Onward through the Storms at Occupy Austin

Even the Weather Turns Spiritual

By Greg Moses

DissidentVoice / CounterPunch / The Rag Blog

For Bernice King the timing of things must be spiritual. There must have been a reason she says for Hurricane Irene to move in on the August schedule and force a delay to October so that when the monument to her father was officially unveiled Sunday, it would be presented to a nation properly prepared.

For Martin the Third, time also seemed to flow spiritually from the season of his father’s death right into the economic justice movements that are springing into view across the globe inspired by Occupy Wall Street. It was an economic justice movement that occupied Martin Luther King, Jr. the day he took his last fall.

Occupying the only memorial on the National Mall not dedicated to a President nor a war, the stone-hewn image of our beloved American prophet transfixes our national conscience upon renewed possibilities. Tourists banned from the Washington monument due to earthquake damage will be compelled more than ever to stop looking at where we came from and go find out where we’re going.

The weather in Texas also had been holding out. Sunny skies greeted the opening-day festival for Occupy Austin on Thursday, Oct. 6, and stayed for the sidewalk picket of Bank of America that Friday. When the storms finally hit Austin on the second Saturday of October they broke the harshest season of heat and drought on record, pouring down their pent-up refreshments all over the first weekend of Occupy Austin.

It wasn’t an easy night for Occupy Austin organizers who showed up to the matinee edition of Sunday’s General Assembly with fatigue and desperation barely contained. What they needed was unity right away. But the thing about real organizing work is that you don’t get what you need when you think you need it most. And so you learn in real time how to stretch yourself across an abyss because somehow it still seems easier than falling apart.

What was most interesting about the first stormy weekend of Occupy Austin had to do with the issue that churned this predominantly white movement nearly to early dissipation. It was the issue of the indigenous peoples and what any real economic justice movement should do about that?

Although the Occupy Austin General Assembly had passed a resolution in support of indigenous peoples on that stormy first Saturday, it was an expensive lesson in the deep rootedness of all problems American. And for weary organizers who showed up for Sunday’s aftermath, there was a real fear expressed that the occupation might have already seen its last hour.

So it wasn’t an easy meeting up at the City Hall amphitheatre, where the west-side railings were still wrapped in black plastic as an improv windbreak. But eventually things worked out. A set of Unity Principles was adopted that would keep the compass of Occupy Austin fixed upon its “true North” purpose as an action guided by the example of Occupy Wall Street.

On Columbus Day, a banking holiday in America, the indigenous movement staged a symbolic protest outside Bank of America and then rallied at the Texas Capitol against a half millennium of occupation. On the Saturday after Columbus Day, the 9th Annual Indigenous People’s march stepped off from the Alamo, joined by folks from Occupy San Antonio.

Meanwhile city officials from Austin to New York were working out their own unity principles, and their word of the week was “sanitation.” On Wall Street the sanitation issue became international news and city officials backed down from their ultimatum that the occupied park should be cleared for proper cleaning. In Austin a few arrests were reported during the sanitation action, but the movement was too young and sparse to make much of an issue out of it.

As Occupy Austin entered its second week this past Friday, Oct. 14, organizers were looking more rested, wholesome, happy, and relaxed as they mixed themselves into the festival of people that array themselves around the Guitar Cow at City Hall Plaza. On my third visit to the occupation I still count more than one hundred participants, about forty of them beginning to look like regulars.

Folks sit up in the amphitheater, hold signs along Cesar Chavez St., mill about the stone plaza, or arrange themselves into small groups on the limited grassy area near Lavaca St. Huddled up against the East side of the amphitheater is another tiny patch of grass that supports knee-high stone blocks. This is where some of the more “official” occupation activities take place, like a food table, an info table, or a small organizing meeting.

On the second Friday of the occupation around 5:30 pm about a dozen mostly young folks are discussing strategies of nonviolent communication. This is a survival skill for the occupation movement as any casual visitor to a General Assembly will see. Either this movement will be able to organize itself through group discussions or it will fall apart.

And this is worth remarking in our age of social media. What all the Facebook, cell phone, text message, and Twitter technology has created here is an electrifying need for face-to-face solidarity.

Among the dozen participants who hold handouts at this nonviolence workshop, you don’t hear the usual questions such as what’s nonviolent communication got to do with me? Instead you hear voices who are up to their necks in the need for this skill, and you listen to questions eager to understand how it works.

Just as I’m catching the flow of discussion about the distinction between a request and a demand, up comes a visitor to the occupation who wants to know if we are anti-corporation.

A young man who I recognize as an organizer points to the sky in a gesture that appears to signal something like hey dude that’s not what we’re here to discuss, but one of the facilitators of this workshop checks him with a glance before addressing the questioner.

“How does it make you feel when you hear the words anti-corporation?”

“It pisses me off.”

“When you think about the corporations that you are familiar with, do you think of them as addressing the kinds of problems that we are here to solve?”

No. Clearly our questioner has a lot of corporate experience and he shares with us his mental checklist. One by one, we listen to him tell us how none of the corporations that he knows personally could be counted on to join this movement for economic justice. They all have something else in mind.

“Well, we’re here discussing nonviolence,” says the facilitator.

“I grew up with nonviolence,” says the questioner, a remark that sort of calls attention to his Black skin.

“Nonviolence?” says a white guy who is walking his bicycle through the occupation. “How far are you willing to take that?”

“The question sounds vague to me,” says the second facilitator. “Can you make it more clear?”

“I mean how would you respond if someone was doing violence to you?”

“With compassion,” answers the second facilitator introducing a longer answer that involves Gandhi and some core principles of self-protection.

Soon enough we’re back into the flow of our workshop on nonviolent communication and very pleased to have such handy examples to think about.

Out on the plaza a three-piece band is putting out a vibe. The keyboards hit at the opening chords of “Higher Ground” and soon enough the keyboardist is singing, “People!”

It feels good to see the organizers smiling and chatting casually during this Friday evening festival. The skin that seemed so drained last weekend has come back flush with life. They’ve had a chance to shower and rest and eat and get to know each other a little better.

Back on stage the guitar player strikes a few hard chords and asks us to sing along if we’d like.

“Once upon a time, you dressed so fine . . .”

And suddenly it’s like people don’t walk past each other any more, but everybody checks out everybody else’s eyes just to make sure they’re sharing the feeling. The keyboardist and bass player dig into their notes. And everything is suddenly new all over again.

Raul G. Garcia Responds to Express-News Column on Ramsey Muniz

Note: The following letter by Raul G. Garcia to the Editor of the San Antonio Express-News has not yet been published there.–gm

Dear Editor:

I would like to offer a rebuttal to columnist Scott Stroud who recently wrote a piece (Express News, September 1, 2011) on former La Raza Unida Party candidate for governor of Texas, Ramsey Muñiz. Apparently Mr. Stroud got the “facts” from the wrong people who appear to harbor agendas that pass for truth. No wonder the Express News has started to fall apart in the last two weeks, with the departure of two editors, two staff members, and Stroud himself who is high tailing it to Tennessee. This is what happens to a newspaper when gossip and rumor replace the truth.

Stroud has maliciously done a disservice to the Muñiz family by implying that Muñiz himself harbors no hope of parole. The truth of the matter is that if there is anything that drives Ramsey, family, and friends it is the hope that one day he will be free. It is this hope which will destroy even the chains of a life sentence, for this is what Ramsey has suffered in the last 18 years. Neither Stroud, nor his misguided informants have an inkling of what it means to survive in the cages of America, so it’s easy for him to dispel the importance and value of hope which resides in the heart of the Muñiz family.

Stroud, who suffers from a lack of knowledge regarding appeals cases in judicial history, points out that Muñiz has no chance of being set free. The same was said of Nelson Mandela who was a prisoner for 27 years for his struggle against apartheid in South Africa. The voices of defeat said the same thing about Nobel Peace Prize winner Suu Kyi, recently released after 14 years of imprisonment for her leadership in the Democracy Movement in Myanmar (what used to be Burma).

In the last few years we have witnessed in the United States a number of prisoners released after being falsely accused for a deed they did not commit. The U.S. judicial system does have its own flaws, as acknowledged by former Supreme Court Justices Harry Blackmun and Sandra Day O’Connor, especially with regard to the death penalty. According to a study by professor Hugo Badau from Tufts University and Michael Radelet of Florida State University, there have been 28 innocent individuals executed in the country before 1973.

Another study that came out in 2001 conducted by a group of Columbia University law professors, led by professor James Liebman, showed that out of 5,400 death penalty appeals cases, there were errors in 3,600 of them. This was a study that included a 22 year period between 1973-1995. These were death row appeals cases representing 34 states. Some of the prisoners were exonerated from death row, and others got reduced sentences. The point is that the judicial system is not perfect, and it has also erred in matters other than life and death.

Muñiz has been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, a sentence that is basically a death sentence, yet, he’s never blown up a federal building, nor has he murdered, lynched, raped, or exploited the financial life savings of working people. On the contrary, Ramsey gave his life for his people, for the poor, and in the process helped others become professionals in their own field.

The Houston Chronicle just recently (October 5, 2011) reported how law abiding citizens have been deceived or tricked into transporting drugs without their knowing it. The report states that prosecutors and a federal judge have conceded that law abiding people have been used in this way and are now being set free after a review of their case. Can columnist Scott Stroud prove that no one else planted cocaine in the car Muñiz drove, a car that did not belong to him? So who is hurting Ramsey Muñiz’s case? The weaklings who want him to admit guilt, and the media which acts as judge, jury, and prosecutor.

The time has come for all lovers of justice to rally behind Ramsey Muñiz and his family. The bashing of our people through the media should remind us of the past, of the way our Chicano brothers and sisters were likewise treated by a reactionary mentality which once again is overtaking America. Our heroes and heroines through history did not teach us to be vengeful, but to be as compassionate as possible, and never to lose our sense of justice.

Let us embrace our brothers and sisters who sometimes, because of circumstances, need us more than ever. Ramsey Muñiz still carries with him the spirit of La Raza, a spirit full of courage and spiritual hope, a spirit which still battles, from the dark dungeons of America, those who have succumbed to greed and power. It is this spirit of his freedom that should unite us in the outside, for THE TIME IS NOW.

–Raul G. Garcia

Note: Raul Garcia and Ramsey Muñiz attended Baylor University at the same time. Raul went on to teach philosophy at the university level and Ramsey attended Baylor School of Law. In his article above, Raul Garcia responds to a recent article printed in the San Antonio Express-News on September 1, 2011. It was written by an employee, Scott Stroud, who mocks the suffering of Ramsey Muñiz and his family. Stroud expresses hateful sentiments about a man who fights for his freedom after 18 years of wrongful incarceration. His carefully chosen words reflect a total lack of respect toward Ramsey Muniz, his family, and many others who suffer greatly and face a death sentence -life without parole. — Irma Muniz

Profound and Healing Experiences at Freedom Square, D.C.

by Doug Zachary

Certainly you all have heard about the risks taken and the suffering endured by several Code Pink Members and their allies in Washington DC at the hands of ill-trained police defending the public’s right to salivate at the sight of military drones. The authorities behaved in an unreasonable manner and they will be held accountable in the courts.

I’d like to share with you all (briefly) an understanding of the two camps in DC (Occupy DC and Oct2011) — their differences and their necessary confluences. Below is the report I have sent to VFP Austin. Thank you for allowing me to post here.

I have just returned to Bastrop from the Washington, DC occupations; I hope to return after taking care of some family obligations here. There are two foci for the protests in DC; the Veterans For Peace-led activity that has been in the works for many months at Freedom Square and the Occupy DC action at McPhearson Park. The Freedom Square activities have emerged from the vfp action team that began building toward this with the 2008-09 actions on the ledge of the national Archives building and the banner drops at the Newseum among other places and that has morphed into the Oct2011.org coalition (Within which CP has contributed much.). There were VFP chapters from around the country represented here.

The differences between the two encampments in DC are striking. The average age at Freedom Plaza is well over fifty; at McPhearson Park the participants were half our age (or are we twice theirs?). We are veterans of the nonviolent movement, many — if not most — of us have been at the barricades in some form or another since the American War against Viet Nam. The younger people are products of the more deeply alienated generations that followed us. There are many liberals and even more Socialists (of every stripe) among us; the youngsters at McP are the radical, ultra democratic Left (I found myself drawn over to their activities and attitudes.)

There is a lot of process knowledge, if not wisdom, among us at Freedom Square. That said, some of the best facilitators among us were in their twenties. All decisions are being taken in consensus and as you all can probably imagine . . . it is thorny. Using Freedom Square as a base we have launched demonstrations and actions around the city including a very dramatic anti-drone action at the Aerospace museum that turned violent (police violence) when several members of Code Pink and allies were pepper-sprayed without any justification whatsoever by the private security guards there. There will be a lawsuit and the victims will prevail.

Although I had been on the planning committee for this activity as VFP, I attended and participated with about a dozen of the original Winter Soldiers from the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. We did an action at the Wall that was very moving and attracted a lot of attention from the citizens visiting the Wall, including a Westy’s Warrior or two who glared but did not venture to speak to or at us. At the Wall with all these old comrades, I did not descend into the usual anger that has characterized my previous visits there; it was a healing experience.

I would have to sit at the keyboard for another five days to tell all the wonderful stories from this action. It was and is a profoundly moving experience.

I am going to be involved in Occupy Austin and also hope to go to Wall Street soon, but my main focus will remain the VFP presence at Freedom Square. I would encourage any of you who can make this trip to do so.

Note: originally posted to Austin Codepink, re-posted by permission — gm

Tax the Rich, Eat the Rich, Snatch the Rich: Occupying New Orleans

October 6th: Report from Occupy NOLA

by Elizabeth Cook

Over 100 folks turned out at the beginning of the march at Tulane and Broad, to protest the prison planet that New Orleans, and Louisiana has become. New Orleans, with double the national average of incarceration, and Louisiana with the highest incarceration rate in the nation, made Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) an excellent starting point to expose the underbelly of the capitalist system.

Sheriff’s department staff were out and watching with curiosity. I shouted to one group of staff as I walked to the march that Sheriff Gusman allowed people to drown in OPP after Katrina. This is a coverup that has never been exposed adequately. In the course of my activism after Katrina, I ran into many former OPP prisoners who witnessed drownings during the chaos of Katrina in OPP.

Some chants revolved around shutting down our school to prison pipeline system. Many more chants called for the rich to pay, and abolish the Federal Reserve. Personally speaking, the abolish the Federal Reserve folks, out in full force, got a bit annoying. More on that later.

Several African American activists helped lead the chants in a spirited manner, including Malcolm Suber, Sharon Jasper and her two daughters, Kawana and Shannon, Reverend Brown, Leon, and Sam Jackson. Suddenly Sam and Reverend Brown led the marchers onto the street, and it began. I followed in my truck so that I could ride folks who couldn’t march. As we turned onto Basin Street from Tulane Ave., I noticed that it took several minutes for the marchers to make that turn. The crowd had swelled impressively. I later estimated the crowd to be around 500 folks.

Once in Lafayette Square, marchers occupied the statue of Lafayette there and began handing around a bullhorn for folks to speak. A couple of folks who want to abolish the Fed tried to hog the bullhorn a bit but got shouted down eventually. Some of them declared themselves as Ron Paul supporters, and behaved as expected, with a bit of fanaticism evident. They got roundly booed when Ron Paul’s name was brought up. In my view, abolishing the Federal Reserve as an antidote to our nation’s ills just isn’t enough.

One of those same protesters tried to shut Sharon Jasper down at OPP when she tried to bring up affordable housing issues. New Orleans has the highest rate of homelessness per capita in the nation, since Katrina. Sharon brushed her off of course. Ron Paul’s shrinking government message is not the answer to our problems, and this country’s problems, btw, didn’t start with the creation of the Federal Reserve. Once the abolish the Reserve, you still have a cadre of politicians in Washington D.C. sold out to corporate interests.

Students spoke about mounting debt, which prompted a great deal of cheering from these young protesters. I would say the average ages of the protesters favored the youth. Many spoke of corruption in the financial industry, and the need to keep this movement rolling. Spirited debates in the crowd broke out here and there.

I happened to be standing at the base of the monument to Lafayette, near some of the old guard who obviously were advocating reform of the capitalist system, and near a crowd of young anarchists who successfully shouted down and led a chant against the message of “voting” as a form of protest. Their point was that the electoral system is completely compromised by capitalism, and voting is not going to solve our problems at this point. I have to say I completely agree with them.

One older man began chanting, “tax the rich, tax, the rich, at which time I started chanting “eat the rich, eat the rich”, and then a young woman joined in and chanted “snatch the rich, snatch the rich”. It was a bit playful that way. An older woman standing near me preached about the need to vote, that if you don’t vote, you won’t be seen or heard. I interjected, vote for whom, which sold-out party or politician do we vote for? The young anarchists were in complete agreement.

I think that debate hinted at a broader division in the Occupy Wall Street movement that is flying below radar, which is probably a good thing at this point. The utilization of consensus building in the occupation gatherings, gives folks of disparate views an opportunity to work together on projects. Clearly though, there is the camp of we can reform capitalism, and there is the camp of we need to oust capitalism and create a different form of self-governing system that isn’t necessarily a representative form of government, but more related to direct democracy.

These disparate groups have largely stayed clear of each other, but are now coming together realizing of course, that we can’t ignore each other any longer. These encampments give the groups a chance to learn to work together on common goals, leaving aside differences for the moment. The differences aren’t going to go away though.

Anarchists, college students, middle age activists like myself, mostly young though, attended an assembly at Duncan Plaza next to City Hall at 6pm. Duncan Plaza was the scene of a homeless occupation for several months in 2007, before being disbanded by police on the day the New Orleans City Council voted to demolish public housing, after violent rejections and abuse of protesters in and outside of that meeting.

We are returning to our contemporary activist roots by setting up in Duncan Plaza. I heard a news report this morning that stated the NOPD will allow protesters to camp there, for now.

About 150 people were in attendance; it was an impressive turnout. I spoke to a couple of women who had already moved out there with the intention of encamping. I also spoke to a college student from LSU who intended to sleep out there the first night.

The meeting utilized the techniques developed in New York for running meetings without a bullhorn, mic checks, hard blocks etc. The meeting kind of got bogged down with disagreements over process, consensus, the definition of nonviolence, etc. One young man suggested that rule by majority vote actually allowed for a platform that tolerated more forms of dissent within the group, which I found to be a fascinating analysis.

Frustration at the slowness of the meeting and coming to consensus agreement was expressed, and one wonders how long the consensus model will last. Nevertheless, these discussion offer an opportunity for folks to get to know each other, exercise their own thought processes within a group, and learn what it means to function in a community such as this.

I think the difficulties in communication have an opportunity to bond people, if they stick it out to work it out. There will be growing pains, and hopefully folks won’t be discouraged by this. As one young woman said, the Arab Spring is changing into America’s Fall. It’s about time.

I couldn’t stay for the entire meeting, but I suspect there will be a meeting each night at Duncan Plaza, probably at 6pm, as long as the encampment remains.

Note: This is my personal report, replete with my personal, political views. I know others may have alternative takes on the event, and it would be great to hear your views. — Elizabeth (yocandra42@hotmail.com)