OWS XIII: A Professor Is Being Beaten

This is a reconstruction of events, as it were, it’s just my memory of what took place on the evening of the 17th of November, and it’s unreliable, because I don’t know exactly what happened that Thursday night between 6:00 and 7:00, when I think I decided to hold open the barricades so that a young woman next to me could join the march in the street, and I know I then decided to hold onto those barricades no matter what the cops said or did, and—this is important—no matter how many times the wise veterans of many demonstrations told me to let go, walk away, live to fight the power another day.

In fact these veterans told me beforehand, when I was trying to figure out how to separate the barricades—it’s not easy for a reason—that I should cease and desist, not give the cops a reason to turn a peaceful event into a riot.  I was receptive to this message, except that minutes before, a different young woman had climbed the barricade with my help, then crossed the street to Foley Square without incident, and had started exhorting the crowd on my side from where she stood, on the other shore.  The cops hadn’t paid any attention as she climbed and crossed.  Why?

So there I was, trying to separate the barricades, and two Community Affairs cops were already explaining, very loudly and in my face, that I couldn’t do that, that I’d be arrested, that I’d maybe get beaten by the real thing, and meanwhile the veterans, the comrades on my side of the barricades, were explaining that I was an asshole for trying, and then the real uniformed cops converged, four of them, three men and a woman, and they were screaming too, and shoving back, now using the barricades as weapons, but by this time the metal walls had separated—I really don’t know how, it’s not easy—and I was hanging on to them, using them as kind of shield, because when the cops pushed either way, their force divided.

I just hung on, I was trying to be passive except for my determined grip on the metal, and by this time it was of course pointless because as long as I held on, nobody was coming or going between the barricades, nobody from my side could enter the street and join the march, and nobody from the designated center of the event could enter the space behind me.

I actually did ask myself, what are you doing here?  Why do you want so desperately to keep your grip on these barricades?  Nobody comes and goes as long as you hang on.

That’s when the skinny plain-clothes guy appeared, shaved-head and leather jacket, all anger and energy, I saw him coming, he was in a big hurry because the break in the continuity of the barricades was obvious, and, from his standpoint, egregious—remember, the armed authorities must now treat even casual, unintended violations of expectations as a threat to order, just think of the lines in the airports—and I knew how dangerous he was, he’s the guy you watch carefully when he walks into the bar, you want to stay at the right remove or the advantageous angle because he’s trouble, but I hung on, anyway.

He was well-trained, he rammed his truncheon into my crotch, and then again, but that second one I dodged by moving my thighs, mere instinct, so he backed off, waiting for my response, and then he saw that I was going to be slightly more stubborn than he expected, and started with that club on my right forearm—not my hands, that’s broken bones, obvious evidence, big lawsuits—just wailing away, five or six times, looking for some affect, some effect, and I wouldn’t give it to him.  I just couldn’t.

But I was an observer rather than a participant, watching the event unfold as if I weren’t there.  I didn’t feel anything, even as I watched this sadistic shit try to break my arm.  It wasn’t stoicism on my part, it wasn’t bravery—you have to be scared to be brave—and I knew by the time he turned away that it wasn’t about anything political, or even important, except how his anger and mine could mirror each other, and produce such ugly results.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m glad I was there, and I know I did the right thing in standing up to the cops.  Still.

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One response to “OWS XIII: A Professor Is Being Beaten

  1. Paul Wolman

    Thoughtful, James. Don’t I know it. I think you touch on how long (close to 40 years, really) some of us have been waiting to recapture the sense of public involvement and élan we felt in the heady days when we were – okay, I was – alternately writing a seminar paper on Gramsci and Luxemburg and running around in the streets getting tear-gassed in the wake of Kent State. Those events and times made us who we are, and we know it. It’s uncomfortable in this to find some substantial anger piled up over the intervening years, anger behind the altruism we also feel, even just to consider the overtly political in all of it. So if there’s bravery involved, it’s in the honest reflection rather than the reflexive actions. Well, as it should be for an intellectual.

    I just finished Roberto Bolaño’s novel Amulet, which deals with the fate of the left-wing Mexican poets after the drastic events of 1968 at the University there. It’s a difficult and I found frustrating novel for one not versed in Mexican poetry, but it’s certainly reflective in the same way you have been here.

    Yes, we’re not 50 anymore. As I said, continue painkillers and rest before attempting again to swing any of the affected appendages.

    Bests.

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