Saturday, November 12, 2011

Merry Pranks, and Police State Politics

On November 9th Occupy Richmond produced an act of political theater impressive in its' creativity and scope for a group of this size. They succeeded in causing Richmond city police, directed by Richmond city government, to betray the lengths to which they are willing to go see "law and order" protected at the expense of the free speech of peaceful citizens seeking to petition their city, state, federal governments and the monied interests that control them for a redress of grievances. At the same time, they betrayed the lengths they're not willing to go to in order to find a group of violent criminals, who've now victimized seven people in downtown Richmond.

For nearly a week, Occupy Richmond had been publicizing the screening of a documentary at Gallery 5, one of Richmond's many small community based art galleries. The screening was to be directly followed by a march to Monroe Park where they would begin Occupation. After the Halloween morning raid, Occupy Richmond had established what has lovingly been referred to as the "Bug Out Working Group." This working group was charged with insuring the safety of personnel and material in the case of another police action committed against Occupy Richmond. The Bug Out group began to establish contingency plans for the proposed march to Monroe Park immediately following the GA's decision to occupy there. Given the fact that there had been an Occupation of Monroe Park to protest the cities treatment of the homeless and the proposed "remodeling" of the park that had ended in arrests earlier this year, and the prominent location in the center of VCU campus, Occupy Richmond knew the chances of police action were extremely high. VCU has become one of Richmond city's major power players due to the number of properties they've been buying and the supposed economic benefits the school brings. In truth, the University has brought an influx of students from the rest of Virginia, and from other states who often do have enough disposable income to support the service industry businesses that now surround the campus. Ten years ago, there would never have been a Chipotlé or Panera in downtown Richmond, but now there are. Bringing in minimum wage jobs in fast food and convenience stores isn't generally considered a boon for the poor, middle class or the rest of the 99%. The other side of that coin is that VCU's expansion has lead to continuously rising tuition costs, and a faculty which is now more than fifty percent part-time, adjunct professors, many of whom are highly educated, but are receiving low wages, no benefits and no job security from semester to semester. There's no benefit for VCU in visiting parents seeing a park at it's center dotted with the homeless (a population that's only growing in these economic conditions) or in this case, the tents and signs of Occupy Richmond. The degree to which Occupy Richmond's members are aware that gentrification of Richmond at the hands of VCU is contributing to the increase in homelessness in the city is also something that could be particularly uncomfortable for the University and the city. Monroe Park has been a politically charged subject in Richmond for a number of years, and Occupy Richmond effectively shined an even brighter light on it that night.

Getting word from bike scouts and various other supporters that Monroe Park was lined with RPD patrol cars, State Police cars, mounted units and motorcycle police, Occupy Richmond's Bug Out Group put their contingency plans to work. Following the screening of three excellent documentaries about the Occupy movement and Occupy Richmond specifically, they gathered on the sidewalk in front of Gallery 5, split into three groups of roughly one hundred people, soaked bandana's and medical masks in apple vinegar (to help combat the effects of a possible tear gas attack), and set out on three different routes. The three groups effectively walked almost every part of Richmond's downtown area, chanting and singing, while a battalion of police waited for them to arrive at Monroe Park. The arrival of three hundred protesters in a park lined with police in riot gear never ends peacefully. Occupations across the country have been witness to the lengths their city governments will go in order to "enforce the law", at the expense of the health, safety, and rights of Occupiers.

Two of Occupy Richmond's number were arrested on the sidewalk around Monroe Park as the group their group passed it. They were charged with a class 6 felony because they had bandana's covering their faces. Both have been long time activists in Richmond, are tied through association to or membership in Richmond's Wingnut collective, are involved with the local Cop Watch and had participated in the previous occupation of Monroe Park. It's not lost on Occupy Richmond that the Wingnuts have been a fount of organizational and information guidance, in things ranging from weather preparation to individual rights and conduct in case of police contact. They are not always in complete agreement with Occupy Richmond's decisions and methods, but the overall cooperation and relationship between the Wingnuts and Occupy Richmond seems to have bread a mutual respect that wouldn't have been possible without the direct actions both groups have collaborated on. Some of the Wingnuts may consider themselves Occupiers, and some of the Occupiers may consider themselves Wingnuts. In addition, contact with an anarchist collective that is completely different than those portrayed in the media seems to be softening many of Occupy Richmond's members who would previously have been averse to such a group. Members of Occupy Richmond were and are outraged at these arrests, especially considering that these two individuals were pulled out of a crowd of roughly a hundred people, at least half of whom were wearing bandana's or medical masks.

With a police surveillance plane and helicopter deployed to keep track of their movements, the three groups wound their way around the city, often circling around and covering ground they'd already covered, sometimes changing course entirely. Finally, the two groups that hadn't passed Monroe Park converged... in Festival Park, a park not covered under the city's "sunset provision" that makes it illegal to be in a city park after sunset. The third group arrived fifteen minutes later, with Occupiers rejoicing loudly, hugs all around, and a general sense enjoyment. Let's not forget, there were still a little more than a hundred police, waiting at Monroe Park. Overtime is apparently only an issue when catching actual criminals is the agenda. With the plane still circling overhead, it didn't take all that long for RPD to figure out where the Occupiers had gotten to. The police line in the accompanying video doesn't include the State Police cars, the motorcycles and a number of the unmarked cars that ended up ringing Festival Park, with a line of police standing across the street, joking with each other and staring at a group of people following the laborious process of GA to try and figure out what they were going to do next, with police dogs barking wildly from the rear of a few cruisers all the while.

It didn't take long for the police to make contact and establish that Festival Park is open until 3 am, and anyone in the park after would be arrested. I'd like to take a second and commend both of the people who have worked as police liaisons for Occupy Richmond, Katie and Bill. They've been instrumental in keeping group communication up to date and preventing chaos from erupting when there has been contact between Occupiers and police. It's also a relatively thankless job, as there is at least one paranoid hanger on (the kind of person who has a lot of demands, a lot of self righteous grandeur, and a lot of time to attempt to get in front of any available camera, but apparently no time to pitch in with the actual everyday work it takes to keep the group cohesive and communicating while not in actual occupation, much less moving forward) that insists on accusing anyone who doesn't completely submit to his worldview is an undercover police informant or military intelligence (OWS and possibly Oakland could rate that kind of attention depending on your perspective, but seriously, this is Richmond). A consistent demand from all Occupiers for police information that isn't always forthcoming from the police also puts them under some pressure. Both have conducted themselves admirably under chaotic, purposefully disorganized conditions and deserve that recognition from all of Occupy Richmond. The legal team also deserves to be thanked, as they have scarce personnel and were instrumental in securing the release of the four previously held Occupiers. I've no doubt they're working now to get back our people who were arrested last night.

As GA went on, the police were rolling by, using the loudspeakers on their patrol cars to remind the Occupiers that after three a.m. they would be arrested. It was a long GA, running just over two hours, in an attempt to come to a decision about what to do next. It was a meandering discussion, flowing through a number of topics that might not quite have seemed directly related to "what do we do now," but were at least tangentially related. GA's often go that way, and as frustrating this can be, the process of actual democracy is as important and probably as much the point of protest as the marching and occupying. Finally, the consensus was reached to head to the Canal Walk because it was discovered that it's a privately owned park, open 24 hours a day. This means the owners of the park would have to lodge a complaint with police directly because it's not a "city owned" park. And after a few minutes, waiting for the bike scouts to return, and laying out their route to march, the Occupiers moved on to their current place of Occupation.

There has been no violence on the part of anyone affiliated with or participating in any of the actions of Occupy Richmond. There has been no destruction of public or private property. Occupy Richmond has sought to peacefully assemble, petition the various governments supposedly elected to serve the people, and to participate in their own self governance. Nothing more, nothing less.

In the five days prior to Occupy Richmond's parade through Richmond city, there had been seven violent robberies, all in the same general area of the city, within the same three hour period. Should the Richmond city government and police actually be interested in stopping violent crime instead of free speech, this might be something worth devoting some of those same resources to. A police helicopter might be useful for this or possibly, a battalion of police officers on the streets during the period these vicious thugs have been striking. After day two, it might have seemed like a good idea.

The problem is, the city government, like the state and federal governments, is less interested in serving it's citizenry than it is in protecting it's power. It's somewhat ironic that Occupy Richmond, and the rest of the Occupy movement have been addressing their grievances to the governments and other power structures for exactly this reason, and in this particular case, the Richmond city government's efforts to prevent them from doing so have only further proven the degree to which their arguments and grievances are fundamentally sound. Richmond city government would rather see it's citizens violently robbed than it would see them stand up and exercise their rights to ask the city exactly why this is true.

Across the country, Occupiers have been met with the deafening silence of their governments in regards to their grievances, and the tear gas, batons and hand cuffs of the police departments commanded by those governments. They are waging a desperate fight to renew the citizens ability to have some say in their destiny, the government and their economy. On the same night that Occupy Richmond was being chased around Richmond by the agents of a city government intent on preventing them doing any of that, Penn State students were rioting, turning over vehicles, knocking down light posts, and destroying property everywhere they moved. They saw absolutely none of the vicious response from police that Occupiers have. The difference being that Occupiers have a goal that threatens the status quo by forcefully revealing the absolute hypocrisy of those in power in this country. Penn State students were rioting in protest of a man being fired after he didn't take every conceivable action to stop a pedophile and child rapist from continuing those activities, essentially protecting that same system of hypocrisy.

So, what's the cost hear? The cost can be calculated in the amount of overtime for a battalion of RPD officers, State Police, police from surrounding counties, keeping a plane and helicopter in the sky, horses and dogs and so on. It can also be calculated in the degree it has a chilling effect on free speech. Occupy Richmond may still be willing to play this game with the RPD and Richmond city government, but who out there is seeing this reaction to a relatively small group of people peacefully gathered to attempt to petition their government and to be able to discuss the issues they face, and is feeling like they probably shouldn't exercise their rights because the police will be there in riot gear, atop horses, with dogs, tear gas and rubber bullets?

These shouldn't be the things anyone is considering in regards to the Occupy movement or Occupy Richmond. They should be considering what will happen if Occupy Richmond and the Occupy movement fails. The result will be a dual generational demoralization of the people. The further result of that demoralization will be the privatization of public assets on a scale most Americans think of as only happening in third world countries and under authoritarian regimes. There is already an income gap matching that of Somalia. The Occupy movement is the first wave of resistance to the problems that have plagued other countries for decades. The reality of the cycle in many of those countries has been that when the first wave of peaceful, non-violent protests is pacified and demoralized, the second wave that comes later doesn't see itself as the next cycle, a continuation of the same movement. It sees itself as something else altogether, discrediting the first wave because of it's failure, including but not limited to, discrediting the first waves peaceful, non-violent tactics. Because of the speed of the Occupy movements ascendance, it's capture of attention and the optimism it is breeding, very few people seem to be either considering or mentioning this.

It's possible this isn't being mentioned because it could be construed as a call for violence or a threat. This is the furthest possible thing from the truth. In truth, the Occupy movement has been nowhere near the degree of radicalism it has been portrayed as being an example of. For all that they are calling to see changed, they are fundamentally less radical than they are conservative in he dictionary sense of the word "conserve." They are trying to conserve Constitutional and human rights and are using previously socially approved methods to do so. Should they fail, the next wave will do no such thing. The city, state and federal governments would do well to consider this before they have the kind of problem on their hands that will make the Occupiers look positively quaint.

Make no mistake, there is something terribly wrong with this country.

5 comments:

  1. Total bullshit--definitely not half of the people were wearing bandannas. Maybe 5.

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  2. really "total bullshit" on a rather minor detail? that's a bit rough and a bit rude. I do not think it was at all half but DEFINITELY more than 5 as I was with 5 wearing bandannas and they were not those that were arrested. i saw a lot more too. also, WAY over half were prepared to put them on for safety.The rest was considered and true and the only thing i saw missing was the fact that after Festival they then surrounded Kanawha thinking we were headed there and we laughed as we watched and walked by. I appreciate that the writer took the time to write this story out as it needs to be told correctly. Thank you.

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  3. Thank you for pointing out that VCU grossly underpays most of its workers, staff and adjunct instructors included. In these hard economic times, many people are too afraid to strike, too afraid that unemployed, younger, and eager job-hunters would easily slide into place without VCU even having to consider the income disparity between highly paid faculty and staff that haven't had a raise in more than 5 years. I certainly can't afford to strike. The issue with VCU and its underpaid and uninsured employees is only a microcosm of what the people protesting under Occupy Together are fighting for.

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  4. Excellent article Alex.
    Arguing over how many people had bandanas is juvenile. There were plenty of people with them, including myself. These were not to be used to cover up or disguise appearance, rather they were an aide against possible pepper-spray attack.
    I would like to point out that the local news took an angled approach to the police action against Occupy Richmond. Reporting the protesters attempted to occupy Monroe Park, Festival Park, and Kanawha Plaza. This reporting was an out right lie. The media had been briefed by occupiers that there was no occupation taking place in these parks. The truth of the matter is that the police were out smarted by a nimble Occupy Richmond. In doing this, the local media was able to keep up their perpetual ramblings and fear mongering.
    The Richmond Police Department and the State Police were the ones who broke the law, by harassing peaceful citizens, who gathered to stand up for the rights of all of Richmond and the world. The threats of arrest were rampant. The RPD lied to protesters at Festival Park. Telling us that the park was closed and that we had to leave. I, with a few others, walked directly to the commanding officers; on the scene, to tell them the code governing the park. Indeed, the park was and is open from 7 am to 3am every day.
    The waste of tax payers money was an insult to every person who lives in Richmond. Though, it is not yet known, I am sure that the price tag will exceed $50,000. The police were completely aware of the cost and stated that they were needed to protect the people who were assembled. Exactly, who they were protecting us from was unclear, as they were the ones who seemed ready to assault. Eighty+ police cars were counted. Not to mention, the vans, undercover cars, and Homeland Security cars. All for nothing, but to make the people; of this peaceful assembly, feel threatened.
    When asked if he "considered destruction of property violence", Major Steve Drew, of the RPD responded that he did. I asked him, at that point, "Why is it that you all are continually violent to these occupiers?" Noting that they were the ones who destroyed thousands of dollars of food, water, tents, radios, medical supplies, and many other personal objects of the Occupy Richmond protesters, at Kanawha Plaza. To this, major drew had no response, though I noticed the blue uniformed police looking astounded. Who is guilty of violence here? Certainly, not Occupy Richmond.

    Thank you Alex for this article. I would like to write more, but I have time restraints. I hope all who read this understand that We are sorry for the inconvenience, but we are very busy trying to save the world.

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  5. Hey Alex. This is Gabi with the Richmond Occupier. Can I use this as a piece in our upcoming publication?

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