by Ken Vallario (in the gray shirt in the front – texting his family)
On October 1st I was arrested for the first time in my adult life while standing on the Brooklyn Bridge with about a thousand protesters as part of the Occupy Wallstreet movement that was already two weeks old by the time I made my first visit. I wanted to record the story for my own sake as well as those who want to know what it was like to be there.
First, I want to say that I did not go to the wallstreet occupation hoping to cause trouble or get into a confrontation with the police. In fact, it was a goal I stated to myself and my wife to avoid, in any way possible any situations that might lead to incarceration. I am 36 years old and I have a 3 ½ year old daughter. I am not one of those people who seek out controversy or confrontation. I wanted to go see the occupation. I wanted to put in a presence to show my support for all those who were a lot more committed to a revolution that I not only believe in but have been waiting my whole life to see.
I am proud of what I did that day, but I am acutely aware of how little I have contributed compared the large numbers of people I met and talked to who have committed every spare moment of their lives to hold a space where a new world can be built. This is not false modesty. It is the result of the true humility I felt when I walked for the first time into that park and felt the rush of energy that comes from human beings truly united for the betterment of society.
It was a Saturday and I had one day to donate to the occupation. So early that morning I got on a bus from my home in upstate New York and made my way down to Port Authority. I met a friend for lunch around noon and arrived at Occupy Wallstreet a little after one o’clock. At first I walked over to wallstreet where I assumed the occupation was taking place only to see a once public place that has become a heavily guarded gated community where the streets have been shut down out of fear of attack. I asked a police officer where the protesters were and he said they were a few blocks away in Zucotti Park. So I headed toward the park preparing myself for the disappointment that idealists like myself are accustomed to, after seeing so many well-intentioned movements turn into a chaotic mess.
I saw the park full of people, perhaps a few thousand. I walked into the park and immediately I felt a surge of excitement and wonder. Something magical was happening there. I felt as though the usual prejudices and judgments that float over me on a daily basis was lifted, and I saw people of every demographic working together. That is what is most spectacular about Occupy Wallstreet. It is not a party. It is not a big hippie hangout, as the media would like you to believe. These are people working in a creative way to address needs. Minor needs like cleaning, feeding, making, sharing, and universal needs like our environment, addressing our government corruption and corporate greed. It is like you’ve walked into a space where the work you always wished was occurring was actually occurring. People are dialoguing, always prioritizing peaceful unification and personal compromise. People are organizing in an organic fashion to make announcements to inform one another, to keep the energy alive and balanced. You might see a few people sweating to keep the food flowing, while a few feet away a group is doing yoga to calm their spirits, while a few feet away signs are being made for the upcoming march.
I will guarantee you this. You cannot go to Occupy Wallstreet and feel lonely. My usual trepidation about talking to strangers melted away. I would go up to anybody and ask ‘How long have you been here?’ Time after time I was met by people who have living and working in this space for a week to two weeks. They were happy and bright and friendly, and so happy to see my face. I told them how proud I was of the courage they showed in remaining, in committing, in staying, for all of us who could not get away for more time. It felt so good to share my gratitude and it was received with open arms and a willingness to celebrate me too, just for being there. After making the rounds and seeing the ‘People’s library’ and the ‘medical support area’ and the various music that was being made around the park I walked back in to settle into the crowd for my day of occupation. As I walked toward the other side of the park I was handed some flyers to give out for the upcoming march. As someone who does not like raising my voice, or being in this type of role, I found it was quite easy to walk around and say ‘Guidelines for the march’…people did not ignore me as was usual in New York City…everybody wanted to have what I was trying to give out. Every face, every human being there wanted to honor what I was doing, as small as it was, and I felt valuable.
A friend of mine, a young woman I have encountered at various art events met me there and asked me if I was going to join the march. I was told that they marched every afternoon, and it seemed like the thing to do as part of the daily proceedings, and the impression was clear that there was no danger. My young friend worked her way toward the front of the march and we were given instructions and flyers that told us what to do if we got arrested. At this point I was truly absorbed in the energy. I admit to a mild disassociation, but one that I argue is the feeling of true community.
I have always hated chanting. I have always avoided crowds. I am an artist and I like my solitude. I love people, but I love small groups where intimate conversation is possible. So, I joined the march hoping it would be over quickly so that I could return to hanging out in the park, on my rear-end, where I am the most comfortable. However, the chants were powerful. ‘Who’s streets…Our streets!’ ‘What does democracy look like?…This is what democracy looks like!’ ‘We are the 99%…And so are you!’ As I chanted and we walked, escorted the entire way by police officers I found myself enthusiastically engaged. People were singing the chants, improvising. It was not like a crazy football game, or some horrible concert. This was simple and clear. We want a more fair society. I am a white guy, and like everybody in my society I am always longing to be in a place where race and stereotype expectations slip away, and I was standing with black, asian, white, jewish, muslim, old, young, who were all singing to the same kind of ancient tune. It was easy to smile at one another. This was happy energy, not angry energy. This is the most important thing to think about if you are considering joining the occupation. You are not going to be jumping into a pit of despair. You are going to be smiling and celebrating, the way one would if you felt 100 percent certain that change was coming.
There were bands of drummers and trumpet players mixed in with the crowd and I found myself dancing and chanting. By the time we made it to the Brooklyn Bridge I was wondering when we were going to turn back. I do have my limits. I was looking forward to an afternoon of fascinating conversation. The march stood at the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge and I realized that we were going to cross. So at this point I understood that we would not be returning to the park soon, and I gave myself over to that. It seemed we would be crossing on the walkway, but it was narrow so the march began to bottle-neck. It was confusing for a few moments. I was a hundred or so feet along the walkway when I saw the police officers stop traffic and begin funneling people onto the road. This drove the crowd wild. Brooklyn Bridge is one of the most fantastical bridges in New York City with its gothic arches, made as it is from stone, it arouses a kind of medieval orientation, and the idea that we were going to ‘possess’ this bridge sent a shiver through the crowd and our emotional entanglement became complete. I was truly high at this point, in a way I have never been in a crowd situation. Like many I jumped over the very low divider to be a part of the roadway march. This would prove to seal my fate that afternoon. As we moved further people were climbing over much more dangerous obstacles. Being a rather clutzy person I found this uncomfortable and I did not want people to get hurt. And in the future I would like such risk-taking to be discouraged. But we marched on chanting ‘Who’s bridge?…Our bridge!’ with the sense that we were truly taking our country back. It is somewhat impossible to describe fully how symbolic and arousing this moment was. It had a purity that will be with me forever, and will remain one of my happiest political memories. This was not an act of aggression, it was a mass moment of humanistic celebration.
As quickly as this feeling climaxed we were all sent 180 degrees to the opposite side of the emotional spectrum, when we saw the police lights on the other side of the bridge and we realized we were being surrounded to the front and from the back. The next 40 minutes or so represent the deepest feelings of cowardice I would know that day. I want to be clear about this, because I am not a macho man, and I don’t support any kind of bravado when it comes to dangerous confrontations. I want to live. I want to be free and I hope that these desires remain integral to this movement.
I thought that we were about to experience some form of brutality. I am a man who has always been fearful of power, because I have experienced some violence in my youth and I know how dark such experiences can get. The crowd was full of wonderful and diverse people, many of whom remained quite innocent, assuming correctly that we would be handled with some element of restraint. I was frightened. The young woman who was my friend was courageously documenting everything and getting to work. I was not only proud of her courage but I was leaning on it. If there is one thing that gives this movement the kind of legitimacy that allowed me to face that fear, it was the absolute commitment to non-violence. People began chanting ‘We are a peaceful protest’, and other things that are blurred by my adrenalin fogged memory. My heart was pumping as they got out the orange mesh screens that they were using to pen us in. I want to share this fear because I know I am not the only one, but also because I believe this fear is healthy and a normal response to dehumanizing behavior. When we disassociate from this feeling, that comes from valuing our own bodies, we are in danger of becoming hard, and this is not a price we want to pay for progress.
There were a lot of young people who have that wonderful and innocent sense of immortality. This is wonderful, and I am not trying to take away from that. I am just attempting to capture the range of what was happening on the bridge that day. It became clear fairly quickly that were not going to be brutally harmed. Some very intimidating police officers were informing us that we were going to be arrested but we would not be harmed. And the system of mass arrest went into high gear. Before this happened, there was a short time when people were being allowed to leave, but they closed that gap quickly and we all began to grapple with the idea that we were about to go to jail.
There were, as always, the young men and women who went up front to give themselves ‘for the cause’ and god bless those people. Myself, I was inching my way backwards, with the hope that after 50 or so arrests that they would let the rest of the group leave. I was texting my family and friends that I was probably going to be arrested, and I was dealing with the coming confinement. What was most disappointing was the fact that my evening was not going to include returning to the park, that I was not going to get the party I came to enjoy. I want to be upfront about this selfish motivation.
It began to rain, and somehow I began to calm down, and watching the rhythmic pulse of empty buses and police paddy wagons arrive, and lines of people in hand restraints filling them up and leaving began to feel normal enough. I will say that when the crowd was about half emptied out and I knew my time was close, I did not avoid my fate, I walked out of the crowd and presented myself to the process of disempowerment and in making this choice something in me shifted and I relaxed, somewhat.
There were lines of men with hands against the steel frame of the bridge being searched, patted down and restrained with white plastic hand restraints. The police officer who was assigned to process me in this way was an African American man probably about my age. I could tell it was not in his nature to be cruel or forceful, but he was forcing himself to be tough, as I tried to help him open my bag, he told me with a conflicted tone to ‘turn around and put your hands up!’ He seemed to be dealing with some internal conflict about what he was doing. I am not romanticizing this. Believe me, most of the police officers on that bridge were very clearly in favor of what they were doing. I just wanted to mention my individual case. This conflict however expressed itself in the officer pulling those hand restraints rather tightly onto my wrists. My left wrist especially is still bruised.
I was lined up with 9 other men and put into the back of a police truck with benches on both sides, holding 5 and 5. The door was closed and we started what was probably a 30 or 40 minute drive, but it felt longer. The only light in the back of the truck was coming through the grates from the front of the truck, and we could see spotty signs of where we were going but we could barely see one anothers’ faces. For the first 10 or 15 minutes the men made jokes, and in a hyper way tried to make light of our situation, breaking up this process by a universal complaint about the pain we were feeling around our wrists. It seems these restraints are designed to be punitive, they hurt and some of the men were losing feeling in their fingers. The pain I felt was on the bones of my wrists and we shifted our arms in vain hoping for a more comfortable position. Most of us sat forward to keep from adding pressure to our arms.
After about 15 minutes, as we realized we were leaving Manhattan and heading to an unknown destination in Brooklyn we became nervous. It is at this point I would say I exercised a moment of leadership that comes from my extensive experience in 12-step and therapeutic understanding of human psychology. I said ‘How about we go around, say our name, where we are from and what brought us here today.’ And they asked me to go first, and I gave the example and after that, one by one we got everybody’s story. They were all normal and nice people, with typical experiences of dissatisfaction with the injustices that brought us all together. After this, some intimacy entered into that dark space and we bonded. And all over New York City that night this was happening in buses and paddy wagons going to occupy a number of precincts. We relaxed. I relaxed and we slipped into random conversation and repetitive complaints about our wrists.
Everybody was worried about losing power in their cell phones, and I managed barely, to reach around to my front pocket to turn off my phone that had been buzzing non-stop since I got arrested, from friends and family that would not hear from me for another 7 or so hours.
After what seemed like an hour we arrived at the 77th precinct in Crown Heights Brooklyn. I would be told later, by the cops, that we were probably safer in our jail cells than we would be the moment we left the precinct. The neighborhood wasn’t that bad.
We waited in the back of the paddy wagon for about 10 minutes before the lights came on and the doors swung open. The first cop who greeted us was an African American officer who made it obvious that he was in charge. There was another officer next to him, a white officer who would play the good cop. I will be paraphrasing what we heard. I will be writing the gist of what I experienced coming out of this very forceful man who would be taking our names and information.
“Listen the fuck up! You guys made your point, now it’s over. We are going to get you processed and get you the fuck out of here but I want you to keep your fucking mouths shut or I am going to fuck your shit up. Do you understand?” We understood.
After this ceremonial barking session he became rather formal asking us our names and addresses, making the occasional vulgar joke, but never losing the most aggressive look on his face. It reminded me a bit of my experience listening to the coaches on my football team, except the stakes were much higher. I did what I had learned to do growing up in the south, many ‘Yes sirs.’ Of course, there was one joker in there with us, he was the oldest of us, and I shushed him at one point. We would later be friendly with one another, he understood I was shushing him from my own desire to expedite this process and get ‘the fuck out of there.’
After the intake officer took our information the good cop babysat us while we remained in the back of the paddy wagon. He asked about the protest and we tried to convert him to our cause while he acted aloof and just sympathetic enough while assuring us that our criminal behavior was pointless and obviously a result of our foolish ways of thinking. Immediately the men in restraints became boys, and we sought approval or openings of understanding from our captors. The dehumanizing affect of control is only now becoming clear to me.
We complained about our restraints and were told it was a busy night and they would do what they could but we had to be patient, always being reminded that we would not be feeling such discomfort if we chose in the future to avoid criminal behavior. Eventually we were taken inside the precinct, stood in line and told to keep our ‘fucking mouths shut’. The process began. One at a time we were searched, our belongings were connected with our paperwork and we were taken toward the row of cells. At this point I was rather surprised that I was going to be put into a cell. I assumed that I would be seated somewhere and go through a mass act of clerical efficiency, as if I was trying out for a play. But no, instead, after my money was counted, and my phone and bag were taken from me, I was taken, still in painful restraints to a row of jail cells that I am fairly certain were built in the 1970s. I am a professional artist and I am struggling to describe the color, they were painted in a kind of urine-like yellow, and they had the old school round bars and sliding doors that I imagined did not exist anymore. They were small cells too, 5 x 7 according to my cellmate who measured it with his feet.
When I was taken to my cell I was separated from the group I came with. They were put in one cell and I was put in the neighboring cell with three new guys, all of whom were protesters. There were 150 of us at this precinct. They closed the door and I was officially locked up for the first time in my life. I was surprised that I did not panic, or feel anything really. I think I was numb from the absolute adrenalin depletion. Thus began the struggle to have our restraints removed. We waited in our cells for an hour while the police struggled to find the cutters. They were so busy that somebody misplaced them. Any complaints were met with aggressive looks or jokes.
We all went about the process of getting to know one another and bond the way political protesters do. The sounds along our cell-block were those one might hear at a party. There was lots of joking and laughter, and because we were all in our cells, the tone of treatment by the police officers had relaxed. But I want to be clear, the tone was always dismissive and somewhat insulting. We were always treated as people who had done something wrong, and it is because I have now experienced police officers from the other side of those bars that I will forever think very differently about all matters concerning police officers and criminality. The police officers not only engaged in dehumanizing ways with us, but they themselves were dehumanized by their training. They walked tough, they were tough with one another, and they tended toward a bullying personality. I was not upset by it. At this point I understood that I was safe, that everything was going to be ok and I set about making myself at home for what would be the next 7 hours.
My cellmates were wonderful. The man who was there first was a 40 year old artist and writer, very much like myself. He had been an occupier of wallstreet almost every day, and he was completely committed to this cause. The other two were young men, one a young white college kid and the other a Dominican kid from somewhere in Brooklyn I believe. The Dominican kid was wearing a Chavez shirt and was a born again communist, but he was young and his ideas were scattered. Nonetheless he had a pure heart, and he was the most comfortable with the cops and by comfortable I mean he pushed back. I understand now how pushing back equates to a form of keeping one’s dignity.
The four of us liked each other. After we finally got our restraints off we set to talking, always veering towards politics, even though we were all sick of talking about politics. The confinement made it difficult to talk about anything else. Oh, the cell had a single wooden bench along one wall and a dirty old aluminum toilet. When we would piss, the other three would politely look out of the cell. There were always about four or 5 roaches crawling around. I have always detested roaches, but I was too tired to worry about it, but this made it difficult to put my head to the wall and sleep.
The first few hours were ok really, joking, learning about one another and talking about the movement. The cops would occasionally come by to tell us it would be another hour or two, only to see nothing happen a few hours later. The boredom of confinement is almost immediate. My artist cellmate and I tried to sing Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. I started singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’. At first our singing was ironic. But something happened as we started to realize that we might be there a while, the boredom gave way to a kind of numbness, and I started singing to myself in an unironic way, to soothe myself. I know this might seem dramatic, but I did not know at the time that I would be released at 3 am, and every hour or so I would have a moment of terror where I thought I might be there for another 24 hours. So, there was a slight mixture of tension, boredom and anxiety that I know all of us felt.
But I will tell you that everybody confined there was committed to this cause, this ambiguous sense of regaining human dignity in our world, and they showed it by giving it to one another. It was a fascinating feeling leaning up against those bars and longing to get out. And I became utterly aware of how little time I was going to serve and how much time so many men and women in our country do serve, and this thought horrified me. There is nothing fun about being in jail. Every second I wanted out.
Eventually paperwork was signed…and then we waited again for hours. We were given a bag with old bread sandwiches with a smear of something resembling peanut butter on it. It was aggressively inedible. Most of us did not eat it; it was that horrible. We were given some water. At about 1:30 to 2:00 people started getting released. With every release the whole cell block would applaud and give out peace signs and solidarity fists. I was left alone in my cell at around 2:00. I was the last in my cell to leave. I knew I was leaving so I admit I relished the last hour of my solitary confinement. Knowing it was about to be over I began to celebrate what I was able to endure. Like I said, this was very far from my comfort zone, and I was proud that I maintained my dignity. Even though my heroes have always done these types of things, I did not know I had it in me. So I was happy that fate showed me that I could do this.
I talked a bit with my neighbors who I had shared the ride over with, and eventually 5 of us from the original paddy wagon were released together. Walking out of that cell was wonderful. I did not have the energy for any deep emotion other than relief. Oddly, when we were taken out of our cells, we were treated firmly but suddenly the tone changed, and it was real, we were then treated as free men, as opposed to criminals. That was odd. We were not restrained, and we had paperwork to sign and the police officers wanted to make sure we had our property. They told us when we left, not to congregate outside waiting for others or they ‘would fuck us up, and put us back in for the weekend.’ We said thank you very much and made our way together toward the door.
When I came outside and I saw 3 people holding up signs of support I was astounded. The Occupy Wallstreet movement had organized people to come all the way out to Crown Heights to greet us as we were released with smiles and handshakes. They told us to walk down the block where we found a larger group waiting for us with snacks and drinks and offers for places to stay and transportation. It was not only amazing; it assured me that I was involved with a movement that has a real future, a movement with heart. It was truly wonderful. That banana and plastic cup of water tasted so good.
I turned on my phone. I had about a dozen messages. I called my friend who had waited up all night, and he told me to come over so I could crash at his place. As I said, I am a father and I had duties to return to. Most of those that were jailed with me returned that night to continue their occupation and they all pledged a willingness to get jailed again if necessary to stop the dire course our society is on. I admire them.
I want to finish by saying that my night in jail for the Occupy Wallstreet movement was exactly what I had to give. And what I mean is that I feel very strongly that I gave the bare minimum to this movement. Many people avoid going down there because they say things to themselves like ‘well, I can only go for an hour, and that won’t do anything so I’ll just stay home.’ This movement never made me feel bad about anything. It didn’t make me feel bad when I was afraid of being arrested. They didn’t make me feel like a tourist because I showed up two weeks after many others did. They were happy I was there, and did not judge me for having limits. My point is, I think so much could be done in this world by people doing the bare minimum. I have always hated bravado and showiness and people who think they have to work so hard. I think a healthy human being ought to struggle for pleasure and some leisure time, and I sense in this movement a real appreciation of this balance. So, I want to assure you that they are not keeping score down there. I have given my bare minimum and it gave me so much back already. This movement continues in my sharing this story, in my sharing videos and my hope.
I send all my blessings to that great diverse group of people who are keeping the Occupy Wallstreet experiment alive. Thank you for a great night! I will be back for more as soon as I can.