Abruptly Arrested, Briefly Detained, Irreversibly Inspired

by Samer Abulaela

My primary motivation for starting this blog is to work with others in formulating a meaningful response to islamophobia that refuses to engage in the “good Muslim – bad Muslim” narrative, and to tie social and political consequences to islamophobic speech and actions of political, media, and government officials and institutions. Nevertheless, I’m finding myself rather pleased that my first post has little to do (at least directly) with the deluge of articles regarding the racist spying and community mapping perpetrated against Muslim Americans. Nor does it relate to the bigoted trainings conducted by FBI and Justice Department personnel, both within their respective institutions, and to first responders.

Instead of getting right into all that’s in need of being changed, I’m delighted to have caught a glimpse of the spirit that’s going to change it. Perhaps you heard of the Brooklyn Bridge mass arrest of 700 peaceful Occupy Wall Street protestors this past weekend… well, I happened to be among them. As the charges against us are being challenged, I’ve been warned not to discuss the details of the events that lead to our arrest – so for now, I won’t. Anyway, I think that’s much less interesting than what I want to talk about: the passion and dedication that was on display that day by more than just those of us who had to endure the inconvenience of arrest.

Once “cuffed” with hands behind our backs in plastic zip-tie shackles, we were lumped into groups of five, assigned an “arresting officer,” then lined up in single file about 30 feet from the hundreds of others trapped and awaiting the same treatment. Minutes later, the rain came. We waited nearly two hours for the NYPD to figure out how to transport us all, meanwhile getting soaked to the core and shivering in the bridge’s cross-wind. I, for one, was feeling fairly miserable.

But that didn’t last long. From above I heard someone shout my name, “Sammer!” I looked up and saw friends of mine on the pedestrian walkway who had not been arrested but were, nevertheless, as soaked as I was and using their freedom to video tape the lot of us “perps” (yes, the police did refer to us as “perps” much to our collective amusement) in order to identify who was being taken in. “We’re giving your names to Legal,” then asked for us to spell our names as they recorded. The single-file that the police arranged us in facilitated this process quite nicely. I can’t adequately confer how comforting it is when you’re soaked, shivering, and shackled, to know that you’re not forgotten.

Eventually, we were rounded up onto transport vehicles (MTA Buses, Prison transports, passenger vans…) and brought to various precincts. As the precincts closest to the bridge were filled, “perps” were brought to precincts further away. The group I was arrested with was brought to a precinct in Crown Heights – quite a haul from the Brooklyn Bridge and an indicator of just how clogged the system was with nonviolent protestors. As we stepped off the transport and back out into the rain, now too wet to really care, we were approached by a young guy with a clipboard. I was initially confused as to who he was, but it soon became apparent by the hostility he received from the police that he was another volunteer with Occupy Wall Street collecting names for the legal team in order to keep track of us as we were scattered across two boroughs. I later learned how he was able to meet us outside of the precinct just as we arrived: he had followed our police transport on his bicycle through the rain from the Brooklyn Bridge to Crown Heights.

I’ll skip over some of the more colorful details of our detention at this point – suffice it to say that 8 shoeless men should never be confined to a 5.5′ x 7′ cell with a toilet threatening overflow. At about 3AM, some 7 or 8 hours after we arrived at the precinct, we began to be released. As I left the precinct, exhausted and disoriented, I stepped out onto the sidewalk alone responding to texts from concerned friends, and trying to figure out which direction to walk for a subway. The last thing I expected to see was a small group of people across the street holding signs celebrating our release and shouting, “Thank You!” It was deeply moving and instantly revived my spirits. One of them informed me that a larger group had assembled on the corner with food and water for us, and were once again taking names in order to know who had been released and account for all those still detained. I walked over, and at 3AM on a random street corner in Crown Heights, I found a dozen volunteers handing out much needed refreshments, taking our names, and bolstering our spirits.

When critics of Occupy Wall Street harp on the movement’s refusal to name demands and conform to expectations, they miss the very thing that is making it grow and work: the creation of a protest community. What media reports have failed to convey thus far is that the actions at Liberty Square are building a spirit of collective solidarity and genuine community unlike anything seen in the US for decades. One need only witness the “people’s mic” in order to understand the power of enabling anyone’s voice to become everyone’s voice. The backbone of a movement is being assembled and reinforced at this very moment, and it’s strength lies in it’s collective care and concern for every individual who stands with it. I was one of over 700 beneficiaries of that concern last weekend, and it was the most genuine, compassionate, and logistically effective set of actions that I’ve experienced inside of a movement. The folks at Liberty Square are proving to the nation that hope and change is more than just a convenient campaign slogan and that solidarity between everyday people has the power to overwhelm those whose idea of governance is to compound the riches of the wealthiest.

Sammer Abulaela is a Muslim American. He is a longtime writer and activist in the NYC area. He is a blogger at Demographics United.


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10 2011

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  1. Trent #

    Great piece! Solidarity from a fellow IPM contributor and from Occupy Chicago!


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