Five Months and Twenty-Eight Days

The day before the violent events of the six-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, a few dozen people were hanging out in scattered clumps in Zuccotti Park. Most were young kids clustered in bunches around Joie de Vivre, the big red thing at the park’s northeast corner. It was late afternoon and they were talking and laughing. At one point some of them broke into a raucous chant about pizza. The weather was unseasonably clear and mild. Police lined the park’s four edges, on both the park side of the streets and across the streets as well as in the streets themselves, in dark blue and shiny gold, standing most often in clusters of two and three. There were no fewer than a dozen police cruisers visible within shouting distance, as well as the surveillance tower with its tinted windows and security cameras pointed at quiet empty stretches of the park. Later I would walk closer to the surveillance tower to see if I could see anyone inside. I couldn’t, which I suppose is the point.

Knowing that the next day would bring many more protestors and, reliably, many, many more police to the park, I wanted to see what the place looked like just before, in those moments that I’m certain the police consider their down time: that twilight hour before they would once again get violent with the nonviolent occupiers gathered there to commemorate the anniversary and continue the struggle. A lot of the attention thus far has been given to the acts of police violence at Zuccotti these past six months, and for good reason. But I was also interested in trying to get a sense of what the space looked and sounded like in that calm before (or after) the violence. I wondered if there was anything worth seeing or understanding about such a time and space.

Most of the park’s benches are actually wide rectangular seating platforms that resemble something closer to sarcophagi than traditional park benches, laid out in a grid across the upper portion of the park like the carapace of some enormous submerged stone beast. If you were to drape each one with a flag the park would look like the loading bay of the aircraft that carry the bodies of dead soldiers to their final resting places. On the north side of the park a very serious-minded officer stood atop one of these bulky structures, at attention in the wide stance meant to denote a casual exercise of authority. Nearby another officer made occasional small talk with two young men tuning their guitar and banjo. The officer standing atop the bench was having none of it. His back was to his comrade and the musicians. He stared blandly and unflinchingly at the kids who stood around joking and laughing.

I had a magazine article to read, and it felt good to get off my feet and enjoy a bit of fresh air. For all its public transportation, New York remains a walking city. Even with comfortable shoes, by afternoon my feet were aching terribly. Absentmindedly I removed one shoe and massaged its sole with the edge of my shoed foot, then removed the second shoe to let both feet stretch and breathe. I looked up from my magazine and noticed one of the nearby officers suddenly looking at my shoeless feet and then at me, meeting my gaze. Thinking nothing of it, I returned my eyes to the page, but looked up again a few seconds later. The officer continued to make a display of looking at me, although to my mind there was nothing to see. I was simply sitting in a park where people had been evicted and beaten, a place where they were soon likely to be evicted and beaten again. My giant backpack was already filled to bursting with material from the Left Forum conference taking place a few blocks away: books, pamphlets, notes, and a thick roll of Occupy posters jutting out like an empty quiver.

Once a physical space has been deemed contentious — a site where active dissent has taken place, and threatens to again — it must be closed off and policed by any means necessary. This is the security state’s way of thinking. It’s something many people elsewhere have known and been forced to endure for years, and it would be fatuous to mark this particular space as somehow exemplary in that regard. The people who’ve lived cramped or decimated lives under the thumb of the security state could easily instruct you in how police brutality is as old as the idea of police themselves. But that brief interlude in the middle of a quiet day on Wall Street still served as yet another useful reminder of the ongoing project of the casual territorialization of public space. You are ostensibly “free” to walk into the park and sit down, and you’re free to relax in the thin sunshine, read a book, listen to music, or converse with friends and strangers. The police make a big display of letting this emaciated definition of freedom stand unchallenged, for the moment. Not everyone is immediately photographed or questioned or removed from the grounds. There might be months without beatings, arrests, or overt brutality. There might be any number of things you could do before the police suddenly decide that you’ve exceeded the limits of the permission they believe they’ve granted you as a citizen.

The point is that, in such a space, the decision as to what constitutes a breach of this freedom is never yours to make. It’s the policeman who decides when your sitting becomes loitering, when your free speech becomes inflammatory, or when your right of assembly has transformed, through some bizarre alchemical process, into disorderly conduct. The definition of a police state is not restricted to acts of violence and terror. It must also be understood as that condition in which the police, the authorities who direct them, and the special interests they protect all work in tandem to invest the police with sufficient authority to make those decisions for every civilian in their purview. And again, this is something that many of us who have lived in different districts or whose skin may be of a different color often only come to know in relatively innocuous circumstances like this, where what has long been the brutalizing norm elsewhere extends its reach into those spaces that more naïve people had believed to be somehow outside of it.

In this sense there was nothing new to be seen in the relative calm between days of state-sanctioned violence on this one tiny spot of land. But there is some other small but important thing that becomes somewhat more visible in such quiet moments. It’s alarming to see how dozens of police can feel completely comfortable monitoring even small and harmless social groups with bored and unwavering impunity. And this was the one thing that struck me most about the nature of the police in this twilight time, as they leaned against their cars or cracked jokes with their coworkers: “the police” is really the name for the conjunction of brute force and the absolute inability to imagine. They have been here in more frenetic times, to tackle, arrest, kettle, beat, and pepper spray, and they have every reason to believe that the conditions under which they decide to engage in these acts will reappear soon enough. Before the mere presence of crowds will send them into attack mode again the next night, these police will stand here quietly and stare today, or make small talk amongst themselves, or count the minutes until their mind-numbing shift is over. Sometimes they even reach out and seem congenial, engaging in miniature conversations with those they’re simultaneously monitoring.

But despite the fact that there are surely men and women of good will and conscience among them, the whole situation is all an elaborate kind of pantomime. Their calm demeanor, their kindnesses: all are part of the Entr’acte. If this weren’t the case, they wouldn’t be there in such numbers and at all hours to begin with. They’ve been assembled there because it is a charged space, and the decisions have already been made that will compel these police to use force to prevent peaceful protest and assembly. This being the case, everything they do between the moments of frenzy is ultimately designed to remind you of that fact and to coerce you into modifying your behavior accordingly. What appears on the surface as civility, tolerance, or boredom amongst the police in the twilight time is actually a critical part of the logic of the police state. It’s not only necessary in their minds to inflict pain and imprisonment when the violence gets underway. It’s equally important to establish the show of force, to have the blue uniforms visible all up and down the street, to park your patrol cars nearby where other cars would be towed, to walk blithely back and forth armed and confident that you belong here more than the approaching crowds do.

The twilight time makes clear that the police are the only ones allowed to loiter where and how they will. The look their eyes cast toward you is meant to communicate that they belong and you do not, and no violence or confrontation or arrest even needs to take place for this message to be broadcast loud and clear. The officers cannot imagine themselves outside of the illusory hierarchy that sustains this fantasy, and to which they wholeheartedly subscribe. They would not be able to fathom that the kids with greasy hair chanting about pizza or the man with the guitar have at least as much right to look the police up and down, or to make the silent or spoken demand that the policeman justify his presence in this space, as the police seem to believe they have in subjecting everyone else to their bored and laconic gaze and their seemingly harmless proximity. If this is the case, it isn’t just police brutality that must be protested, but police impunity: their belief that they are more empowered to make determinations about the nature of social relations or the uses of space than you are. Without diminishing the very real trauma experienced by those who’ve been gunned down or tortured or wrongly detained through the ages, we might also do well to consider the different kinds of trauma that the permanence of this state of affairs can produce as well. If one does not wish to be shot or beaten or arrested by the police, one can also wish to avoid being studied or encircled by them at all, as if the dignity of your own life were the inevitable first casualty of the security state. Again, this is something that the Trayvon Martins of the world have lived and died under for centuries. The difference is that certain conditions allow some of us to see these things and walk away freely without being followed and hunted down in the process. Others are not nearly so lucky.

Returning home a few days later, I entered the airport security line as a seasoned veteran of post-9/11 operating procedures, having fully absorbed its security logic and done my best to accommodate it without open protest. I was belt-free, the loose change had been removed from my pockets, and my computer was helpfully removed from its padded case for easier inspection. I knew exactly how many plastic containers I needed for my possessions, and when to begin sliding them toward the conveyor belt where they would be scanned for signs of malice or danger. I gave a wide berth to the person in front of me, and did my best to offer him a friendly, nonthreatening demeanor. When the time would come for me to raise my arms and place my feet in the blue rectangles for my full body scan, I would instinctively turn my head to the right, gaze averted, as one does almost reflexively at the doctor’s office.

As I stepped toward the security worker standing on the other side of the metal detector, I smiled politely. “Take off your shoes!” he yelled, pointing at my feet. Somehow, inexplicably, for the first time in a decade, I had forgotten this simple and reliable duty of the traveling class, and I had approached the metal detector as if it were any other space I was entering on any given day. People turned to look as I sheepishly slipped my shoes off and placed them on the conveyor belt, my poise gone. After I had cleared the metal detector without incident and had stood calmly in the body scanner awaiting my diagnosis, I was met with a third security worker, who demanded to know the contents of my pockets. “Just some cash and cards,” I said. “Let me see them,” he said. I handed him the wad and he flipped through each bill and card systematically before returning it to me and sending me on my way with a wave of his blue-gloved hand.

Sometimes they demand that you remove your shoes; at other times their gaze tells you that they’d prefer that you left them on. This is the point about the police state of mind, for small incursions like these or for larger and more lethal ones: there is no one set of rules or behaviors to follow, no single thing to either abide by or to confront directly in opposition. The police state of mind’s only constant is that it imagines the relation between the police and the rest, no matter the time or place or circumstance, in precisely one way. If you have the luxury to roam about Wall Street and enjoy a casual afternoon of reading about Russian poetry between conference panels, the ultimate consequences of this for the personal dignity and security of your own life aren’t remotely equivalent to the consequences for so many others subjected to the policeman’s gun or the policeman’s stare. But from the perspective of what should be done to oppose this state of affairs, that difference itself is inconsequential.