Can The Occupy Movement Survive the Winter?
Updates from Remaining #OWS Outposts Across the Country
When Occupy Wall Street kicked off on September 17th in lower Manhattan, few expected that it would spread with such rapidity and intensity. But it did just that, especially after the now infamous Deputy Inspector, Anthony Bologna, pepper-sprayed a group of kettled female protesters on a NYC sidewalk.
Loop 21 was one of the first media outlets to report that Occupy was spreading across the nation. Shortly thereafter, the movement took on a global dimension. There are Occupy groups in countless countries – South Korea, Brazil, Nigeria, Argentina, France, and even at the recent World Economic Summit in Davos. In short, there are now Occupy groups on every continent, including Antarctica. The movement’s critique of increased economic inequality and perceived political and financial control by the 1% has become increasingly popular. Even politicians in the U.S. (both Democrats and Republicans) have turned to the rhetoric in order to appeal to voters.
While it has spread globally, it may appear to the general public, here in the U.S., that Occupy’s presence in New York City – where it all began – is on the wane. After all, Occupiers were ousted from Zuccotti Park, where they had created a highly elaborate campsite that many area residents viewed as a tent city by the time New York's Mayor Bloomberg ordered the ousting.
After the November 15, 2011 clearing of Zuccotti Park many wondered if the movement would lose steam. While it may appear that activities have either ceased or been significantly muted since late fall, upon closer investigation, the movement is still quite strong. For instance, the New York General Assembly has an active website with over 100 working groups focused on issues ranging from student loan debt to the environment, political elections, and so forth. It is here that groups are able to coordinate meetings and map out future protest plans.
In an email interview, Johanna Clearfield, who is an Occupier and belongs to several groups, pointed out the success of “Occupy The Town Square.”
Occupy The Town Square, Clearfield explained, “have been and are continuing to hold ‘pop-up’ town squares -- modeled on Zuccotti's ‘community’ layout. Zuccotti Park included: a people's library, an area for exercise classes (these were taught in the morning - yoga and meditation), a medic tent, the kitchen which served healthy meals twice a day, a clothing donation area, an information desk, areas for working groups to meet, and the requisite ‘general assembly’ which was held each day and all-inclusive. The GA planned activities, talked through issues and set the agenda for OWS.”
Clearfield added, “these pop-up town squares include all of that but, because of the heavy police presence in NYC -- and elsewhere -- they are constructing these Zuccotti Parks on a one-day basis.”
So the Town Square pops up, and is then taken down at the end of the day. The first one took place at Washington Square Park, and Clearfield estimates that over a thousand people showed up to that event.
While Occupiers in New York have come up with creative ways to continue meeting and spreading the word about the movement, there are other cities that still have encampments. The online publication, Fire Dog Lake, has a list of current encampments (it was last updated on January 23rd, so the log is not entirely accurate). For instance, at the time of writing this article on February 6th, 2012, Occupy Austin was still listed as having a physical camp. However, that is no longer the case. Just like other Occupations that have been evicted over the past few months, Occupy Austin was abruptly ousted on February 4th. Individuals were arrested, but there are currently no official numbers. Who they arrested is notable. For starters, the official livestreamer for Occupy Austin was one of the first to be detained. Shortly thereafter, Debbie Russell, who is a legal observer for the group and a volunteer for the ACLU, was taken into custody.
In a telephone interview the day after the eviction, Kit O’Connell, who is part of Occupy Austin, discussed the events that night. O’Connell, 33, describes himself as the group’s “twitter magnet.” Like the majority of Occupiers, he does not claim to be a leader, but he does play a significant role in helping the twitter team. O’Connell was not arrested on Saturday evening, so was able to give a full account of what happened after the group received an eviction notice at 9:45 PM.
“After a full day of pretty tiring actions, we all kind of headed home ... the ones who weren’t going to stay the night there. And the people who stayed, they bedded down. It was 9:45 PM when we got it. We were told that we had to be out by 10:30,” he said.
Debbie Russell said the city did not give the protesters any time to leave. She also criticized the City of Austin, which claimed the Occupiers were aware of the impending eviction.
“The City said they have been talking about it to them for weeks. That is not true. They had only been talking about infrastructure, not people having to go. That did not get relayed until 9:45. So, they are blatantly lying, and of course they’ve been on record saying, ‘we’re not going to evict them, and they can stay there as long as they want to’ in the past. That’s from October and November when they kept saying, ‘we’re not going to evict you. We’re not going to evict you.’”
O’Connell made a similar remark. “People were sleeping [on the steps outside of City Hall] on a regular basis. We were not allowed to sleep anywhere else, and were allowed to have a storage tent as a symbol and as a protest with signs on it. It was also our medical tent for a while. We were allowed to have that as long as no one slept in there. Then in the last week though, they wanted us to take down the tent and the library, saying they were permanent structures. They didn’t give us any advanced warning for the eviction.”
Both Russell and O’Connell described the eviction as quite tense.
O’Connell also noted that this eviction was different than when arrests took place in late October. Since O’Connell had been participating in their long day of action, he headed home before the eviction notice arrived. But as soon as he heard about the City’s plans, he returned to City Hall immediately.
“When I got there, there were many cops, more than I’d seen there before, and lining one side of the plaza. There were many vehicles around ... there were also a number of security guards with a company called Allied Barton Security. I don’t know what they were doing there.”
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At this point, O’Connell said the police offered to bus the homeless Occupiers to an abandoned Home Depot for the night. O’Connell did not see the location, but did receive word back from other Occupiers that the homeless had been bussed there, and that they were safe.
He also noticed an armored S.W.A.T. vehicle on his way back to City Hall, and said that a helicopter was overhead during the eviction. He was surprised to see the vehicle. When asked what it looked like, he said, “It wasn’t the same as the one I’ve seen photos of in Tampa ... and unfortunately I don’t think we got photos of it. But it was an armored vehicle.”
As the time for eviction drew near, the atmosphere worsened and was remarkably different than when the arrests took place in late October.
“That night they brought a lot of police out, and they pushed us back away from the arrests, but they were scrupulously polite that night. They were telling us, ‘excuse me,’ and ‘watch your step,’ you know, as we backed away from them. They were very polite and very calm ... last night was very different. The police came in, and you could tell they were very tense. They started pushing us back and as they were doing so, someone who was a higher up, was pointing at people and saying, ‘arrest him, arrest her.’ One of the first people arrested was Debbie Russell, who is a long-time dedicated ACLU of TX activist. She is one of our legal advisers,” O’Connell said.
When asked why she was arrested and how things were playing out, Russell saw a group of police officers pull out billy clubs. They were receiving orders to do so from one of the commanding sergeants.
“They pulled out their billy clubs on cue. At that moment, which I’ve done 50 times before, I knew I needed to back off if I didn’t want to get arrested. But when I saw the billy clubs come out, I couldn’t back off. I just couldn’t do it. They are looking past me at the crowd of people with billy clubs in hand, and I wasn’t going to stand by with them going in that direction. So, granted, I pushed it, but I was still complying with the orders to back up. Then they arrested me for criminal trespassing, yet there were still 50 people on the plaza at that moment. So, I’m not sure exactly how you can justify that.”
O’Connell witnessed a few cops use excessive force. “Twice officers jumped out of the line, and attacked people. And as far as I could tell, they had not done anything. And the other officers pulled them back. But there were at least two police assaults at that time. And then one of the officers who had been violent already, he grabbed our 60-year old – this elderly woman – our finance magnet, and was so rough when throwing her to the ground that she started having a seizure.”
In fact, the Occupier that O’Connell witnessed being arrested is 58 years old, and not 60. "We have now been informed by the Occupier that she did NOT have a seizure," says a member of the Occupy Austin media team. "However, she DID suffer a blow from the night stick of an APD officer who's badge and identification were covered up, as well as further humiliation that will be released when permission is granted."
O’Connell also alleged that Shane Housmans was the arresting officer, but this has not been confirmed. According to several eye witnesses, Housmans was present during the eviction. Furthermore – and according to both O’Connell and Russell – the officer is known for having issues of this sort. In 2010, for instance, Housmans was temporarily suspended for violating a Civil Service Commission Rule.
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When asked why the police were acting differently towards the occupiers, Russell had several thoughts on the matter.
“I attribute it to them essentially not wanting to do what the city management was ordering them to do, and compensating by acting like tough guys. And I talked to the Assistant Chief of Police on the scene, and I asked him, ‘how do you really feel about this?’ And he said, ‘Debbie, you know I can’t tell you that.’ And I said, ‘we’re going to have coffee when you’re not wearing that uniform,’ and he said, ‘we’ll definitely do that very soon.’ So, I know that they hate this. The Chief and the Assistant Chief, have said we respect [the Occupiers], and now they have to eat those words, because the city told them to,” she said.
Russell then added, “It was also possibly different because they staged a ‘Fuck the Police’ protest, which didn’t sit well with 99% of the 99%. That amped up their anger, and ire, so .... But everyone has a right to their expression, and I will stand there and protect it no matter what.”
The protest lasted until midnight. After the arrests occurred, around 40 protesters began marching through the streets, heading towards a lively area with lots of bars and restaurants. O’Connell said they received a lot of support from the onlookers, and a few apparently even joined them. (He also noted the high level of support on Twitter). They were also receiving reports that police had surrounded City Hall, were tracking them, and ready for a confrontation. Then it began to rain heavily. The group was becoming smaller. They took shelter under an awning, someone got them pizzas, and the Occupiers decided to call it a night.
Now that Occupy Austin has been evicted, will this stop them?
O’Connell laughed when asked this question. “No! We’re just getting started.”
Action plans and work will continue, O’Connell noted. He then discussed a key issue for Occupy Austin: homelessness.
“We’ve done a lot of outreach to get [homeless] involved. There is this place called the Angel House, which feeds homeless people every Sunday. We have had our end homelessness meeting there during the dinner, and this is with the support of Angel House.”
When it comes to community action and helping the homeless, Occupy Austin, is not the only group focused on this issue. Occupiers in Providence, Rhode Island have made that a priority as well. In this case, Occupy Providence played a role in getting a homeless day shelter opened.
In early December, Occupy Providence’s legal counsel made it clear that, as the weather worsened, it would be harder to justify the occupation of Burnside Park. The City would argue that conditions were unsafe as a result of the cold. So, some of the group members began thinking of an action plan that would include something tangible and lasting in return from the city.
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Occupier Michael McCarthy said in an email, “We had been working with homeless advocates all along -- including RIHAP, the RI Homeless Advocacy Project, and RICH, the RI Coalition for the Homeless -- and I thought it was disingenuous for the city to assert that our safety was paramount, when they were not serving the needs of the homeless. So I called John Joyce, co-founder of RIHAP, and asked him what a valuable thing for the homeless would be. I thought perhaps more night shelters, but he explained there was enough emergency space, and that a ‘day center’ would be more useful (since people are kicked out every day and do not have a comfortable place to stay, look for work, be dignified, etc.)”
After hearing Joyce’s explanation, on December 21st McCarthy drafted a proposal asking the Occupiers to suspend overnight occupation of Burnside Park. In so doing, they would get something in return: "a public space opened for a day center for Providence's homeless residents."
To McCarthy’s surprise, the city accepted the offer. After it was accepted, a location had to be found. Emmanuel House, which was owned by the Catholic Church, and was no longer in use as a child day care center, became the choice. Negotiations began with the Church, and caused, as McCarthy said, “some discord.” But it was eventually sorted out.
“It took us two weeks to accept the offer, and after that happened less than a week for the day center to open. By the end of the whole event, there had been a lot of difficulty, but the result was that the city accepted, the Church provided, but Occupy Providence was the catalyst.”
These sorts of victories are not always reported in the media, and Occupy Wall Street (in NYC), Occupy Austin and Occupy Providence are not the only groups that are trying to combat serious problems, such as homelessness. When you look past the police confrontations and viral media generated by the movement, it becomes clear that meaningful work is being done. As for Occupy Providence, getting the Emmanuel House up and running for the homeless during the day is a tremendous success story.