October 15 had been touted as a global “Day of Action,” called for by the “indignatos” protesting austerity measures in Spain. Beginning in New Zealand, the action moved west, ending in scuffles with police in New York City’s Times Square.
Partly galvanized by the growth of the Occupy Wall Street movement and heeding the “indignatos’” call, protests against economic policies took place in Asia and Europe. In Rome, a giant, peaceful march erupted into riots after “a few thousand thugs,” according to Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, battled with police. Small parts of the city, including many cars, burned (there were no reports of anyone playing a fiddle).
In New York, the movement made its presence felt in the city’s most famous spot. By 6 pm, protesters had taken over much of the northern triangle of Times Square’s famous X. Confused tourists wandered about, some asking what was up with the signs. Trevor Miller, an Australian holding a placard that read “Rich+Kind=Good” on one side and “Rich+Greed=Revolution” on the other, explained the movement to two women. “It’s the American dream to be successful and abundant, but not at the expense of others,” he told them.
Behind him, police set up barricades to keep crowds in the large open triangles where revelers watch the New Years Eve ball drop. About 5,000 protesters were split up into pockets, and when protesters on the east side of one intersection, yelling that they wanted to cross the street, pushed against the barricades, police reinforcements arrived on horseback.
The mounted policeman nosed their horses into the crowd. Again and again they spurred them forward, using the animals’ broad chests to bulldoze the barricades back into position. One of the horses fell over, and the policeman scrambled to get it back on its feet. Then without warning, policemen sprinted back across the intersection, batons at the ready, pushing the barricades back against the crowd. “I saw them encroaching in” one cop said to his sergeant, pointing to a spot, three feet from where I stood, where nothing had occurred.
As often happens after a fracas erupts, an eerie calm spread across the crowd. Many protesters sat down. Around 8 PM, when a police captain tried to clear parts of the intersection, those against the barricades linked arms and vowed to stand their ground. A half dozen cops pushed in.
A scrum formed. In the center, a sweat-drenched policeman tried to pry protesters arms apart. As the battle threatened to tip over into violence, a man wearing a white shirt with short sleeves and a bushy mustache calmly pushed into the middle of the melee. Chief of the Department Joseph Esposito, the highest ranking uniformed member of the NYPD, pulled his officers back with one hand and pushed protesters away with the other. He signaled to the protesters for calm, then patted his cops on the chests and shoulders.
It wasn’t the first time. Two weeks ago during the large march on the Brooklyn Bridge, when a policeman tried to yank a mask from a protester’s face, Esposito grabbed the cop by the back of the belt and pulled him back from the police skirmish line. He visibly scolded the policeman, and when a scuffle broke out, Esposito was in the center to end the tension. More than 700 marchers were arrested that day, but overall there was little violence.
Perhaps the protesters in Times Square remembered this. They started screaming, “Esposito! Esposito!” The chief gave an acknowledging smile and a little wave. Then a chant of, “Overworked and underpaid! We do this for you.” After another 20 minutes, Esposito returned to the barricade, where protesters yelled that their only demand was to cross the intersection. Esposito yelled “Mike check”—the signal the protesters shout when they want to speak— and smiled as the crowd erupted. When the cheering subsided, Esposito asked if they would cross the street peacefully should the barricades be opened. After receiving an affirmative cheer, the chief nodded at one of his captains.
The first wave of protesters streamed across Seventh Avenue. At each green traffic light, the cops opened more gates and across they came, wave after wave. Pockets of protesters discussed their reasons for being there and others told tourists what they had just witnessed. After a quick assembly, the group began to head downtown for a general assembly back in Washington Square Park.
According to the NYPD, 42 people were arrested at the southern end of Times Square when they ignored an order to disperse and two policeman were injured in the fights over the barricades. Across the city, 74 people were arrested in the day of action that culminated in Times Square. As quickly as they occupied Times Square, they relinquished it. The barricades were open, traffic flowed slowly through the Square and tourists, the crazy show over, went back to looking up at the brightest lights in the big city.