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Free Speech, Capitalist Dynasties

7:27 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Did you hear? Some rich filth on TV said he believes God hates fags.

V for Vendetta-style caped Guy Fawkes & a police photographer

The beginning of a new movement or the last gasp of unmediated free speech?

Now, TV personalities can spend even more days analyzing other TV personalities. Do they hate gays, black people, you? What color is Santa? All the usual, powerful swine are out for the right of other swine to say whatever they want on a profitable television program.

Conservatives like to believe that “freedom of speech” means “freedom from consequences” for intolerance. Meanwhile, actual violations of freedom of speech — like climate change activists being charged with a “terrorism hoax” – go unanswered by either the right or the left.

While this spectacle involves the right-wing puppets, both parties — the whole political spectrum, as far as Mainstream America is concerned — are intimately invested in this redefinition of free speech.

Free speech isn’t what happens in the streets, it’s corporate money at elections and pretty pictures on commercial television.

When Occupy drew thousands nationwide, it was Democratic mayors — and Obama’s Feds — that came down hardest on the movement. When thousands gathered at the Texas Capitol this past summer but before Wendy Davis’ much-lauded filibuster, Democratic party officials put the loudest, most influential grassroots organizers on a list of dangerous agitators that they passed around to rally organizers from multiple groups. One of them told me I shouldn’t lead crowds in chanting or disruptive behavior because it would “look crazy.” Not to worry, she told me, we’d vote them out in 2014.

Street posters of Snowden (labelled Patriot) & Rick Perry (labelled Dog Shit)

Speech without permits is terrorism.

On the night of the final vote while a hundred Texas State Troopers beat and dragged us for sitting in front of the Senate doors, the Texas Democrats led a march away from the Capitol so they could have a fund raiser in a park before their permit ran out. Whatever happens next November, the legislature won’t even meet till 2015 and at least 20,000 women won’t have access to safe abortion next year.

Free speech isn’t what happens on the Internet. We jail our whistle blowers and hacktivist heroes while the NSA stalks and catalogs us.

Free speech is freedom to create commercially profitable spectacle. The media disappearing yet again up its own asshole.

Homeless people — perhaps as many as half of whom are queer — are freezing to death in the richest part of the country. LGBTQ folk are being jailed and tortured in Greece and Russia but we applaud a few gay athletes.

Free speech is voting for a turkey while prisoners languish in solitary, poor people starve and our atmosphere burns.

But don’t look away for a minute. You might miss a heartfelt apology, before we all comb our folksy beards and shoot a few more ducks through the magic of mirror neurons.

The Mexicans and the Million Mask March had the right of it by surrounding the mainstream media bullshit factories and demanding to be heard by so-called journalists. They just didn’t go far enough.

Give it time. The disenfranchisement is there, we’re just waiting on enough anger.

People of America, put on your masks. Lift up your voices. And pick up your paintbrush, your smart phone, your chalk and your wheat paste and use them to smash the state.

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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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Texas Occupies Independence Day

1:43 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

A street march in Austin. Banners: We the People / Workers of the World Occupy. Sign: Choose Love Over Fear

The #OccupyJ4 March on Cesar Chavez in downtown Austin (Photo: Kit O'Connell).

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.

A state trooper admonishes a member of IVAW for her chalk art.

Texas State Trooper Craig Cummings accuses IVAW's Lindsey of Criminal Mischief (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

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 friskactivists 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

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#OccupyAustin Takes to the Streets

4:23 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Yesterday in Oakland, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to speak up for their rights and to participate in a general strike. Marches and actions took place all around the world in solidarity with the activists. I joined Occupy Austin again for their march, and then attended my first general assembly that night.

It is inspiring to watch this movement grow and spread around the world. As police (and the Department of Homeland Security, by some reports) try to shut us down, it seems like each police raid and wave of arrests only makes us bolder. The Port of Oakland, one of the top ports in the US, shut down for a full 24 hours along with major downtown Oakland branches of banks like Bank of America, Chase and Citibank.

My friend Gyesika joined me at this march, and it was immediately clear that something was different from Sunday — there was a spirit there, a sense that we could take on the world. The Spirit of Oakland was in us, undoubtedly. For the first half of the march, we were orderly and obedient protesters, staying to the sidewalks and mostly waiting for lights to change.

We marched again to the County Jail, to remind the government of our presence and because this is a place where all of our activists can gather. Despite reassurances from the city, all our arrested activists are still banned from City Hall, where our occupation is taking place. These political prisoners must gather on a traffic island across the street which has a curfew of 10pm because it is technically a park.

As we gathered at the jail, we heard from one of those prisoners who talked about what he’d realized while in prison: Read the rest of this entry →

My First Visit to Occupy Austin

2:00 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Last Sunday was my first visit to Occupy Austin.

This post is much later than I wanted it to be because I have been struggling with my health. I’ll open here because part of the reason I identify with this movement is that my voice is a disenfranchised one as a disabled person. I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition closely related (or overlapping with) chronic fatigue syndrome. It is not well understood, but between severe pain in my muscles and connective tissue, and frequent intense fatigue and insomnia I am unable to hold down a normal job. I have managed to eke out a small living as a freelance writer, but I have no health insurance, and no safety net if my health takes a turn for the worse. I feel strongly for this idea of the 99% — in a just society, basic needs like food, shelter and medical care would be considered a human right.

My health has kept me from attending a Occupy encampment or event before Sunday. But on Saturday night, 38 peaceful protesters were arrested at City Hall — some over refusal to take down a food table based on last minute regulations imposed without oversight by the Austin city manager, but others were directly targeted by police for their involvement in the movement. A march was announced to join the vigil at the county jail demanding release of these political prisoners. I knew I had to join.

Much has been said about the protests and whether those involved have valid reasons. Though the protesters have many diverse issues they have come together over, to me at this point the most important reason is to stand up for our right to assemble. In childhood, teachers taught me that the right for the people to speak up and assemble to demand a redress of grievances is one of the most fundamental things that defines being an American citizen. And yet now these 38 peaceful activists — along with a small but notable number of arrests since — are banned from City Hall for one year.

That’s right, a building that is the hub of their city, that their tax dollars pay for everytime they purchase anything in stores — yet if they return they face rearrest and even jail time. Because Austin is ‘cool’ and ‘weird’, our cops won’t go in with the tear gas. Instead they threaten us with dozens of tiny papercuts until our movement will bleed to death. We need to stand up and say this is not right — that we have a right to speak.

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