Bridge and Tunnel Crowd
It was nine in the morning on Monday, January 8, and nobody could move. All of Manhattan’s major throughways—the Manhattan Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Holland Tunnel—had been blocked by more than a thousand people, who, for around an hour and a half, would remain obstinately in the streets. The multi-site disruption had been organized by an autonomous collective of members from various groups including Palestinian Youth Movement, Samidoun, Al-Awda, Jewish Voice for Peace, and DSA. The goal of their action was to escalate five demands laid out by PYM: an immediate ceasefire, an end to the siege on Gaza, the release of all Palestinian prisoners, an end to the occupation of Palestine, and an end to U.S. aid to Israel.
By the time I arrived at the Brooklyn Bridge, commuters had been blocked from crossing for half an hour. Already, the frustration that had accumulated around the junction just in front of the bridge was palpable—innumerable cars stood still for blocks, and around a dozen drivers had hopped out to film and jeer at the protesters. The protesters were sitting or standing in the road, holding banners that listed PYM’s demands, and were being led in a series of chants familiar by now to anyone who has attended Palestine rallies—Let Gaza Live; There is only one solution, Intifada Revolution. The fact that these people would not move began to evoke something beyond frustration in the drivers, who were essentially powerless to ignore their demands; while they could roll up their windows or lean on their horns, they could not put their AirPods in and stomp through the crowd, as they might have had they encountered a march.
This lack of options provoked a panicked hysteria in some: one man sank to his knees mere feet from the blockade and started wailing and gesticulating wildly, screaming, “Move! Move! Move!” He kept going like that, half supplicating, half raging, for twenty minutes. “You’re blocking the road!” he’d wail, as if they were doing so by accident. Two women, perhaps a mother and her daughter, approached the group, wearing matching T-shirts that read “Bring them home now.” The younger one clutched a crumpled-up miniature Israeli flag in one hand, and her phone in the other, shoving what were presumably photos of hostages into protesters’ faces, her mouth contorted with vitriol.
Around forty-five minutes into the action, a maroon van began slowly inching toward the blockade. Protesters surrounded the car, and the commuter rolled his window down: “There’s traffic, you fucking idiots! You’re disrupting traffic. You can’t do that, you fucking idiots. It’s against the law!” A young man on the sidewalk who had been idly filming began chanting, “Hit them all! Run them all over!” The mantra was enthusiastically echoed by several other bystanders. The commuter then stopped the slow forward crawl of his car, stepped out, and shoved three people—hard. This was met with some chastisement from the protesters, who requested that he not touch anybody, and some disappointment from onlookers, who would have preferred he hit them all. After, the man returned to his car, and, in the process of making a six-point turn, moaned in defeat that he had “a daughter in Brooklyn” before driving back into Manhattan.
The histrionic reaction the blockade elicited contrasted conspicuously with the protesters’ calm resolve: despite the honking, scorn, and imminent threats to their physical safety, they remained in the street. It seemed like the high drama of the bystanders, the commuters, and later the police was entirely unsurprising to those who had planned the action: it was a matter of strategy for people to have no choice but face inconvenience, frustration, and hopelessness because of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. For many months, if not decades, people in the United States have agitated and grieved for Palestine from within a society that functioned with total impunity as it abetted and funded its attempted destruction. The U.S. Palestine movement’s recent strategic pivot toward preventing people from moving around freely, whether by blocking tunnels, bridges, or the roads to airports, prevents the illusion of normalcy from perpetuating itself—and, ever so briefly, mimics the limitations on movement that Palestinians have faced for decades. For a few hours on the morning of January 8, Gaza was everybody’s problem.
Around ten o’clock, the police began to arrive, but, like many of the commuters and bystanders, they were at a loss about what to do. The typical mass-arrest tactic was impeded by a subset of the protesters in what’s known as a hard blockade, forcing the police to improvise. They wielded power tools to cut through PVC and cement, growing increasingly frustrated as they struggled through the process. “It was terrifying to sit there as cops use power tools on you,” one protester who had been in the hard blockade told me. “Those tools are simply not meant to be used on human beings.”
At the Holland Tunnel, where there had been no hard blockade, the police nonetheless appeared deeply frustrated at the scale of the disruption. “They acted quickly and aggressively,” someone who was arrested there said, “and used disproportionate force in many cases. They arrested people in police liaison roles and safety roles; people who weren’t actually holding the blockade or sitting in the roadway. I was arrested pretty roughly, and [they] zip cuffed me tight enough that cops could barely get it off.” By the time I’d arrived at this second site, the protesters were already cuffed and sitting cross-legged on the ground, or being marched off into various vehicles, chanting throughout their detainment. The police presence swelled to include officers from the NYPD, Port Authority PD, and the Long Island City PD: they formed an indistinguishable mass of gelled hair and too-tight uniforms, waiting for a voice on the radio to tell them what to do.
It took at least an hour to cart everyone from Holland Tunnel—where I counted 125 arrested—to wherever they were going next. Police deflected or ignored questions about where the detainees were being taken, sending myself and a group of other journalists and medics wheeling around the various municipal buildings that make up Manhattan’s Civic Center. Eventually, the sound of a single voice shouting “Free Palestine!” led us to One Police Plaza, where protesters, medics, police liaisons, and jail support had convened to await the release of the over three hundred people who had been arrested that morning across the various sites of the protest.
Slowly, busload after busload of arrestees were brought in for processing. As the vehicles stalled outside NYPD headquarters, we couldn’t see them, but they could see and hear us: more chanting had ensued, while a genre of pro-Palestine protest reggae that I suspect only coalesced in the past three months blasted from a speaker (think Buffalo Soldier, except instead of “dreadlock rasta,” it’s “free free Gaza”). At one point during the seemingly unending waiting, it became evident that someone inside one of the buses required medical attention, that their zip cuffs were potentially cutting off circulation. Several protesters with medical training approached the buses to help, or to ask the police to do something, but they refused, insisting that they, too, were able to deliver the proper protocol. When I asked for clarification on that claim, the cops said it meant that they “knew how to look for a pulse.”
Several people I spoke to about January 8 suggested that the police’s aggression and negligence represented a shift from previous Palestine actions: “The police have been fairly chill in this latest cycle of protests. But the escalation this time from the NYPD in particular was very, very, very aggressive. They injured a few people by throwing them to the ground, including a police liaison from my site,” said one protester, who had been blocking the Manhattan Bridge. “I think they were really pissed to discover that we were part of a coordinated effort across multiple sites, and that kind of set the tone for the entire [arrest] experience.” This individual was ultimately held for sixteen hours, the longer end of the arrests that took place that day. They recalled others being denied toilet paper and medical care while detained.
Multiple arrestees told me about one particular incident, when someone being held at One Police Plaza requested medical attention for a migraine. Witnesses say they were repeatedly ignored by the police. “This person arrived to my cellblock in searing, urgent pain and was clearly distraught,” one person told me. “The cops just plainly ignored this, literally sitting at their desks with their backs turned while we all yelled for medical attention. As they became more ill, they started throwing up, and one of the officers said something along the lines of, ‘See, this is why you don’t get arrested.’ There was just absolutely no urgency to get this person, who was shaking and throwing up, medication, medical attention, or to discharge them. When I was discharged at around 1:30 a.m., they were still in our cell, suffering.”
The sheer amount of time that people were held was also significantly longer than it had been for those arrested at previous demonstrations. When JVP organized a sit-in at Grand Central Terminal at the end of October, around three hundred people were arrested—similar to the arrests on January 8—and nobody was held for nearly as long, according to one individual who was arrested at both protests. “It’s clear that police were trying to deter people from continuing to do these kinds of actions,” they said. “It was clear that there was vindictiveness and a sort of punishment laced in through how we were being treated.” This pattern of police deterrence continued in the weeks that followed: on January 20, a gathering of protesters at J. Hood Wright Park in Washington Heights was violently broken up by NYPD, who, according to PYM, “brutally arrested several protesters in an unprompted escalation of tactics.” They were arrested before the protest even formally began.
Despite the intimidation tactics and the frigid weather, the crowd at One Police Plaza remained steadfast throughout the night of January 8. As temperatures dipped to the low double digits, someone led the group in a series of calisthenic exercises to keep warm. People brought blankets, food, and hand warmers to sustain each other through the night. And every time someone was released, they were greeted with cheers and celebration from their friends and comrades, who, for the second time that day, had refused to move.