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A Conversation with John Jack Anderson, Occupy Photojournalist (UPDATE)

7:58 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

State Troopers roughly arrest a mn in a santa suit, surrounded by chalk

From the book: “Occupy Austin participant, James Peterson, dresses as Santa Claus, hands out chalk to children and encourages them to use it after an event at the Texas Capitol on December 21, 2012. Peterson also wrote with chalk and as he and others were leaving, DPS troopers arrested him along with Corey Williams.”

UPDATE: John Anderson will join us on the FDL Book Salon on March 30!

More: See John Anderson’s recent collaboration with the Austin Chronicle’s Michael King: “Fun And Games With Stratfor 

John Jack Anderson has decades of experience as a photojournalist. As part of the Austin Chronicle team, he conducted a long study of Occupy Austin from its first beginnings till the point when its activity waned two years later. He continues to be a fixture at local protests, and during the height of Occupy was our embedded reporter — someone activists trusted enough to tip off about direct actions and civil disobedience before they happened, even in those paranoid days of police infiltration and provocation.

John Anderson with a camera in hand, as a State Trooper leaves the frame at right

John Anderson, photojournalist at work (Police photo obtained through open records request)

Though the Chronicle published a continuous photo gallery, Jack Anderson has just collected the best of his coverage into a pair of photo books: In Search Of A Revolution, and the shorter Occupy Austin: The Encampment Months. Both are available as vivid, full-color printed editions, but Revolution is also available as an inexpensive iBook and .pdf.

Anderson has a sharp eye and caught many funny, chaotic and even tragic moments. The books contain both large events like marches and arrest, but also general assemblies, tent city life, and play. Revolution also documents his photos of the undercover Austin Police Department officers who infiltrated the movement — a special glossary in the back shows where to find each known officer in each photo in the book.

Of course I’m partial to the book in part because it contains so many great photos of my friends, myself, and all that we accomplished from the moment that first tent went up on the steps of Austin City Hall right through all the months we continued gathering and acting despite eviction. But anyone interested in the life of social justice movements and the use of public spaces should get a copy.

Though Anderson is an unapologetic supporter of Occupy’s goals, he stood at just a step removed from the rest of us citizen (gonzo) journalists in the camps with our tweets and streams. His loving outsider’s view of this uprising should not be missed. From occupiers raised in chants and song to the faces of police as they swing a baton or fist, there will be much that lingers in your memory here.

I sat down with Jack recently to talk about his experiences at Occupy and the new books.

Kit O’Connell, Firedoglake: Tell me a little of your background before Occupy.

John Anderson: I started getting into activist photography when I lived in Washington, D.C., as a photo student. There’s always a protest, march, rally or something in D.C. It made for easy assignments. My first photograph that was published in 1986 when Reagan bombed Libya. I went down to the White House and it got published in the paper and I got hooked on that.

The intentions of the Occupy movement really got my attention. It was something I’d been waiting for, for years. It was trying to get at some of the root causes — capitalism — of the structural issues in our society. Instead of chasing environmental issues over here, and education issues over there, Citizens United — instead of all those separate issues, Occupy wanted to bring them all together to strike at the root, which to me was too much corporate power in our government and the resulting inequality.

I wanted to go to Occupy Wall Street but just couldn’t manage it, but then of course the movement spread and came here to Austin and I thought ‘great!’ Now I can document Occupy without having to go to New York. At the same time, the Chronicle started putting together photo galleries for the website and we realized an ongoing encampment at City Hall would certainly be worthy of a photo gallery. At that point we were ambitiously hoping to update it every day, but you were having general assemblies every day and marches every night, and everything else in between.

I loved the energy, the 24/7 aspect of it. If I were downtown and between assignments I could just go down to City Hall and hang out. You can’t compare that to anything else, at least that I’ve covered. It started as an assignment and then became a labor of love. No one at the Chronicle expected it to go on for years!

Balloons labelled LULZ attached to a banner: Today's Strategic Forecast 100% Chance of LULZ

From the book: “Members of Occupy Austin float signs outside the windows of the private global intelligence company Stratfor to protest their involvement with the infiltration of Occupy Austin on March 5, 2012. Recently hacked Stratfor emails revealed the Texas Department of Safety had infiltrated Occupy Austin and shared information with Strafor that was gathered while undercover.”

FDL: Do you have any favorite moments from documenting Occupy?

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Occupy Austin in Solidarity with Turkey; Detained for Chalking City Hall

4:22 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Turkish allies and Occupy Austin gathered at Austin City Hall on Monday for a special #OccupyGezi Solidarity General Assembly. Police temporarily detained gonzo journalist Kit O’Connell.

Lighted Signs: TX <3 Resistanbul

Occupy Austin and the Austin Overpass Light Brigade joined members of the Turkish community in solidarity with Occupy Gezi on Monday.

This week has been a hard one. It’s not news to anyone paying attention that the state of national and global affairs is bleak, but there are times when the enormity of how fucked we are settles hard into the gut.

Monday saw the return of Occupy Austin to its original home at Austin City Hall. During the Texas Legislative session we moved our weekly gatherings to the Capitol. The anticipated wave of legislature-based activism never materialized (from Occupy, anyway — other groups like GetEqual staged multiple actions) and our small weekly group felt a little lost on the giant capitol grounds. Though the Leg has extended its session into ‘extra innings,’ we consented to move our gatherings back to City Hall and focus on our next steps for the future.

As June 3rd approached, the Occupy Gezi movement grew into global prominence and #OATX started receiving requests for solidarity. We invited any local allies of the Turkish people to attend our weekly assembly. About two dozen supporters joined the Assembly and we agreed to drop the usual assembly process and just create an open mic for discussion of the recent events in Turkey.

Detained for Chalking City Hall

While the Austin Audio Co-Op (fresh from an appearance at Queerbomb) set up their sound system, we chalked the plaza and steps around Austin City Hall as we have many times before. I wrote Occupy Gezi & Occupy Austin on the steps, and an older Turkish man followed me, outlining my words in yellow and others adding a colorful ISTANBUL! More of the steps soon read TX <3 Resistanbul, the message which the Austin Overpass Light Brigade would display that night.

Chalkupy: From Austin to Turkey We LOVE YOU

Occupy Gezi Chalkupy at Austin City Hall on Monday

Police appeared just as we were preparing to begin. Defiantly, I picked up a piece of chalk and wrote ‘OUR CITY HALL’ in large white letters as three officers approached. So of course, they detained me.

I know my rights and, once I knew that I was actually being detained, I identified myself with my legal name, birth date, and home address as required by Texas law. Then I invoked my right to remain silent. Three police surrounded me while others moved through the plaza. Bicycle cops soon arrived too. At least a half dozen cameras came out in the plaza, filming the police and me.

One Turkish woman spoke up: “They are killing our people in Turkey. Why are you harassing us here?”

An officer tried to placate her while another, my main interrogator, Officer Howell, badgered me with questions and sarcastic comments, adopting the tone of every high school’s mean girl bully. When I broke my silence to mention several legal precedents which show that chalk is free speech, she asked me if I was aware that Florida is three states away. Another exchange went like this:

Officer Howell: You have chalk all over your face.

Me: I invoke my right to remain to silent.

Howell: I know, I’m just saying you have chalk ALL OVER your face.

As I looked from her hard, angry eyes to the assembled crowd (Howell: “Why ARE you looking around? We’re having a conversation!”) I realized that the only thing separating these police from the pigs murdering people in Turkey was their orders. It’s a thin blue line indeed, and I felt like Officer Howell would go just as eagerly about her duties either way whether it was badgering me for my free speech or shooting a tear gas canister directly at my head.

This was far from my worst encounter with police (that honor goes to the Houston Police Department), nor even my most unpleasant with Austin Police. I’ve known for a long time that the police serve the 1%, but it would be hard to underline that fact more severely than at a moment like this: harassed by the police state as we tried to honor the victims of police violence across the world.

All our grievances are connected.

Everywhere Resistance Everywhere Taksim 

The police released me after reiterating that they considered chalk to be criminal mischief. Several cars would continue to monitor the gathering.

At last, we could hear the voices of our Turkish guests.

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Tents Up for Occupy Austin’s Eviction Anniversary

4:01 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

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.
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Austin Overpass Light Brigade Faces Police Repression (#OATX)

3:04 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Austin Police insist that Occupy Austin is breaking the law when it holds lighted signs on highway overpasses.

I spoke with two occupiers, Corey Williams and Joe Cooper, about their experiences.

The Overpass Light Brigade began in Wisconsin during the “uprising” of 2011, and has since spread to at least 10 other locations. In this simple, nonviolent action, protesters hold lighted signs on the sidewalk of a freeway overpass while night time traffic passes underneath. One of the newest divisions is in Austin, Texas; it formed in early October during Occupy Austin birthday week. Though police drove by the first display, which proclaimed UNFRACK THE WORLD, occupiers successfully held signs for about an hour at an overpass on the south end of the city.

Lighted protest sign: LOVE > $$$

The new Occupy Austin Overpass Light Brigade at Tent City Rising, October 6 2012.

But police shut down a second attempt that week, and another more recent mobilization.  At the second Austin OLB the message began as LOVE > $$$. Police arrived as the group began to rearrange letters to make a repeat of the UNFRACK message. The officers refused to cite what laws were being broken, but expressed concern that signs could be dropped from the overpass railing on which the activists were holding the display. While regrouping, the Light Brigade consulted with long-time Austin activist Debbie Russell who referred to a previous consultation with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo:

[Y]ou can’t have signs that when holding, are “over” the roadway–you have to hold them inside the railings such that if it was dropped, it falls on the sidewalk and not below on the freeway. Some officers know this, some don’t, but Acevedo has very specifically said this is the case and a few years ago … he gave this mandate to his officers so they’d know. They’re out of practice tho.

Another data point: one afternoon a month at 4:20pm, the Texas Hemp Campaign displays a cannabis legalization banner held on the sidewalk of a busy overpass. Though sometimes monitored closely by police, they allow the display to continue.

If the issue was the danger posed by signs, activists decided to try yet another approach. The third attempt occurred on Saturday, October 27. It was the closest Saturday to Halloween, a night when police are typically busy downtown patrolling the club district for drunken costumed revelers. It was on a similar busy weekend closest to Halloween in 2011 that police made dozens of arrests at Occupy Austin’s standing encampment. In keeping with the symbolism of this anniversary, approximately a half dozen squad cars were waiting.

The message on that night was to be LOVE > FEAR, a response to recent hate crimes against queer people and people of color. This time, the Overpass Light Brigade used an overpass at St. Johns on Interstate Highway 35. This location is across the street from the abandoned Home Depot we attempted to encamp during the occupation’s birthday. Most importantly, this overpass is completely fenced in. It would be impossible to drop signs onto traffic.

Immediately, officers arrived and attempted to shut them down but the display continued for about twenty minutes. While part of the group held the signs, others demanded police cite a specific law that was violated. As the perceived threat of arrest grew more immediate, the OLB took down their signs and waited as police returned to squad cars to look up the law. Eventually, with the help of a Texas Department of Transportation employee summoned to the scene, they cited a portion of the Texas Transportation Code which applies to SIGNS ON STATE HIGHWAY RIGHT-OF-WAY. This law, a class C misdemeanor when broken, says:

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#Chalkupy Continues In Austin

3:10 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

The Crackdown on Chalk

Austin Police Department Joins State Troopers in Targeting Chalk

More on MyFDL: The Crackdown On Chalk, More Unconstitutional Copwatching Arrests

During the week leading up to Occupy Austin’s October 6 birthday, the group participated in the Cop Block’s Chalk The Police Day of Action. We began by chalking at Austin City Hall, where the police monitor was in session and in honor of a recent court ruling that said bans from City Hall were unconstitutional. As we chalked, we were confronted by security guards who insisted that City Hall was private property, and therefore we were engaged in illegal graffiti. We continued to chalk, pausing only to quote court rulings backing up our right to chalk. The group left as bicycle cops began to converge on the site.

Chalk on the APD Headquarters: Murderers

Austin Police Department Headquarters, October 1 2012 (Photo: Jeff Zavala / Zgraphix.org / Austin Indymedia, used with permission.)

We stopped briefly at One America Center, the office building which houses both a Chase Bank and Strategic Forecasting. After a short chalk adventure there, we visited the Austin Police Department headquarters. An audacious chalking of the word ‘Murderers’ on the building would win Cop Block’s Best Location Award and the enmity of the police. As the group left the premises, police arrived in multiple vehicles, a transport wagon, and on bicycle. The whole group was detained on 6th Street, the nearby club district.

Though police had no grounds to make arrests for chalking itself, they confiscated two boxes of chalk as evidence and made two arrests. One was a man who had past traffic warrants. The other was Peaceful Streets Project member Lynn Foster. Though Lynn only filmed and did not chalk, police arrested him when he refused to identify himself. According to Pixiq, this is legal under Texas law:

He was charged with failure to identify, which according to Texas law, is an offense if the suspect refuses to provide his name after he was lawfully arrested on another charge or if he refuses to provide his name if he is a witness to a crime.

Police confiscated his camera, the fourth Peaceful Streets Project digital video camera stolen by Austin Police since the police accountability summit.

Texas Department of Public Safety’s Lips Are Sealed

Two activists in handcuffs with State Troopers on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.

August 9, 2012: Audrey Steiner and Corey Williams are processed on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol after being arrested for chalking a public sidewalk nearby (Photo: Kit O'Connell, all rights reserved).

The first set of Chalkupy-related arrests occurred when Texas Department of Public Safety State Troopers nabbed Audrey Steiner and Corey Williams from the sidewalk across the street from the Texas State Capitol. Both were arrested for “criminal mischief” — a class C misdemeanor though the DPS threatened in the press to increase charges to class B — but when they reported to court for their first hearing, no record of their charges could be found. The Troopers neglected to file their charges, or perhaps hope to withhold them for a later day as a threat.

John Jack Anderson, photojournalist for the Austin Chronicle, filed an open records request seeking DPS documents containing the word ‘Chalkupy.’ Despite the lack of charges, the DPS refused to provide the documents on two grounds:

Because this is an ongoing criminal case, the release of potential evidence would interfere with the investigation and prosecution of this case.

[and]

Revealing the requested records would provide wrong-doers, terrorists, and criminals with invaluable information concerning the methods used by the Department to detect, investigate, and prevent potential criminal activity and could jeopardize security in the Capitol Complex.

Are chalkers wrong-doers, terrorists, criminals or all three? The open records request now gets sent to Texas Attorney General Gregg Abbott, whose office will decide how to respond.

Thanks to Zgraphix.org / Austin Indymedia Center for their coverage of Occupy Austin’s Birthday Week

#D12 Gulf Port 7 Interview: Questions Still Unanswered About Austin Police Infiltration

9:56 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

A bearded undercover 'Butch' stands behind Natalie, whose mouth is taped at an NDAA protest.

Undercover APD Detective Shannon 'Butch' Dowell stands next to Natalie Atwater, a member of Occupy Austin facing felony charges in Houston because of using his lockboxes. (Photo: John Jack Anderson / Austin Chronicle, used with permission).

For more FDL coverage of the Gulf Port 7 case see Undercover Austin Detective Enables Houston Felonies and Judge Joan Campbell Is Not Amused.

Since I broke the story of Austin Police infiltration and provocation at Occupy Austin on Firedoglake, the story has become international news. To review, Austin Police Narcotics Detective Shannon G Dowell, along with two other still unidentified undercover agents, infiltrated Occupy Austin under orders that reach all the way to Chief Art Acevedo. While undercover, Dowell (known to activists ‘Butch’) built and delivered lockbox devices (a.k.a. sleeping dragons) to activists to use at the Houston Port Shutdown, resulting in 7 activists facing state felony charges.

Monday I was interviewed by Marlo Blue of 90.1 KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica station. Below is a transcript, but you can also listen here. The interview begins at 1:55.

Marlo Blue, KPFT: The Occupy effort seems quiet these days but controversy continues to swirl around the group’s efforts and that of some of its members, also officers who allegedly infiltrated that camp. Well, back in December of last year, groups of Occupy members from Austin, Dallas and Houston took part in the National Port Shutdown Day of Action.

Seven activists blocked the main entrance into the Port of Houston by laying in the road and linking arms inside lockboxes (also known as sleeping dragons) which physically linked them together so that police [must] cut them apart. The use of these instruments resulted in these seven being charged with Unlawful Use Of A Criminal Instrument Or Device while others who merely linked arms and legs faced lesser misdemeanor charges.

One of those in attendance has followed the action through his blog and he joins us now. Kit O’Connell. Kit, thank you for joining us.

Kit O’Connell, myFDL Editor: Hi, thanks for having me.

KPFT: Your blog has quickly become one of my very favorites so I’m very pleased to have you on today.

Kit: Thank you!

KPFT: In your blog, you talk about how Austin undercover officers infiltrated this camp. What led you to suspect these officers or was it discovered after the arrests?

Kit: It was discovered after the arrests. Specifically, the arrests of course occurred on December 12 on the Port Shutdown Day. In the first days of February of 2012, the first inkling came in as an anonymous tip to Occupy Austin’s email saying specifically that a person a person who was known to us as Butch was an undercover officer. It didn’t give his full name so it took quite a bit of investigation to find him after that.

KPFT: Now your blog points to a key question in this incident: Why did undercover Austin Police Department Detective Shannon G Dowell provide material support for an activist protest that resulted in them being charged with a felony in Houston, Texas? Did you actually get an answer to that question?

Kit: We did not. It’s unclear to what degree the Austin Police Department knew about this. They’re admitting, even bragging about their use of undercover officers. The police chief has been talking on Twitter about how it kept the people safe to do this but they’re at the same time saying that they weren’t aware of Dowell buying the lockboxes. I find that hard to believe and I would still like some answers.

KPFT: And of course when the arrests took place, you know, in order I guess to keep everyone safe, they also droppped tents on the protesters to I guess to prevent other people from seeing the dangerous protesters inside or…?

Kit: I wish I had a good explanation for those tents. I was present when those went over people and it was one of the scariest moments of my life to see friends of mine vanish under an inflatable fire department tent.

KPFT: That must have been terrifying. I mean, because, you really don’t know what’s going to happen. There is no transparency when a big ‘ol tent is being dropped.

Kit: Exactly. And, I mean, there were no threats from the protesters. At that time, we were being corralled, even trampled Houston Police Department horses to be kept back, well back from the scene where they were, I guess, cutting the lockboxes apart under that tent.

KPFT: Now, you did mention at first of course, Austin Police Department Shannon G Dowell. Was he the only one who infiltrated the Occupy Austin group?

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VIDEO: The Do Not Kill List (OATX Obama Unwelcome Notes)

11:45 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

On July 17, 2012, President Barack Obama visited Austin, Texas for a pair of fundraising events — one, a $250 event at the Austin Music Hall and later a $25,000 per plate fundraiser at a condominium over the prestigious Four Seasons Hotel owned by a Dell Computers executive. Occupy Austin was there to Unwelcome him — to demand he keep his promises and that he stop escalating warfare of all kinds; along the way, we hoped to educate a few of his supporters about the consequences of his policies.

The Do Not Kill List sketch was conceived during a meeting of the OccuQueers as a way to engage about the so-called ‘Kill List’ — Obama’s claim that he can kill anyone for any reason anywhere without due process – as well as the  rapidly growing domestic use of drones. Lisa Glick led the team with help from Brian Svaboda while I filmed; Comrade of the Peaceful Streets Project filmed at a distance to ensure we weren’t harassed by police. Brian created an official looking ‘Executive Voluntary Do Not Kill List’ form which contained talking points and a loyalty oath based on the one the government used on United States citizens of Japanese origins during World War II, as reported by Michelle Chen on myFDL in “Tule Lake: The Quiet Legacy of No.”

The Do Not Kill List action was just part of a full day in the hot Texas sun, protesting at multiple points along Obama’s route through downtown.

Banners, Mic Checks and Marching in Austin

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