"We have a rocky relationship," says a sandy-haired young police officer named Greg. "Like any relationship, it's got its ups and downs." Another, a buff 29-year-old with a shaved head named Mike chimes in: "They hate us one minute, then a couple of them will come over and talk to us, then they hate us again… and then there's this guy. He gestures at a man holding a sign that reads "FUCK OFF NYPD" on one side and "NYC POLICE ARE SICK PETTY STUPID COWARDS" on the other.
If you just listened to the protesters' chants, you'd reasonably enough conclude that the cops and protesters are natural born enemies. Dana Rose, 36, of Oregon, who came up with a group called the Pagan Cluster, tells me that protesters waiting in detention would pass the time by playing a variant of Duck, Duck, Goose called "Anarchist, Anarchist, Cop." Yet their reaction to the "Fuck Off NYPD" guy is mostly hostile; many blast him as needlessly provoking the otherwise pretty laid back officers. One older woman runs up and yells at him: "Steve, I guess you want the attention and not the prison time." (He's apparently been mugging for cameras as a lone sign-holder rather than participating in the more issue-oriented protests, with their attendant risk of arrest.)
It's not exactly a big group hug out there, but many of the interactions seem to be at least civil and aimed at mutual understanding. Two anarchists debate then merits of masked protest with a cop whose badge identifies him as Hopper. "That law that bans people wearing masks is 150 years old," Hopper is saying, "And you know why? Because the people in masks are the ones who are out to hurt people; they don't care about the damage they do." The mohawked anarchist counters that the masks are worn "in solidarity with the oppressed people of the world," though he concedes the secondary (and more plausible) purpose of concealing one's identity. Hopper's doubtless right that some of the black bandanna types are just out to cause mayhem, but I'm also picking up on a vicious cycle of fear: Some protesters think that they might be targeted later if they're photographed taking part in even a peaceful protest; some police conclude that the masks are proof that the activists aren't interested in peaceful protest and ought to be targeted.
Two others are talking with another officer about how better communication between police and protesters might make these events run more smoothly. They seem to be getting on well, though the cop bristles and become visibly angry when the Abner Louima case is mentioned. Still, the tense moment is defused, and they continue chatting politely.
Paul Marks (22) and Natalia Caraballo (19) report a striking contrast between different groups of police they deal with after being arrested. Upon arrest, Natalia tells me, people are put in tight plastic cuffs, which aren't cut off for (she estimates) an hour, even after everyone's in detention. She reports seeing one person whose hand's turning bluish from circulatory interruption, and Paul adds that his thumb is still numbed from the cuffs. The initial group they dealt with, says Paul, had plastered Bush/Cheney stickers around the detention area and were chanting "Four More Years" to irritate the detainees… and to frighten them: "You don't want to fuck with corrections [officers]," he reports them announcing, "They'll make us look like fuckin' Mother Teresa; they'll fuckin' kill you."
They find just the opposite to be true: Upon being handed over, the first corrections officer Paul encounters says: "So Bush, huh? Fuck Bush!" Both have only kind words for this group: "As soon as we got there, they fed us, they took care of us. They were good guys."
Indeed, that corrections officer isn't alone in expressing a certain amount of sympathy for the protesters' politics. After reassuring himself that I'm not going to use his full name, Mike—the buff cop with the shaved head—tells me: "We've gotta get rid of Bush; he's gotta get out of office. It's the lesser of two evils, like it always is, and I agreed with him on the war for the most part. But I disagree on every other domestic issue. Stem cells and abortion are more important to me." He pauses before summing up: "Bush is retarded."
As best as I can gather from our brief conversation, Mike is a mensch. He's got a remarkable sense of humor for someone who's been riding around the city or standing guard for over nine hours. Under other circumstances, he could probably sit down for a friendly beer and some good conversation with some of the ragged anarchists milling about here. In fact, almost all the people I talk to seem like genuinely sympathetic people. Individually, anyway. It's en masse that the folks on both sides of the barricade tend to behave badly, because en masse they're The Cops and The Anarchists. The Cops and The Anarchists communicate in the vernacular of the angry chant and the truncheon; it's the individuals who are capable of conversations.