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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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Overpass Light Brigade Is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions

7:14 am in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

One Victory, More Conflicts to Come?

Though the Austin Overpass Light Brigade won the right to hold lighted signs over a highway once, it can expect further encounters with police.

Lighted signs on an overpass over a busy highway

Austin Overpass Light Brigade over Interstate Highway 35 in south Austin.

Last Monday, I attended the Austin Overpass Light Brigade’s fourth gathering. As previously reported on Firedoglake, the group had been shut down by police at its previous two attempts. The message on election eve was DO MORE THAN VOTE, and occupiers came prepared for police interference.

First, they modified their signs to be wearable like over-sized necklaces. Next, they distributed misinformation — sharing a false start location and start time at an overpass where they’d been shut down. The real location was spread by word of mouth, at the general assembly, and by people waiting at the fake start location to redirect real help. Activists stood on a part of an overpass over a grassy hill, further forestalling objections that they could drop their worn signs into traffic.

Police took the bait — a half dozen police cars again appeared at the advertised start location, and a dispatcher could be heard reading Occupy Austin’s @OAalerts feed over the police band. Occupiers held their sign at the new location for almost 45 minutes before police arrived, called by an employee with the Texas Department of Public Transportation. The TX DOT employee at the previous attempt would say only ‘no comment,’ but this one was quite talkative. Though he would not give his name, he first cursed at Nathan B, a young teenage volunteer with the Peaceful Streets Project then tried to grab Austin Chronicle photojournalist John Anderson’s notebook while insisting Anderson was breaking the law because media is required, he said, to wear safety vest.

Though we argued with the officer’s insistence that we leave the overpass, the Light Brigade regrouped on the grass by the off ramp while waiting for a phone call to bear fruit. The call was to Debbie Russell, activist with the Texas American Civil Liberties Union. Russell had previous experience negotiating with police to allow displays of banners and signs on highways as long as they aren’t physically attached. She called her contacts at the police. As we watched, more police cars arrived. Some officers looked angry. Then a supervisor arrived, the discussion continued, and all police left.

According to a Facebook post by Debbie Russell:

Yes–well I talked to [Chief Acevedo's] assistant chief and he’s getting TXDot to provide what laws they think are in violation. The issue is the actual lumination of the sign, but according to how I’m reading the law (and how I think APD interprets it, but waiting for final word), such a sign is ok except if it impairs visibility/shines lights into people’s faces as they are driving. So I sent pics of our light brigade, others around the country, specs on the LED light strings – with a little science lesson on wattage/lumens, etc saying these couldn’t possibly be considered a public safety threat — at most they are 2-3x as bright as old fashioned xmas lights and the light is scattered/diffused — not directional. I’m waiting for them to take this to TXDot and circle back.

Though the future legal status of this action is uncertain, the Austin Overpass Light Brigade returned to the overpass. On November 5, thousands of vehicles along a very busy highway saw the message, many honking or cheering enthusiastically.

Overpass Light Brigade is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions
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#Occupy Votes (Updated 2:25pm PST)

1:13 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

Tuned Out Hippies?

Since the Occupy movement began, many have attempted to position the group in opposition to electoral politics. Occupy in its purest form is nonpartisan, and since the beginning of the movement this has been a source of criticism.

If we want to really make a difference, we were told time and again, we should organize similarly to the Tea Party and begin to field candidates for office. When occupiers protested Mitt Romney or other hyper-conservative politicians, they’d be accused of being in bed with Barack Obama. If the movement protested neo-liberals like Obama, we were accused of being traitors to all that was good in the world because we obviously wanted Romney to win (Carnacing is not limited to blogs). Most of all, occupiers got accused of being disconnected from what their critics perceive to be real politics — we were lazy hippies who didn’t understand how the world works and worst of all we don’t vote.

Spelled out in lights: DO MORE THAN VOTE

Austin Overpass Light Brigade on November 5, 2012

Occupy and many allied activist groups stand in opposition to the idea that electoral politics should be the focus of American political engagement. It is especially opposed to the idea that just voting out one plutocrat and replacing him with a new one will fix our problems — even if that new plutocrat is a woman, from a racial minority, or practices an alternative religion or sexuality. Its ranks are full of activists who supported Obama with hours of hard work in the run-up to the 2008 election, only to “wake the eff up” over the succeeding years and realize real change doesn’t come from far-away leaders.

It’s my experience that occupiers are far more engaged with mainstream politics than mainstream America, which for the most part unthinkingly abstains from participating at all. While the average American simply does not vote, the question of whether to vote and how was an important concern to OWS. Members of Occupy Chicago spent hours in a heated debate over whether it was ethical to burn voter registration cards as a form of protest. Occupiers created street theater around the election: Occupy Chicago members took coffins to the Obama headquarters and launched Revs4Romney. On election day, Occupy the Stage in New Orleans protested the fact that Louisiana is one of eight states which disallow write-in candidates for President by performing a puppet show about the 2-party system at a polling place then accepting symbolic write-in votes (I voted via Twitter for Vermin Supreme). Occupiers held public debate-watching parties, helped Anonymous trend the hashtag #StopNDAA and livetweeted the elections.

Occupy groups also became closely involved in local issues at multiple elections since last September. Here in Austin, one Occupier made an unsuccessful bid for city council, while others became involved in the successful bid to make the city council itself more accountable. Austin will change from one of the country’s only completely at-large city councils to one where each council member represents part of the city.  The Occupy AISD working group fought new in-district charter schools by, in part, helping to unseat charter-supporter Sam Guzman. His replacement, Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias, will be the first openly gay member of Austin’s school board. One of the Gulf Port 7, Ronnie Garza, is featured in the video at the top of this post. Another, Remington Alessi, ran for sheriff as a Green Party candidate. San Antonio’s Meghan Owen took 1.5% of the vote for the Greens in a bid to unseat NDAA-supporting Democrat Representative Lloyd Doggett.

Of course, many see Elizabeth Warren as a massive win for the goals of Occupy Wall Street.

An Ethical Dilemma At the Voting Booth

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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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Tent City Rising: Occupy Austin Attempts New Encampments (#OATX Birthday, UPDATED)

2:37 pm in Uncategorized by Kit OConnell

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 Popular Assembly at Austin City Hall

The Popular Assembly at Austin City Hall (Photo: Kit O'Connell)

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.

Police wrestle a man holding a backpack to the ground in front of a tent.

Jeremy Cruts is arrested for camping, September 6 2012 (Photo: John Jack Anderson, used with permission).

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.

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