The worldwide movement in favor of equality, justice and non-violence that we’ve seen growing in the Middle East, Europe and in cities across America have many things in common, but especially the brutal reactive forces of many of the authorities in question. See: Syria.
The brutal reaction of police towards #occupywallstreet protestors in New York City, of campus police at UC Davis to students, and in many instances around the country have only inspired thousands more to fill American streets with their voices. That inspiration, a reawakening within the spirit and mind, is contagious – in my case, it came at a personal cost many years ago.
Picture it. It’s 1997. I am 16. Beck is touring his Odelay record, and I buy three tickets to his appearance at Roseland. My friend Robyn, 14, and my brother Michael, 13, come with me. I’m wearing a studded collar around my neck because it’s punk. I buy a t-shirt.
At the end of the night the three of us head out the front doors of the classic venue on West 52nd Street (which is across the street from where Michael and I grew up). We are sweaty. Robyn is sipping from a plastic cup of ice water and as we turn right out of Roseland she sets it down on the ground and keeps walking.
I was walking ahead of her and didn’t notice immediately what was transpiring behind me, as an officer reprimanded her and threatened her if she did not pick up the cup. As I turn I hear her say, “that’s police brutality.”
Context: The city was still reeling from the 1994 murder of a young man named Anthony Baez by an officer who put him in an illegal chokehold. His only crime had been playing football with friends on a street in the Bronx. Just that summer, cops brutally sodomized a Haitian man named Abner Louima in a Brooklyn precinct bathroom. The Giuliani administration had the city simmering with angst and the cops were brutal in spirit, if not quite as militarized as they are now, in the era of global terrorism. But I digress.
The officer tells Robyn, “If you don’t pick up that cup you’ll find yourself with a knot on your head bleeding all over your face.” (UPDATED)
I muster the courage to challenge this officer for picking on my younger friend, and I invoke the name of Anthony Baez. What is this guy going to do to two scrawny teenaged girls for speaking their minds on their way out of a Beck show anyway? I soon found out.
The officer grabs me around the neck, throws me up against the front of Roseland and screams at me, “Until you grow tits don’t talk to me, take your little nipples and leave.”
Another officer runs over alongside him and I think, oh good, someone who will stop this insane pig. That officer presses into me harder – of a higher rank, he asks me what my fucking problem is and both cops are now shoving me up against the wall and screaming in my 16 year old face. Robyn and Michael and screaming at them, a crowd has gathered and badge numbers are recorded.
They finally let me go, toss me back at my friend and brother and we walk around the corner to their precinct located right next door to my childhood home. The officers I met with there were stunned when I tell them the story. They put me in a yellow box room with no windows and call my parents, who are there in minutes, and I file a report against the cops.
Weeks later I step off the R train at Rector Street for the first time and head up into an old bureaucratic building. Soon, I’m speaking into a microphone connected to a portable tape recorder the size of my present day laptop, giving a statement to the Civilian Complaint Review Board. Robyn does the same.
Months go by. Nothing. A year goes by. Finally a legal aid lawyer calls to tell me she is representing me and that I have a case; and then, nothing. I’m told the CCRB operations are temporarily suspended. I go away to college. Nothing ever comes of it, besides of course an awesome song I write with Robyn and our band, The Lizzies, and a lifelong dedication to rallying against the brutality of this system.
I tell you this long teen-versus-cop drama for the purpose of shedding light on the personal revolution that resulted. Before this incident I was aware of the brutality of the NYPD, but I never felt threatened by them myself, as being a young white woman would not generally give them cause to mistreat me. If anything I’ve gotten out of citations because of my appearance, as many white people do without realizing or admitting why. I felt, like many do, that I had certain rights that were inalienable, and that this would be respected above all else.
In that moment, I learned I could not say what I knew to be true: that the NYPD was unnecessarily threatening a teenaged girl for littering when exiting a concert, and that it mirrored the brutality of a system that was capable of snapping the neck of a young man who accidently threw a football in the wrong direction; or sodomizing a defenseless man with a plunger in a bathroom. I may have sounded like a spoiled brat (I was 16 after all) or any other foul name you can throw at me, but in the officer’s over-reactive defense of that system, he proved my point. Speech in our country is not always free; it has been commodifed just like everything else. See: recent public hearings on tuition increases at CUNY.
Now in Egypt we see a repressive force coming down on protesters setting up tents in Tahrir, and in a Bloombergian move, the tents were torn down and removed from the square and protestors were pushed out – for a time, and it remains to be seen what will happen. What is different about what’s happening here in America? That American protestors have more to lose? Egyptian Police Forces are more brutal?
I believe that Mayor Bloomberg and politicians, cops and campus police like him across the country will find that the more brutality they exhibit towards the non-violent people gathering in public squares who exercise their rights to speech and assembly, the more they will prove to us that we need to fight desperately to maintain those critical rights. Otherwise, what are we doing in this here “democracy” and how does it make us different from Egypt or Syria? Guns are guns, whether they shoot rubber bullets or real ones. And this, my friends, is where the slippery slope begins. In fact, I believe it was just that slope that UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi walked down as she exited the university in shame.
Just as the water hoses were turned on civil rights protestors in the 1960s, pepper spray is now turned on those expressing their right to freely speak and assemble in public squares. Do not think for a minute that our rapid progression towards a technologically advanced multicultural society with libertarian social values, steeped in desire for the justice and equality we were promised won’t draw resistance from repressive authoritarian forces, corporate and religious. Welcome to the beginning.
Watch our video of the November 17 National Day of Action (#N17) rally, the projection art on the Brooklyn Bridge and the dance party that ensued in our borough.