The inevitable eviction of OWS
By Lucas Jackson
The inevitable has come to pass. Occupy Wall Street has been pulled, kicking and screaming, from Zuccotti Park, its physical home in lower Manhattan. For two months now the staff and freelance photographers of Reuters in New York have been documenting the evolution of both the idea of “occupying” and the physical campground that has planted the seeds of a global movement. Since September 17 there has been an almost daily visual record made of the metamorphosis that has taken place in Zuccotti Park. This is a man-made concrete block of a park. I must have walked through it dozens of times but it formerly had little use to anyone other than maybe offering a spot to rest while walking through lower Manhattan or a seat that could be used to enjoy lunch on a warm summer day. It took a group of demonstrators who were intent on “Occupying Wall Street” to give this park its day in the spotlight and as a photojournalist it has been fascinating to watch.
At first we had no idea how long the demonstrators would stay. In the early weeks they slept on cardboard pads on the ground in sleeping bags. In the beginning we documented them asleep as office workers gingerly stepped through them on their way to work. At first the NYPD would resist the attempts of the campers to attach tarps to trees, lines holding tarps would be cut, structures would be taken down almost as soon as they were raised and people slept underneath plastic to shield themselves from the rain.
The seemingly haphazard layout, centered by an ever-evolving kitchen area, changed to include more specialized sections that were ringed by campers who claimed any open bench or ground space that was not already ‘occupied’ by someone else. A deadline to evict the movement came and passed. I was there that night. Jessica Rinaldi arrived at midnight and I followed in the wee hours of the morning to document a massing of support for the movement in the park in the face of an impending NYPD eviction that never came. We documented the elation of the demonstrators as they marched through lower Manhattan and resisted the attempts of the NYPD to contain their physical presence. Tents came, and were allowed to remain. The campground morphed into a small town complete with covered areas for congregating and planning. “Working groups” managed the planning, cooking, and met to come up with when and what to do for future demonstrations, they came together to think or brainstorm how to reach out to help the movement grow.
This was not a passing demonstration. It was not planned and followed no script. News in New York is far too often so filtered and planned that it becomes nothing more than a public relations event. Emotions are often manufactured for the benefit of eager news cameras and reporters. Demonstrations are scheduled, permitted, scheduled, and planned all the time; this is the norm. Occupy Wall Street was the exception, it was an actual grassroots movement and it was amazing to document its evolution. We photographed as they marched onto Brooklyn Bridge to be arrested by the hundreds, we photographed as the first snow fall threatened their safety. We worked around certain members of the movement as they tired of the constant media presence and became angry, then hostile. We met others who realized that our job was merely to document what was happening, what this budding idea actually looked like. Who was taking part in it, and how the space was changing.
Last night we documented the end of the movement’s innocence. I was still awake at 1am when the calls worked their way through our reporters to my assignment editor Brendan. We didn’t talk much, all I remember him saying was “it is happening, Zuccotti is being raided.” I suppose deep down everyone knew it was coming at some point. Every time I went down I would stand with other photojournalists and we would wonder how it would come. After the first scheduled eviction was quashed by sheer numbers we knew it would not be announced and precautions were taken to hand out contact information to the campers.
We wondered if it would come during bad weather, when it would be difficult for people to stay because of rain or cold. We figured it would happen at night and we figured it would be quick so as I ran out of the house towards the subway I took advantage of a cab returning to Manhattan to cross the river quickly. Speed was the most important thing. I needed to get there before it was sealed off. As the cab wound its way through the deserted early morning streets of lower Manhattan I got out only two blocks from the park and already I saw I was too late. I had no clue what was happening in the park but already there was a security line across Broadway preventing anyone, press pass or not, from moving closer.
I used a cab to get through the first line, getting out on the sidewalk surrounding the park. I attempted to walk past the line of officers that had formed but hands were raised immediately and with a curt “the park is closed” I realized my options were limited. I tried to walk around but was surrounded and asked to leave, I was told that if I pushed into the park my press pass would be removed. It would be a long night, I would most likely need my press pass and I did not want to end my ability to photograph the inevitable friction that was sure to come as sleepy demonstrators regrouped from carrying their things from the park in an attempt to avoid arrest.
I walked the perimeter with two other photographers attempting to get an angle on the police allowing campers a peaceful exit. The north was closed off. We tried the east, it was barricaded off a block away. I photographed demonstrators carrying a guitar and plastic bins of belongings out, we ran to the south and met another barricade where an occupier was dragging his tent down the street. We ran to the west where demonstrators were screaming at police as they disassembled tents and escorted campers out of the park. I contacted my colleague Andrew and attempted to coordinate our coverage so we covered as much ground as possible. I would go south and west and he would go north and east but we would both try to find the inevitable point where the demonstrators would gather to regroup.
That point would ultimately be on Broadway, to the south of the park. On the same street, and almost at the exact point where they had entered the street in defiance of the NYPD and in elation that the previous eviction had failed the movement grouped and began to chant and scream at the line of police. As a large truck, assumed to contain their belongings, attempted to exit the park they rushed the opening in the barricades that the police had made. A push was met by a counter push and as the demonstrators screamed they were pushed back to maintain the barrier, to replace the metal gates. The truck backed off and went to find another way out. It was a small victory, and in the end relatively meaningless but Sade Adona and those around her had screamed and fought and in that moment they had won.
With the truck gone I knew the source of the rise in friction was gone. I left Andrew to watch the situation as I ran to transmit from the street. It is always funny to sit on the ground in the middle of a story and break out the laptop to send pictures. Now days I usually get scooped by camera phones, Twitter, instagram, Facebook, and any number of other social media outlets but I still love transmitting as fast as possible and this had been an emotional standoff. That first batch had the campers dragging their belongings, the emotional confrontations I had seen and images of the police standing and blocking access to the park. From what I had seen, those were the pieces of the story I could tell. I knew I was missing things but you always miss things, you cannot be everywhere all the time. Hopefully you have others who can get those angles and those sides, you can only tell the pieces of the story that you see and hopefully your instincts lead you to the important ones.
It was at this point I began to hear rumors of a press pen that had been set up with a view of the park. Time to move, again. The downside of a city’s grid system is that if the police set up their barriers at the end of a block you have to walk all the way around the other three sides to get just a few dozen feet from where you started. Another walk to another police checkpoint but miraculously our press passes allowed us to pass through and stand behind barricades that had been placed to the west of the park. It was a rush to photograph the swam of sanitation workers and men in orange vests that were descending on the piles of tents, tarps, belongings, pallets, blankets, and anything else that had been piled up in the park. Trash trucks backed up to be filled and drove off after only a few minutes. Men descended on piles of detritus to clear the ground that was then swept before the next group would power wash it. It was efficient and it was striking to actually see the park. To see the concrete ground that had been completely covered by tents and tarps and made into a little makeshift town in the middle of this massive city was striking. I had forgotten what it looked like.
Time to transmit again, this was another part of the story. I had to move fast, I again heard rumors of demonstrators massing in an attempt to break through police lines in order to return to the park. It was time to move, again. We went north this time, the rumors were that the movement had regrouped at Foley Square and were marching south to break through. We arrived to see only a few dozen protesters rather angrily arguing with the police over who was and was not allowed on the sidewalks. It was here that I witnessed an odd, yet very strangely effective tactic, by the NYPD. After the initial shoving and grabbing to create a buffer the police would simply move in tandem in large numbers down the sidewalk. They would stop obviously shoving or grabbing people but would simply march in overwhelming numbers down the sidewalk and in the street.
Previously they would have cleared the street and bottled everyone on the sidewalk then let things simmer until they calmed down. This new tactic was simply to march unruly demonstrators down the sidewalk a few blocks so that they were more spread out. It was surprisingly effective even though we journalists bristled at being told we could not remain on an open sidewalk. That was the odd thing, if you walked ahead of them enough and crossed the street you could go back to the area you had just been cleared of. It wasn’t a full movement of the defined borders but it was a push out so that the demonstrators were spread out. Once the police stopped an argument that broke out between two demonstrators over who was “more Irish.” This was easily one of those “what the heck is going on here” moments but it had nothing to do with the story so it was time to move again.
Once they used this tactic to the north it became apparent that it could also happen to the south where the bigger group had been. When we reached the scene had changed quite a bit. I left a few dozen demonstrators who were facing the police and chanting. I returned to see hundreds of people climbing over police cars, flattening the tires, people had climbed a street sign and there was a couple standing on top of a telephone booth kissing. At this point I saw a number of photojournalists arguing with demonstrators who were angry at the media. I am not sure why but they were being very vocal and even getting physical. For some reason they did not want media around even though most of their fellow demonstrators did. The police began a spearhead push into the middle of the street. They announced that they were going to clear the street and began shouting for people to “get on the sidewalk” and used batons to shove groups of protesters through the parked cars to the sidewalk. There was lots of arguing, lots of yelling and lots of pushing from both sides at this point.
It’s pretty difficult to get good pictures in these situations even during the day much less at 5 in the morning. It’s hectic, it’s crowded, and it’s often very muddled. The sidewalk march started up again on the east side of Broadway and in moments that side of the street had been moved back an extra block or two. I ran ahead and crossed the street to get back to the west side of the street where demonstrators were still congregating. Almost immediately as I got back I saw a piece of wood tossed over peoples heads and into the police in the street. I ran to get into position as police pushed from the street into the crowd. I saw a rush and an officer in a white shirt who I later identified as Lieutenant Hayward grabbed onto the shirt of Brent Schmidt and shoved him into a fence. I have to admit that I did not see the initial meeting of these two but by the time I saw them against the fence Hayward had a baton out and delivered a couple of very hard swings with it to the side of Schmidt as he attempted to shield himself and avoid the strikes. Hayward was quickly pushed back by regular officers as they pulled Schmidt off the fence and put him on the ground to handcuff him and detain him. I say detain because only minutes later as I was walking down the street after things had calmed down considerably I saw him sitting on the steps of a building and grabbed his name as I had to run back to the park to photograph teams of workers power wash the ground.
This was where things ended. I photographed and transmitted some power washing pictures before leaving to recharge my dead phone and dying computer. The coffee shop where I had sat to transmit numerous times in the past several months seemed much less crowded. As I packed my things to go home I reflected on the fact that most of the people walking past the windows were only going to see the before and after of this night. That is what we are for. Without journalists there to record, the majority of people will only see the before and the after. We are there to fill in that middle area, the things that happen while you are asleep or watching your favorite TV show. I am not one of those journalists who thinks that what we do can change the world but I do know that what we do fills in that middle zone between the before and the after that the vast majority of people don’t usually see. Who wants to be running around getting yelled at by both police and demonstrators trying to take pictures in the dark? I do, for me it’s exciting to BE there and it’s great when it’s a story that is organic and evolving and more than anything, real. I think this movement will recover and perhaps this loss will push the “Occupy” movement to the next level. After all sometimes it’s just time to quit playing house and bring your game into the real world.