Yesterday, I spent all day with my favorite radical activists, people I’ve come to think of as family, occupying Independence Day. But this wasn’t simply a gathering of the usual Occupy Austin core members — this was a coalition of occupiers from around the state, along with representatives of several other activist groups from Iraq Veterans Against the War to Texans for Accountable Government. The weather was mild for a Texas summer with a breeze that provided actual relief, and the trees on the beautiful grounds of the Texas State Capitol provided plenty of shade. We had good food, 16 different teach-ins, music, inspiring speeches, and a beautiful street march.
It might have been a perfect day except for the interference of the Texas State Troopers, who guard the capitol. The grounds are used almost continuously by tourists, workers on their lunch breaks, quinceañeras and weddings, and guerilla dance parties, not to mention activist groups. Once, antiwar protesters pitched tents there for continual occupations in support of peace. Then, about a month after Occupy events began in Austin, the State Preservation Board, the group which oversees the building and its environs (Governor Rick Perry is a member) changed the rules for its use. Now tents are banned, despite their legitimate use as tools of free speech; these same regulations led to Troopers claiming last year that we could only be there for three hours at a time without a permit. Though they backed down and now allow us to assemble for as long as we choose, they are determined to harass us and make that assembly difficult.
In fact, it was the same Sergeant Craig Cummings who appears in the above linked videos who was responsible again yesterday. The harassment began when we erected food tables. Mac, a member of the Occupy Austin OccuQueers, told me about how the table — and he and others at it — were surrounded by ten Troopers with hands on their holsters. Later, they watched members of the Iraq Veterans Against the War use chalk on the sidewalk, a feature of previous ‘die-in’ style protests, before approaching, collecting IDs and arbitrarily giving one member, Lindsey, a warning for ‘Criminal Mischief.’ Later, they told IVAW and others that ‘unattended signs’ were against the law, and that banners spread on the grass must have people sitting on them at all times or their owners would face legal action. Water pistols (even neon-colored or animal-shaped), he said, when aimed at anyone, might merit the use of deadly force. That evening, Christopher Michael (a.k.a. @OccupyURCapitol) began erecting a tent during our permit hours, Troopers approached him and asked him to take it down, then arrested him when he hesitated in doing so. After 24 hours in custody, he was released without charge.
I’ve received negative criticism when I speak out against this behavior by agents of the 1% and the police state. It’s true that Austin’s police, whether APD or Troopers, are not as violent or corrupt as elsewhere — we haven’t dealt with stop and frisk, activists shot by tear-gas cannisters, or pepper spray assaults on queer folk. I don’t think this is an excuse: any abuse of police power is inexcusable. I think it’s a sign of how far our free speech rights have fallen that these excuses are made — it’s not as bad as it could be. That’s true — police could be firing on us with live ammunition, too, but does that mean we shouldn’t demand our right to peaceably assemble regardless of whether the reaction is violence or arrests and threats?
While I want money out of politics, and basic human needs met for all people, I continue to believe that free speech itself is enough of a reason to protest. When we take the streets, I’m happy to march for independence, for gay rights, against the NDAA, or any other cause. For me, though, the core of almost any action is our absolute right to freedom of speech.
Sharing Knowledge, Forging Connections
Despite threats to our freedom (and even our lives, if we’d followed through with our plans for a water gun fight), the day was a success. After we successfully served breakfast, the assembled occupiers (representing about a dozen Texas cities) began a full day of sharing and learning. In the interfaith teach-in, believers talked about the nuns on the bus and shared their struggles to maintain faith in the face of economic and social injustice. The Occupy Austin OccuQueers and OccuKripz took us into the Capitol rotunda for Take Your Capitol, a discussion of past protests inside the Texas Legislature by Act-Up, Lesbian Avengers, and disability-rights group ADAPT; we learned that all of us can have a voice in our state government if we’re willing to take it, and the empowering potential of direct action. Antonio Buehler talked about police corruption while the state troopers listened. Amanda Michelle of Occupy AISD asked us to consider why students would want to go to school when all they take are standardized tests. In the Community Sing, we shared both original compositions and protest songs as diverse as Dona Novis Pacem and War Pigs.
In between learning and sharing tasty food, we shared our vision for a better future and the demands for change we hope will get us there. Later, we heard from speakers, poets, and musicians speaking on the capitol steps. At the end of the night, we took the streets and marched together, escorted peacefully by the Austin Police Department. Our banners read ‘We the People,’ ‘Workers of the World Occupy’ and ‘Unfuck The World.’ A young man of about 7 made his first ever protest sign and took the lead, unafraid. All of these moments were powerful ones and enjoyed by all; I look forward to seeing our ‘New Declaration of Independence.’ None of this is as likely to change the world, however, as the connections we made.
With our camps dismantled for the moment, and persecuted simply for pitching tents, Occupy’s continued strength lies in our distributed power. Now that activists from all around the state of Texas have bonded and acted, we can come together again in the future, and wield more power in all our actions. Whether we’re asking our city councils to oppose Citizens United, protesting the KeystoneXL pipeline, or performing banner drops inside the legislature next session, we’ll have more allies and support than ever. This, I believe, is the future of the occupation — a network of activists working globally to fight the erosion of our basic rights, theft by the 1% of our lives and homes, austerity, war, environmental destruction and corporate influence on political power. In an age of globalization, global protest is the only answer.
The Real Meaning
When our march arrived at Austin City Hall, we were heckled at length by a very angry woman who was defended by her police officer husband. They were parked in the middle of the street and eating a picnic lunch while he was nominally on duty. “Families are trying to enjoy the holiday!” she yelled, after telling us to get a job and asking us why we don’t ‘do something’ by defending our country (despite the presence of both the employed and military veterans in our group). Her antics were laughable on one level, but also display a distressing attitude in our country — though the origins of Independence Day lie in dissent, it has become a day to wear new red, white and blue t-shirts from Walmart, watch fireworks, and feel vaguely patriotic. Once a revolution was fought to gain rights for some, now when the many try to use those same rights they are heckled, arrested, or worse.
In these times, I am inspired to know there are still activists who march, take action, and speak even if they sometimes fear the consequences.
Visit Approximately 8,000 Words for more photos from OccupyJ4.