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#D12 UPDATE: Gulf Port 7 Accept Misdemeanor Plea Bargain

2:36 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

A red tent is erected over a blockade.

The Houston Fire Department places an inflatable red tent over the Gulf Port 7 during their arrest. The seven felony charges were reduced to misdemeanors today.

Corey Williams of Occupy Austin traveled to Houston today with some defendants in the Gulf Port 7 trial. His Twitter feed (@iamed_nc) suggests a tense court room situation, but lawyers ultimately agreed on a deal. Under the plea bargain, all seven defendants will accept the Class B Misdemeanor charge of Obstructing A Roadway. This is the same charge faced by the other participants in the Gulf Port Blockade on December 12, 2011 who did not use the lock box devices.

Undercover Austin Police Officer Rick Reza poses with one of the lockboxes he constructed with other undercover officers.

Previously, the seven defendants faced a charge of Manufacture or Use of a Criminal Device, a state felony that included serious jail time. Additionally, the court commuted the group’s sentences to time served, covering the need for future jail time or paying court costs. The decision is a relief, especially as the case’s sympathetic judge was due to be replaced by a more conservative Rick Perry appointee due to impending retirement.

The arrests occurred during a national day of action at the ports against Goldman-Sachs, organized by Occupy Oakland. The Gulf Port 7 made use of PVC-pipe devices called lock boxes, also known as sleeping dragons, to link their arms together. During the trial, it was revealed that the lock boxes were constructed by three undercover Austin Police Department officers assigned to infiltrate Occupy Austin. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo continues to insist that this was done “for safety” rather than a deliberate act of provocation and entrapment.

Defendant Ronnie Garza told Firedoglake,

We won. We got the charges we originally were expecting and we got 400 pages of emails, texts and embarrassing photos along with the names of 3 undercover officers. We also found the role the fusion centers played in all of this. All that is left is to reveal the name of a fourth undercover we recently found.

According to Ronnie, now that the court case is over the emails and texts released during pre-trial will be released to journalists and the public after the redaction of some sensitive personal details of the named activists.

One of the seven, Eric Marquez, is still imprisoned in the Dallas area, and may face as much as another year in jail, but Corey told @OccupyAustin he hoped this decision makes his situation “a little easier.”

More on Firedoglake about the Gulf Port 7 Case and Austin Police Infiltration

Ronnie Garza interviewed by mainstream media while wearing mock lockboxes.

Ronnie Garza, one of the Gulf Port 7, poses in a fake lockbox at a press conference held at Austin Police Department headquarterslast year.

I’ll continue to update Firedoglake on future developments in this case.

More: Storify of Corey’s Twitter coverage

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#D12 Gulf Port Action, One Year Later

4:17 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

More on the Gulf Port 7: Austin Police Enabled Houston FeloniesJudge Campbell is Not AmusedAustin and Houston Police Coordinated Through Fusion Center and 2 More Undercover Officers Revealed

Reflections on Gulf Port Action

One year ago today, Occupy Oakland declared a National Day of Action against Goldman-Sachs.

A mounted officer points and shouts as they attack a crowd of activists at the Port

Mounted Houston Police Department officers at the Port of Houston on December 12

The action would center on the Port of Oakland, which they shut down for over two days. Solidarity actions around the country took place at other ports, at Walmart distribution centers, and Goldman-Sachs offices in New York City.

About 200 occupiers from around Texas gathered at Occupy Houston’s encampment, Tranquility Park, and from there traveled to the Port of Houston where we blockaded the main entrance. There were twenty arrests.

I wrote about the Gulf Port Action on my blog, Approximately 8,000 Words and what it was like to step out onto the road around the port and see an army of law enforcement waiting for us:

l felt a little overwhelmed as we jumped from the car at the port, seeing a massive collection of law enforcement might. There were helicopters overhead, a couple dozen officers lining the street including mounted police on horses, and, behind a fence inside the port itself, we could see dozens more including a bus for arrests and the sheriff and SWAT team.

I’d never been to the port before, and there was a palpable sense of almost Cyberpunk-level desolation. The air smelled as bad as you imagine it does in a William Gibson book. At first there were few of us, but more and more began to get dropped off in waves until we had a couple hundred protesters at the peak, finally outnumbering the police. We chanted and spoke with a few members of the mainstream media that had managed to get inside. Then, suddenly, everyone — police and occupiers alike — were running.

Though I did not intend to do more than chant, observe, and livetweet, in the intense response to the blockade I found myself helping form a human wall to keep occupiers from being trampled by horses. Though I have attended many other activist events, including eluding a potentially violent arrest inside Chase headquarters at the September 17, 2012 anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, these attacks by police were the most intense I have personally faced. Despite our efforts, a young woman near me was kicked in the stomach by a mounted officer’s steel-toed boots while a hoof stomped the shoe of Corey Williams, an Austin livestreamer (whose footwear was fortunately also reinforced). And then came the most psychologically violent act of the day: the ‘one percent tent.’ In an image that quickly went viral (and contributed to Oakland continuing its blockade into a second day), Houston Fire Department firefighters assembled a red inflatable tent over the activists to hide arrests from sight.

A Direct Attack on Corrupt Capitalism

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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

The Crackdown on Chalk (#Chalkupy Austin)

12:53 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

“No reasonable person could think that writing with chalk could damage a sidewalk.” Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (Mackinney v. Nielsen 69 F.3d 1002, 1995)

What’s happening in this country?

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

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).

I know this is a question we ask frequently on these pages. Every day, some new offense against basic freedoms comes to light, further shaking faith in the basic principles of our constitution. I thought I was jaded, but what happened in Austin last Thursday shook me — not just because chalk merits police response, but because of the intensity and overwhelming force being used to strike at one of the simplest, most transient forms of expression possible.

By now most of us have heard of the crack down on chalk which occurred in Los Angeles in July, when Occupy Los Angeles passed out chalk to a monthly Artwalk event and the gathering found itself under attack by violent riot police retaliation. Activists decided to pass out chalk at the Artwalk in the first place because of almost two dozen arrests for chalk in public places just in Los Angeles. Not a single one of these arrests has resulted in charges.

From an Occupy Los Angeles press release:

Participants of Occupy LA’s Chalk Walk wonder why the Los Angeles Police Department continues to arrest them for chalking when the City Attorney has declined to prosecute any of the chalking arrests.

One Occupier wonders, “If the so-called crime is not worth prosecuting, then is it worth making the chalk arrests in the first place?” and then adds, “LAPD harasses us with these arrests to intimidate us.”

Occupy activists say that LAPD had made nearly twenty arrests for chalking related to Occupy but has failed to make chalking arrests at non-occupy events including an event the Mayor handed out boxes of yellow chalk to be used on the “sidewalks,driveways, and any blank canvasses” including the streets of Sunset Blvd in traffic at night for a fundraiser for Lance Armstrong’s art campaign, “Hope Rides Again”, sponsored by Nike.

The crack down is not limited to Los Angeles, but appears to be occurring nationwide. Activists in Orlando recently won a lucrative lawsuit against the city for wrongful arrest in a chalk-related arrest of an Occupy Orlando member. Occupy New Orleans members fled from police during their chalkupy event. While the crackdown may be political in nature, not just activists are getting caught up in it — a mother in Richmond, Virginia faces 50 hours community service because her daughter chalked some rocks, and two teens in a Philadelphia suburb were ticketed for drawing a sea turtle and a whale in chalk. Which brings us to Austin, where two people were arrested Thursday and face uncertain charges for expressing their right to free speech.
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