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Love and Revolution on the Brooklyn Bridge

April 12, 2012

photo via Occupied Stories

This story is from the Occupied News Wire. It was originally published on Occupied Stories.

by John Dennehy

NEW YORK, NY – A few hours before I was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, I met Nicole in Zuccotti Park. She wore dark blue jeans that stretched across her legs, a grey sweater and a blue and white scarf that hid behind her flowing brown hair. It was our first date.

Nicole was handing out flyers with legal advice while saying, “Protest is not a crime.”

“I work for a law firm, so the legal stuff interests me,” she explained.

When Occupy Wall Street began its march, the protest stretched back for many blocks as it crowded onto the sidewalk with barricades and a heavy police presence lining our way. By the time we arrived at the bridge, the front of the march was already funneling onto the pedestrian walkway, though only a handful of police stood casually at the entrance to the roadway.

“We’re not taking the bridge?” I said to Nicole in disappointment.

“Doesn’t look that way, I guess they don’t have a permit,” she responded.

“That’s such a letdown; the power of OWS is that it doesn’t ask permission to disagree. There’s hardly any police, we should just take the bridge,” I said.

The crowd bulged at the narrow entrance to the walkway and had begun to fill the street in front.

Without thinking, I stepped away from Nicole and into the growing crowd to start a familiar chant.

“Whose streets?” I yelled.

“Our streets!” the crowd answered.

The chant grew quickly and more people moved into the street at the base of the on ramp. The assertiveness and ambition was back, the crowd was alive. One police officer lazily spoke into a megaphone but was drowned out by the crowd.

I shouted “Take the bridge, take the bridge!” and the crowd immediately and aggressively picked up the refrain. It was infectious. I had lost myself in the moment and briefly forgotten about Nicole. I thought my idea of protest might have been more aggressive than hers, but then she caught my eye, smiled and rushed down from the pedestrian walkway toward me. She grabbed me and put her fist in the air. “Take the bridge” she shouted with the surging crowd. We watched as the group of people closest to the police locked arms. Everyone behind them, including Nicole and I, followed their example. It was loud and tense but it all melted away when the first line took a single step forward, their legs all moving in unison, connected as one solid line at the waist. The police turned their backs and walked ahead. They were leading us onto the bridge, we won! The crowd cheered and rushed up the ramp.

Nicole and I held back a few minutes and helped people from the walkway climb onto the road with us. The crowd was thick and excited, and our hands met so we wouldn’t get separated; it felt so natural. Once the crowd spread into all the lanes and gave us space, neither of us let go. I only noticed her hand still in mine because they began to sweat against each other. Confused motorists, stuck behind us, were honking in support.

“I can’t get arrested,” Nicole told me.

“They can’t arrest everyone. I can’t see the beginning or end of the crowd. There’s no way they can arrest this many people; we already won,” I said.

“Okay, good. This is incredible,” Nicole said, squeezing my hand and looking up at me.

“Yeah. I went to a lot of protests in college, but this is different.” I said.

The crowd stopped suddenly then surged backward, pushing Nicole’s body against mine. We couldn’t see what was happening, but the joy instantly transformed into panic. The chants stopped and people started screaming a few rows in front of us in the all-of-a-sudden-dense-again crowd. “The police are attacking, go back, go back!” they yelled. I put my arms around Nicole and held her tight; her fingers clasped behind my back and pulled me even closer.

As some people from the front pushed back into us, others pushed forward, trying to reach the front line to break the police cordon.

“We have to keep going forward! We have to break through!” a man behind us yelled.

“There’s nowhere to go, people are getting crushed up there!” a woman cried, her voice cracking.

A second man with a calm but firm voice started shouting rhythmically, over and over again, “Sit down! Sit down!”

Most people sat down but there were still others pushing one way or the other and stepping on top of people. Dozens on our left, against the inner side of the bridge, were climbing up the scaffolding to the pedestrian walkway above, trying to escape the crush. It was chaos.

Nicole tucked her head into my arm, as I moved my hand across her back. Our bodies moved tighter, her right leg rubbing between mine while my left leg nestled between hers.

“I can’t get arrested,” Nicole repeated, more desperate than before.

“They can’t arrest everyone,” I repeated, almost as sure.

To our left, where the people had been climbing the scaffolding, police pushed in and set up a net. They immediately walked two protesters in handcuffs down the corridor so everyone could see. They were pushing them hard, making them stumble, and almost knocking them on their face. They were sending us a message: You’re next.

The police pushed everyone off the pedestrian walkway and shut down the bridge. The crowd was tense. We were stuck in a police net, hanging above the East River, completely alone, utterly vulnerable. Rumors swilled though the crowd. “The police cleared the airspace,” someone shouted, and we realized: there were no witnesses. All of a sudden taking the bridge seemed a terrible idea.

We waited, and as we waited the fear left and the spirit of the crowd that had locked arms and took the Brooklyn Bridge returned. People started to mic check, mixing rumor and fact, but the tone changed and each message was more defiant than the last. Each time the crowd roared louder than the last.

“5,000 people are watching us on livestream.”

“A crowd is gathering on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, they are waiting for us.”

“10,000 people are watching.”

“The MTA is going on strike in solidarity.”

“25,000 people are watching.”

Even as the minutes dragged into hours and it became clear that the police were in fact going to arrest everyone they had netted, it still felt like victory. Everyone shared what they had, fruit and water passed through the crowd and people called out of work and cancelled dinner plans with borrowed phones.

Nicole and I still held each other. Long after the crowd thinned and the panic passed, our hands were still interlocked when we sat, and our bodies still pressed tight to the other when we stood.

“Mic check: It is an honor and a privilege to be arrested with you all today. Fifty years from now, when you tell your grandkids about this, you can say that you were a soldier in the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge!” The crowd roared.
Nicole pulled her head out of my arm and we looked into each other’s eyes.

“Best first date ever,” I said.

She giggled. “This is incredible.”

People were still mic checking, still passing around markers so everyone could write the legal number on their arm, but we were isolated from all of that, stuck in our own moment. Our eyes were locked on each other and our faces pulled together, like magnets finding their mate. Our lips touched, and then opened. When we drew back our eyes were staring into each other again but in a different way than before the kiss. I could tell she was smiling, though all I saw were her eyes. I could feel my own face stuck in the same pose. We moved together and kissed again, oblivious to the crowd around us.

It began to rain and the sun disappeared behind the clouds, then fell below the horizon. We had been in the police net for over three hours now and I was getting cold. “Let’s go get arrested,” I said.

“I’d love to.” Nicole smiled.

I tapped someone on the shoulder near the police blockade. “Is this the line to get arrested?” I asked.

He laughed. “Yeah,” he said.

There was a separate line for women, so Nicole and I shared one last embrace and kissed one last time.
“I’ll wait for you. I’ll wait for you forever,” she said.

A police officer slapped cuffs on my wrist then walked me onto a commandeered MTA bus, and when I looked back, Nicole was gone, on her own bus I presumed. All the police stations and holding cells in Manhattan were already overflowing with protesters, so we got on the Williamsburg Bridge and for the second time that day, I headed to Brooklyn. This time, a prisoner in police custody, I made it. The first two precincts we went to were also filled and we finally stopped at the 90th precinct, which, ironically, I could walk to from my home in Bushwick. We were the third bus in line so we waited for the others to be processed first. For more than three hours we sat uncomfortably, forced to sit at the edge of our seat and lean slightly forward to accommodate the handcuffs digging ever deeper into our wrists as the blood collected in our hands and swelled the skin around the plastic rings. All the while, we took advantage of our captive audience and tried to convert our arresting officers who were acting as our guards now.

“The banks crashed the economy, and when the government bailed them out they used the money to give bonuses to the CEO’s and increased foreclosures against families like your own. When it comes down to it, we are all on the same side. You are the 99% as much as we are,” we told them.

One of the officers, the loudest one, never genuinely responded to our attempts at engagement. He would chuckle and say things like, “I think your dreadlocks are seeping into your brain,” or, “what good are you sitting in handcuffs here, why don’t you just plant a garden or something?”

My arresting officer was much quieter, but also much more thoughtful.

“National elections are overwhelmingly decided by who has the most money so they can better spin the narrative in their favor, which gives great power to corporate CEO’s at our expense. The system is broken, and while we may not have all the answers, we need to start creating alternatives, we need to take control over our own lives,” I said.

“You’re right,” he said. “The country is heading in the wrong direction and people need to stand up in order to change it, but I got a job to do. I got a wife and kids so if my CO [commanding officer] tells me to make an arrest, I have to do it. I wish I could be with you guys, but I need this paycheck,” he said.

Finally it was our turn, and the police marched us off the bus and into the station.

Someone yelled my name as I was being walked to my cell.

“Anita?” I stopped, happy to see my friend smiling behind a row of bars next to me. “Hey! You got arrested too huh?”

An officer grabbed my arm and yelled, “Get to your cell!”

I kept forgetting I wasn’t free.

The cells were built for one with a single plank of wood hanging from one wall as a bed, a metal toilet filled with urine and feces and unable to flush, and not much room for anything else. The first thing everyone did was pee. There were five of us, and our urine stirred the thick brown liquid and released an even more pungent odor.

Danny, Craig, Adam and Lucas were my cell mates. We were locked in what was essentially a crowded and dirty bathroom, but it felt like a party. I’ve never felt free as I did when I was handcuffed and forced into a 5 by 8 cell. Given the chance to do it all over, I wouldn’t hesitate a second. But freedom is more than a lack of fear; it’s replacing that with the belief that we can build something better. Though I spent the day inside a police net and then locked in a cage, I saw the beginnings of a community based on altruism, compassion and solidarity, and you can’t lock that up.

Finally, after twelve hours in police custody, we were given court dates and released. It was the early morning and dark and cold outside. Two women were waiting outside to support us and gave everyone coffee and snacks.

My phone rang. “You’re out!” Nicole gushed. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, everything’s fine. I’m in Brooklyn, where are you?” I asked.

“I’m waiting for you in the park.”

I took the subway away from my house and back to the park. The streets of the financial district were deserted and police barricades lined every sidewalk. There was a steady stream of people rising from the subways, returning from jail. It felt like the city was ours.

I ran into Danny and Craig at the edge of the park and we embraced like old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. Nicole was sitting on a wall with a blanket wrapped over her shoulders. She dropped the blanket and ran toward me, and we embraced like old lovers.

“You must be cold, take this.” She threw the blanket over me. She had enormous energy considering the hour.
Nicole brought us to a group lying on an air mattress. Though it was already crowded beyond what seemed comfortable, they cheerily made space for us. They were all drinking coffee and soon after they got up to welcome others returning from jail, leaving Nicole and I alone in their bed.

We never slept. We barely even talked. We wrapped our arms around each other and touched our lips together. It warmed better than any blanket. A few hours after I was released from jail, the darkness began to fade. On all sides the park was hemmed in by skyscrapers creating an empty shaft of air reaching toward the sky. The sun filtered between the walls of concrete and through the honey locust trees above us, bathing New York City in a new light.

It was the brightest sunrise of my life.

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