Austin Police Repeatedly Evict End Homelessness Campers and Arrest 3
On Saturday, October 6, a week of events and direct action celebrating Occupy Austin’s 1st birthday culminated on its official anniversary with an attempt to reoccupy space; the goal was to create a new transitional encampment for those without homes in a city which has criminalized their existence.
The day began with a March Against Hate to protest a hate crime on Pride weekend (previously mentioned on myFDL). Occupy Austin, in addition to joining the march, lent our portable sound system to the community for use at the Texas State Capitol, then danced along the sidewalks on the way back to Austin City Hall for our Popular Assembly. In between blowing on party horns and whistles, members of the community got on the microphone to talk about the accomplishments of our movement, our favorite memories, and our hopes for next year.
From City Hall, Occupiers left by car, bus and bike for a rendezvous point at Highland Mall, a failing mall which was recently bought out by Austin Community College (though classes have not yet begun there). The bicycle contingent was the last to arrive, and by the time they did the Austin Police department and mall security had amassed — at least a dozen police cars, not to mention the helicopter circling overhead. It was time for Tent City Rising.
Occupy Austin’s Ending Homelessness Working Group called for the action with the goal of creating new temporary housing for those without homes. The encampment, if allowed to exist, would follow strict behavior guidelines for all those present. It would provide critical meals and shelter for a city which has thousands of homeless (about 4,000) and only hundreds of beds in dangerous, overcrowded shelters. Austin has also made it illegal to camp on public property, against city code to erect tents on private property within city limits, and even illegal to sit or lay down on the sidewalk. The timing of the action was perfect to shed light on the problem, because the Austin Police Department has started an initiative to ‘clean up downtown‘ for the Austin City Limits Festival and the upcoming Formula 1 Race in November. Arrests of the homeless have increased as much as 200% or more by some reports.
Moments after the cyclists arrived at the ACC property, police and security cleared the parking lot. In the process they made two arrests — including the Peaceful Streets Project‘s Joshua “Comrade” Pineda, who they grabbed off the sidewalk, later claiming he’d stepped a single foot back onto the “private property.” Regrouping, the occupiers marched to an abandoned Home Depot, shadowed by the helicopter and an unmarked law enforcement agent in a white SUV.
On the night in February when police evicted the 5-month long occupation from Austin City Hall, the city allowed people without anywhere else to go the opportunity to sleep for a single night at this disused big box construction store. The site was chosen symbolically to make a stand. If the city was willing to house people there for one night, why not many nights when so many sleep in their cars or try to find a hiding place from the police to get a few hours rest?
The gate to the Home Depot was opened, and three Occupiers parked their cars inside. Soon after, many police officers arrived and told them to move their vehicles. As soon as they reentered the property to do so, police boxed them in and placed all three in handcuffs. One member of the group was due to visit a sick relative the next morning and became extremely distraught. Even the police seemed affected; one officer appeared near tears and helped occupiers recover a bicycle belonging to one of those arrested.
All three were eventually released with criminal trespass warnings. Then, about a dozen officers marched outside the Home Depot gates to the grass outside where two tents had been erected. As the officers approached the tent, Jeremy Cruts went to retrieve his backpack from inside. Four officers wrestled him face first to the ground then pinned him there with their knees. He was eventually charged with illegal camping.
With both tents confiscated, after a brief lighted protest by Occupy Austin’s new Overpass Light Brigade, the group left. We marched to two more properties, with a dozen police vehicles operating in the area keeping tabs on us and evicting us from each site in turn. While the homeless are heavily persecuted, Austin is a sprawling city, full of disused properties — the second, nicknamed the Grotto, was so poorly maintained that the city had left code violation warnings on the property, citing brush and grass issues. Eventually, about 10 remaining Tent City activists spent the night on a church property. All three arrested activists were released from jail the following Sunday.
Wednesday, October 10 was World Homeless Action Day. Occupy Austin purchased $250 in food and bus passes to distribute to those in need. After gathering for a meal at a bus transit center on the south side of the city, the group again encamped an abandoned property they called Camp Big Bird. It was held secretly overnight, with media attention deliberately kept to a minimum. In the morning, the local media arrived for a press conference, followed shortly by the arrival of the Austin Police Department.
All activists on site were detained. Cruts, who was again present, was warned that he had two minor outstanding warrants. Everyone was then released from detainment and voluntarily left the property. But police followed Cruts when he accompanied Ending Homelessness organizer Peter Cooper to a nearby bus stop where, out of sight of the media, they arrested him on a new warrant issued after the morning detainment. He is now in jail and charged with a felony: assaulting an officer. Though many witnesses, including this reporter, can attest to Cruts’ nonviolent behavior at Occupy events, it has not yet been confirmed whether the alleged assault occurred during his Saturday arrest or in an unrelated incident.
I will update myFDL as the situation develops.
Update: Though still unclear why the charge suddenly appeared today, Jeremy Cruts’ lawyer reports that the felony assault charge is unrelated to Occupy Austin, October 6 or Tent City Rises events.