WASHINGTON -- Naomi Wolf is a permit nerd.
In her recent book, "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries," she dedicated ample space to dissecting -- and critiquing -- the process in which citizens go about obtaining permits for demonstrations, and how permitting has been killing First Amendment protections one regulation at a time. She paid special focus to New York City.
On Tuesday night, the author and feminist experienced first hand this alleged curbing of free speech. Instead of reading her book, the New York Police Department threw the book at her. Wolf, along with her partner, was arrested after not complying with an officer’s orders to leave a sidewalk outside a Huffington Post event honoring Gov. Andrew Cuomo as the Game Changer of the year.
In an interview with HuffPost on Wednesday, Wolf said the police got it wrong when they arrested her. “I was taken into custody for disobeying an unlawful order,” she explained. “The issue is that I actually know New York City permit law ... I didn’t choose to get myself arrested. I chose to obey the law and that didn’t protect me.”
Wolf had arrived at the SoHo gathering as a guest. As she was walking to the event, she said she noticed Occupy Wall Street protesters nearby. They were trying to bring their concerns to Gov. Cuomo over his approval of a millionaire’s tax cut. She watched the activists use the people’s microphone.
Wolf told the demonstrators that they needed to look into the permit claim that they couldn’t use a megaphone. Up until then, she said she had kept her engagement with the activists to her Facebook page, reminding them of the tenets of peaceful civil disobedience and sharing news and video links from the occupy movement. She had yet to visit Zuccotti Park.
Her partner, film producer Avram Ludwig, suggested that Wolf write down the Occupy Wall Street demands and personally hand them to Cuomo. “They shared their demands with me,” Wolf recalled. “They were all very reasonable.” Among them, the activists wanted accountability for police brutality.
Wolf soon went inside. After mingling for a while, she said she had to leave for a business meeting. She never did find Cuomo. As she was leaving, Wolf noticed that the protesters had since been sequestered some distance away from the event space. She had to find out what happened, she said.
The activists, she said, told her that police ordered them away from the event. At least 25 cops had formed a human barrier. She said she tried checking with the cops, but that none of them gave her much of a response. Finally, one officer told her that the organizers’ permit gave HuffPost control of the sidewalk. She said she knew that couldn’t be right.
Wolf decided to hunt down the HuffPost event organizer. She went through a half dozen people before finding someone who she said told her he had seen the permit and presented himself as a spokesman for the event. “He confided,” she explained, that the permit “did allow people to protest” on the sidewalk as long as they weren’t obstructing foot traffic.
Wolf told the activists that it would be legal to march if they didn’t block pedestrians. She and Ludwig took to the sidewalk. Maybe a dozen joined them. They walked up and down the sidewalk in a single file. “Literally like musical chairs,” she said. “Peacefully walking up and down the street.”
That’s when Wolf said 30 to 40 white-shirt reinforcements showed up and put a stop to the sidewalk protest. One cop ordered through a megaphone for everyone to disperse. Wolf wanted to communicate with the officer that she had checked the permit and that they were in compliance. She didn’t get far.
The cop yelled at her to back away, Wolf said.
“I froze,” she said. She knew it was an unlawful order. “I just couldn’t move. He said again, ‘Will you back down? Will you get out of my way?’ I hesitated another half second.”
That was enough. Wolf and her partner were arrested.
The police never advised the event staff about their decision to remove the activists, nor did the event permit stipulate for such actions. "The NYPD asked the security agent in charge whether we had secured permits allowing us to place a red carpet on the sidewalk and to build a curbside tent, and we stated that we did," explained Mario Ruiz, Huffington Post Media Group's vice president of communications. "We did not instruct the police to move the protesters nor were we consulted by the police in connection with their decision to move the protesters."
The NYPD did not return a request for comment.
After a half hour in separate cells, Wolf and her partner were released. She said a sergeant at the precinct told her she was arrested for a “safety issue.” The cop didn’t dispute her claim that she wasn’t breaking the law. But she said he explained that whenever police deem it a safety issue, they can make an arrest.
The police official then asked Wolf why she was with Occupy Wall Street: “Why do you want to be with these people?” the official asked. “I said I’m a New York City citizen and I believe in the First Amendment,” she replied.
Demonstrating, as her book made clear, is an integral part of this country’s history, she said. “That’s what Americans do,” Wolf said.