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October 1, 2011: The Day the Future Crossed a Bridge

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It started with a bridge. It always starts with a bridge. Take a look around to Selma, Alabama. In 1965, John Lewis and his young revolutionary cohorts didn't march with the lawyer-drafted language for a voting rights law in their pocket. Yes, the civil rights movement of the Deep South had a list of grievances, too - the right to vote and to attend better, integrated schools - but on the "Bloody Sunday" morning of March 7, 1965, all that Lewis and 600 other people wanted was to walk as free men and women across the Edmund Pettus Bridge without Alabama state troopers whacking the living daylights out of them. And when they couldn't, it heightened the contradictions of an unjust society. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 came in due time. (Just ask the president of the United States, Barack Obama.) In 1996, another president named Bill Clinton promised Americans a new kind of bridge, "a bridge to the 21st Century," but when the actual 21st Century came and Clinton's promised passage didn't materialize, it took an afternoon army of 1,000 to claim the damn bridge themselves, at 4 'o clock on a Saturday, October 1, 2011. The jobs, the new schools, repairs to the infrastructure and solar and wind power, that stuff may come. But it can't get there until the future takes a bridge.

That's the preface to my brand new Amazon Kindle Single (long-form journalism, available as an e-book that's longer than a magazine article but shorter than a conventional book), priced at 99 cents for the 99 Percent; it's called October 1, 2011: The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge. It's the very first "book-like thing," as my friend Greg Mitchell called it, about Occupy Wall Street.

The goal of the narrative is quite simply to humanize the protests -- in the face of so many efforts by the usual suspects on the political right to dehumanize it as a bunch of "dirty, smelly hippies" -- by revealing the everyday American citizens who took part, against the backdrop of one day that changed everything. On the morning of Octover 1, 2011, Occupy Wall Street was a small band of revolutionary dreamers struggling to capture both the attention of the media and the imagination of the U.S. middle class. By a damp, rain-soaked nightfall, it had both -- thanks to a tense showdown between marchers and the New York Police Department, resulting in 700 arrests in the middle of the world's most famous bridge.

But there's a much deeper story behind the Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge and the lasting significance of the events of 10/1/11. Over the last generation, and especially in the 10 years and one month since terrorists knocked down the Twin Towers that stood just a block and a half behind the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park, police and other authorities have systematically squelched the right of protest and public dissent, around the Western world but especially here in the United States -- and particularly where the shadows of the World Trade Center once fell across New York City. Law enforcement, and the 1 Percenters they protect and serve, have increasingly clamped down on where, when and how everyday Americans can exercise their right of free speech and their freedom of assembly in the public square.

The trend actually began after 1999, when chaotic street protests against a World Trade Organization confab in Seattle rocked the Establishment; police departments responded with widespread use of a tactic called "kettling," in which a blue wall of law-enforcement officers will surround a large group of protesters and let them boil in an enclosed "kettle" for hours; sometimes the demonstrators are arrested, and sometimes they are merely deprived of their freedom to move about. Either way, the goal is through discomfort (i.e., lack of food or opportunity to use a bathroom) and frustration to not only quell a current protest but to make citizens think twice about taking to the streets in the future -- regardless of what it says in the Bill of Rights.

Before Occupy Wall Street, the lowpoint of "kettling" and related tactics such as pre-emptive arrests came outside the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York; some 1,800 people were scooped up, including non-protesters like a 15-year-old girl trying to get to a movie, and some were taken for hours to a dank and uncomfortable pier called "Guantanamo on the Hudson." Most of the charges were tossed and the city paid out millions in damages, but in the post-9/11 world of the Patriot Act and homeland-security-on-steroids, few citizens noticed. In 2011, the NYPD and a billionaire mayor thought they could get away it all over again.

They didn't realize how much the world has changed in the last few years.

As October 1, 2011: The Battle of the Brooklyn Bridge shows, the circumstances of how hundreds of Occupy Wall Street marchers ended up in the main roadway of the bridge, and why they were arrested, remain muddled, but this much is clear: The NYPD hoped that by detaining the marchers in cramped, rain-soaked darkness descending on the center of the bridge, and by arresting 700 people, it could break the back of the protests against corporate greed and the American plutonomy, to end them before their movement spread.

A subsequent class-action civil rights lawsuit that's been filed against the NYPD alleges several officers told marchers they were being detained so that they couldn't return to the Financial District and continue the protests there. My own reporting for this piece confirmed that; indeed, one of the marchers -- Nicole Capobianco -- told me that she and four other female protesters were allowed off the Brooklyn Bridge by a command ("white shirt") officer under one condition: That they promise not to return to Zuccotti and resume their perfectly legal protest.

But this time the NYPD actions on the Brooklyn Bridge -- coupled with the unprovoked use of pepper spray by a high-ranking officer the week before -- backfired spectacularly. They didn't understand that frustration in America has grown so great -- over the lack of jobs, the mortgage and student-loan scamsters, the tidal wave of wealth flowing to the top 1 percent, and the corporate buyout of both political parties -- that a few hours of "kettling" had no impact whatsoever. Every arrestee returned to Zuccotti burning with new passion, and thousands of on-the-fence observers angered by the police actions joined them. When the sun rose on October 2, 2011, there were plans for Occupy protests in all 50 states and around the globe.

Here's what the elites don't get. The Occupy protests aren't even about a political demand or agenda in a conventional inside-the-Beltway sense. The occupation itself is the message. Millions of long-ignored Americans simply want to be seen and heard, and to reclaim the public square that has systematically been taken away from us. The Brooklyn Bridge -- a symbol of American know-how and ingenuity from when the nation was still the world's leader in inventing and making new things -- is the most powerful symbol of that nearly lost public square that we have left. In Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, a 1 Percenter was famously warned, "You think the future can't cross a bridge?"

On October 1, 2011, it did exactly that.