One Year Since NYPD Officer Pepper Sprayed Occupy Wall Street Protesters
The screams pierced the air of a scene already filled with chaos and disorder fomented by squads of men in blue. The female protesters shrieking were on a street near Union Square in New York City and were part of Occupy Wall Street, which had just taken over Zuccotti Park one week ago. They were penned inside orange mesh netting the New York Police Department had used to corral and control protesters. One of the young women sprayed dropped to her knees and threw her hands up into the air and continued to scream in pain. The young women had been pepper sprayed by a white-shirted NYPD officer, who they would later find out was named Anthony Bologna.
Chelsea Elliott, twenty-five year-old with long hair who was wearing a crop tank top, was one of the protesters pepper-sprayed. She told the Village Voice after the incident she “heard screams” near her. Officers had shoved a young girl to the ground. She had been yelling at them as they beat another person, and they put their hands on her and pushed her down onto the pavement. Elliott shouted, “Stop! Why are you doing this?” Bologna then walked up and sprayed the women.
“Not even one steady stream, more like you were spraying a plant — me and three or four other girls,” Elliott recounted. “I fell to the ground, and the girl behind me, this pretty, thin girl, a total hippie, with short hair and a gray tank top, they got her so bad! We were just lying on the ground, it was extremely painful.”
Elliott could not see for “fifteen minutes.” She could not breathe at first and was sobbing. It felt “like the worst sunburn of my life.” It was like “pouring a bottle of Tabasco all over your eyes and face.” Occupy medics poured milk into her eyes “for like 10 minutes, and apple cider vinegar” on her face.
Another young woman sprayed, Yell, appeared in a segment on “Democracy Now!”. She said the mace was so close to her that it dripped down her face, down her chest and all over her body. She estimated she had been blind for forty-five minutes to an hour.
The NYPD immediately tried to discredit the video. Paul Browne, NYPD chief spokesperson, suggested the spray had been used “appropriately.” He also claimed, “Individuals confronted officers and tried to prevent them from deploying a mesh barrier — something that was edited out or otherwise not captured in the video.”
The effort to call into question the validity of the video did not work. There were multiple pieces of footage of the incident, each showing the act of brutality. And, it was reported soon after that Officer Bologna had been accused of false arrest and civil rights violations in a claim brought by a protester involved in the 2004 demonstrations at the Republican national convention. And Bologna was issued a “disciplinary sanction,” the only known punishment of any NYPD officer for Occupy-related allegations to date.
The pepper spraying of protesters catalyzed support for the movement. Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s “The Last Word,” had one of the more profound reactions. He said the NYPD might conduct an investigation if there are enough complaints but added police investigations are always a “sham” designed to “defend the police conduct.” He noted they were defending it as appropriate, even when there was clear video evidence of what happened, because they knew this story would go away. “Someone would have had to have been killed or seriously injured for the press to have stayed interested in this story and for the police to do even a half-serious investigation,” he declared.
O’Donnell placed the incident in the context of reality—the reality that police brutality happens routinely in America and often in communities of color:
Every day in America, police are too tough. Every day in America, police cross the line and abuse citizens. Every day in America, police get away with that.
White America was shocked at what they saw police doing to Rodney King. Black America would have loved to have been shocked by what they saw police do to Rodney King. But black America only could have been shocked if what the police did to Rodney King was something completely alien to their community experience, was something they couldn`t imagine the police doing in their community.
There`s a Rodney King every day in this country. And black America has always known that. Everything those cops did this weekend to those protesters they`ve done to someone else when there were no video cameras rolling. They`ve done it and they`ve gotten away with it. They know just how much assault and battery their department will let them commit.
They know just how many false arrests their department will let them do. They know just how much latitude their department gives them on abusing citizens. They do it because they know they can. They do it because they know — they know they will get away with it.
This is ultimately why the NYPD does not respect the rights or civil liberties of Occupy protesters, who lawfully protest on sidewalks in New York City. It is why more than eighty people were arrested one year ago. It is why over one hundred and fifty people were arrested one week ago, when the movement marked its one-year anniversary. And, it is why the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PJCF) has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two individuals arrested on September 24, 2001 during “Anthony Bologna’s notorious pepper spray attack on peaceful demonstrators.”
I’ll focus solely on Johanne Sterling’s arrest because she was pepper sprayed. That does not mean Joshua Cartagena’s arrest does not merit equal attention.
As described in the lawsuit filed, Sterling dispersed from a demonstration in Union Square. She had been “engaged in First Amendment protected activity.” Like other demonstrators, they tried to head back to Zuccotti Park, but, “at the intersection of East 12th Street and University Place, there was a violent attack or use of force by police against some number of protesters.” Sterling then turned onto East 12th Street between University Place and Fifth Avenue and walked on the sidewalk.
In this block of East 12th Street, the NYPD, including officers under the command of Defendant BOLOGNA, executed indiscriminate trap-and-arrest tactics to unlawfully trap and arrest protestors, including or predominantly persons who had merely been present or moving upon the sidewalk, in sweeping mass civil rights violations.
Officers deployed orange netting to indiscriminately trap and arrest persons without regard to the conduct of those being arrested, without regard to the existence of probable cause, without individualized or particularized probable cause to arrest and in the absence of fair notice or warnings calculated to reach those subject to arrest.
These were, with the use of the orange netting, literally dragnet mass arrests devoid of probable cause.
Sterling was “seized and/or arrested by the NYPD on the north sidewalk near the corner of East 12th Street at University Place. Officer Bologna approached Sterling and others and “gratuitously and without any lawful cause discharged his pepper spray against Sterling and others.” Sterling experienced “difficulty speaking” and breathing, along with “burning on her face, neck” and eyes. No officer, including Bologna, made any attempt to provide or offer medical care for the “pain and injury caused by the pepper spray.”
The netting “yielded” and Sterling was able to cross the street to the south sidewalk and proceed west. There she was, again, “subjected to the NYPD’s indiscriminate use of sidewalk arrests. Again, without warning or notice or probable cause, the NYPD used orange netting and police lines to trap-and-arrest Sterling.”
According to the filing, NYPD officer Mark Henry “swore out a false declaration under penalty of perjury” and claimed “he personally observed Sterling ‘completely blocking vehicular traffic . . . so that no vehicles could pass.’” Henry also claimed to have observed Sterling, as she remained “at the above location [i.e., ‘on the corner of University Place and E. 12th Street’] after [Sterling] had been advised by the police” and him to not obstruct vehicular traffic.
Sterling “requested medical attention for her pepper spray injuries from the NYPD while she was handcuffed at the scene,” but “NYPD officers refused to provide any ameliorative or medical care for her injuries, including refusing to decontaminate her.” The NYPD then placed Sterling in “an enclosed police van after she had been pepper sprayed. As a result, she continued to experience the after-effects of the spray without the benefit of medical care.”
The lawsuit accuses the City of New York of “ratifying and “encouraging” Bologna’s conduct “by promoting him from Captain to Deputy Inspector in 2006” and “allowing him to continue to have supervision, command and direct participation in policing political demonstrations,” even after multiple lawsuits alleging “repeated acts of unconstitutional conduct” had been filed against him. And the lawsuit argues the City of New York’s failure to “take disciplinary and corrective action” has sent a message to officers there will be “no price to pay when misconduct occurs. The City’s policy, practice and/or custom of not taking action when abuse occurs at protests “directly caused” Sterling’s and others’ rights to be violated.
Pundits and avid newsreaders want to know what happened to the Occupy movement, why it has struggled to maintain its momentum. This is why. Police have engaged in unlawful suppression of the movement ever since it began.
The NYPD has been permitted to engage in regular acts of police misconduct and sometimes brutality against protesters, who have dared to attempt to confront financial institutions on Wall Street by appearing nearby in the flesh. They’ve been allowed to increasingly target individuals lawfully protesting on sidewalks. The lawsuit filed makes clear the more pernicious aspect of what happened on September 24, 2011, was not the pepper-spraying but the fact that NYPD officers were able to trap individuals anywhere and essentially turn them into law enforcement prey.
Speech has been criminalized. So, too, has freedom of the press, with NYPD violations contributing to the United States’ drop to forty-seventh in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. The NYPD has effectively become Wall Street’s personal security force, an army serving the 1% permitted to justify violations of laws so they can suppress any demonstrations by the 99%.
One year since Bologna’s pepper spraying—a clear act of police brutality by police but not the worst pepper spraying incident committed by law enforcement against the movement, the lawlessness and rogue activities of the NYPD have only increased. No amount of criticism or complaints from citizens or press or civil liberties organizations seems to matter. So, those violated now must go to the courts to convince a judge they have a right to dissent, which police officers have been routinely violating.
Separate from the above mentioned lawsuit, Kaylee Dedrick, who is twenty-five years-old, has filed a civil suit against the City of New York and several police officers, including Bologna. Dedrick was one of the protesters pepper sprayed by Bologna.
The Albany Times-Union reports:
“Ms. Dedrick collapsed to her knees, screaming in agony,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District in Manhattan.
“The pepper spray seared her eyes, temporarily blinding her and it burned the skin on her face and chest, causing her to feel as if she was on fire. The spray infiltrated her air passage, making it difficult for her to breathe. She choked and gasped for air in between screams for help,” the lawsuit states.