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What I Learned from the Occupation: Lose the Fear

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By Dustin Slaughter
October 27, 2011 at 10:40 am



You’ve heard quite a bit about the #Occupy protests around the country. But what’s it like to be an active part of them from Day 1? For that we turn to Dustin Slaughter, who brings a unique perspective having been at the protests on Wall Street, in Boston, Washington DC, and Philadelphia since the beginning…

I groggily awaken in my sleeping bag to a sharp nudge, followed by another.

“He needs to wake up. Get up, out of the bag.”

The bag is over my head to block out the park lamp light. I hear my friend Ghost, who is mere feet away in his own bedding, reply sharply.

“Fine. Fine, I’ll wake him up.”

I sit up from my bag to see a D.C. white-shirted Park Police officer walking away. As my eyes adjust, I glance at my cell phone: 3:30 A.M. I growl a profanity. All around me, people who have boldly asserted their right to occupy McPherson Park mere blocks from the White House are standing up, per Park Police orders.

I’ve seen variations of this harassment during my two visits to Occupy Wall Street. And by this time in D.C., it was frankly grating on my nerves.

I am inexcusably fearful of giving public speeches. During my month-long trip to various occupations, from Wall Street to Boston to D.C. and back to Philly, I had observed numerous General Assemblies and the powerfully moving Peoples Mic. Yet I had never actually participated in an Assembly.

Today, however, would be different.

Later that day, I get “on stack,” which is a term used to describe the process of addressing the Assembly on specific agenda items. After two days of harassment by Park Police, the issue of whether to comply with the McPherson Park “no-sleeping” ordinance at last became an agenda item, reportedly with various opinions on the matter. Ghost, myself and others had decided before dawn that we would get arrested before obeying another order by Park Police to not sleep. I wanted to get a “temperature check,” essentially, on how people felt about defying the order.

I stand before the General Assembly now, shaking inwardly as I begin to speak to the 50 or so people sitting on the grass on this beautiful day.

“In New York, I and others witnessed–”

“IN NEW YORK, I AND OTHERS WITNESSED–” repeated the Peoples Mic (the crowd).

“Police use intimidation tactics–”

“POLICE USE INTIMIDATION TACTICS–”

“Such as random arrests of media team members–”

“SUCH AS RANDOM ARRESTS OF MEDIA TEAM MEMBERS–”

“And tearing down tarps during rainstorms, day and night–”

“AND TEARING DOWN TARPS DURING RAINSTORMS, DAY AND NIGHT–”

“To break the will of the occupiers–”

“TO BREAK THE WILL OF THE OCCUPIERS.”

I then shared my opinion that this sleeping ordinance is designed to wear us all down.

“Do not let a ridiculous sleeping ordinance trump our Constitution.”

“DO NOT LET A RIDICULOUS SLEEPING ORDINANCE TRUMP OUR CONSTITUTION!”

A banjo player in the back shot his fist up in the air and bellowed:

“WHOSE PARK?! OUR PARK!”

The Assembly broke out in whoops, magic fingers and claps.

The passionate banjo player clearly understands what much of mainstream media has failed to grasp. Enough talk about demands and one clear message. This movement is so much bigger than one or two lines the media may or may not choose to digest. At its heart, the Occupy movement is about summoning the courage to use public space to begin a revolution to not just reform a hopelessly broken system, but to create a new one. The movement is the message. And revolutions don’t start when people stay within the confines of legal and physical boundaries set up by authorities. Revolutions start when the people recognize that these paltry confines are implemented by forces who either don’t understand the democracy inherent in the First Amendment or are simply determined to maintain the status quo, and quash the spirit of a people and idea whose time has come.

We are seeing it across the country and all over the world: shortly after I left Boston, a brutal Boston Police Department raid launched when the growing occupation attempted to move to a larger space. Riot police beat up Veterans for Peace members and punched college kids. The police cut off the expansion effort to protect expensive, newly lain grass — this directly from BPD’s own Twitter account — and the raid nonetheless destroyed much of the grass:

@Boston_Police
Boston Police Dept.
@Occupy_Boston: the Greenway Conservancy recently invested over 150k in new plantings 4 all to enjoy @ 2nd site. Pls return to original.
10 Oct via Twitter for BlackBerry®

The veneer of law and order falls away and reveals the absurdity of a morally bankrupt police state, who stray from their duty to protect and serve 1st Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, when they are called upon to crack down on the citizens whose rights they are sworn to uphold.

As occupations spring up, carrying the spirit of the 1st Amendment ignited by Occupy Wall Street with them, the crackdowns have commenced, resulting in some estimates of nearly 3,000 arrests in just under a month. Cities like Philadelphia, which has an extremely agreeable relationship with the police, have prided themselves on cooperation with police, but as Boston shows us, occupations will only be tolerated for so long. This is a battle of wills.

After the brutality in Boston, the following evening’s General Assembly, according to contacts there, had doubled. This development is indicative of a larger lesson that occupations like Boston and New York have learned: confronting the police state with nonviolent defiance grows the movement.

Naturally, no better example of this exists than in New York, where protesters stood their ground in Liberty Plaza (without a permit, knowing full well that they had every right to be there under the U.S. Constitution) against continued NYPD harassment, where marchers took to the streets, Union Square and the Brooklyn Bridge, boldly but nonviolently challenging the wishes of the police.

In so doing, the New York occupation has helped to eradicate the fear of standing up to authority and to assert citizens’ rights, a concept we’ve continue to lose even before President Bush, when President Clinton began the policy of “free speech zones.”

But don’t take my word for it. If you don’t believe that Occupy Wall Street has made this country bolder in demanding their 1st Amendment rights be respected, just look at the direct results of their Union Square and Brooklyn Bridge victories: nearly 1,000 occupations sprung up across the country in a matter of weeks, followed by solidarity marches and occupations internationally.

On Monday, three American cities and a number of smaller towns launched raids against their occupations: Oakland, Atlanta, Albuquerque, and Eureka, CA. Being speculative, one may conclude that these operations were coordinated, perhaps by a federal agency. This would not stretch the imagination, as we know that the Department of Defense, for instance, considers protests “low-level terrorism” and that the Department of Homeland Security maintains an active presence at numerous occupations (I personally witnessed them in New York City as well as Philadelphia.)

What isn’t speculative, however, is that the elite’s instrument of control — the police state — cannot extinguish the idea of the 1st Amendment at these occupations, as Oakland — facing tear gas, rubber bullets, and sound cannons — regroups and begins rebuilding their movement, shaken but resilient.

And so the second American revolution continues.

Dustin Slaughter is the creator of The David and Goliath Project, a website celebrating and commenting on protest culture. He has just returned from nearly a month on the road covering occupations from Wall Street and Boston to Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. He is a citizen journalist, activist and filmmaker residing in Philadelphia, PA. If you would like to contribute to The Project for future trips as the #Occupy movement unfolds, please consider a small donation here.

Follow Dustin on Twitter @dustinslaughter as he continues to provide first-hand coverage.

PREVIOUSLY IN OUR COVERAGE:

• War Pigs: Police in Riot Gear Bust Up Occupy Oakland Protests
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Buncha Bologna: Pepper-Spraying NYPD Officer Loses Just 10 Days Vacation
Jon Stewart on Hypocrisy of Republican Revolution Rhetoric
MTV Goes OWS: Watch Previews for “True Life: I’m Occupying Wall Street”
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Here’s Why “Occupy” Protesters Picked Specific Fight with Wall St. Bankers
Gee, Wonder Why Fox News Declined to Air This Interview with Occupy Wall St. Protester
Wicked Cold: Riot Police Clash with Occupy Boston Camp
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Nightstickin’: NYPD Officer to Start “Occupy Hospitals”
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CAPTION IT: Kanye West Occupies Wall Street…for Minutes
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Jon Stewart Finally Breaks Down Occupy Wall Street
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