Tuesday, October 4, 2011

From the Matthew Shepard Political Funeral to Occupy Wall Street Brooklyn Bridge: Trans Abuses, Traps and Detainment

There is something about October in New York.  For some its baseball; for me it is a memory etched in my mind from the late 1990’s when it felt like the whole world was shaking every night.  October 19th, 1998 I left work and went to meet some friends at the Plaza Hotel.  I was expecting to run into a few hundred activists for a political funeral for a young college student who had been killed because he was gay.  Yet, instead of 300, some 5000 had descended into the park in front of the Plaza.  I got there at 6:15.  In the next few hours, 136 of us were arrested as the Matthew Shepard Political Funeral found its expression as an unpermitted march. With the crowd expanding by the minute, the people had nowhere to go but the street. Police horses charged and activists fought back in a riot which some compared with the events of June 1969.  The events of that evening thirteen years ago were certainly not on my mind when I arrived at the public space known as Zuccotti Park for Saturday’s Occupy Wall Street rally. The space was pulsing with energy, filled with people who had participated in the previous night’s two thousand strong general assembly.  The day has been filled with action – the Slutwalk at 1, the No Nukes speak out – but this was the main event.  Arrests, NYPD pepper spray, and brutality the week before helped create the kind of Bull Connor scene of exposed injustice which ignited the civil rights movement.  One friend was tackled, another given a concussion, another arrested while photographing the action.  The similarities between the 1998 political funeral and the Occupy Wall Street march over the Brooklyn bridge were strikingly, and sadly familiar. 

Over the previous week the media image of the protests had shifted from peripheral to sympathetic.  The message that there is too much unemployment, economic inequality, and influence peddling damaging our political system was finding traction.  More and more people seem to be understanding that this is a movement about those who have gotten out of school without a job, those with debt, those who cannot find work, the underemployed, those without insurance, many of whom are part of the ever increasingly ranks of the unemployed.  But the NYPD appeared to not be having none of it.  After the previous night when activists stormed One Police Plaza as a protest of police abuses, I was sure the NYPD would be out for retaliation, especially after the  negative reports on the department’s approach to crowd situations over the previous week.  Many carried the  plastic cuffs they would use for arrests.  

Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh 

With this in mind, some two to three thousand of us meandered up and out of the Zuccotti Park.  It took nearly an hour to get out.  The police seemed to know we were marching up to the Brooklyn Bridge. Yet, unlike the week before the police were not giving an inch.  Everyone was pushed onto the sidewalk.  And we tried to make it. “We are the 99%” the crowd called. “And so are you,” others responded in cadence.  But it was hard to stay lyrical with the NYPD treating us like cattle.   By the time, we got to Brooklyn Bridge, the walking entrance of some ten - fifteen feet wide bottle necked. 

The NYPD can't treat people like sardines. When you have 3000 people marching, they ain't all going to fit onto a walking path of a bridge.  Many jumped over the walking path into the car path when the walking area was overflowing with people. FYI NYPD, there are only so many who can fit on a sidewalk. It causes riots over and over again.  My first arrest was for the Matthew Shepard political funeral in 1998 when 5000 arrived to mourn Shepard's death. 3000 people left Zuccotti Park. They could not all fit on the sidewalk.  Eventually, they would have to take the street.  And so they did.  After wall to wall police throughout the walk Zuccotti Park to the Bridge, the NYPD seemed to escort the surging crowd into the walking path of the Brooklyn Bridge, where so many activists have laid claim to power over the years.  When activists blocked the entrance to the bridge in 1995, the NYPD security detail took to physically blocking the entrance, as they did before the Diallo protests of 1999, when a group of queer activists ignited a wave of civil disobedience over then Mayor Giuliani’s murderous NYPD.

Midway through the march across the bridge, the police started arresting some 700 activists. Having walked the activists half way across the bridge, the police changed course, blocking the bridge for hours as they initiated arrests.  Immediately after the arrests at 6:59 PM, the Times would publish a report indicating police “allowed” the activists onto the bridge.  By 7:19, the paper changed it number, editing the word “allowing” off the report, substituting it with the words: “In a tense showdown above the East River, the police arrested more than 700 demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street protests who took to the roadway as they tried to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday afternoon.”  

A number of police observers would argue the police had engaged in “trap and detain” approach used to lure activists into a closed space and then sweep them up.

In the following days, several of those arrested would initiate litigation against the NYPD.

Many during the Matthew Shepard political funeral did the same thing.  Tim Santamour would later receive a $15,000.00 settlement from the city. He had been thrown to the ground during the action by the police.
Countless other activists would receive settlements from the city over the years as result of similar treatment.   February 15th,2003 the NYPD  cracked down on New Yorkers from all walks of life during the when cities around the world organized rallies against the war, resulted in the NYACLU report Arresting Protest.  It was the  largest day of protest in world history.  And the NYPD was not going to have it.  The following year, some 1800 people would be arrested for attempting to exercise their First Amendment rights during the Republican National Convention. 

Iconic trans activists Sylvia Rivera and Leslie Feinberg were arrested during the Matthew Shepard Political Funeral, with Feinberg, a transgender man, placed in the male cell.  Last Saturday, transgender activist Justin Adkins, was arrested and mistreated by the NYPD.  Misunderstanding and abuse of trans activists, such as Dean Spade, who was arrested while going to the bathroom after the 2002 World Economic Forum, is part of a long the pattern of police abuse.  

Adkins describes his experience after being arrested on the bridge.

They took me away from the cellblock where they had all of the protestors locked up andbrought me to a room with 2 cells and a bathroom. One small cell was empty and thelarge cell had about 8 men who had been arrested on charges not related to the protest.  Unlike me, these men had been arrested for a variety of crimes…
entered the room they had me sit down in a chair on the same portion of the wall as the restroom, and then handcuffed my right wrist to a metal handrail. I thought that this was a temporary arrangement as they tried to find me a separate cell as part of some protocol regarding transgender people, which I later discovered does not exist in NewYork City. After about an hour I realized that they had no intention of moving me. I remained handcuffed to this bar next to the bathroom for the next 8 hours. The cells, on the other side of the precinct where they had locked up the other 69protestors, did not have working toilets so every person who had to use the toilet was brought to the one next to where they had me locked to the railing. This was not only disgusting but also embarrassing. The smell of urine was so strong that I, and the men locked up in the cell in the room that I was in, mentioned the odor on more than one occasion.

Later in the night, Adkins recalled:

… a young man who had participated in the earlier NYC Slutwalk march to protest against explaining or excusing rape by referring to a women's clothing, came into use the bathroom wearing a mini-skirt. He was one of the protestors arrested with me on the bridge in the Occupy Wall Street March. The officer escorting him started poking fun at his mini-skirt at which point I explained that he looked good and the skirt was fine. When he sat down to go to the bathroom the officers laughed even more saying that they had "seen everything tonight". The attitude of the officers made me realize that as much as I needed to urinate it would not be a good idea to do so. The space did not feel safe. By the time I was released I had not gone to the bathroom for 11 hours

Few expect the NYPD to change its approach, yet it would be welcome.  Yet, the NYPD appears intransigent.

One of my favorite signs from Saturday was “Sex Workers support Occupy Wall Street.”  At this point, the multiple movements overlapping and pouring into Occupy Wall Street appear to be holding together (not that New Yorkers do not tend to bring their own dramas into many of our organizational practices).  For many involved, this is a movement for the rest of us, trans folks, the unemployed, queers, the poor, those on the edge, with fear, love and even anger - those aspiring for something better.

Most certainly, organized labor stands strong in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement and the 99%  not benefitting from business as usual.  Tonight the head of my union, the Professional Staff Congress, sent out the following message:

Dear Members,
Don’t miss what may be a historic march tomorrow, Wednesday, October 5.  The city’s labor unions—including the PSC—have come together in record time with student and community groups to demonstrate our solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.  Together we will show the force behind our common demand for an alternative to economic austerity for 99% of the population and unprecedented wealth for 1%.
As support for the march has grown, the route has changed, and it will now begin at Foley Square (between Duane Street and Centre Street).  But the location for PSC members to assemble HAS NOT CHANGED.  We will gather at the intersection of Broadway and Warren Street at 4:15 PM, then at 4:30 we will march together to join the demonstration at Foley Square, a few blocks away.
Members who arrive after 4:30 should head directly to Foley Square, between Duane Street and Centre Street.  Look for the red signs that say “PSC Supports You.”   
I look forward to being with you there.  This is a demonstration not to miss. 
Barbara Bowen  

Those in the growing Occupy Wall Street movement are paintfully aware of what we are up against. 
 "The power of the corporatocracy is supported not only by campaign financing and lobbying, but also by relentless public relations spin,” notes Jeffrey Sachs.  “A number of studies in recent years have deconstructed the ways in which key sectors---military contractors, oil and coal, health care insurers, and Wall Street---use public relations firms and disinformation campaigns to disguise the damage they are doing to society." It appears, this ever expanding new movement is onto their game. 

See you in the streets.  

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