Nathan Schneider, from Waging NonViolence makes an excellent point here in his coverage of the mass arrests of Occupy Wallstreet on the Brooklyn Bridge about what are we trying to “demonstrate” in our demonstrations: “One might wonder, however, whether causing such an obstruction is really the proper mode of civil disobedience given the purposes of the protest. It’s helpful to recall a maxim of Gene Sharp’s: “Either you
do something you’re not supposed to do, or you don’t something you are supposed to do.” To put it another way: do something good that’s against the law, or refuse
to do something bad that the law demands of you.”
Read on for the full report….
Mass Arrests On The Brooklyn Bridge: Is This What
Civil Disobedience Looks Like?
by Nathan Schneider
October 1, 2011
News is by now getting around that today there were mass
arrests of Occupy Wall Street protesters-700 or more-on
the Brooklyn Bridge. As over a thousand marchers made
their way toward the bridge a few minutes after 3 p.m.,
they split into two groups. Some followed members of the
Direct Action Committee who led the way up the elevated
pedestrian walkway in the middle of the bridge. Another
group, however, broke away and took to the Brooklyn-
bound road on the bridge’s south side, eventually
filling the whole roadway so that no traffic could get
through. The front row of them locked arms and
proceeded. At first, police had blocked neither
“That was not planned at all,” Direct Action Committee
member Sandy Nurse told me, looking down from the
pedestrian walkway onto those marching on the roadway.
“I think there’s a lot of people in that group that
don’t realize what they’re getting into.”
Before the marchers on the roadway reached the first
stone tower, and having been led by a phalanx of senior
police officers, they were intercepted from the other
side. (Even The New York Times offers evidence that the
police intended to lure marchers into a trap.) Out came
dozens of dark-blue shirted officers with plastic cuffs-
actually, cardboard boxes full of them. Some officers
unrolled the same type of orange nets they had used the
previous Saturday to make nearly 100 arrests, while
others lined up opposite the protesters, halted them,
and began to apprehend and cuff them, one by one.
For a few minutes, the scene was very tense, as could be
observed from above on the pedestrian walkway, where
hundreds more marchers were passing by. On the roadway,
there were scuffles as some force was used against those
being apprehended. “This Is a Peaceful Protest!” people
chanted. And: “No! Sleep! Till Brooklyn!” But soon the
whole process assumed the appearance of routine, and,
for those waiting to be taken away, of solemn dignity.
At the front and back, with the crowd of marchers on the
roadway surrounded on three sides by nets, police
continued cuffing them and leading them away, one at a
time. Slowly. Most of the marchers sat down and waited.
“If you sit down, there is no fear,” called one marcher,
each phrase echoed by the others in the “people’s
microphone.” They talked, and smoked cigarettes, sang
songs, and chanted. Many smiled as they were led away.
Meanwhile, more police arrived on the pedestrian
walkway, and they used more nets to cordon off the area
directly in front of where the arrests were happening.
And so it went on and on over the course of hours, as
police vans and city buses arrived to take away those
arrested. It started raining-lightly, at first, and then
The several hundred marchers who had been on the
pedestrian walkway and had been turned back down to the
Manhattan side rallied at the base of the bridge. They
marched around some in the rain, including to 1 Police
Plaza to demand the release of their comrades. Then they
debated where to go next, and finally agreed to return
to Liberty Plaza. On the way, they were joined by
several hundred more, who had made it to Brooklyn on the
pedestrian walkway and returned on the Manhattan Bridge.
As a mass, together, they all returned with a sense of
victory to the plaza.
It was dark by then. Dinner was ready, and they
celebrated and started planning the next move.
This was the second major Saturday march halted by a
mass arrest, largely on account of obstructing traffic.
One might wonder, however, whether causing such an
obstruction is really the proper mode of civil
disobedience given the purposes of the protest. It’s
helpful to recall a maxim of Gene Sharp’s: “Either you
do something you’re not supposed to do, or you don’t
something you are supposed to do.” To put it another
way: do something good that’s against the law, or refuse
to do something bad that the law demands of you.
Creating such an obstruction certainly does fulfill the
purpose of occupation-it is a way of reclaiming public
space, of being heard, and of stopping business as
usual. But it also obstructs a lot of people who are not
the protest’s targets. Therefore, this may not be the
most appropriate law to be arrested for breaking-or at
least not the one that sends the clearest message.
What might be better? Perhaps something along the lines
of Tim DeChristopher’s well-known obstruction of an
illegal oil and gas lease auction, for instance. In this
and other classic cases of civil disobedience, from
Gandhi’s salt march, to the sit-ins at segregated lunch
counters, to the Freedom Rides, to Rosa Parks’ choice of
seat on a Montgomery bus, resisters took care to break
the precise laws or rules or customs that they opposed.
Their message, even without having to say anything, was
absolutely evident. Especially since many people
complain that there isn’t enough clarity of message from
Occupy Wall Street, more clarity of action might go a
long way to winning even more people to the rapidly-
Today, hundreds of people were arrested, many surely for
the first time. More seem likely to follow. The world
was watching (including tens of thousands on the
movement’s livestream TV channel), and what it saw were
entirely peaceful protesters, in the streets to oppose
an unjust economy and a corrupt political order, being
arrested en masse while bringing their messages across
one of New York’s greatest landmarks.