If you were to ask most people what you couldn't do in New York City, the first thing to pop in to most people's minds would not be 'walk down the street'. Then again, most people probably haven't visited New York City recently. In a bizarre push by Mayor Rudolph Giulianni, the cities streets are becoming off limits to pedestrians.
Today, as I walked to a book shop for a quiet Sunday reading and sipping coffee, I heard a thunderous roar from down the street. Since I had my camera out looking for photographs I thought it would be a great opportunity. On Broadway I encountered a small knot of people, probably a couple hundred, dancing and singing in the middle of the street. They had just finished erecting a twenty foot tripod in the intersection and a man was scaling to it's apex. Shouts and cheers arose when he reached the summit.
What appeared to be a spontaneous street festival was in fact a protest against Mayor Giulliani's crackdown on the personal freedoms of the cities residents. The so called 'Quality of Life' campaign which has done such wonderful things as outlaw crossing the street at certain intersections so that cars can more easily make right hand turns. Everything seemed to be rather festive, and there were only two police cars in evidence. Fire-breathers entertained the gathering crowd, and several boom boxes thumped out dance music. After taking a few pictures, I resumed my trek to the bookstore half a block away and took a couple of hours to sip my coffee.
After coming back out, I noticed immediately that the police presence had multiplied dramatically. In fact, since the crowd of revelers and onlookers had not grown much at all, the police now constituted a large portion of the crowd. I decided to take a few more pictures until I was suddenly, and roughly, herded away from my path home by a dozen or more police officers claiming I had no right to stand on the sidewalk.
No right to stand on the sidewalk? Does that mean that I commit a crime every time I stop to take a picture? I was able to sidestep the loose line and continue on, but now I was more than a little upset. Why was I being intimidated into leaving? Aren't police officers supposed to 'protect and serve' their community? Protect and serve me, a member of that community?
I decided to stay. The performers were gone now, and I watched as the man on the tripod climbed down and was tackled by the police surrounding him. With the tripod down, the crowd's only focal point was a small knot of voices shouting for the crowd to 'take back our streets'.
Tourists and passersby started to get caught up in the throng as it began to move back from the police and down a nearby street. I stopped several blocks in front of the crowd to take a shot of the swarming street. Soon I was overrun by police on scooters driving down the sidewalk and blocking further progress to both the advancing crowd and the pedestrians who were unaware of what was going on. A scooter bound policeman shouted 'Move It!' at me as he almost ran me down.
Again I was far enough along to be able to 'move it' to the outside of the makeshift corral which the street had become. I was much luckier than the people behind me which were forced to turn back, into the crowd, and find a different route to the park they could see just beyond the wall of police.
I am writing these words while still angry from the experience. I don't know what I want to say. I am awestruck that the police policies of this city seem to create violence and mayhem rather than protect people from it. That protest is apparently outlawed. That political speech is apparently such an important crime that everything else must be dropped in order to prevent it.
I may not have made these impressions very clear in my 'fresh from the front-line' reporting. I will have to give this a day or two, and try to present you with a more focused and distanced view. For now I leave you to wonder at how similar our constantly videotaped, strictly controlled, protect-them-from-themselves, cities have become to those of Fahrenheit 451 and 1984.
Look for part two of this report next week, complete with pictures.
john m. brewer
october 4, 1998