Chelsea Elliott, 25, was part of the Occupy Wall Street movement and became part of one of its early infamous incidents: the Sept. 24 pepper-spraying of protesters in Manhattan by the New York City Police Department. The Brooklyn resident spoke to TIME'S Nate Rawlings:
TIME: What brought you down to Zuccotti Park in the first place?
Chelsea Elliott: Well, I graduated from college in 2008 and was not prepared for what happened, but I guess it's just like this building of constant stress and watching friends and family suffering for so long. And my roommate's friend told me about it she heard about it on Twitter and so I just decided to go down on the second day and see what it was all about. And it really spoke to me.
What was it like on day two?
Well, I went there the evening of day two, and it was the second general assembly, and there were probably like 30 people there, and everyone was just saying their crazy, outlandish ideas, and people were freaking out because the cops were taking down our signs you know, very different, it was just kind of small and still kind of silly and fun.
What was it like to watch it grow those first couple of weeks?
It was pretty amazing it was really unbelievable, actually. The first week I was there, I got to spend a lot of time there, because I had some time off from work, and so I really got to grow and be part of this community. As it's increased, it's definitely gotten more chaotic, but it's just really amazing and unbelievable to see something like that.
So the first big march, when you guys got penned in, I know it wasn't a fun time. Can you describe that, what it was like? What did it feel like?
Basically it was we were leading the march, we were really hungry, and we were going to get some slices of Occu-pie make a lot of jokes but we were walking down the sidewalk, and all of a sudden this line of cops came and told us to stop walking, and we were penned in. I just remember it was completely chaotic. There were fights. I couldn't really see; I was toward the edge of the pen; I was like right next to the cops; I was trying to talk to them ...
But it was just really chaotic, and the moment that was really horrifying for me was, there was this girl near me that was slammed down on the ground and dragged underneath the net right before I was maced, and that was kind of what me and the other girls were responding to, this girl out of nowhere who just gets slammed down, and then a cop just walks over and sprays us. It was just really confusing it took a second for it to register, what it was. The cop in front of me said something like, "Thanks for the warning, buddy," in response to the officer that walked over real quick, and that's kind of when I realized it, and you just feel like, this sting in your eyes, you can't open them, you can't breathe. It's kind of like time just stopped, and we fell down.
From the video, it looks like it just kind of leveled you guys.
Yeah. I was luckier than some of the other girls, but it was completely out of nowhere, and I just remember asking everyone around me, "How long am I going to feel this way? Make it stop!" And just pouring vinegar all over our faces. I don't know. It was terrifying, and I think what happened afterward, after it happened, I got kind of paranoid. It was on the Internet, and I got kind of overwhelmed by the attention. It was really just a terrifying and shocking experience.