Category Archives: Protest

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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High School Students Changing the World

Life has been very busy recently and I haven’t posted in a while.  One of the things I have been busy with involves lending support and encouragement to the students at Northwestern High School in Prince George’s County Maryland (usually called “PG County”).  PG County has a very large immigrant population.  The schools are majority black and Latino.  It is not a rich county and many schools are underfunded, which creates problems for students, teachers, and everyone involved.  A group of Northwestern students got together to plan a walkout on March 1st this year, protesting large class sizes (frequently over 40 students to a class), the firing of Phillippino ESL teachers (who were then deported because they lost their work visas), and unsanitary conditions (one student said he found a tooth in his food).  300 students agreed they would leave during the last period of the school day on March 1st.  The school found out about the plan, kept 4 organizers in the office all day, threatened them with expulsion and ultimately suspended them, and prevented many students from walking out.  Police where there, including dogs.  I and others did some activities of support for the students.  I wrote the letter below which I thought I’d post on this blog

Dear Northwestern students,

When I was in high school, I remember my elders talking about how kids now a days don’t believe in anything.  I knew this perception was false back then.  You, students at Northwestern, have proven this perception false today

For 20 years I have struggled with the educational system, and over those 20 years I have seen it getting worse.  In school I learned reading and math.  I also learned how to follow the rules, even when they didn’t make sense, how to compete with my fellow classmates, even when I didn’t want to, how to value myself and others based on our racially and socio-economically biased grades, even when I could see this wasn’t fair, and how to survive in a world which didn’t give a damn about what I thought or cared for -it wasn’t until college when I was first actually asked what I wanted to learn.  With the passage and continuance of No Child Left Behind, the authoritarian tendencies of school have gotten worse as teachers, students, and schools are all rigidly judged by standardized tests which rarely measure the actual retention of meaningful learning.

My experience in higher education was much better than my schooling up to that point, but it came with a steep cost which will probably require many years of servitude to pay off.  And the cost of higher education is rising, making it increasingly exclusive.  In general, educational funding is being cut.  This is happening at Northwestern.  It is happening across the country.  Teachers are fewer.  Class sizes are larger.  There are also many efforts to remove the teachers with more experience (who cost more) and replace them with newer teachers who cost less.  Northwestern, your struggles are national struggles.

Many are aware of the problems I am outlining.  Few are willing to do anything about it.  You at Northwestern have done something, and I hope you feel proud of it.  I feel grateful for you.  You have done what many are scared to do.  You have stood up for your rights.  You are practicing real democracy.  I would love to see teachers, students, and staff across the nation stand up in protest of this broken system.  Perhaps you will be trendsetters.  Know at least that I support you, and that there is a community of people who support you.  Whatever ridicule, punishment, or fear you face, keep your head held high.  Many have been trained by the authoritarian world to fear that which represents real hope and possibility.  The resistance you faced is only proof that you represent something powerful.

With Deepest Love and Appreciation,
Andrew Batcher
Writer, Activist, Educator

After the walkout people sent letters like mine to both the students and the administration.  We also called the administration, and there was an open community meeting that supporters could come to.  At first the administration was saying they “would not discuss alleged disciplinary actions,” seeming to deny that the suspensions even took place.  But students made sure they got their voices heard and supporters were there to encourage them.  This week, the students planned a day of silence for Trayvon Martin and the principle decided to revoke their suspensions.  It was a victory with a complex web of players.  I think there is a lot to learn from this, and I hope there can be many more victories after this.

Stopping Traffic on a Rainy Day; To Block or not to Block?

Yesterday was a rainy day along K street, famous for its lobbyists who make a living promoting corporate interests.  For the beautiful, loving, rabble-rousers, it was a day of action.  Thousands were gathered in protest of the lobbyists’ work.  Around three o’clock, about twenty lay down in the street.  They were covered in plastic and signs.  They stared up at the sky.  Medics walked in and out of the prone group which blocked traffic.  Two rows of police surrounded them, prepared to make arrests.  Along the sidewalks a crowd chanted, said words of support, and attempted to influence the cops -who stood with stoic resistance.  Everyone was soggy.  The rain was as constant as the action.  I was standing slightly in the street, speaking to a reporter -words that I knew he was not looking for.  Then the line of cops moved in; “get off the street or you will be arrested.”  I moved.  Soon the arrests followed.

I had thought about risking arrest that day, but decided against it.  I had mixed feelings about the scene.

On the one hand, I believe in civil disobedience.  In 2003, I jumped a police barricade, protesting the war in Iraq.  My heroes, such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were the types who would risk-arrest in the face of unjust laws and unjust social order.  But a lot of people would not risk arrest.  Being arrested (even for a just cause) carried with it a stigma which I knew often prevented people from taking action for social change.  And I wanted to take a real committed action again.  I was happy for the protesters laying in the street, taking bold action.  They were breaking the stigma of arrest within themselves and, in the process, reaching a sense of empowerment like I felt when I jumped the police barricade.

On the other hand, I had reservations.  These are well summarized in an article written by George Lakey about the WTO protests.  Lakey writes,

…there are times when stopping traffic may be the best we can think of…  However… [suppose] we take the point of view of the bystander or the television camera. When the police drag away protesters who are blocking a city intersection, what is the message of the protesters? The World Bank has policies that hurt people? Maybe, if the bystander or television viewer is willing to make several logical steps or leaps of imagination. There’s no reason to expect that bystanders and TV viewers will work hard to make those connections, especially when the excitement is in the physical conflict itself between arresting officers and activists.

In the end, I think blocking traffic is better than nothing, but it does not particularly call out to me as something to put my body on the line for unless I can make a clear case that I am blocking something horrible which is being transported down that road (weapons, for example).  My preference would be to shut down the buildings lobbyists work in (instead of the street), although I know this involves complicated logistical and strategic decisions.

I am uncertain; but I suppose there are three points I want to make.

  1. I am proud of the protesters who risked arrest, who were willing to put their bodies on the line for what they believed in.  I think they are brave people who stood up for the nation and the world’s well-being.
  2. If you are witness and support for an action, do not taunt the police.  Seriously.  Stop that.  I know, police are representatives of an unjust system.  To one extent or another we all are.  Chanting “shame,” or “what would your children think,” or claiming you will make a “citizen’s arrest,” is inviting the press to think we are crazy when the cops are behaving reasonably (when they are not, it is a different story).  This is also inviting the police to be angry and unsympathetic (and they will direct that anger towards the people who are actually taking a risk, not the fool standing on the corner trying to rile up trouble).
  3. The struggle is not about protesters versus police.  In this case, it is about democracy being sold to corporate interests, and protesters resisting the lobbyists who represent those interests.  I also think that, when the message of an action is less clear, it is more likely to become hijacked by the common, tired, and almost ritualistic meme of protester versus cop.  Bear in mind, this is not a message of change; it is only a continuation of what we are used to.

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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