It’s been a week since D12, the global day of action when people protested the control Goldman Sachs and other huge corporations have over commerce and our country. I joined occupiers from all around Texas for Gulf Port Action, when we would protest at the Port of Houston.
I arrived in Houston Sunday night, to familiarize myself with the park, with Occupy Houston, and to attend the general assembly that night which would feature representatives from throughout the state. OHTX has a gorgeous park and a wonderful occupation. Tranquility Park — its original, non-occupied name — is actually named for the moon landing.
The occupiers have built a great kitchen, a welcoming sleeping area, and filled a lot of the rest of the park with gardens and original artwork. It was a very welcoming group, and there was amazing food; eggplant Parmesan, one of my favorite meals, arrived at the park shortly after I did!
Like almost all occupations, Houston has had some conflicts, like splits with those who wanted to co-opt the movement for particular political candidates or causes. Though it was warm for my visit — typical Texas winter weather — there had been some cold rainy nights where few had held on. The energy of those that remained was strong and friendly overall; like all of us they plan to hold on through the winter in the hopes of getting reinforcements from our supportive friends come Spring.
Not only was the Texas-wide general assembly something of a first that night, it also marked a first for me. I used my first ever ‘Block’ in a consensus process when someone asked for the group to fund a perpetual motion machine. I explained I had severe moral objections, especially when bike generators are inexpensive and based on real science. Monday night I ended up blocking again — when a member of the community tried to use quirks of OHTX’s general assembly process as forum for airing personal vendettas. Though I love what Houston’s occupiers are doing overall, we all must beware of those who seek to turn this movement into a forum for wild tangents, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience and cranky behavior.
Monday morning found us back at the park getting ready for the Gulf Port Action. In solidarity with the west coast port shutdown, we would be dropped at the main entrance to the Port. We made signs, readied lockboxes, and spoke of tactics. At first we would begin just by marching and chanting, but with dozens potentially ready to get arrested, we knew more action was possible. I tied a bright green, paisley bandanna around my face. I’d bought it for messing around with a former girlfriend, but now it was seeing action. It felt constraining and hot on my face.
I rode out to the port with Diana, a good friend and former lover, and two members of #teamoccupyyourmom, citizen journalists Korgasm and Ghostpickles. Our driver was a longtime friend who was clearly overwhelmed by her impending brush with the police state. l felt a little overwhelmed too as we jumped from the car at the port, seeing a massive collection of law enforcement might. There were helicopters overhead, a couple dozen officers lining the street including mounted police on horses, and, behind a fence inside the port itself, we could see dozens more including a bus for arrests and the sheriff and SWAT team.
I’d never been to the port before, and there was a palpable sense of almost Cyberpunk-level desolation. The air smelled as bad as you imagine it does in a William Gibson book. At first there were few of us, but more and more began to get dropped off in waves until we had a couple hundred protesters at the peak, finally outnumbering the police. We chanted and spoke with a few members of the mainstream media that had managed to get inside. Then, suddenly, everyone — police and occupiers alike — were running.
Without warning to the rest, a group of protesters was laying in the street, blocking traffic. Police barked orders, horses raced. Those with lockboxes quickly linked up and formed a second blockade behind the first.
This was no longer organized protest but chaos. Police on horses came at us hard; They stepped on us with their hooves; a mounted officer kicked one girl in the stomach with a steel-toed boot. I, who had pledged to my lovers that I would not get arrested, found myself during one moment holding arms in a line of human bodies, resisting the mounted police who seemed dangerously out of control. “Hold the line!” someone shouted.
HPD pushed us back from the port entrance and the lockbox blockade. Somehow relative calm descended. Steel barricades were placed around us. Police with covered badges and duct taped names guarded us. We all began to wonder if this would be the scene of a mass arrest. Some activists scattered up the hillside to the highway until police shut down a lane of traffic and sent them away. And then came the One Percent Tent, the most highly publicized moment of Houston’s Gulf Port Action:
As we chanted “What are you trying to hide?” and “Shame!” the Houston Police Department covered each row of activists in turn with an inflatable red tent, hiding their arrests from citizen journalists like Korgasm and I. Kor’s stream had over 800 viewers at its peak. Later, Occupy Oakland specifically cited this violation of transparency and justice as one of their reasons for extending the blockade of their port.
Eventually, the arrests were over. The barricades came down. We’d shut down the main entrance for almost 2 hours.
There’s a sense of theater at these things, from activists but especially from the police. Together, they act like robots, trampling us with horses and blithely engaging in actions that would horrify many of them at other times. Moments later, they are leaning on the barricades, chatting, even laughing at the antics of a Houston occupier dressed in pretend riot gear. Most individual police are not our enemies — it’s the private corporate army they become under orders.
Vehicles came in groups to rescue us. Word spread that police charged lockbox protesters with felonies for “obstructing a roadway with a criminal device.” Back at Tranquility Park things looked equally grim for a time, as during a peaceful sidewalk march the occupation became surrounded by police vehicles, including Department of Homeland Security (see slideshow!), K-9 and mounted units, riot police and a trailer with barricades. They left as soon as the march ended — perhaps not the eviction threat feared, and merely a sign of how scared they are of even our most peaceful moments.
As I fell asleep that night, I realized I was still wearing my bandanna, forgotten around my neck all day.
I stayed until the next day to facilitate communication between Occupy Austin and Occupy Houston while we tried to free our friends from jail. My last day at the occupation was a quiet one, with mists hanging around Tranquility Park. We talked and laughed and shared hopes for the future. Before I left, I shared a last meal with my new friends — donations of hummus and fresh green vegetables, two staples of a vegetarian occupier in Houston. It was hard to leave the park behind, eager as I was to return to Austin, my family there and my bandersnatch.
What Gulf Port Action taught me is how close we are to the edge. Though they did not crack down on citizen media with arrests, as occurred in New York and on the West Coast, they found another way to prevent accountability. Though all indications are that police were polite underneath the red tent, how will they behave next time?
What D12 taught me is that none of us knows when we’ll find ourselves under the red tent. We’ve all been asleep for so long we didn’t notice that our basic rights and freedoms have died. It doesn’t matter whether you occupy or not — the power of the police state is growing daily. Today they come for activists, but what happens when someone in power decides that Burning Man, or your preferred flavor of freaks are a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment?
I want to live in a world where I can share a meal with strangers becoming friends, in a park filled with art, without fear of violence, repression, or arrest. Come spring, I hope thousands who feel the same will join us.
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I am grateful to Korgasm for offering corrections to this piece.