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Occupy Austin: 3 Months of Occupation, Dancing in the Streets

Posted in Austin, Burning Man, and Occupy Wall Street

This past Saturday, Occupy Austin held a celebration for its 3-month anniversary. The group began on October 6, 2011 and occupied Austin’s City Hall non-stop since then, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week ever since. We’ve resisted police harassment, arrests, and unconstitutional bans from City Hall property. We’ve moved over $600,000 out of large banks into credit unions. We occupied the Port of Houston. Maybe most important, for 3 months we’ve given food, support, and a place to sleep to many without homes, helped many become activists for their needs, and made others face the reality of homelessness in this city through the visibility of our encampment on the steps of the Austin’s seat of power.

Kit O'Connell livetweets from Occupy Events, and has been RT'd by prominent OWS accounts like @OccupyWallStNYC. Photo by Larry Singleton.

When I announced the 3 month anniversary party and day of action, I received some surprising criticism: a few Burner friends of mine suggested that holding a party “sends the wrong message” unless our work is done. To me, Burning Man is a party with a purpose, an experiment in temporary community and social interaction which changes lives. I guess I’d assumed that most Burners felt the same way — that other, politicized experiments in creating autonomous zones could also include celebration & revelry.

I can’t speak to others’ thoughts, but what I’m going to do is share what happened at our party, and then my thoughts on why this was an important action for our movement.

The weekend began under a cloud of sorts — Austin’s police chief, Chief Acevedo, was threatening eviction before the weekend was up. But if anything this just pushed us to rally harder, flooding city hall with phone calls and growing our numbers. Even the city manager visited our party, and left impressed with our numbers and activity.

We gathered first at City Hall, our main occupation site. There were more people — and more protest signs — than I’d seen in weeks. We stood along the road chanting and waving to the cheers and honks of passersby. There were several cakes, even one with tiny sour patch protesters on top. Next, we came together for a short, uplifting assembly where we shared our achievements, our victories, and our hopes for the next year. So that we could prepare better for future eviction threats, I shared Occupy Austin’s new emergency warning system:

Get New Emergency #OccupyAustin Alerts sent to any phone with text messaging. This system will ONLY be used for rare, serious bulletins such as imminent eviction. Simply text ‘follow OAalerts’ to 40404 from ANY mobile phone and check the reply for any further instructions. You do NOT need a Twitter account to use this.

There was a short, humorous awards ceremony with prizes like Most Likely to Have Butt on Livestream, Most Likely to have a Bank of America Account, etc. Along with punch and more treats, our next scheduled event was a video montage of our first 3 months. Here, the overbearing city hall security guard showed up to fight with us over where we could project our video, initially telling us that projections were not allowed at City Hall at all. We snuck up to the mezzanine for the viewing. It really got our blood pumping, reminding us of our past successes and our best moments. People began to yell ” take the streets!”

A circle of Occupiers meditating at the Texas Capitol. Occupy Austin 3 Month Anniversary Party, January 6, 2012.

We gathered in a circle back on the plaza, protecting the actions of a few from the eyes of the police (who were out in slightly higher numbers, but ignoring us). I felt excitement rising in me as I saw tents being erected at City Hall, an action which has sometimes been grounds for arrest or criminal trespass bans in the past. But before the police could react, the tents were up in the air and we were on the march!

We used a modified form of the Portland Lap — the name for the Occupy tactic first used by that group, where instead of resisting arrest you march through the streets with your tent. With a bicycle-mounted sound system pumping out dubstep and other bass-heavy music, we marched, danced and chanted our way from park to park. When the police would arrive in pursuit, we would take off for the next. Eventually we ended up at the state capitol, dancing on the steps as state troopers and police alike tried to box us in.

We were too quick for them, and snuck out the side gate and from there into the heart of Austin’s club district, and to 6th Street, full of clubgoers on a Friday night. As with our flash mobs there, the crowd loved us. In moments like this, you can see how much silent support you have. Hundreds of people streamed from the clubs to watch, cheer us on, and many joined us in dancing. The energy was incredible. Though shadowed by police before, once we entered the closed off 6th street area, they left us and our tents alone. Which was perfect for what came next.

Video by Texas Occupy Movement.

Grabbing our tents we marched south and east, past the convention center and toward IH-35. Though our numbers dwindled as we left 6th street, there were no longer any cops following us. We came to Sir Svante Palm Park.  This is a small, disused park by the highway, with a swimming pool which has gone empty for years and a playground and bathrooms which are not maintained. The bathrooms are part of a castle-like structure, which has already led to nicknaming the park Fort Occupy.

Dancing At Fort Occupy. Occupy Austin 3 Month Anniversary Party, January 6, 2012. Photo by Michael Paul Photography.

We danced on and around the ‘fort’ to dubstep on the sound system, but as the party wound down the encampment began. A handful of people camped in the park that night, and over a dozen did so on another night during a heavy rainstorm. Though the police came the next morning, they were friendly and even consented to be chased by a tent monster as they packed up. For the first time in Occupy Austin’s history, however temporarily, we had a tent city.

So what did this accomplish? What made it a party with a purpose?

  • Hundreds or even thousands of people saw our movement and that “we’re still here” (as we chanted).
  • We educated many people on our victories and accomplishments.
  • The city saw our vitality and backed off, for now, on eviction plans.
  • The world saw the spirit which makes Austin’s occupation unique.
  • We revitalized our energy for the many days to come.
  • And not least, we laid the groundwork for the expansion into new spaces and new tactics to help us fight the camping ban and other laws making homelessness illegal.
In today’s increasingly restrictive world, any celebration held on public land — from Rainbow Gathering to Occupy Wall Street — is inherently a radical act. If you pay attention, almost every week brings some new threat on our right to speak or assemble, whether in the form of Internet censorship like SOPA or Chicago’s attempts to restrict marches. Using public spaces as they were was once intended — for gatherings whether in celebration or in anger or both — shows that we do not consent to this infringement of a most fundamental right. We are unbowed. We will chant, and march, and act; we will even laugh and dance, despite their best efforts to stop us.

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Photos by Kit O’Connell, Larry Singleton, Michael Paul Photogaphy, & Tara Sechrest. All rights reserved.