It isn’t clear whether the police deliberately allowed the demonstrators onto the bridge or whether they temporarily lost control of the crowd. But interviews with the protesters suggest that many of them thought they had been given permission to use the roadway, indicating that they weren’t willfully breaking the law. Whatever happened to begin with, the N.Y.P.D. brass clearly seized the opportunity to show who’s boss.
So why are the police behaving in this way, evoking comparisons to the civil-rights era? One theory is that the protest, which is now spreading to other cities, is creating genuine alarm inside the financial and political establishment. “The over-reaction clearly shows that the authorities feel quite vulnerable,” Carne Ross, a former British diplomat and expert on direct democracy, who has been speaking regularly to some of the protesters at their Zuccotti Park encampment, told me. “If this was an animal rights protest, the police wouldn’t be reacting in this way. They know there are very strong feelings among ordinary people about Wall Street and the bailouts: the rage and hatred is intense.” Ross may be right. But even now, the protest remains far too small to be called a mass movement. And thus far it has had a negligible impact on the day-to-day business of Wall Street.
As the protesters debate the meaning of anarchy and community banking, the employees of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and JP Morgan Chase are carrying on as normal. If Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein are quaking in their Church’s wingtips, they are keeping it to themselves.
The other theory is that Kelly and his boss Bloomberg are blundering around, not sure what to do. During the past decade or so, City Hall and the N.Y.P.D. have adopted an increasingly hard line approach to street protests, which has gone hand-in-hand with the growing militarization of the police department in response to 9/11. Does the N.Y.P.D. really need helicopters armed with machine guns capable of shooting down small planes? BearCat armored personnel carriers? Intelligence operatives in the Middle East? Kelly thinks it does, and Bloomberg has given free rein to his imperial ambitions.
On Saturday, the N.Y.P.D. appeared to be reprising the tactics it used during the 2004 Republican Convention, when it arrested more than eighteen hundred people, many without much cause. (Subsequently, the vast majority of the cases were dropped.) Back then, Kelly and Bloomberg cited the threat of terrorism as justification for their street-sweeping strategy. Civil-rights activists complained, but the city authorities, beyond getting caught up in some long-running lawsuits, didn’t suffer any negative consequences.
Today, the Mayor and the Commissioner are confronted with a more pointed and media-savvy protest movement that refuses to play by their rules of engagement, which involve seeking permits, picking up litter, and standing on the sidewalks. Watching the actions of the N.Y.P.D. and listening to the dismissive comments of the Mayor, you get the feeling that he and Kelly would like to go into Zuccotti Park, crack a few heads, and clear away the whole thing.
Will they try and do it? I suspect that first they’ll try a less incendiary strategy, such as encouraging Brookfield Properties, the owner of the park, to go to court and seek an eviction order from a judge. But we shall see.