Matt Yglesias, who grew up in Manhattan, makes a sensible observation about the arrest of 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters who tried to walk to Brooklyn in the driving lanes of the Brooklyn Bridge Saturday:
Realistically, New York City is extremely vulnerable to the possibility of demonstrators disrupting bridge and tunnel traffic. Consequently, the NYPD needs to be extremely aggressive about dissuading people from adopting bridge-related protest tactics.
Lower Manhattan isn’t just a symbolic place for protesting—it’s also somewhere that people live and work, and people need to be able to get around, including by driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. Indeed, I got stuck in a nasty traffic jam on the FDR Drive on the east side of Manhattan around 4 PM on Saturday, caused by cars backing up onto the highway from the ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge. Illegally interfering with my and my fellow New Yorkers’ travels may lead to your arrest.
The complaints from the protesters about the arrests are baffling to me. Basically, they seem to be that the police didn’t stop people from walking in the road at the foot of the bridge, instead waiting until they were partway across and then arresting them. The New York Times quotes one protester saying, “It seemed completely permitted… There wasn’t a single policeman saying ‘don’t do this’.”
Let’s try this once again, slowly. The Brooklyn Bridge has a pedestrian walkway. Walking in the road is like walking on a freeway: illegal. The police don’t have any obligation to give you fair warning or physically stop you from entering the road; you should already know not to do it.
In any case, the police actually were announcing on bullhorns that people were not allowed to walk in the road. Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union confirms in the Times piece that these announcements were made, but notes that many of the protesters were too far back to hear the announcements, and were just following the crowd.
This defense amounts to: “I was just doing what the amorphous clot of people was doing. The amorphous clot implied that it was OK!” But alas, an amorphous clot does not have lawgiving power. If you follow an amorphous clot in doing something illegal, such as walking in the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge, you may get arrested.
It’s not that the NYPD can do no wrong. The Anthony Bologna incidents, involving apparently unprovoked uses of pepper spray, look indefensible to me. But the NYPD has every reason to insist that major roadways be kept free from unpermitted marchers, and, more broadly, to prevent a descent of the Financial District into anarchy. The protesters may be “Occupying Wall Street,” but they are not actually allowed to occupy the streets. A mass arrest—of people who, let’s not forget, were breaking the law—may be a good way of teaching these protesters to stay on the sidewalks and plazas.