes. The black bloc was nowhere to be found.