NEW YORK — Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, the New York Stock Exchange and the subways to raise their voices against what they say is corporate excess.
But since police in riot helmets, batons and riot shields ousted them from their two-month encampments, Occupy Wall Street protesters singled out officers as another enemy, saying their crowd control tactics were an excessive, chilling use of force against free speech.
“The police played their role. I wouldn’t call it respectful,” said Danny Shaw, 33, on Thursday in a day of protests across the country to mark the two-month anniversary of the movement against what demonstrators say is economic inequality.
Tear gas in Oakland, Calif., pepper spray that hit an 84-year-old Seattle woman in the face and hundreds of arrests of demonstrators and journalists at Occupy protests across the U.S. this week shone the spotlight on the varying crowd control tactics of police, most who used helmets and riot gear as they broke up encampments in New York and other cities.
“Police Brutality,” protesters’ signs blared. New York officials have called for investigations of the police raid of Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan early Tuesday.
Experts on policing say departments have used necessary tactics to control unpredictable, sometimes violent protesters, and that the police haven’t reached the stages yet of full riot protection.
“I don’t think they’re rioting at Occupy Wall Street, not yet, but they are getting out of control,” said Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “If they were rioting, you would see much more riot gear” like sonic devices and high-powered weapons, she said.
But the images that have played across the country have been disconcerting to some: 84-year-old Dorli Rainey’s face dripping with pepper spray and the liquid used to treat it, and police and protesters pushing each other in New York Thursday over metal barricades in downtown Manhattan.
“When somebody puts their hands on somebody itself, it never looks right,” Haberfeld said. “But this is what they’re allowed to do. … It is truly not excessive and I am surprised by how not excessive it is.”
The demonstrations Thursday – in such cities as Los Angeles, Boston, Las Vegas, Washington and Portland, Ore. – were for the most part peaceful. But at least 300 people were arrested in New York and dozens were arrested elsewhere, including five on charges they assaulted police officers by throwing liquid into several officers’ faces and tossing glass at another.
“We will assure that everyone has the right to exercise their First Amendment rights,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday after visiting one hospitalized officer who needed 20 stitches on his hand. But “if anyone’s actions cross the line and threaten the health and safety of others including our first responders, we will respond accordingly.”
Chanting “All day, all week, shut down Wall Street,” more than 1,000 protesters gathered near the New York Stock Exchange and sat down in several intersections. A dozen metal sleeves intended to lock protesters to fixtures on the street were confiscated, police said. Several thousand jammed Manhattan’s Foley Square Thursday evening and marched to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Several weeks ago, an attempt to march across the bridge drew the first significant international attention to the Occupy movement as more than 700 people were arrested.
In Seattle on Thursday, hundreds of Occupy Seattle and labor demonstrators shut down the University Bridge. Traffic was snarled as protesters from two different rallies held marches as part of a national day of action demanding jobs.
In Los Angeles, helmeted police equipped with batons surrounded the base of a bank tower but the protest remained peaceful. Several hundred Occupy sympathizers marched to the Bank of America Plaza in downtown Los Angeles, with some setting up tents on a lawn. Police arrested two dozen people after they sat down in a street during a peaceful rally by hundreds of people organized by labor groups who had a permit.
Authorities cleared an encampment set up by Occupy protesters on the University of California, Berkeley campus; about 150 police officers and deputies in riot gear.
Police arrested 21 demonstrators in Las Vegas, and 20 were led away in plastic handcuffs in Portland, Ore., for sitting down on a bridge. At least a dozen were arrested in St. Louis after they sat down cross-legged and locked arms in an attempt to block a bridge over the Mississippi River.
Several of the demonstrations coincided with an event planned months earlier by a coalition of unions and liberal groups, including Moveon.org and the Service Employees International Union, in which out-of-work people walked over bridges in several cities to protest high unemployment.
The street demonstrations also marked two months since the Occupy movement sprang to life in New York on Sept. 17. They were planned well before police raided a number of encampments over the past few days, but were seen by some activists as a way to demonstrate their resolve in the wake of the crackdown.
Thursday’s demonstrations around Wall Street brought taxis and delivery trucks to a halt, but police were largely effective at keeping the protests confined to just a few blocks.
Officers allowed Wall Street workers through the barricades, but only after checking their IDs.
Live television shots Thursday showed waves of police and protesters shoving back metal barricades set up to separate the protest from the public in downtown Manhattan. Some of the police hit protesters as they resisted arrest.
Emmanuel Pardilla, 20, a political science and history major at Fordham University in New York, said the heavy police presence “added to the fear tactic.”
Haberfeld and other policing experts said the crowd control was aggressive, but not excessive. But First Amendment experts said that every interaction with demonstrators, particularly when televised nationally, can thwart the goal of protests and discourage others from joining.
“That’s really is terribly inhibiting,” said New York attorney Herald Fahringer. “Because people say, `Gee, well, I don’t want to go out there and join the protest if I run the risk of getting hit over the head with a billy club.”