Last Sunday was my first visit to Occupy Austin.
This post is much later than I wanted it to be because I have been struggling with my health. I’ll open here because part of the reason I identify with this movement is that my voice is a disenfranchised one as a disabled person. I have fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition closely related (or overlapping with) chronic fatigue syndrome. It is not well understood, but between severe pain in my muscles and connective tissue, and frequent intense fatigue and insomnia I am unable to hold down a normal job. I have managed to eke out a small living as a freelance writer, but I have no health insurance, and no safety net if my health takes a turn for the worse. I feel strongly for this idea of the 99% — in a just society, basic needs like food, shelter and medical care would be considered a human right.
My health has kept me from attending a Occupy encampment or event before Sunday. But on Saturday night, 38 peaceful protesters were arrested at City Hall — some over refusal to take down a food table based on last minute regulations imposed without oversight by the Austin city manager, but others were directly targeted by police for their involvement in the movement. A march was announced to join the vigil at the county jail demanding release of these political prisoners. I knew I had to join.
Much has been said about the protests and whether those involved have valid reasons. Though the protesters have many diverse issues they have come together over, to me at this point the most important reason is to stand up for our right to assemble. In childhood, teachers taught me that the right for the people to speak up and assemble to demand a redress of grievances is one of the most fundamental things that defines being an American citizen. And yet now these 38 peaceful activists — along with a small but notable number of arrests since — are banned from City Hall for one year.
That’s right, a building that is the hub of their city, that their tax dollars pay for everytime they purchase anything in stores — yet if they return they face rearrest and even jail time. Because Austin is ‘cool’ and ‘weird’, our cops won’t go in with the tear gas. Instead they threaten us with dozens of tiny papercuts until our movement will bleed to death. We need to stand up and say this is not right — that we have a right to speak.
I arrived downtown just as the march began. Cars honked in support as we made our way to the jail, chanting ‘Shame on the APD! Occupiers must go free!’ At the jail, there was free food to support the vigil and feed the prisoners as they were released. I was moved to tears as we chanted in support of the victims of the city manager who could hear us inside, and again when the crowd rushed forward to hug them as they came out one by one. They seemed young, tired, and most of all hopeful — happy to rejoin the movement, even while they enjoyed a first smoke and pizza slice of freedom. At one point, a Canadian led us in reading the first amendment, from the copy he was given when he became a naturalized citizen:
The last to be released was Yatzel, a long time activist who was held longest because of her outspoken opposition to Austin’s police chief Acevado when he appeared with placating words at Occupy Austin’s general assembly. She was not even involved in the food table protests, but was scooped directly from the crowds in a second wave of targeted arrests in the early hours of Sunday morning. It’s a credit to the legal team that so many were released on a Sunday afternoon less than 24 hours after their unjust arrest.
But when we marched back to City Hall the police were at it again — arresting those who had previously been charged with “criminal trespass” and banned from our city’s legislative center. We hear words like “police state” kicked around a lot, but Sunday night I got a visceral understanding of what that means. More police than I’ve ever seen in one small place in Austin gathered around us, watching our every move for the slightest infraction or the return of anyone banned from the protest. As I watched Police Commander Duster escort a man named Kirk into a police wagon, I understood fully that unless we continue to speak up this is our future.
Today in Oakland, much of the city is shut down for a general strike and thousands of occupiers line the streets — as many as 5000 by some estimates with more joining all the time. Tonight at 6pm at Austin City Hall, there will be a march in solidarity with the general strike and I plan to attend.
We have a right to assemble — the first amendment is our permit. Whether you come out today or not, don’t you think that’s important to stand up for?
[flagallery gid=11,9 name=”Gallery”]