People look upon One World Trade Center under constructionPeople look upon One World Trade Center under construction (flickr)

On the first day of my visit to New York City last week — timed to attend the Occupy Wall Street events and actions on Martin Luther King Jr Day — I found myself in Downtown’s Financial District. I came out of the subway at the World Trade Center expecting to see the various WTC buildings under construction, but I didn’t know that construction had progressed significantly since my last visit and (as I learned from an architect friend) the WTC buildings are incorporating advanced glass technology that result in ultra-shiny, ultra-efficient exoskeletons. It is difficult to look away from the WTC buildings at this late stage in their development, marking them monuments as per the Port Authority’s intentions but also foreshadowing a collective gaze by future onlookers staring up at the offices of financiers, lawyers, and New York State employees.

Further, I hadn’t realized the close proximity of the WTC and Zuccotti Park, the Fall home to Occupy Wall Street’s encampment — one is right around the corner from the other. And though Zuccotti doesn’t have a 10 foot construction wall delineating its boundary like the WTC, just the same, there was very little movement in or out of the park. In the case of the park, the five NYPD officers standing vigil in the cement square are enough reason for most to stay away.

Downtown New York City Two Months After Zuccotti Park RaidDowntown New York City Two Months After Zuccotti Park Raid (flickr)

Growing up I was never one to question the U.S. justice system and police, figuring any stories I had heard about police brutality or the severity of life in prison was simply a response to people doing bad things. The cracks in my allegiance began after reading Sharon Daniel and Erik Loyer’s Public Secrets, a web-based project wrapping Daniel’s interviews with female prisoners at California correctional facilities. While listening to the audio excerpts in Public Secrets, on the one hand it can be easy to dismiss the testimonies of the prisoners — they are in prison — but the continuous accounts of drugs, violence, rape, and deceit make it difficult to support the American myth that arrest and imprisonment is a path towards rehabilitation.

Another crack in my attitude towards police power formed after Los Angeles used 1,400 LAPD offers to clear a few hundred OccupyLA campers on the lawn outside City Hall.  The show of force and use of military tactics to deal with a protest that had routinely committed to non-violence was stunning, but worse was the suggestion by LA officials that a “protest” had become too expensive and therefor should be halted. Their evidence was the destruction of the park around City Hall, an area that looked quite okay when I visited the next night (albeit lacking water and after a round of cleanup by city workers).

#OccupyLA first night after police raid, Los Angeles City HallFirst night after police raid of OccupyLA, Los Angeles City Hall (flickr)

Back to the New York trip, I walked a couple more blocks past Zuccotti Park to the New York Stock Exchange. It was a tough landscape to digest: the area around the building is blocked off to traffic and pedestrians by barricades and adjunct police stations. The situation was toxic with siteseers trying to get close, locals trying to get by, and freezing NYPD officers charged with keeping everyone out (it was, afterall, 26 degrees outside that afternoon).  For me things boiled over when I attempted to have my picture taken along the row of metal barriers. I can dismiss the on-guard NYPD officer shouting “Hey Jackass” at me as a consequence of the environment, but the symbolism of a police protective zone around a private institution placing two otherwise casual people in a verbal confrontation is not lost.  Since 9/11 and reinforced by fear of the nearby Occupy campers a decade later, New York City has created “dead zones” in Downtown where tourists drawn to these sites are placed against government employees charged with protecting them.

Downtown New York City Two Months After Zuccotti Park RaidNew York Stock Exchange Two Months After Zuccotti Park Raid (flickr)

New York City is a walkable city and I found myself in areas where infrastructural barricades blend into the background. The TJ Maxx chain store shown below is located one block from both Zuccotti Park and the New York Stock Exchange. However the street is unobstructed to pedestrians: barricades in this part of Downtown stop cars and trucks but not people. The discrepancies of access vary from one block to the next. It is evident that pediestrians are forbidden from popular financial institutions while at the same time allowed access to commercial store fronts.  These store fonts aren’t from “main street,” rather they are subsidiaries of a group of trans-national companies that can afford to be there — backed by those same financial institutions — and pedestrians play along whether drawn to the brand or lacking better options. Ironically, no one, either government regulator or city resident really, has a grasp of where the tenants’ products, wealth, or rent are coming from.

Downtown New York City Two Months After Zuccotti Park RaidDowntown New York City Two Months After Zuccotti Park Raid (flickr)

A friend who studies activism in the U.S. and other countries points out that New York City employs over 30,000 police officers. I can’t help but make a connection between the officers standing guard at New York’s financial institutions and America’s unemployment rate.  The economic games played by banks have led to jobs protecting their buildings via a perceived threat by Occupy protesters. For every protester setting up a tent or marching along Wall Street, there is a disperporational response by government and police to semi/permanently shut down streets and parks.  While Occupy fills space with general assemblies and break out groups, the dead spaces of New York assures no human presence besides bankers and police.

Craig will be moderating a roundtable discussion with Occupy organizers and participants from across the country: “The Occupy Movement Considered: What Worked, What Didn’t, and What’s Next,” Wednesday, January 25th, 6-8:30 PM at UCLA. For more information see http://www.wac.ucla.edu/occupy.php.

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