During the chaotic Occupy Wall Street march through the financial district this morning, we witnessed a protester on William Street get punched in the face by a police officer, seemingly without provocation. He says the officer hit him so hard his earring got knocked out, but he managed to escape arrest. We caught up with the protester later: his name is Felix Rivera-Pitre, and he told us what happened and how he got away.
Rivera-Pitre, who is HIV positive and used to be a dancer, tells us he was walking a little bit in front of the police on William Street, and admits he "shot the cop a look." But then, according to Rivera-Pitre (and this is in line with what we witnessed), "The cop just lunged at me full throttle and hit me on the left side of my face. It tore my earring out. I remember seeing my earring on the ground next to me and it was full of blood. I was completely dumbstruck. I'm HIV positive and that cop should get tested."
Asked how he escaped, Rivera-Pitre says, "The cops were pulling me by my feet and the crowd was pulling me by my hands, and I was suspended in the air. But there were more people than cops, and they pulled me out." The police were seen searching for Rivera-Pitre in the crowd, but somehow he managed to slip away.
Rivera-Pitre said he was participating in march because "my housing has been affected by the economy." He currently lives at the YMCA at Jamaica Queens, works for Vocal New York, and tries to get by on $300 a month now that his health benefits have been cut back. But after meeting Rivera-Pitre, now we're all confused—aren't all the Occupy Wall Street protesters supposed to be trust fund hippies who dropped out of Sarah Lawrence?
Update:Animal New York published this video which appears to show what happened just before Rivera-Pitre was allegedly slugged in the face. At the 1:30 mark, an officer in a white shirt approaches Rivera-Pitre from behind, touches his arm, and tells him, "Get on the sidewalk." Rivera-Pitre does indeed "shoot him a look"... and then the camera pans away. Cue horrified screaming and unified chanting "THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!"
Update: A reader named Sarah R. has this to say, via an email which we're publishing in its entirety:
I take issue with your article HIV Positive Protester Says Cop Who Punched Him Should Get Tested which was published October 14, 2011 9:31 AM. I understand that you are directly quoting Felix Rivera-Pitre but feel that you are inadvertently perpetuating a dangerous myth about HIV/AIDS transmission.
I work as an HIV/AIDS educator and as anyone with knowledge of the virus can tell you, the risk of infection from the assault experienced by Rivera-Pitre is practically impossible. The common misconception that such contact can result in infection has contributed to the stigma and ostracizing that people living with HIV/AIDS experience on a regular basis.
The fact that this headline and article reinforces this harmful idea is evidenced by some of your readers comments with one stating that Liberty Square should be disinfected. I admire your aim to cover the police brutality and give voice to Felix who has bravely chosen to reveal his status but I ask you reevaluate how what appears to be a sensationalizing headline can be damaging to the community you are trying to present.