Tag Archives: #occupydc

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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Making the Map While Walking the Path; Education, Social Change, and a University for the 99%

I believe quality education and effective social change cannot be separated.  For the occupy movement, if our vision is to make a world which does not serve the 1% at the expense of the 99%, we seek social relationships that have not existed for millennia.  Because the world we wish to see does not exist in our memory, we activists are stumbling in the darkness towards a destination there is no road map for.  Yet we still follow this journey because the goal is so important.  Hopefully, we make a map while walking the path, marking the wisdom we have gained so that the uncertainty becomes easier to navigate; so that others can better find their way and invent their own wisdom; so that our impact is not just on our own lives but on society at large.  This is a process of education, and of social change.

No matter how much we march, no matter how many actions we do, we cannot actually change the world unless we continuously realize lessons that change how we live.  For example, how can we have peace and justice without learning about the cruelty behind many of our privileges, the aspects of our culture which reinforce suffering, our ability to generate energy within ourselves that can resist oppression and promote healing, our prospects for being inviting to people so they will want to join our movement, our ability to act in the face of the fear which often paralyzes us, our ability to show love, and our ability to evolve our resistance according to the unique challenges of the time and place where we live.  Such learning is born from action and translated into action.  This is the perpetual cycle of praxis.  Learning becomes social change, social change becomes learning, and action without education is just as pointless as education without action.

All this is why I wish to work on creating a free University at Occupy DC, in order to help integrate learning into the daily activities of the occupation.  A couple of weeks ago I saw a a large sign which read “University of the 99%.”  People were talking about classes where “anyone can teach and anyone can learn.”  It was such a beautiful idea.  I also met people from Occupy Wall Street who were spreading a practice they called “Think Tank.”  This involved people discussing a subject, sharing their ideas, and those ideas being recorded, transcribed, and put online.  Lastly I have been involved in the national effort to train occupiers in how to be trainers, and have attended two trainings in Philadelphia given by Training for Change and the Ruckus Society.  This helped develop my own educational skills, and increased my appreciation for the value of education.

I believe our commitment to education astronomically enhances our ability to create change.  I believe an hour spent in a workshop is generally more productive than an hour spent at the GA, or at the majority of marches.  I also believe that our commitment to education is central to our ability to sustain ourselves for the long haul.  My hope is that there can be a lot of universities for the 99%.  This is needed, not only for the movement of 99%, but to salvage our faltering educational system.

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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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