New York City will pay out the largest settlement yet to Occupy Wall Street protesters. The $583,000 sum will go out to 14 plaintiffs all arrested without cause on the early hours of New Year's Day, 2012. That night, police surrounded and kettled protesters on a Manhattan sidewalk. The lawsuit that followed rightly called the NYPD action a violation of rights to free speech and assembly.
I wasn't present at that particular Occupy gathering. I vaguely remember the New Year's Eve, holed up in some overcrowded Bushwick apartment, clutching plastic cups of cheap not-champagne, and waiting on endless bathroom lines. I was too far gone to make the then-familiar trip to Zuccotti Park by the time I received texts announcing that it was kicking off in downtown Manhattan. Occupy was reaching (perhaps had reached) peak fervor then. New Year conviviality and protest buoyancy combined, I was told, to make for one of Occupy's most energetic New York nights.
'In the street, cops act with the brashness and certainty that they are the law itself.'
Like so many protest days during that short but heady time, New Year's Eve 2011 was punctuated and in many ways defined by police action. NYPD officers, on hand in scores around every Occupy mobilization, arrested 14 protesters for disorderly conduct. But, a senior NYPD official present during the arrests was unable to point out in videos a single moment of disorderly conduct. The arrests were just another example of how police remit had nothing to do with crime prevention, nor safety. They were there to shut down protest.
This latest settlement from the city points to the fact that the cops broke the law while protesters didn't. But such a legal fact is only ever pointed out post hoc. In the street, in the moment of a police-protester stand off, cops act with the brashness and certainty — backed up with badges, batons, and guns — that they are the law itself.
The Occupy participants were probably in the right that night (and on many others), but what does that matter when police can readily shut down dissent? Sure, the city (and the tax payer) later have to foot the bill, as when it settled with thousands of arrestees from the 2004 Republican National Convention protests for a whopping $18 million. But the heavy policing of Occupy was grimly successful in stymying continued dissent. I'd argue it was the primary (while not the only) reason for the Occupy moment's fizzle out. Bloomberg's army surrounded us.
The settlement is important in publicly highlighting the police misconduct to which protesters — not mention New York's poor and minority communities — are all too accustomed. The $20,000 that each plaintiff will reportedly receive will benefit their lives, no doubt. But there is something that nags, too, around headlines that this week read: "New York settles with Occupy." New York settled with Occupy: The streets of downtown Manhattan now flow smooth with capital and its servants, undisturbed by marchers and occupiers of not-so distant history.
But the matter and the spirit that meant New Year's Eve 2011 was marked by protest, the collective anger and passion, should not be considered settled, should old acquaintance be forgot, nor confined to auld lang syne.
Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard
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