Monday, October 17, 2011

On the Scene at Occupy Austin

The other day I had occasion to be at Austin City Hall.  It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and I observed that the Occupy Austin group in the plaza was small and quiet, but the atmosphere was festive. There were colorful signs and banners hung on the walls and steps, and chalked messages on the concrete of the plaza. I was shocked, I admit, that the crowd wasn’t larger.

I walked back through the plaza about 7:30. The atmosphere was a bit different—still festive, but more active.  There were people standing by the curb holding signs, encouraging passing drivers to honk their support (which they did, regularly). There was a small, subdued drum circle, and more movement, more milling around. The crowd had probably doubled in size. “Ah,” I thought, “They’ve come from work.” An astute observation on my part, if I do say so myself, because what I’ve read, seen, or heard about the Occupy Wall Street movement is minimal (a first year law school student doesn’t have much time to keep up with current events).

So I began to wonder what was going on. Who are these people, exactly, and what do they want? Who’s in charge? Curious, I started exploring the Occupy Austin website, where I read their General Assembly Minutes from October 2nd. Because it’s in writing, I didn’t get the full benefit of a live GA, where the group uses “the people’s mike” and hand signals to discuss and decide issues. 

If you’re unfamiliar with this system, there’s a great 4-minute primer here: In short, everyone repeats what is being said by everyone else so that everyone can hear what everyone is saying. And yes, when put into practice, it feels just that circular.

I’m sympathetic to the reasons behind this specific approach (the police won’t allow bullhorns, with which I’m also sympathetic), but it takes a really, really long time to get anywhere. The GA is where facilitators lead the group through decision-making by consensus using hand signals. You may have heard about the GA in Occupy Atlanta where it took 10 minutes to decide to NOT hear respected Civil Rights leader John Lewis speak. How they spend their time is at their discretion, but it took TEN minutes. Some members of the Occupy movement want to actually overthrow the government in its present form. Groovy. It’s gonna take a hellacious long time to make it happen at this rate.

But, back to the Occupy Austin GA. As I continued reading the transcript of the October 2nd GA, it became obvious that the movement consists of many different demographics, which I find hopeful—calling themselves the 99% and then actually striving for that as a reality. Sure, there will be a good percentage of people out there who think the Occupy movement is ludicrous, but calling it a movement of the 93.7% doesn’t sound as good as 99%. Anyway, I was right—many of the participants hold full-time, 40-hour a week jobs (“Wow, you mean they aren’t all drop-outs and slackers who could never hold a job and now that the economy soured and even Starbucks won’t hire them and they don’t know what else to do in the afternoons after they’ve smoked the last of their stash, they decided to just hang out at the plaza and try to make life difficult for those of us who do work and pay taxes like true, God-fearing Americans?”—and yes, I’ve seen all of this and more aimed at the participants in online comments to news articles and blogs).

There’s the “underage” set, teenagers, who have stricter guidelines from the city about when they can assemble and under what conditions, but that’s okay; they’ll have plenty of time to protest at will when they get older. There are folks there with little ones (the community specifically addresses child care issues so adults can march), members of the LGBT community, union and labor, and even slow-foodies who are resisting corporate control by growing their own food. There’s a blog entry on Occupy Austin’s website written in Spanish.  Elsewhere in the blogosphere I read of the middle-aged, middle-class white dude who said he was economically “well off” standing next to a leather clad young man who was out of work; they were getting along, communicating and wanting the same fundamental changes to come out of the movement.

Several exchanges during the October 2nd GA had to do with the police. I don’t remember seeing a single officer when I walked through, but I imagine there must have been a few. The facilitators stressed that the group had been given the go-ahead from the city government to assemble in the plaza, with one caveat—no sleeping in the plaza. The group decided to occupy in shifts, so no problem there. Otherwise, the facilitators reminded everyone, the police are public servants looking out for the safety of those in the plaza. Someone in the crowd (and hence the crowd in toto) suggested that everyone should be on the look out for any violence so that it could be dealt with immediately.  Someone else warned, a bit more ominously, “There could be provocateurs, government entities, so be aware and put a stop to it.”

It appears that the police and the Occupy participants had been on peaceful terms until this Thursday when four people were arrested for not leaving the plaza so it could be pressure-washed. Now, I have a problem with this last bit of the story for two reasons: one, some of the participants were using the corner of the plaza as their own private urinal, in which case, the city has every right to clean the place; but two, the city claimed that it “needed” to clean the chalk off the concrete—say what? Occupy Austin needs to be self-policing of its members or it will continue to have trouble with the city, and deservedly so. The city has a duty to the citizens of the city—100% of us. But…really? What harm is chalk going to do? It can wait until Dec 7th, the self-imposed end to the occupation.

Kristine Baumstark

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