Saturday, October 15, 2011

Times Squared

Just before the official 5 p.m. start time of today's Occupy Wall Street demonstration in Manhattan's Times Square, a small throng of formally-attired theatergoers standing near the discount TKTS booth began complaining loudly about the crowds clogging the sidewalks, apparently unaware that the biggest Broadway show in town was about to begin right in front of them -- no tickets required. ["Don't they know they're in the way?" theatergoer Rose Aberdeen, 67, asked no one in particular, pointing to a protester dressed up as the Statue of Liberty.]

But this was not just another day in self-expressive Gotham. Some 6,000 demonstrators took to the streets today in Times Square as part of Occupy Wall Street's official October 15th Global Day of Action, prompting the NYPD to close off Broadway for eight blocks in Midtown and erect steel barricades, mount horses and drive motorcycles in formation to break up the crowds. [After 4-plus hours of chanting slogans and texting at a rate of some 500 tweets per minute (according to Twitter), demonstrators headed south to Washington Square Park on the NYU campus, dispersing after police arrived through the Arch and warned they would be enforcing a midnight curfew. Fourteen were arrested for remaining in the park.]

Among today's Times Square protesters were 87-year-old Irwin Nack and Pat Alessandrini, 72, both in from New Jersey for the day. Nack, a retired American history professor from William Patterson University, recalled his first protest rally in 1946 in Manhattan, when he was organizing city teachers for higher wages. He praised social media. "We would have had so much more clout if we'd had those tools back then," he said. " With social media, you can simultaneously protest in multiple locations." Closer to where counter-terrorism police were rushing the intersection of 46th and Broadway, Annie Dawson, 26, from Ann Arbor and Jeffrey Demesch from Brooklyn called the protests "America's Spring" -- referring to the Arab Spring protests earlier this year that used similar tactics in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, chants of "This is our Street" and "This is what democracy looks like" erupted each time a new squad of police marched into the intersection at 46th and Broadway to separate protesters coming into the Square from the east from those pouring in from the west. "I think most people don't realize how neglected their democracy has become until they try to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly," Dawson said.

But for all the chanting and shouting -- and despite some pepper-spray incidents and minor skirmishes with police -- this crowd remained peaceful. And it was impressively self-policed: at various times, some protesters would advise others to stop shouting and sit down. [As one demonstrator passed out Fourth of July sparklers, others urged people to throw them away. "Fireworks are illegal in New York and you don't want to get arrested for that," someone said.]

The ironies conveyed by Time Square's famous neon signs also didn't go entirely unnoticed. Just above a placard that read "Beat the Banks" was a billboard advertising Bonnie & Clyde -- the musical. Beneath a billboard advertising GenX darling Zooey Deschanel in her new sitcom, The New Girl, sat NYU student Jennifer Bell, 22, wearing an AlterNation cap and sharing her opposition to "the status quo" with a fellow demonstrator. Later, beneath Bank of America's enormous red-and-white electric marquee sign on the southwest corner of 46th and Broadway, an Australian couple asked a passer-by to direct them to the nearest ATM -- but first, please, show them the fastest route through the crowd to the Winter Garden Theater. (It was in sight but blocked by mounted police.) They had show tickets for 8 p.m., they told Cause Global, and they "didn't want to miss the show."

When all was said and done, 78 people were arrested in New York, according to The New York Times, including 24 accused of trespassing in a Greenwich Village branch of Citibank during a mid-day rally encouraging people to close their bank accounts at various Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America branches across the city.

The day's events from New York, while generally not televised, were livestreamed, tweeted, facebooked, foursquared and liveblogged, making cable news networks' lack of in-depth local coverage this evening all the more obvious and frustrating to the crowds, underscoring the rapid pace and wider reach of new and social media. "Where's the press? Where's the press?" was the chant at 10 p.m. when the Square's neon news tickers failed to flash much about the day's local demonstrations.

"The press is us now," protester Ann Dawson shouted back. "Shut up and keep tweeting."

-- Marcia Stepanek

[For more on the #OWS swarms, watch this space for continuing highlights, follow the Global Revolution channel on Livestream and jump into the Twitterstreams at #occupywallst and #ows, among others.]

[All photos, top, of Occupy Wall Street's October 15th demonstration at the intersection of Broadway and 46th Street in Times Square, by Marcia Stepanek for CauseGlobal]

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