Sleeping dragon

New York, NY, USA

FDR protest

Protesters from Extinction Rebellion block the FDR Drive

New York, NY, USA

Unscheduled protests in New York usually unfold in more or less the same way. The first on the scene will be a handful of uniformed officers who evaluate the situation, decide that it’s above their paygrade, and call for reinforcements. Next on the scene is a captain in a white shirt. He immediately pulls out his phone and calls someone higher up. He'll spend the next fifteen minutes to an hour pacing back and forth, with his phone to his ear, looking increasingly worried. As long as he has his phone pressed to his ear, however, no one will try to talk to him, which is the last thing he wants.

The first reinforcements will arrive while the captain is still pacing. They consist of more uniforms, plus a detective in a suit. It’s not clear what the detective is doing there, although he too has a phone that he can pull out and talk to if he needs to look busy. He also has nicer shoes than anyone else in a four-block radius.

Eventually, the specialists will arrive. If the legalities of the situation are fuzzy, there’ll be a police lawyer with LEGAL in block letters on the back of his windbreaker. If they think they might like to record the faces of those involved for later reference, the Technical Assistance Response Unit (TARU) will put in an appearance with their cameras. But the most important of the new attendees will be one of the two units capable of actually resolving the issue. If the problem calls for zip-tying people and taking them away, the Strategic Response Group (SRG) will be called in. If, on the other hand, something needs to be cut, demolished, moved (or set upright on its wheels in the case of non-protest incidents such as car rollovers), then the NYPD’s in-house handymen, the Emergency Service Unit (ESU) will roll up in their utility trucks to save the day.

Today’s protest was definitely an ESU affair. At the time I got there, we were still at the stage of a lone captain pacing and talking. He had reason to look worried. A group of protesters from the climate change protest group Extinction Rebellion had settled themselves across the three northbound lanes of the FDR Drive, entirely blocking it. The morning’s commuter traffic was beginning to pile up in front of the barricade.

Political protest is an evolving science. Old-fashioned human chains can be broken up without difficulty. Chaining yourself to something solid or to another person doesn’t work either because most commercially-available chains or cuffs will yield easily enough to boltcutters or power tools. So groups like Extinction Rebellion have adopted a new tactic, known as the sleeping dragon.

A sleeping dragon gets around the boltcutter issue by hiding the cuffs and chains inside a length of piping. Before the police can remove the protesters in a sleeping dragon human chain, they have to separate them. In order to separate them, the cuffs with which they have chained themselves together have to be cut. But that means first cutting through the piping that conceals the cuffs. In the best case, the piping used is PVC, which yields relatively easily. But cast iron drainpipes and even PVC tubing lined with cement can be used. In democracies, police are generally at least a little reluctant to risk injuring protesters by blindly hacking the pipes apart – if only because their legal departments tend to have conniption fits when the brutality lawsuits start rolling in – so dismantling a sleeping dragon is a delicate affair that takes time. Which is precisely the point.

On this particular occasion, the NYPD was facing a double chain of two sets of six protesters. The first set were using PVC pipes that turned out to be lined with cement (and supported on neat little wooden trestles, clearly built for the purpose). The second set seemed to be employing a mix of PVC and metal pipes, with just enough variety to keep the cops guessing.

While the NYPD were preparing their response, traffic was continuing to back up, and not all the drivers were accepting the delay with perfect equanimity. A very patriotic gentleman (with a US flag on his T-shirt and another tattooed on his arm) looked like he wanted to hit someone but wasn’t quite sure who. He went and ranted at some of the uniformed cops for a while, apparently exhorting them to arrest everyone in sight and clear the road. The cops shrugged and pointed to the pipes of the sleeping dragon as if to say that there was nothing they could do about it until the experts arrived.

Eventually (actually, it only took about half an hour) the ESU showed up, and it was clear that the dragon’s days were numbered. The ESU officers fished in the back of their truck and came out holding an assortment of gear that made it look as if they'd gone down to Home Depot and said “Give me one of everything.” In addition to Sawzalls, hacksaws, disc saws, angle grinders, drills, box cutters, and chisels, their dragon-slaying kit also included a spray bottle of water (for cooling things down) and a thin length of wood whose purpose wasn’t instantly obvious.

To give them their due, the ESU were quite professional. It took them about forty minutes to dismantle both chains. They approached each protester in turn, asking them if they would like to release themselves from the human chain and stand up. The protesters, who were also old hands at this particular game, politely declined. The cops would then set to work, carefully examining the pipes to try to figure out the best place to cut. When they did begin cutting, they would first slide their thin piece of wood into the pipe, between the pipe and the arm of the person attached to it, so that any cut that went too deep would hit wood rather than flesh. They also took care to put jackets or blankets over the heads of each protester to protect them from flying sparks.

One by one, the protesters were cut out of the chain. As each one was stood up, zip-tied and marched away, their supporters on the sidelines chanted “We see you, we love you. We see you, we love you" – a piece of ritual that I had never seen before. A few of the stranded drivers also seemed to be on their side: the occupants of one car at the head of the line were apparently sympathetic to the cause, and shouted encouragement and support as each volunteer was led away.

The last protester, an older man with white hair, was asked if he would like to surrender. He too declined, so the ESU officers set to work cutting apart the final piece of piping. This one turned out to be cast-iron, so it took them a little longer to get through it, but eventually they had cut a neat triangle in the metal big enough to get their bolt-cutters through, and the game was over.

The last survivor was marched off to a waiting van. The police vehicles backed up and the road re-opened. And, the sleeping dragon now vanquished, the cops put their tools back in the back of their van and drove away.