Category Archives: Occupy DC

We Need to Acknowledge the Reality of Violence: My Account of the Eviction of Occupy DC

So I know the semi-eviction of Occupy DC happened many months ago, but I want to give my account of it and explore some of the lessons I learned.

On February 4th in McPherson Square, at Occupy DC, it was a day filled with brutality.  There had been a lot of talk that the eviction was coming after a congressional hearing decided that people could keep a constant vigil in the park but could not sleep over.  Police told occupiers that tents could stay, as could objects like chairs and tables, but the sleepers could be arrested, and sleeping bags could be confiscated.  Police asked us to leave our tents open and told us that, if we complied, our things would remain in the park.

Occupy DC protesters in front of the Tent of Dreams

On January 30th, the pre-eviction happened.  The cops said they would come.  Occupiers, in response, threw a giant tarp over the statue of General McPherson which stands in the center of the square.  We named the tarp “the tent of dreams.”  We carried signs talking about our dreams, and spoke about why we occupy -the beauty of the camp, the community we created, the troubles of the world, the necessity to resist.  We talked about struggles with debt, foreclosures, homelessness, health care, with being used and abused in the military.  We talked about the world we wished to see -a world which serves people above profits, a world which stands up against exploitation, a world of fairness and justice.  The police left.  Protesters basked in victory.

A few days later I got a text message describing the scene unfolding downtown as a “full eviction.”  I came to McPherson Square and saw the damage.  Hundreds of cops surrounded the square.  Horses watched on at the periphery.  The park was sliced up by barricades.  The tent of dreams had been taken down.  The southeastern section of the park was filled with officers in hazmat suits, systematically tossing almost every bit of occupy property into a dump truck.  The majority of these tents had been left open, which the police had promised would allow us to keep them.

The eviction

Around the camp people walked in shock, trying to clear out their belongings before the cops threw them away.  There was a sense of betrayal, of violation.  I know I felt the desire to fight back but, with more cops than protesters, this felt like a losing battle.

Soon the cops entered another section of the camp.  They went through more tents with their hazmat suits and threw more things away.  At this point protesters started gathering into the last section of the park, our main street, where the information tent, the kitchen, the university, and the medic station sat.  A call went out to protect the library, a center for conversation and a symbol of the camp.  Here we would stand our ground.

We waited on that front with slow boiling tension.  We spoke again about why we occupy.  We chanted in solidarity.  “Whose park?”  “Our park!”  “Whose first amendment rights?”  “Our first amendment rights!”  We read passages about how we appreciated the library.  At one point I led the group in a very awkward mic checked version of the song “Hold on” (otherwise known as “Keep your Eyes on the Prize).  All along, a line of very stoic officers stared at us.

As this was going on, the library committee was negotiating with the cops to keep the library from being thrown away.  The cops said they would inspect it.  The library said they needed to have librarians present while police inspected.  We all felt we couldn’t trust the cops.  Some were very vocal about this, saying the library should make no agreements.

In the end two librarians would stay in the tent while the police inspected it, and everyone else who was supporting the library would be asked to move away.  I noticed one officer say something else during these negotiations, almost as an afterthought.  The library was going to be inspected at the same time that the police would open and search the final section of the park -the section everyone was standing in.

Police attack

As police moved in, they started yelling “move back!”  Librarians also pleaded for protesters to comply.  Some were adamant “we should not move, the cops have been lying to us all day.”  I was moving back in support of the libraries request, while also being concerned about what was soon to happen.  Stepping back from the heart of confrontation I saw the police moving to surround us.  They were coming behind the tents, flanking us.  I told some people what I saw happening.  Then I heard screaming.

I moved around the camp, scouting out what was going on and trying to see how I could be most helpful.  At one place where a barricade was just being raised I saw a protester yelling into a cop’s face.  I thought either the protester or the cop might be ready to strike out and was worried of what might happen.  I stepped in between them.  The cop didn’t seem to see any difference between me and my compatriot however and, as soon as the barricade rose, he stabbed me with his billy club, knocking me to the ground.  I picked myself up.  He pushed forward again, knocking me down once more.  I saw him ready to charge yet again while I lay.  He yelled “get up and walk away!”

Despite the tension, I found this somewhat comical.  I raised my hand, indicating I meant no harm, then said “I will walk away, if you let me get up.”

He repeated “get up and walk away.”  In his eyes I saw fear.

The big push

Around me others were pushed.  Usually this was at a manageable pace but occasionally the cops charged into the crowd, rushing people, knocking them down, trampling them.  It was horrifying to see people I cared for, people I stood in solidarity with, being hurt.  At one point I saw a cop jump out of the line, swinging his riot shield like a weapon.  He hit the person next to me, then swung his shield into my face.  My nose and teeth stung.  I lost it.  Glaring deep into his eyes I yelled “police brutality!”  For a moment he looked like he was ready for more, and so was I.  But my allies calmed me down while his marched past him.

There were a few more instances of screams.  I told the police what I had witnessed from their colleagues.  I said “you know, if you just stop charging us, no one would get hurt.”

One cop responded “if you would just turn around and walk away…”

The person next to me said “turn around while you’re charging into us?”  Then I felt a horse nuzzle into my hair.

Soon we were pushed into the street.  The police closed off the park.  We stood at the perimeter and yelled our anger and our passion.  I continued walking around the park talking to stoic officers about what their fellows had done, asking the question “who do you protect and who do you serve, because it sure as hell isn’t us.”

My friend started rattling the barricade and yelling “We’re not afraid of you!”

Then we had a general assembly in the middle of k street.  At this point I had to leave.  That evening I had agreed to take tickets at my wife’s chorus concert.  The eviction had ended, I was not in jail, and I didn’t want to let her down -though it was such a bizarre clash of environments to go from overt police violence to choral music.  After coming down from the adrenaline I found myself distracted from the music.  A deep disturbance clung to my brain.  I realized, holy shit, I’m traumatized… and I know everyone else is too.

The next day I came back to the park and saw people walking on crutches.  The police had broken their bones.  One friend described his experience of being slammed on his head, knocked unconscious, and hospitalized.  His body would never be the same.  My nose hurt for a couple of weeks from the cop who swung his shield in my face.  I found myself thinking I wish I got his badge number, but in the middle of the chaos it was hard to keep track.  Fortunately my nose got better.

I told people about what happened, and my experience in retelling these events was probably the most disheartening aspect of the whole process.  I talked about watching my friends trampled, having bones broken, and cops who behaved brutally.  People stared somewhat blankly, not acknowledging the factual basis of what I said, and quickly wanting to change the conversation.  But I needed them to understand.  I needed them to understand how many people have faced this violence, from police brutality in working class communities, to nations invaded overseas, to the proxy dictatorships that promote the interests of elites.  And I needed people to recognize that this violence was also a part of them.

When I eat a hamburger, I am part of the process which kills the cow.  When I buy from companies who use sweatshops, I am part of the process which puts workers into oppressive conditions.  When I do not intervene in the silencing of people who are advocating for their democratic rights, I am part of the processwhich undermines my own rights as well.  And I suppose the lesson I want to come from this experience is that standing in solidarity with the 99% means acknowledging the violence, exploitation, and marginalization that has been practiced upon our diverse communities.  I ask readers, do not dismiss the suffering of one group of people just because it clashes with your experience or view of the world.  One way to create a more humane existence is by granting yourself the moral courage to see the realities which contradict our desires for how reality should be.  And thank you for reading my story.

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Occupy DC Endorsing an Ammendment to end Corporate Personhood; Connecting Reform to Revolution

Those of us who have been part of the Occupy Movement are familiar with the common critique, “what exactly do you want anyways?”

Generally answers like, “justice for the 99%” do not seem to satisfy.

Of course we do not need to satisfy a hostile audience, and the meme of “they don’t stand for anything” is clearly coming from a hostile place.  Still, this meme is exploiting a real gap which exists between the potential of the movement and its current state.  I believe our  long term success depends on closing this gap.

The gap is this: there are a lot of people who believe injustice has been done to the 99%, and they would like to see (and perhaps be involved in) repairing that injustice.  Sympathizers and possible sympathizers far outnumber actual occupiers, and the potential of that broader support is society changing.  But that potential needs something concrete to focus on.  They are waiting to see where Occupy heads.  To be more involved they need to know, what do we see as a pathway for finding the justice we seek?

One such pathway may involve a constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood and get corporate money out of politics.  Two weeks ago, at both camps in Occupy DC, the General Assemblies voted in support of such an amendment.  It is concrete.  It is consistent with the issues occupy is addressing and the general point of view of occupiers. It is something other groups have been working on and a lot of people can get behind.

But creating any concrete goal also threatens to magnify the divisions which exist within the movement.  When talking about the constitutional amendment, one person described it as “reformist bullshit.”

I sigh when I hear this.  I consider myself the type of activist more concerned with revolution than reform, yet I also recognize that revolution is a long term struggle, and the reforms we create are not necessarily inconsistent with that process.

I can desire a revolutionary overthrow of our profit-maximizing, humanity exploiting, power consolidating, government corrupting, unsustainable, and ever-obsessed with “more,” economic system; and I can believe that a lesser reform, such as ending corporate personhood, is still a good idea.  In fact, these ideas seem nothing but complementary to me.  Some worry that reform takes energy away from revolution.  But I think, if I really believe in revolution, than achieving a more minor reform is not going to dissuade me from that ultimate goal.  And, if the minor reform does dissuade me, I was never seeking revolution in the first place.

I think those who want revolution are frustrated because the progress is slow; but remember, how long did capitalism take to overthrow feudalism?  How long did it take master-slave hierarchies to overthrow hunter-gatherer equality?  The future which is coming cannot be imagined in the present day; and creating that future is a process which can take hundreds or thousands of years.  If we really wish for revolution we have to ask, do we currently have the conditions which make it possible and, if we don’t, what is the process of cultivating those conditions?

Perhaps reform is actually part of the revolutionary process.  Humanizing political reforms have always been born from a process of people standing up for themselves, and what is more central to revolution than that?  Through reform we practice engaging with opposition.  We develop new ways to look at the world.  We energize ourselves and our neighbors.  We make democracy into more than a platitude.

Besides, if our ideological purity is such that we cannot contemplate anything but revolution, do we oppose voting rights won by the woman’s movement because they engaged the official legislative process?  Do we oppose child labor regulations won by the labor movement because they became backed by government?  Do we oppose the constitutional amendment which freed the slaves because it is in the constitution?

Revolution is the only way to overthrow the broader realities of oppression.  Yet this has to be the right revolution.  It has to be built upon a long process of rehumanizing ourselves, of learning to live together, and of learning to stand up for ourselves -not only against our external exploiter but the exploiter within.  Personally I think, trying to overthrow a system without doing the necessary legwork will only lead to nothing really changing; and maybe certain reforms -such as Occupy helping to win a constitutional amendment which ends corporate personhood- are actually part of that legwork.

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My Journey Towards Nonviolence

In the wake of discussions about violence related to the occupy movement, I want to share my own story of how I came to endorse nonviolence.

As a boy I believed in the necessity of violence. Raised on GI Joe and Star Wars, I was presented with the view that good people had to kill bad people for peace and justice to reign. With action figures and video game controllers clentched in my hands, I acted this story out time and again.  It was a simple tale of right and wrong, yet I came to sense a flaw. If killing people was an evil action (as I was also raised to believe), how can people be good if they also kill?

This criticism became heightened once I realized that war was different from how it was portrayed in boyish fantasy. When the first Gulf War happened, the media talked about Saddam Hussein inflating the number of civilians killed by American troops. Around me I heard “well, civilians are always killed in war, but its not that many.” I thought, “not that many? What if it was my father or mother or neighbor or me?”  It seemed intensely cruel to offhandedly dismiss any human life, be it ten people or a thousand, Americans or Iraqis, soldiers or civilians.

Then I understood, we tended not to see war victims as human.  Instead of “person murdered” we say “casualty of war.”  “Casual” is right in the phrase, as though it is easy and everyday.  We learn to dehumanize and become dehumanized.  And I realized this was a necessary condition for violence. Violence is a degradation of our sense of human worth, and war represents an extreme example of this. As a person believing in my own worth and the worth of others, I could see that violence was perhaps the definition of evil.

Sill, I was so used to the idea that social change came through violence. This is what the history books taught. I had heard of Mohandas Gandhi and the nonviolent Indian Independence movement, but I had difficulty conceptualizing it. Violence was simple. You kill the people in your way and then they are no longer there. Once they are gone you can do what you want. How could people “stop being in your way” without the use of violence? Then I had a realization. There will always be people in the way. Even when power is violently seized, opposition, insurgents, etc. still exist. Social change, violent or otherwise, is never about removing opposition, but about advancing the influence of one regime compared to another. It is about shifting the balance of power. Killing people can shift the balance of power; so can spreading a message, building organizations, raising money, riling people up to act boldly for what they believe in, committing direct action to undermine the institutions that oppress, etc.

In fact, even if a movement is violent, most of the work in building that movement must be done nonviolently. Once we realize this, it isn’t hard to entertain the idea that a movement which has nonviolently built its power could also nonviolently exert that power to make changes in society. Historically this is backed by the cases of Indian Independence, South African resistance to apartheid, US civil rights, the Arab Spring, and many more examples.

But to me the biggest argument for nonviolence is this, if we wish to create a world that does not violate human worth and dignity, how can we do this by using a tool (violence) which inherently violates the worth and dignity of people? In the end I think revolution for a humanizing future must be based on acting against violence in both our society and ourselves.  Whether it is a military elite finding power through war, a financial elite making money off of economic collapse, a business elite looking to maximize profit through lowering the resources of workers, an employer in a middle class office who won’t hire a working class black man, a husband abusing his wife because he desires unnatural compliance, an everyday person not recognizing how her privilege is connected to suffering, or an everyday person simply lashing out in frustration- peace and social justice requires resisting violence in order to restore our holistic humanity.

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Narrative of Violence from Friday’s Occupy DC Protest Distracts from the Message

There has been a lot of media coverage about Friday night’s march to the Americans for Progress conference at the DC Convention Center.  I was at the protest.  I saw the movie about the Koch brothers which preceded our arrival at the Convention Center.  I was watching the gate into the parking lot where the gathering began.  Most of the media coverage centered on events that happened shortly after I left however, focusing on two main stories of violence.

One story has been told by conservative media.  A woman fell down the stairs of the Convention Center.  The narrative is she was pushed.  For less conservative media, the main story has been three demonstrators hit by a car, and then given tickets for things like jay walking.

Both of these stories indicate to me how past events become confusing for those who cannot actually investigate what happened for themselves, and are dependent on media narrative .  One story being covered by conservative media and another being covered by less conservative media indicates how tales of violence are used for political agendas (why else would media with clearly different biases choose to focus on different stories?).  This practice makes me generally distrustful of narratives.  If I only have a non-investigative, machine-like, narrative producing media to guide me, I cannot know if the woman fell, was pushed, or was accidentally nudged.  I also cannot know if a driver decided to barrel into protesters, if the protesters actively got in the way, or if some combination occurred.

This is why investigation is important (although it is a sadly dieing art).  I have to admit that I have not given my own proper time to investigate what happened (nor do I have access to, for example, police witnesses), but there are some things I am clear about.  First, Some conservative writers have described Friday as a “riot.”  That is absolutely misleading.  Second, I am sure this media focus on interpersonal violence is a distraction from the real issues -the structural violence (i.e. lack of health care, lack of job security, lack of being treated with dignity) in a world which is geared to serve the 1%.  And this distraction is the main concern which makes me write this post.

I worry that Occupy DCs protest tactics are ultimately feeding into a distracting media narrative which focuses on a few sensational events at the expense of the issues.   Surrounding a building, standing watch at its exits, and confronting its occupants does not, in and of itself, make a coherent statement.  Signs, interviews, chants, and the Koch brothers movie, can help with messaging (as can a press release) -but unless the message is overtly clear it becomes lost as soon as something sensational happens (such as someone falling down the stairs or being hit by a car). There is no obvious cure for this challenge, although there are several things that may help.  If protesters stood in front of the building with a giant banner describing how the Koch brothers are purchasing our democracy, I think the message would be more obvious.  If protesters were still confrontational but less aggressive (this means, standing vigil and making statements but perhaps not getting in people’s faces), I think it would lessen the chance of violent escalation and losing police/public acceptance.  Finally, the more occupiers do our own outreach, the less we need to depend on the media to spread, and inevitably distort, our messages.

Now the movement finds itself on the defensive as it holds a press conference arguing the details over who hit whom at an isolated event, instead of arguing the details over how people are taken advantage of every day throughout the nation and the world.  This is not a criticism of Occupy DC’s choice to hold this press conference, but is an illustration of how the media can very subtly but profoundly shift the conversation.

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We are the Change we can Believe in

(Note: First posted on Oct. 29th at http://october2011.org/blog)

Last night was my first night sleeping at the DC Occupation. I have been a part of the movement, offering workshops and doing outreach, but I have been slow to truly embrace what is happening.

I have always begun my activism with reluctance. Born with a lot of privilege, I am accustomed to convincing myself that the world is ok because my life seems mostly ok, and it is frightening to think of the damages caused by society’s pathology (for example, our profit driven insurance system which has ever increasing premiums that end up resulting in untreated medical conditions). My saving grace is that I try, as well as I can, to keep my eyes open to the realities of the world. I know we are in need of change. Still, when the occupation comes knocking on my door, I ask: do I really want to camp outside on cold rainy October nights when I have a roof over my head, a warm bed to sleep in, a wonderful wife, a caring family, and a dog who sits on my lap?

Eventually I realize: absolutely. Sleeping in DC, on the concrete of Freedom Plaza, is an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Many like to pretend this isn’t the case, but humanity is in crisis. The financial system has been superficially patched up but will likely collapse again, global climate change continues, and our capacity for war has not been diminished by our advances in destructive technology. It is a simple principle of survival; we need to live differently. The challenge is that change does not happen by a snap of the fingers, nor by the election of a figure we place our hope in. Change has a process. The 99% must learn liberation.

For my own learning process, I must immerse myself in this movement. So I set up my tent and sleeping bag. I talk about beautiful possibilities with newfound friends. I learn the stories which bring us together. I start this blog; and, for my first post, I am asking readers push themselves beyond their own reluctance. Attend marches and teach-ins. Provide donations of food, warm clothing, or money. Sleep overnight. Engage as much as you can. This is a rare moment in history, and the more involved we are with it, the more profound it will be.

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