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New Police Strategy in New York -- Sexual Assault Against Peaceful Protestors

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A few weeks ago I was with a few companions from Occupy Wall Street in Union Square when an old friend -- I'll call her Eileen -- passed through, her hand in a cast.

"What happened to you?" I asked.

"Oh, this?" she held it up. "I was in Liberty Park on the 17th [the Six-Month Anniversary of the Occupation]. When the cops were pushing us out the park, one of them yanked at my breast."

"Again?" someone said.

We had all been hearing stories like this. In fact, there had been continual reports of police officers groping women during the nightly evictions from Union Square itself over the previous two weeks.

"Yeah so I screamed at the guy, I said, "you grabbed my boob! what are you, some kind of f*cking pervert?' So they took me behind the lines and broke my wrists."

Actually, she quickly clarified, only one wrist was literally broken. She proceeded to launch into a careful, well-nigh clinical blow-by-blow description of what had happened. An experienced activist, she knew to go limp when police seized her, and how to do nothing that could possibly be described as resisting arrest. Police dragged her, partly by the hair, behind their lines and threw her to the ground, periodically shouting "stop resisting!" as she shouted back "I'm not resisting!" At one point though, she said, she did tell them her glasses had fallen to the sidewalk next to her, and announced she was going to reach over to retrieve them. That apparently gave them all the excuse they needed. One seized her right arm and bent her wrist backwards in what she said appeared to be some kind of marshal-arts move, leaving it not broken, but seriously damaged. "I don't know exactly what they did to my left wrist -- at that point I was too busy screaming at the top of my lungs in pain. But they broke it. After that they put me in plastic cuffs, as tightly as they possibly could, and wouldn't loosen them for at least an hour no matter how loud I screamed or how much the other prisoners begged them to help me. For a while everyone in the arrest van was chanting 'take them off, take them off,' but they just ignored them.'"

On March 17, several hundred members of Occupy Wall Street celebrated the six-month anniversary of their first camp at Zuccotti Park by a peaceful reoccupation of the park -- a reoccupation broken up within hours by police with 32 arrests. Later that evening a break-away group moved north, finally establishing itself on the southern end of Union Square, two miles away, even sleeping in the park -- though the city government soon after decided to defy a century-old tradition and begin closing the park every night just so they would not be able to establish a camp there. Since then, occupiers have taken advantage of past judicial rulings to continue to sleep on sidewalks outside the park, and more recently, on Wall Street itself.

During this time, peaceful occupiers have been faced with continual harassment arrests, almost invariably on fabricated charges ("disorderly conduct," "interfering with the conduct of a police officer" -- the latter a charge that can be leveled, for instance, against those who try to twist out of the way when an officer is hitting them.) I have seen one protestor at Union Square arrested, by four officers using considerable force, for sitting on the ground to pet a dog; another, for wrapping a blanket around herself (neither were given warnings; but both behaviors were considered too close to "camping"); a third, an ex-Marine, for using obscene language on the Federal steps. Others were reportedly arrested on those same steps for singing a satirical version of the "Officer Krumpke" song from West Side Story. Almost no march goes by without one or two protestors, at least, being hurled against vehicles or have their heads bashed against the ground while being arrested for straying off the sidewalk. The message here is clear. Law has nothing to do with it. Anyone who engages in Occupy Wall Street-related activity should know they can be arrested, for virtually any reason, at any time.

Many of these arrests are carried out in such a way to guarantee physical injury. The tone was set on that first night of March 17, when my friend Eileen's wrist was broken; others suffered broken fingers, concussions, and broken ribs. Again, this was on a night where OWS actions were confined to sitting in a park, playing music, raising one or two tents, and marching down the street. To give a sense of the level of violence protestors were subjected to, during the march north to Union Square, we saw the first major incident of window-breaking in New York. The window in question was broken not by protestors, but by police -- using a protestor's head. The victim in this case was a street medic named Jose (owing to the likelihood of physical assault and injuries from police, OWSers in New York as elsewhere have come to carry out even the most peaceful protests accompanied by medics trained in basic first aid.) He offered no resistance.

Here is a video of the incident. The window-breaking begins at 3:45.

Police spokesmen later claimed this incident was a response to a bottle that was hurled at a police vehicle used to transport arrestees. Such claims are made almost automatically when videos appear documenting police assaults on non-violent protestors, yet, despite the presence of cameras everywhere, including those wielded by the police themselves, no actual documentation of any such claims ever seems to appear. This is no exception. In fact numerous witnesses confirmed this simply isn't true, and even if a bottle had been thrown at an armored vehicle, not even the police have suggested they had any reason to believe the medic whose head was smashed into the window was the one who threw it.

Arbitrary violence is nothing new. The apparently systematic use of sexual assault against women protestors is new. I'm not aware of any reports of police intentionally grabbing women's breasts before March 17, but on March 17 there were numerous reported cases, and in later nightly evictions from Union Square, the practice became so systematic that at least one woman told me her breasts were grabbed by five different police officers on a single night (in one case, while another one was blowing kisses.) The tactic appeared so abruptly, is so obviously a violation of any sort of police protocol or standard of legality, that it is hard to imagine it is anything but an intentional policy.

For obvious reasons, most of the women who have been victims of such assaults have been hesitant to come forward. Suing the city is a miserable and time-consuming task and if women bring any charge involving sexual misconduct, they can expect to have their own history and reputations -- no matter how obviously irrelevant -- raked over the coals, usually causing immense damage to their personal and professional lives. The threat of doing so operates as a very effective form of intimidation. One exception is Cecily McMillan, who was not only groped but suffered a broken rib and seizures during her arrest on March 17, and held incommunicado, denied constant requests to see her lawyer, for over 24 hours thereafter. Shortly after release from the hospital she appeared on Democracy Now! And showed part of a handprint, replete with scratch-marks, that police had left directly over her right breast. (She is currently pursuing civil charges against the police department):

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David Graeber is a Reader in Social Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and an author and activist currently based in New York
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