To Crush a Butterfly on the Wheel of a Tank: Why Americans Must Take to the Streets


Rob Couteau


A personal essay on marching with
the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators on 5 October 2011

Anyone who grew up in the 1960s will recall the singular image of construction workers – or "hard hats," as they were called – mercilessly beating up the peaceful antiwar demonstrators who marched through New York City. As I pointed out to many of the young people I interviewed on September 30 in Liberty Plaza, the fact that organizations such as the Transit Workers Union (TWU) were now pledging to join the protestors was nothing less than extraordinary when viewed in this historical context. I added that, in the Paris revolts of 1968, the solidarity of the unions and students had nearly brought down the government, but nothing comparable had ever happened here, in the days of rage, during the '60s or early '70s.

Those conversations occurred on the fourteenth day of the occupation. In the days that followed, other miracles appeared, one more astonishing than the next. First, the United Steelworkers Union pledged its support. Then a group of Marine veterans joined the dedicated men and women of Liberty Plaza to "protect them from the police" – even donning their full dress uniforms as they "stood guard."

So when the transit workers decided to rally, I knew I had to be there to witness what would certainly become an emblematic image of our times.



The TWU and other unions were planning on assembling at the Federal Building at Foley Square, then leading an enormous rally back to the park. Because of a rare eye illness that causes an extreme thinning of the corneas (Keratoconus), I couldn't afford to get pepper sprayed. To risk it was to risk permanent blindness. Therefore, I initially planned to stay in Zuccotti Park (the official name of Liberty Plaza) and to await the marchers there.

I arrived at 3:00 p.m. from upstate New York. There were about 2,000 people on the first day that I'd visited on September 30; by now it had grown much larger. It was also a broader spectrum of protestors: those of all ages, including the first sprinkling of union workers bearing picket signs.

About an hour later a core member of the Occupy Wall Street group announced there would be a "permitless" rally leaving momentarily, for Foley Square. They would join the unions that were assembling there en masse, and then return to the park on the official march.

Despite my trepidation about sustaining serious injury, I was swept up in the exhilaration of the moment, and I knew I had to join them. So I marched on this permitless rally to join the workers.

I trailed behind a small, ragtag group of three protestors in their twenties and one middle-aged woman. They were holding up a large America flag with a message scrawled on the front.

When one of the young men grew tired, I offered to take his place, and so we continued along the avenue with a crowd of several thousand. I figured: either I'll be safe here, behind this flag, or I'll get attacked for desecrating it. Indeed, as the police eyeballed us, we were careful not to let it touch the ground. I didn't even know what the message on the front said.


A brightly tattooed young woman who was holding the flag next to me also held a sign, but I could only read the back of it: it was the box top from a pizza store.

Although my life is dedicated to writing, it wasn't the words that were important now: it was the direct, visceral experience of simply being there. However, I later discovered that she was a recent graduate who had studied accounting and had been searching for work for many months, all to no avail, and that's what the sign addressed. I told her that when my friends and I had graduated college with our fine-arts degrees in the late 1970s, we never really expected to find a serious job, but for an accountant to have had so much trouble seeking "gainful employment" back then was unthinkable!

Some of the cops who lined the streets along the way seemed fairly relaxed about everything. One black cop was even smiling and nodding his head up and down, keeping time to our chants, as if he approved. Some cops just seemed bored or neutral. And some looked like Nazi storm troopers just waiting for someone to mess up. Those were the ones with a sort of screwed up, intense look on their faces, as if their skin was about to explode. Most of those were the ones with gold badges or wearing white shirts: the supervisors.


Once we entered Foley Square, we were engulfed in an even larger crowd. The unions were there in force: making speeches and carrying colored – and often witty – signs.

After shooting some photos, I decided to take the train back and wait at Liberty Plaza for the TWU and the other unions to join us. But to do that one had to ask the cops for permission to enter the train station. This was a foreboding of the bad things to come later on. But these particular cops – rank-and-file blue shirts; mostly African-American men – were professional and polite.

By sunset there must have been about 20,000 people marching around Liberty Plaza; it was just amazing. It wasn't an intimate experience – of speaking in depth in a relaxed atmosphere with the young protestors, like my previous experience – but it was an impressive collective experience. It was the first time I had marched since 1979, when I attended an antinuke rally in Washington, D.C., and read antinuke poetry in a café with several other poets.

By now it was dark, although the lighting equipment from various media outlets cast sections of the streets under an eerie, bone-white glow. As the chanting continued without interruption, the crowd seemed to grow more and more energized.

The marchers had completely taken over Liberty Street – both the sidewalks and the street itself – but the police had erected metal barriers along Broadway and were somehow managing to keep the protestors on the sidewalks so that traffic could continue to flow unimpeded. I wondered how much longer this ever-swelling crowd could be contained.


I'd only had about two hours of sleep the previous night, so after absorbing these impressive events and watching the marchers rally in ever-increasing numbers round and round the park – some of them splitting off to march on Wall Street without a permit – I decided to leave at 7:30 and headed for the #4 train.

It took quite a while to walk those few blocks. We were tightly packed on the sidewalk, and most of the crowd had remained stationary, chanting to the police to "join us," and shouting slogans about how police pensions were threatened as well: that they, too, were part of the ninety-nine percent. But these were friendly chants, not violent or threatening ones, and the atmosphere continued to remain positive, at least as far as the behavior of the protestors was concerned.

As I finally approached the train station I encountered a few cops standing near the entrance outside, but they seemed to be minding their own business, and I continued down the steps without a problem.


Hours later, I learned that about thirty minutes after I had left the area, certain police officers – in particular, the white-shirted supervisors – started to get violent. There's a new video circulating that is far worse than the pepper-spray incident. Woodstock is about to turn into Altamont:

It captures a white-shirted cop viciously beating the protestors, swinging his club into the crowd with great force – swinging back and forth, over and over, like a madman. Not like a madman – but as only a madman would. Apparently, the white shirts decided to block the entrance to certain subways stations, and the crowd, which was immense by this time, had nowhere else to go, so it spilled into the street. And then, those "white shirts" went berserk!


Perhaps one should say, "Thank God for the abject stupidity of some of these white-shirted supervisors. Because they are doing more and more each day to galvanize these kids, to bring them out in bigger numbers, and to turn the nation against the police."

However, these vicious numbskulls are just the tip of an iceberg of visceral hatred and rage that the ruling class increasingly harbors for the commoners: the "consumers."

But this time, it's being videotaped – and broadcast – by ordinary people, instead of being suppressed or selectively edited by the powers that be.

Perhaps holding up a digital camera and passively recording such crimes against humanity will prove to be a form of Gandhian nonviolence that engenders the broader support of the masses. Perhaps, the passivity mentioned by the young man can thus be transformed into "passive resistance." But those cameras will be held in place only for so long before someone starts to throw one. These particular cops are playing with fire and, so far, no one in the government seems to understand this. As one of the older gentlemen at Foley Square said to me earlier that afternoon, "Where are the Bobby Kennedys of our time? I'm a lifelong Democrat. But no one in the Democratic Party cares about us anymore."

"Yes," I replied. "And because of that, voting hardly matters. That's why the people have taken to the streets. Now, it's up to us."