About a month ago, Workers Defense Project led a march through downtown Austin for what they call the Day Of The Fallen. This action draws attention to poor labor protections for all Texas workers, but particularly to the plight of Texan construction workers, for whom this state is the deadliest in the nation. The Worker’s Defense Project, also known as the Proyecto Defensa Laboral, supports labor on multiple fronts — in addition to direct action and lobbying, they hold weekly meetings where anyone can get free legal advice on a conflict with their employer.
I’ve been owed money by a contractor since December of 2011 in what has turned into a civil lawsuit, and I’ve gone several times to Workers Defense Project meetings. In addition to helping navigate the slow and confusing legal system they also gave me a fascinating though incomplete insight into what it’s like to need help in a place where you don’t speak the native language. You see, I’m one of those Typical White Americans who only picked up a smattering of foreign words in school and is otherwise shamefully monolingual. Workers Defense Project meetings are held entirely in Spanish, which means I needed a translator except for the period where I met one on one with an advisor.
At the beginning of each meeting, the whole group shares their new achievements and gathers in a rousing shout which you can hear in the above video:
¿Qué queremos? (What do we want?)
¿Cuándo queremos? (When do we want it?)
At one meeting I attended they announced they’d recovered over $800,000 in worker wages just in 2011. Here’s hoping they can include mine in their total in 2013 — and that they keep up this important work for many years to come.
Tonight’s video is by Jeff Zavala and the Zgraphix.org team, working for Austin Indymedia Center.
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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.
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:
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.
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.
Texas Department of Public Safety’s Lips Are Sealed
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.
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
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 (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.
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.
The Peaceful Streets Project with help from members of Occupy Austin held a solidarity rally on Saturday for the people of Anaheim California. This video, by Meg Seidel and Jeff Zavala of Zgraphix, intersperses footage of the rally with video from Anaheim and two Austin events: the February 2012 Fuck the Police march through downtown and a violent arrest of a shopper at Austin’s Barton Creek Square Mall who attempted to join a CODEPINK protest.
Antonio Buehler at the Peaceful Streets Anahem Solidarity Rally, Austin Police Department HQ (Photo: Meg Seidel / ZGraphix, used with permission).
All around the country, in over a half dozen cities, people have come out in support of the people of Anaheim. Though the mainstream media frequently continues to defend the police or report their side of the story, video shot on the scene by every day witnesses and a growing number of Occupy livestreamers and citizen journalists is spreading through social media channels and letting the world see the truth. Rather than calming the situation with open community dialog, the Anaheim Police Department (APD) is escalating through the use of militarized police in army-fatigue uniforms with heavier weaponry.
About a dozen of us gathered at the Austin Police Department (another APD) headquarters in downtown near highway IH-35. It was a hot day here in Austin, and we struggled to stay hydrated and active. The vast majority of people driving past on the frontage road were supportive, honking, waving and cheering; even several passing police officers honked or waved to us. There were a few hecklers, of course. In addition to the usual middle fingers and shouts of ‘get a job,’ one passing truck yelled ‘Fuck world peace!’ and ‘You’re poor!’ — insults which speak volumes about a classist mindset which is far too common today among people who are often themselves only a paycheck or two away from the streets.
Viewers of my livestream, which was carried here on Firedoglake, kept up a steady stream of conversation with me throughout the evening. Near the end of the protest we were so worn out that some of us could barely stand, but then one viewer, Rick Rynearson and his wife, of Veterans Against Police Abuse, ordered pizza for us! Pizza eaten after the hard work of protest always tastes especially good.
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