I spent a couple of hours at Austin City Hall with Occupy Austin earlier today. I’ve supported Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Together from the start — it’s been pretty amazing to see this grassroots movement start and grow. I donated a little money and have kept up via Facebook and Twitter. Today I decided to visit in person and write about it.
I walked around, talked to people, and took photos. If you haven’t been there, here’s my report, and I hope it is reassuring to you about this movement.
When I first walked up, I saw a young man on his hands and knees on the mulch around a tree at City Hall. His name is Brighton, and he was picking up cigarette butts and putting them into a plastic soda bottle. He’s been part of Occupy Austin since Day 1.
Occupy Austin is a home-grown encampment, and the occupiers make it work. One of their efforts is aimed towards keeping it clean. Brighton took this task on himself. I’m sure some of the butts were there long before Occupy Austin, so he’s doing the city (and us) a favor by cleaning it up.
He’s 20. He worked at a pizza company for a couple of years. He made minimum wage. There was no hope for a raise or advancement because of the economy, and he had no hope of continuing his education or getting other training. That’s why he’s part of OA. He’d like to see some change.
Brighton told me that some of the homeless people in Austin now go to City Hall to eat and sleep along with the occupiers, because food and shelter exist there. Occupy Austin has received a lot of donations of food, other goods, and financial support. He said the homeless don’t take part in the decision-making. It’s not that they weren’t asked — they mostly choose to leave and hang out elsewhere except for meals and sleeping. The OA people are a peaceful self-governing community, and they recognize that the homeless are part of the 99% like them, and so they include them.
I encountered William, who had taken on the job of handing out literature. He gave me some flyers and handouts containing the following kinds of information:
- Occupy Austin mission statement (solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, nonviolently reclaiming control of governments from the financial interests that have corrupted them, the people are the supreme authority)
- Occupy Wall Street mission statement (leaderless resistance movement of the 99% not tolerating greed and corruption of the 1%, commitment to nonviolence)
- Occupy Austin goals and demands (true democracy, economic security, corporate responsibility, and tax reform)
- Occupy Austin core values (resisting corruption, not becoming a political institution, nonviolence/civil disobedience if needed, and solidarity with the national movement).
- Occupyradioaustin is the first 24/7 online radio broadcast of the Occupy movement. Anyone can record his or her occupy or 99% story for broadcast through their website. On Twitter, it’s #occupyradioatx.
- To donate supplies, go to 5011 E. Cesar Chavez.
- Follow Occupy Austin on Twitter at #OccupyAustin.
- Friend Occupy Austin on Facebook.
The next person I conversed with was Josie, who was sitting at the Information Desk. She is not a camper but a volunteer who comes in and works for the movement.
She seemed to me to be a very friendly, articulate, capable young woman. The information table had some of the same flyers that William gave me and more. It was a place anyone could go with questions.
Also, she was interested in why I was there, and she gave me a hug!
I talked to Larry Singleton, who was carrying a flag. Larry is a veteran, and he is homeless. He has a dream of getting funding for a new facility to serve the homeless. He says that God put him there at Occupy Austin, that he is dying (I think he said of emphysema), and that he is doing this so he can die knowing he made a difference.
Larry’s sign says “WE WON by faith.” I asked him what that was about. He said, “We won last night.”
I thought he was talking about the World Series game last night.
My mistake! He said that Occupy Austin won last night. I’m not sure I understood exactly why, but it may be related to an Occupy Austin march held in solidarity with the Occupy Oakland and Occupy Atlanta groups who have encountered some pretty awful police brutality.
Larry is profiled on an awesome blog that he steered me to. Check out the post for Occupy Austin Day 9.
Joseph Ryder has been on the plaza for eight days and five nights. Joseph said he was there because of his anger about the bailout of the big banks, who use their money to buy politicians so they can do whatever they want. (I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist.)
Joseph was a friendly guy. I left to eat and came back later, and he remembered me and kidded, “You still around?”
It was Joseph who told me that Black Swan Yoga has been offering regular yoga classes on the plaza. That rocks.
I talked to a couple of guys sitting on one of the low rock walls that are so user-friendly at City Hall. Ken and Jonathan, an older man and a younger man, were having one of those free-ranging conversations that I couldn’t help but overhear as I sat nearby checking my iPhone. (I could swear that I saw a call from Nelson Guda come in for just a second, then lost it. That would be weird and cool, since he’s in Rwanda photographing mixed marriages between Hutus and Tutsis for his Enemies project, and we do more Facebook communication, not phone, usually.)
Ken remembers a lot of history about freedom movements in the U.S. He described himself as an old hippie. Jonathan had come down to the plaza for the first time today, like me. Their conversation was lively, and it was lovely to overhear two generations meeting like this.
Diedrich Holgate is an affable fun guy who seems to be enjoying being part of this movement immensely. Diedrich said his dad is a local defense attorney. Diedrich and his dad do not see eye-to-eye about this.
Apparently Diedrich has had some run-ins with authority figures (something like that, didn’t get the details), but he came across to me as basically trustworthy. He made his own sign, which says:
Today’s mighty oak tree was yesterday’s nut that held its ground.
Somehow I feel that that is a statement about Diedrich’s own future. I see him becoming a mighty oak of a man. This Occupy experience will be talked about in decades to come.
Diedrich showed me where the bathroom was (not a porta-potty but a regular bathroom in the City Hall building accessible from the plaza). He said there had been problems with people tagging it, writing graffiti in there. A young woman occupier took it on herself to sit near the bathroom and monitor it (with warning signs that that was happening) after each person visited it so that if anyone left it less than clean or tagged, that person would be held accountable. The self-monitoring encampment polices itself.
I apologize, but I forgot to write down her name (it might have been Lisa), but here’s her photo.
Speaking of the police, there was an APD car parked next to the encampment. The police officer stayed inside the car while I was there. Several of the protesters told me that one of their goals was to not need police intervention — to solve problems themselves. I thought they were doing a good job of that. They said there had been a learning curve.
The next-to-the-last person I talked to was Brandon, who was sitting at a table with six or seven others in Austin Java at City Hall., where I went when I needed a break
All of them had laptops. My kind of people! I sometimes go nerding with friends, but usually it’s just one or two of us, and we have Macs. This group was mostly young and male, some of the awesome hardcore geeks who have been like rock stars to the programmers at some of the places I’ve worked as a technical writer. There was a lot of computing power around that table, and I’m not talking about the equipment.
I couldn’t help but be curious about whether they were just a random group of geeks meeting at Austin Java or whether they were associated with Occupy Austin. It turned out to be the latter. They are one of several geek squads working with Occupy Austin. Brandon was working on Occupy Apps, working on an application that would allow people to stay networked if the system went down when too many people got on. I’m sure there’s some other pretty cool stuff being worked on there, and that their work benefits all the Occupy movements around the country and the world. We live in a geeky town, and I’m glad they’re participating and using their skills to create better democracies.
The last person I talked to was Eric Towler, a friend whom I first met at Appamada Zen Center last year, where we were both attendees of Sunday services. Eric has posted on the Appamada list about Occupy Austin before, so I wasn’t surprised at all to see him there. He’s been there several times and is contemplating doing some teaching about Zen in this community.
It was just lovely to bump into him and experience his peaceful, compassionate vitality and his interest in connecting Zen with real people and real problems.
The whole time I was there, people ebbed and flowed. I ran into Grace, whom I used to do yoga with. She had brought her neighbors there for the first time. Some people just came and held up signs along Cesar Chavez. There was a tent full of signs, and anyone could get a sign and stand on the street. Lots of cars honked and people gave the peace sign and yelled messages of support to the protesters.
There was even some humor amid the earnestness. First three young men in tuxedos or tails, later joined by a young woman in an evening gown and the most awesome heels, stood along Cesar Chavez with signs that said “Free Bernie Madoff,” “We Are the 1%,” “What’s Best for Corporations is Best for Me!” and “Get a Job.”
They weren’t part of the regular Occupy Austin crowd, and some of the regulars were a bit suspicious of them, thinking they might be counter-protesters, but mostly they left them alone.
I talked to them. They were just having some Halloween fun in the spirit of Abbie Hoffman and the Merry Pranksters. They recognized those names, which was heartening to me that the tradition of spicing social activism with some humor has not been lost.
These were probably their Halloween costumes.