Occupy Richmond, Oct. 15, 2011

Note: This is a two part post. Part One is The Facts. Part Two is What I Actually See.

 The Facts:

With the Occupy movement going worldwide, in cities big and small, Richmond was never going to let everyone else have all the fun. The first day of Occupy Richmond drew a wide variety of people from a multitude of backgrounds. Recent college grads under a mountain of debt who can't find jobs that support said debt are well represented, working class people who are unemployed, underemployed or employed at wages that fall far below affording the vanities like gasoline, heating, electricity, food and in an increasingly digital society, internet could be found there. Richmond's special variety of anarchists, communists and libertarians are all gathered round the fire for real change that Occupy Wall Street lit as well. Considering the nature of the Occupy protests across the globe, one wouldn't necessarily be surprised to see this collection of people marching down the street and yelling, "All night, all day, Occupy RVA." The surprising element in the crowd for the march from Monroe Park, where the 99%-er's held their third General Assembly, was the number of retired and upper middle class people who aren't necessarily struggling, and who are most definitely not the people that come to mind when Americans hear the term radical (though that doesn't stop many Richmond area publications from doing so).

Using a modified consensus model, adapted from the same method used in New York, it took slightly more than two hours for the group gathered at Monroe Park to decide that Kanawha Plaza was the best location in Richmond to begin their occupation. After a lengthy discussion, the other choice they'd previously agreed would be on the agenda, Monument Avenue, was put down.

The groups facilitators (participants who have volunteered and gone through a quick training on how to mediate the consensus process) also laid out where things stood legally. They had been in regular contact with the Captain of Richmond City Police's Special Events Unit. He had assured them that he had no intention of attempting break up their occupation, should they choose to occupy Kanawha Plaza. He had promised that they would get a permit to for the park, port-o-potties, extra trash cans etc. Occupy Richmond was informed at 9 p.m. on Friday, October 14th that Mayor Dwight Jones had called an after hours special session in order to issue a proclamation to the police, forcing them to enforce all city encampment ordinances. The result being, that if any of the participants of Occupy Richmond were in any public park after dark, they would be issued trespassing citations first, and if they refused to leave, would be arrested.

The question then became do they occupy the park or do they occupy the sidewalk that surrounds the park, which citizens have every right to use, no matter the time of day. The stipulation being that there is no sleeping on the sidewalks. The arguments for occupying the park surrounded the idea that if the Occupy movement, as a whole, is engaged in civil disobedience, why shouldn't Occupy Richmond also do the same. "We have said we are going to occupy the park. We have to be steadfast or we aren't serious," was specifically said by someone who supported occupying the park.

Those who supported occupying the sidewalks made the argument that forcing a confrontation with the police on the very first night of the occupation was not in the group's best interest. They suggested the group would be more able to fully occupy the park once the work groups were going to be able to set up sanitation, food, communication etc. They suggested that if the occupiers were all carted off to jail on the very first night, the group would be unable to take the park later, and further support would be very hard to come by. The argument was essentially that a round of arrests on the first night of the occupation would insure that there would be no occupation at all.

Consensus could not be achieved while still in Monroe Park, and word was coming in that the police were going to move in if the group was in Monroe Park after dark. Monroe had for many years been the residence for the majority of the cities homeless. Last year, there were ordinances past about encampment, the same ordinances being used to attempt to keep Occupy Richmond from occupying Kanawha Plaza. So, the group decided to march to Kanawha and try to make the decision about whether or not to attempt to take the park once they arrived.

The crowd of three hundred plus then headed down Belvedere to Cary St, and down Cary St. to 8th St. and over to Kanawha Plaza. Police cruisers blocked cross streets allowing the group to move as a whole, and helping to insure their safety. Members of Occupy Richmond carried signs addressing the myriad issues that have catalyzed the movement and chanted "All night all day, Occupy RVA", "Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go", and "the people united, will never be defeated." Upon reaching the Plaza, they used the People's Mic in order to read allowed a proclamation stapled to the sign baring the parks name. It was a statement regarding the city's encampment ordinances that the Mayor had called a special meeting to instruct police to strictly enforce, despite the fact that the city's homeless have occupied Kanawha since they had been chased out of Monroe Park. Until Occupy Richmond began considering Kanawha as their location for occupation, the city had been following a "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" model in enforcing the encampment ordinances.

Surrounding the large fountain, Occupy Richmond began to try to reach a consensus about whether or not to occupy the park, possibly forcing an immediate confrontation with police or to occupy the surrounding sidewalks and try to work with the police and city unless those institutions begin attempting to use tactics of distraction, and intimidation or attempting to impede their 1st Amendment Rights. In the half hour before sunrise, the group wasn't able to reach consensus, and were informed by the group of police who had gathered across the street that they would be allowed another hour, even though the ordinance specifies that everyone must be out of the park at sunset. It was a somewhat heated discussion, but eventually, consensus was reached to occupy the sidewalk until they could have a formal meeting with the City Council in order to attempt to address the encampment ordinances through the accepted channels and means. The police seemed to be looking for a spirit of cooperation more than anything else, and the decision to restrict themselves to the sidewalk as opposed to forcing a confrontation immediately satisfied them. So far, Richmond Police Department seemed to be cooperating with Occupy Richmond.

The group then began to spread across the large area the police had designated as "sidewalk", which included a small area covered by trees, and populated by benches. A number of the crowd mentioned that this area may serve them better in the long run because of it's visibility. Kanawha Plaza is more or less sectioned off into a few pieces, a large grass area with concrete walking paths through it, with large stepped fountain separating it from the "sidewalk"area that Occupy Richmond were taking up residence. The interior of the park, though lush with grass and a number of benches is virtually out of sight from the street, because it is raised, the fountain blocks it's view the busiest corner the parks sits on, and concrete partitions block the view from the main thoroughfare passing it. The sidewalk and the corner Occupy set themselves up on has a full view of the street and the surrounding area.

After providing some food for the evening and beginning to get the Comfort Working Group into action, the remaining participants broke up into smaller groups for the long chilly night ahead. All in all, it was an uneventful evening. There was one incident at 1:15 am which someone claiming to work for a local landscaping company, though carrying a pocket camcorder, began an exchange with some of the group. One of the homeless residents of the park made his way over as it began, and it wasn't long before the individual in question proceeded to tell this young, homeless vet who'd been out of work for eighteen months that he needed to check the classifieds and get a job. It began to escalate from there, but the members of Occupy Richmond diffused the situation entirely, ushering the would be provocateur away from the park while keeping busy the vet he'd just insulted. The incident led to a discussion about how to deal with people who approached them to challenge them, and how to tell the difference between someone who was genuinely interested in learning more and having a dialog and people who are attempting to provoke members of the group against the non-violent stance they have adopted.

There was a good deal of pacing, hot tea and coffee, and laughter until sunrise, when a member of the greater community who is sympathetic to the Occupy movement stopped by with hot doughnuts. He was greeted with warmth and excitement by the sixty-five people who'd spent the an unseasonably chilly night on the sidewalk of Kanawha Plaza.

What I Actually See:

Occupy Wall St. and the many other locations that have sprung up across the nation and the world (including Occupy Richmond) have been painted as a ragtag group of trust fund hippies who need to go out, get a job, grow up and stop complaining. They're being painted as wannabe radicals, layabouts, ignorant children being taken by some shadowy organization or other. The media keeps saying, "What do they want?" as if the general bend of the signs, slogans, language, organization and decision making doesn't heavily allude to it.

What I actually saw was a group of Americans, of different backgrounds and ages, saying they are taking back the responsibility of living in, and governing a democracy. There are no demands because there are no demands to be made, they're making the changes they want to see. It's a set of actions. They have found a method of forming a consensus, which can be a messy and slow process, but they're doing it. They are saying they are no longer content to have corrupted politicians representing them. They're out there, representing themselves. They are saying they're no longer going to be content with bread and circuses, that the political and economic systems inability to address their needs, beliefs and morals is no longer acceptable. They're working together to address them. They're not content anymore to "hope" things are going to "change." They are changing them. They are saying they won't be slaves to private debts accrued to institutions preserved with public funds. They are saying they've paid a hefty enough toll to thieves already.

Far from being a group of know nothings attempting to avoid the responsibility of any actual employment or accountability, they're taking on the responsibility to reclaim democracy from the forces that have undermined and essentially stolen it. They are taking on the greatest responsibility an American citizen can have, and they are expending a great deal of effort to do so. It is no small undertaking to establish one of these occupations. It is a logistically challenging to say the least, much less getting a group as diverse, both demographically and ideologically, as this one to work together to meet the essential needs of the group, but they're doing it. When not directed by professional organizers, it takes a even more work because they are figuring it out and learning as they go, and they're doing so quickly and efficiently.

The media have also begun to compare the Occupy protestors with the Tea Party. Though some of the grievances they have lodged are similar to the Tea Party, there is one extremely significant difference. It is the thing that has been required of every successful movement in American history, and was missing from the Tea Party; sacrifice. The Tea Party threw rotten fruit from the balcony. They held large, well funded rallies with speakers and politicians that came and catered to their every proclamation. Ultimately, they failed though. They still have some degree of influence on one part of the political duopoly, but they aren't a driving force in American politics anymore. They were co-opted. It was possible for them to be co-opted specifically because the Tea Party never made any sacrifices for all of this change they demanded. They never did much of anything but show up, lodge their grievances, put hats and costumes, call people names and go home when it was all done. They screamed about the illegitimacy of one institution or another, but they never directly defied it either. They organized, made a lot of noise, and ended up throwing around a whole lot of money, but they never sacrificed anything but their time. The Tea Party didn't even become irrelevant because they were co-opted, they essentially became irrelevant because when it became evidently clear that they were fighting so they wouldn't have to sacrifice anything, it became clear that they would never be able to achieve anything. I understood and sympathized with the Tea Party's rage, but they were essentially just doing exactly the same thing as the "establishment" politicians they hate. Politicians take polls to find out what to say. The Tea Party's been weened on fifty years of the mainstream media they decried, so they knew more than anyone else what to say to get the attention of people who think like them. Either way, there was a whole lot of talk, and very little sacrifice.

The people of the Occupy movement are making great sacrifices to see the changes they want come to fruition. Across the country ordinary people are sacrificing their personal safety by facing police brutality, sacrificing their possible futures and their safety by facing arrest and most importantly for the United States, they are sacrificing their comfort on a daily basis. Despite what most of the media would have us believe, the accommodations in an Occupied park are not what the majority of Americans would describe as comfortable. It's mid-October, and most of the country is getting chilly, if not downright cold. Rain is a constant problem to deal with. Food is available, but it's rarely hot. The Occupied camps are chaotic and constantly noisy, quiet is nearly impossible to come by. There is something to be done in every single minute, someone who needs attention, a task that needs to be tended to, a necessity that has to be met. Piece of mind and a moments peace have to be sought on forays away from camp to coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, book stores etc. Even then, when members of the larger community realize an Occupier is among them, there are questions and praise (at best), remarks, reprimands and hostility (at worst). I joined them, in large part, because it is the first movement I've seen in my lifetime whose members have been willing to sacrifice for changes the majority of Americans believe are necessary. People who make sacrifices for the things they truly believe in are that much harder to buy off, to intimidate, and most importantly, to wait out. They will be persistent.

There is a fundamental disconnect between many of the other things the media have been saying about the Occupy movement as well. In the years preceding Occupy Wall St., the conversation surrounding the younger generation has centered on the idea that the emergence of new technology has corrupted them somehow. They were supposed to be selfish, disconnected (from human emotional experience), socially challenged, computer/reality television/video game addicted drones who were seemingly unable to handle the realities of modern American life. Now, the participants of Occupy are somehow anarchists (which takes some time to achieve, because you have to... well... read), communists (which also takes some self education), do nothing hippies, and trust fund kids. All of that seems to eschew the fact that the young people in the movement have grabbed a firm hold of the mantra "We are the 99%", specifically because it isn't all about them, and that they are taking the future directly in their own hands because they don't feel those in charge of handing them the reigns when their time comes are going to leave them anything but a smouldering pile of ash. The communities they are establishing are proving they understand very well how to have social interactions with other human beings, and that they are probably more capable of establishing emotional connections than the journalists and elites who've spent the last five or ten years fretting over them.

Of the not as young people, there is a trend. They tend to either be people who have been involved in activism at one point or another in their lives or they are people who played by all of the rules, only to find out after their lives had been completely turned upside down, that the game has been rigged from the beginning. I feel a strange kinship with these people. I've spent a good deal of time in my life trying to convince them that the game was rigged, and that they needed to do something along these lines. I tried very hard to make people see things they were not able to let themselves see. It's a frustrating thing, and after a while, I wasn't always very nice about it. Either way, it was that intent that led to my often ending up with a feeling that I was on the outside of the majority of the society I live in (and by a pretty significant percentage). In many ways, I know that wasn't true, but in this one it actually was true. In this one, I've been in a very small minority for most of my life. And now, many of the exact same kinds of people who would have been very angry with my constant focus on these issues are there, standing next to those younger people in Zucotti Park, Kanawha Plaza and all the other Occupied locations across the country. I just feel very bad for them now. I look at them, and to have worked for something for so long, only to have it stolen away, and to have everyone know very well who the thieves are and do nothing. They went to college (when it was still affordable, and in that, the are vocal in their support of those who are swimming in college debt), the bought houses, they worked hard and saved... and for some of them, the house, the savings and the jobs are gone. It's a level of betrayal I can't really imagine.

What I'm actually seeing, when I'm down there in Kanawha Plaza, is the kind of America, and the kind of Americans I had lost any hope might ever exist. They are people engaged in a struggle for their future, without losing sight of the humanity of the people who are going to occupy that future. That, it seems, is a direct contradiction to the occupation of American culture, politics and society by a multinational corporate state that recognizes no humanity, and in many ways actively attempts to undermine it. It is the closest actual representation to the idealized America people makes speeches about, go to war to die for, and fight at home to defend, that I've ever seen.

Once I was old enough to be in high school, when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I'd often say writer or journalist because it was the closest my mind could come to matching the things I really wanted to do. I didn't have words for it then, but had I have known any of this was possible or was coming, I'd have said, "I want to be a 99%er." At my best, I'm usually a skeptic. At my worst, I've been a nihilist. And for the first time in my life, I can be very proud to just be one of the 99%. The first part of this post, the "facts" would have told you none of this by itself. This second part of this post is as much fact as the first.


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