Occupy Wall Street Pre Dawn Raid: A Photojournalist's Account
Photographer C.S. Muncy, a regular contributor to the Voice, offers this account of his experiences during the NYPD pre-dawn raid Tuesday to clear Zuccotti Park. Muncy says, notably, that he was able to slip past the police cordon and get into the park, and that he was detained by police and nearly arrested. Muncy doubts the city's claim that safety was the reason for shutting journalists out of the park during the raid. (One of Muncy's photos is at right.)
by C.S. Muncy
By the time I had arrived at Zuccotti Park the police were already in the process of pushing the crowd back. The area was awash in rotating police lights, floodlights, camera flashes and noise. Clustered on the sidewalks in groups of a dozen or more, helmeted officers were pushing back a significantly larger collection of angry protesters and frantic members of the media; the two groups meeting in the middle like a pair of rugby teams. That wasn't the place I wanted to be. I needed to get into Zuccotti.
I rushed through the cars and along the street until I arrived at Cedar St. A line of cops in helmets stood at the corner. Other photographers and journalists were already there, arguing with sergeants and captains, trying desperately, frantically, to get past the cordon.
There were two sets of barricades; the first set in a ring directly around the park, the second further away. As the police pushed the crowd back, the second set of steel-framed fences followed, preventing anyone from leaving the sidewalk.
From a block away, I could see a line of protesters, cuffed with plastic zip-ties, waiting to be put in a police van. Commissioner Ray Kelly and a few senior officers were discussing the scene. Kelly listened, his face pinched as if he was having trouble hearing over the noise. I tried moving further west down Cedar, but was quickly intercepted by a pair of officers who escorted me back towards the other side of the street.
"Get the fuck back onto the sidewalk," one of the them shouted, gesturing aggressively with both arms. An NBC news crew noticed the commotion and jumped next to me, the reporter getting in the officer's face, demanding to be let inside. "Get back!" the officer yelled again, but by then other journalists saw us and crowded in. Maybe they thought there would be strength in numbers? Within thirty seconds, a sergeant appeared followed by a half dozen other reporters, and at this point I knew it'd be useless trying to get anywhere with these guys.
We were just creating a scene, and they clearly didn't want us around. I broke away while they were still dealing with the TV crew when I noticed that there was a gap in the number of officers guarding the barricade. They must have been the ones dealing with the press, but it seemed like the only chance I was going to get. I could hear somebody calling for me to stop, but I ignored them. I didn't even stop to turn around and see who yelled it. Moving as quickly as I could, I swung my legs over the barricade and bolted into the crowd.
Inside the park the smell of pepper spray still hung in the air. It's an unmistakable scent that, even hours after being discharged, leaves your eyes stinging and nose running. The protesters were mostly kids wearing masks and goggles, trying to form a human chain. A few stood on benches or walls above them, yelling at the police who were methodically pulling them away. They weren't going to stop the arrests, they had to know that...they simply wanted to make their arrest as difficult as possible.
Standing on a wall over the largest concentration stood a man I recognized, somebody who had been at the occupation since day one. With shoulder length hair, bare feet and blue spandex pants and holding an American flag, he was hard to miss. Waving the flag and gesturing wildly towards the line of helmeted officers, he tried to rally the rest of the crowd. Some responded to this, but most just looked terrified. Next to him, a girl in a conservative headscarf held the top of a large plastic bin to her chest like a shield; written on it in red marker were the words "You cannot hurt me."
The police were working from the east end of the park to the west and were only ten feet or so away from the main body of those protesters staying behind. The smell of pepper spray was thicker as you moved towards them, but nobody seemed to be actively spraying right now. As I looked through my kit I realized that in my rush to leave the apartment I had left behind my goggles and mask. That was not good at all.
I'd taken fifty, perhaps a hundred photos at this point, my flash popping with each shot. I don't know how long I was in the park, but it couldn't have been too long. An officer in a blue parka came up to me and warned me that they were going to move in soon. "If you stay here, you're going to get arrested," he told me. He wasn't being malicious; if anything it seemed like a friendly warning. I didn't take it personally. "You need to leave, right now."
I told him I was going to stick it out and take my chances. He shrugged and moved back to the group of cops. A few other helmeted officers watched me, but nobody got in my way. Most of these guys looked exhausted, but more than a few were openly enjoying themselves. I stopped shooting for a moment and looked around. A few officers nearby were grinning madly, joking and laughing as they tore through the tents and backpacks left behind.
A pair of female officers moved west, opening up tents that hadn't yet been torn down with blue-gloved hands, trying to find anybody who might be hiding. I went back to take photos of the protesters, trying to focus on eyes and faces without using my flash. It didn't really work.
I moved through the police again, towards a large dumpster set up in the southeastern corner of the park, near the big red sculpture. Sanitation crews were tossing everything they found into it. Backpacks, tents, bits of cardboard- I think I even saw a laptop. I also noticed a larger number of white-shirted officers, lieutenants and above. This was a very bad place to be, so I moved back west.
At the southwestern section of the park, some protesters were still managing to leave under their own power. A few were packing everything they could into sacks or bags and were allowed to go without an escort. I didn't see many like this. Most everyone who could leave or were forced to leave had already done so. This left only those who were willing to be arrested. As I started taking a few shots, I felt somebody grab me roughly by the back of the neck.
Cursing to myself, I realized that by moving into this part of the park and away from the main body I was particularly visible, and an officer noticed that I wasn't supposed to be here. Still holding on, he started pushing me back towards the line of cops. "The fuck do you think you're doing?" he asked, then grabbed at my press card. "Give me that."
Now, one of the first things I learned when I picked up my press card was that you never give it up, no matter the circumstances. If an officer asks to see it, you show it to him, but you never, ever let him touch it. New York City press passes are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they can help you cover scenes the average person couldn't. On the other, they hand, they were giant yellow "ARREST ME" cards hanging over your chest.
I held on, and this was not the reaction he wanted to see. "You want to play games? Let's take a fucking walk." Keeping his hand on me, I was guided up through the crowd and towards a sergeant, who repeated the scene before guiding me to a white shirted officer, a deputy inspector or a captain.
Repeating this conversation a third time while still holding on to me, the superviser finally managed to take my pass and led me towards a fourth officer. This one I recognized: Paul Browne, the NYPD's top spokesman. We were back at the northeastern section of the park, in clear view of the police vans and handcuffed protesters. A serious "oh shit" moment.
The captain handed over my pass and told him where he found me. Mr. Brown nodded and remained mostly quiet, looking over both me and the card, stopping to ask me where and how I got in. In comparison to the other officers, he seemed to be the most calm and collected. Behind him, a new line of arrested protesters were being herded into a caged van, ratcheting up the tension running through me. After about five or ten minutes-and to my complete and utter shock- he handed the press card back.
"Get out of the park, right now. Go across the street, and don't let me see you here again." This was going to be my only warning, he told me. The captain, still keeping a tight grip on me, walked me back to the barricade. "Jesus, you press guys....you're keeping us from doing our jobs."
A younger pair of officers escorted me from the inner barricade back onto the street, away from the park. By now, the outer barricades were several blocks away and meaningful coverage of the park was all but impossible. At no point did anybody tell me that I or any other journalist was being removed from the scene for my own safety, despite what would be said the next day. From the beginning of the operation, the idea from up top seemed to be to have as few eyes (or cameras) as possible on scene.
Later, covering the enraged crowd as they marched through lower Manhattan, I went down trying to photograph an arrest. Somebody stomped on my hand before I could get back up. Zach, the buddy of mine who woke me up had his lens destroyed by a police baton. Caught the whole thing on tape, right up until the moment polished wood met expensive glass.
When somebody was arrested, other cops would come running and soon everyone would be down on the ground or against a wall. Protesters who put up too much of a fight they'd end up taking a few hits, and more than a few photographers who got in the way ended up with their backs on the ground. Were they specifically targeting the media? Probably not, but they weren't big on restraint that morning, either. No matter what anyone says today, the raid happened under a media blackout.