One of Occupy Austin's free speech tents with the Austin Overpass Light Brigade's signs.

On February 3 2012, Occupy Austin received about an hour’s notice before a violent police raid which cleared the encampment at City Hall. New regulations imposed a 10pm curfew and rules against tents, bedrolls or other “permanent” structures. As occupiers took the streets, there were several arrests. Activists and journalists were threatened by police ambush and, at one point, a pepper-spray can brandished by Austin Police Officer Jason Mistric. Three undercover police officers that had infiltrated the group in order to entrap its members were present throughout the day.

Tents at Austin's City Hall

Occupy Austin erected tents and celebrated the one-year anniversary of its eviction from City Hall on February 3, 2013.

One year later — this past Sunday — Austin’s occupation gathered again at their first home to honor the day and all that had taken place there since the movement began. Publicly, the group announced a simple potluck. Occupiers put up a food table that was soon overflowing with everything from both vegetarian and carnivore-friendly chili to the infamous piggie pie, a surprisingly edible concoction of graham cracker crumbs, donuts, soy “bacon,” and coffee chocolate syrup.

38 “food fight” arrests took place in late 2011 when occupiers refused to remove a food table, eventually leading to a successful lawsuit against City Hall. On Sunday, a security guard emerged with a photocopy of the memo banning permanent structures from the site.

“Do you have a permit or something that allows you to be here today?” she asked me.

“Yes,” I said, “it’s called the First Amendment.”

She tried to give me the memo but I refused, explaining I had read it before. When she placed it on our food table, I tore it up as she walked away being careful not to drop any on the ground — I didn’t intend to litter. Grabbing a piece of chalk (which Austin’s occupation is never without) I wrote ‘The First Amendment is Our Permit” on the plaza. Soon, chalked art and messages appeared everywhere and, as the afternoon wore on, two tents were erected.

Another occupier later thanked me for standing up to the security guard because she credited me with emboldening the rest of the group, which swelled to about 30 at its peak. But I just acted on my knowledge that the security guards have no power without the police backing them up, especially in light of the lawsuit.

The Austin Audio Co-Op erected an amplified sound system and Dan Cioper played folk music, followed by a group jam session. We cheered visits by old friends we hadn’t seen since the encampment. Police drove around City Hall or stopped to observe us but kept their distance.

Our tents seemed to provoke an intense response from the Internet, with messages of solidarity pouring in on Twitter and Facebook from around the world. The local media even appeared, including the Austin American Statesman which captured another of my interactions:

At one point, while occupiers were addressing each other with a microphone, a security guard inside City Hall appeared to be taking a photograph of the group. One protester, Kit O’Connell, noticed this, gained the attention of the group, and said to the security guard: ‘If you take my picture, please tag me in it on Facebook.’

On the microphone, I told the assembled occupiers that our encampment had shown me the best and worst of humanity.

City Hall Jam Session

Noted Austin musician Dan Cioper and other occupiers celebrate free speech with a jam session.

To me, the real power of Occupy and movements like it is not any of our particular issues. It’s the way it gets people from all classes and walks of life interacting directly, unmediated by the mainstream media or the government. Our camp created a place full of rich, nuanced political dialog and debate. It was a place where almost any time, day or night, you could mobilize a march or other direct action if your words and passion were strong enough. The camp was also a place where you could see the true damage that modern capitalism has caused for those it harms the most — people so desperate for survival that they’d steal or fight to take from a place where almost everything was given for free.

More police arrived — a handful of bike cops hung around the plaza or wandered in and out of City Hall. Four other officers came in two squad cars. Occupiers were unimpressed, dancing and singing to KRS-One’s “Sound of the Police.” Two officers lurked behind yet another security guard as she insisted we take down our tents, and that if we didn’t she’d take them down for us. But we sat in the tents, and refused to accept more copies of the City Hall memo. To our surprise, they backed down and let us remain for the evening.

As night fell, the Austin Overpass Light Brigade assembled their lit signs to show the world that the city was OCCUPIED while a peace sign reminded viewers that our movement is nonviolent. Drivers honked and cheered out their windows. We laughed as an idiot yelled “Get a Job!” just like old times. The mood was high, even as our numbers dwindled as we grew tired. Eventually, we took the tents down, cleaned up the plaza and went home. There were no arrests.

Days later, our pop-up occupation is still a subject of conversation on Twitter. Noted activist Mark Adams commented:

What @OccupyAustin has shown is that re-occupation is a possibility as long as it’s a guerilla tactic.

I think Sunday was a success on many levels. Most of all it reinforced the power of Occupy’s potent symbol of free speech: the tent. For a few hours, we reminded Austin that our city is still occupied with a revolutionary movement for change. Even if only for a day, we reclaimed one public space for the people.

Overpass Light Brigade signs: OCCUPIED

The Austin Overpass Light Brigade at City Hall on February 3, 2013.

More: John Jack Anderson’s Austin Chronicle photo gallery

All photos by Kit O’Connell, all rights reserved.