A Different Kind of Occupation

On this blog when the words “Occupy” or “Occupation” are mentioned I am usually referring to the ongoing Israeli Occupation of Palestine.  In 2011 a different kind of Occupation sprung up on the streets of NYC and spread to many other cities.  As someone who has been involved in protests I know that what is seen from the distance on the news is not always the reality on the ground.  So I asked someone else for their first-hand account of the Occupy Wall Street Movement.

Enter my friend Tony III … below you will find a guest post written by him reflecting on some of his initial involvement in the Occupy Movement.

I need to apologize to him first and foremost as this post is looooong overdue for posting.  He sent it to me at my request last fall and it is only now being published.  I have asked him to send me another post giving his current thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street Movement and I promise to publish that 2nd article in a more timely manner.

Just for a little context … I met Tony in high school.  He was a curly haired city-kid with a denim jacket, heavy metal demeanor, and a satanic bible in his back pocket.  I was a country boy who went to church twice a week, went to Christian music festivals and wore whatever was on sale at K-Mart.  We were unlikely friends but united by our creative spirits and a love for role playing games.  After high school we lost touch but were reconnected via Facebook awhile back.  It was great to reconnect … I found out that Tony had become a father, a small business owner, and a practicing Buddhist.  His love for music had persisted and I wasn’t surprised to find out that he was still in a band.

One thing that has impressed me about Tony since reconnecting with him is the diversity of his Friends list on Facebook.  He truly is friends with people from every walk of life.  This often leads to lively Facebook discussions between complete strangers that have only Tony as their common denominator. This has always been beneficial for me personally and I value Tony’s input on the matters of the day.  When he started getting involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement I asked him to write a guest post.  Without further ado, here it is …

MIC CHECK (MIC CHECK)

MIC CHECK (MIC CHECK)
My name is Tony (MY NAME IS TONY)
I’m a 38 year old father (I’M A 38 YEAR OLD FATHER)
and small business owner (AND SMALL BUSINESS OWNER)
I pay my taxes and I vote (I PAY MY TAXES AND I VOTE)
And I’m here because I want change (AND I”M HERE BECAUSE I WANT CHANGE)……..

And so the People’s Mic continues to shout the voice of the people. Anyone can use the People’s Mic in these local democratic groups that have been born out of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just shout “Mic Check” near any Occupy encampment or march, and anyone in ear shot will echo back. You now have the floor to voice your story; your thoughts and suggestions; your message to others around you.

On my first visit to Zucotti Park, during the second week of October 2011, I witnessed The People’s Mic for the first time.  It was about 8pm and an hour into the nightly General Assembly (GA) meeting. A person stood in the middle of a massive group of hundreds of people near the park steps. Using a mouthful of syllables at a time, the message was relayed like a wave over the crowd. This crowd was big enough to have to repeat the initial phrases 3 times for the whole group to hear.

The GA was voting on if the “media group” could use $2000 (of the amassed money the group had received from donations) for the printing of flyers and other material. “Are there any blocks?” the People’s Mic echoed.

At that point, I learned, anyone present could “block” the vote, if truly opposed. Arguments may be presented and a new vote taken. There were no blocks.

A second check for no blocks was made

“I don’t see any blocks. Do we have consensus?”

Almost all hands went in the air, fingers wiggling – The signal for agreement. Some, wrist bent down (the No vote) but only a few in the crowd.

“It appears we have consensus,” The announcement echoed through the crowd.

We had consensus. The media group would be allotted what they requested. As simple as that.

Observing Real Democracy In Action

There were probably a few other small bits of “rules” that went along with this communication and voting process that may have eluded me at that time but when I realized what I was witnessing I was a little taken aback.

This was democracy working.

Everyone had a voice and a vote. Anyone could propose almost anything. And it was rare when I saw this People’s Mic abused. The People’s Mic always seems to “break” when people start to speak hateful or violent things as this is very much a peaceful movement and the people, WE, control the People’s Mic.

Watching five hundred or more people get things done in a civil, cooperative way was a breath of fresh air. What if more people actually took an hour a day to involve themselves in the process of making things happen in their community? This was a group of people who didn’t know each other more than three weeks before, and they seemed to have a functioning micro-government. They had a sanitation crew, a working kitchen, a sacred space for prayer and meditation, a medical tent with real doctors, a library and so much more already in place.

If this organization was left to our government they would have likely still been debating and re-voting on what type of bottled water to have ordered during the breaks. This was direct action without the red tape and it appeared to be working.  There were no specific leaders., but there were plenty of people who were willing to step up and take jobs to help the new community.  However, no single person that looked over or gave final say. Final say came from the General Assembly votes and anyone present had a vote.

Are We All Created Equal?

I’ve had a cynical outlook on our government and many aspects of American society for a long time. I had watched what it did to the Veterans of the Vietnam War, through seeing what my father and many of his friends went through in the system. I witnessed the economy get worse and worse as I got older. I watched us, as a society, put profits over lives in many ways, over and over…..and it all sickened me.

This breath of fresh air was the first time, in a very long time, that I felt a bit of real hope for society and this country of ours. I was brought up being told I could be anything I wanted if I tried hard enough. I was told that this was truly a free land of opportunity where “all men were created equal”. If anyone really believes that last statement to be honest and true at this point, I would love to sit and discuss that with you, because I can see, blatantly, that those with more money have more power.

And that is NOT in line with “all men are created equal”.

I have no issues with people having money or extra things if they work for it. But let’s level the playing field and work towards that “created equal” goal and slightly change the verbiage to “all PEOPLE created equal”.

Getting More Involved in the Occupy Movement

I found a new feeling of hope, that enough people felt like I did, that the social and political issues of this country needed to be brought to light, discussed and remedied and that we might actually be able to change some things for the better. Health care, education and private/ corporate funding of politicians were MY main issues. I have a few smaller ones too. And many have other issues that should be addressed. Some agreeable and some not.

But overall, we all wanted the same basic thing: social and political reform and accountability of those that put this country in its current disastrous shape.

That would mean politicians, banks, lenders, corporations and WE the people. After all, at some point we started caring less that we no longer have a say in our system and started caring more about either which color our iPod is or how we were going to survive the next month in such a declining economy. We left the governing to “those in charge” and they sold us out. It was time to reclaim our voice in OUR nation.

Over the next few weeks I attended what I could. Sometimes just visiting the occupation site to help out in small ways. Pick up some garbage, donate winter clothes, lend people my phone and help the People’s Mic be broadcast. I started discussing the movement everywhere I went. Educating people on what REALLY goes on and not what the main stream media depicted as “truth”. They after all are run by the corporations that fund the politicians and have something to lose if the message gets out to too many people. So I became the media. With a sense of empowerment and a better understanding of our laws and our Constitution I was ready to discuss issues with people from all walks of life and I loved it.

Since that fateful day of discovering the movement, I’ve attended several rallies, marches, occupations and General Assemblies. I’ve stood face to face with riot police, maintaining my stance on non-violent protest, even as I’ve watched some police officers and local politicians blatantly break laws to try to subdue both individuals and the overall voice of the movement. I’ve made friends from Occupations across the country. I’ve been invited to other cities for marches and rallies.

Overcoming Cynicism and Working Together for Change

Because of my participation in the Occupy Movement I’ve watched my cynicism in having hope for this country lessen.

I want this land to be all I was told it was when I was a kid. I want our Constitutional rights re-established. But most of all I want my kids to have a future and a fighting chance and if I can assist in bettering this country I’ll try my best to do so. I’ll risk arrest, taunts and violent “peace keepers.” I will face off with corporate America, and the politicians & police forces they keep in their back pockets.

I will do this so that maybe, just maybe, my kids won’t have to worry about doing the same thing down the road. They’ll have that fair chance I was never given. They’ll live in a country where they have a voice that means something and a government of the People that helps them better themselves and their social environment at the same time.

This really is just the beginning of a movement that will evolve and transform into bigger and greater things. I’m very proud and happy to be a part of it and welcome the rest of the 99% of the world to step up to those that socially or economically oppress you. Together it can create change and a better world for all.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

PEACE!

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A message from Martin Luther King Jr. to Israel, Palestine, and Obama on Inauguration Eve

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. (photo public domain from wikipedia)

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day  and on the eve of the inauguration of a new American president, I believe words spoken eloquently and powerfully by MLK when he visited India 50 years ago could be given today  as a message to Israel, Palestine and President-Elect Obama.  My friend David pointed out the short (3 minute) NPR broadcast highlighting the newly discovered speeches, including this pointed and chillingly relevant fragment:

Since visiting India I am more convinced than ever before that the method of non-violent resistance is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity . . . . in these days when . . .  ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere no nation can win a war.  Today we no longer have a choice between violence and non-violence, it is either non-violence or non-existence.  Martin Luther King Junior, 1959

MLK’s unwavering and powerful commitment to non-violent resistance changed the tide of history in America.  He did not seek to kill his enemies, nor to be killed himself.  Yet his tragic assassination (martyrdom?), served as an exclamation point to the end of a life lived fully for God and others.  Change did not happen overnight in America and deep pockets of inequality, intolerance and injustice can still be found.  But part of the legacy of Dr. King’s life will be played out on the national stage tomorrow when Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th (and first black) President of the United States of America.  We have come a long ways since the days of slavery, lynchings, and race riots.

I have often wondered when the Palestinian (or for that matter Israeli) Martin Luther King Jr. will step forward and declare non-violence as the “most potent weapon available to an oppressed people.”  Things have been quiet in Gaza since Israel and Hamas stopped flinging artillery at each other on Sunday.  Israel has declared that they will pull out troops by the time Obama is inaugurated.  To me, this confirms my gut suspicions three weeks ago that this was a carefully calculated “shift-change” war.  Just like the cat burglar who knows the streets won’t be watched for 30 minutes or so while the local police changes shift, Israel struck when there was very little America could say or do.  George W. and his crew were on their way out and Obama and his on the way in.  To me it actually seems like a kind of political slap-in-the-face from our supposed strongest ally in this part of the world.  That said, I hope the Israeli army does honor it’s inaugural deadline.  Maybe I’m too cynical.  Maybe they really are interested in seeing what Obama brings to the table.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table?  Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his team) will be a success.

What will America's historic new President bring to the table? Many, myself included are hopeful that he (and his political team) will be a success. Of course, when it comes to baseball - Go Cubs!

I know that I am very interested to see what kind of change he can bring at home and abroad.  Personally, I’m excited that Barack Obama will be our new president.  I know all of my seriously conservative friends are scared of all the what-ifs, but we should all really be genuinely hoping that President Obama is a brilliant success.  If he isn’t the hopes and dreams of so many will be dashed.  All politics aside this is a huge step in American history, one that us “majority” folk probably don’t truly understand.  But truly,  I can’t imagine where the country or the world will be 4-8 years from now if Obama is a failure.   I think it is in everyone’s best interest that he does a fantastic job (whatever that means – personally, I wouldn’t wish being President of the USA on anyone – way too many headaches).

So as Americans celebrate the inauguration of a truly historic new President (or fret and hold their breath) Gazans pick up the peices of their lives after 3 weeks of fighting.  Over 1200 Palestinians are dead.  Around 1/2 civilians.  Maybe 1/3 children. 13 Israelis dead.  3 or 4 civilians.  Will the quiet last?  I doubt it.

It’s uncanny how 5 decades later Martin Luther King Jr’s words still hold a haunting power.  World leaders would do well to listen carefully to these words from the past.  I think if he were here today, MLK would make the very same speech.  I am hopeful that Obama will be man enough to follow in the footsteps of the peaceful revolutionary who paved the way for his presidency so many years ago.  If only those in both Israel and Palestine whose hands are responsible for carving “highways of death through the stratosphere” would also heed MLKs message and take up a different, more potent weapon.

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PS. – If you are interested my friend David is chronicling (as he is able) his trip to the inauguration on his blog Signs of Life.  If you don’t read it on a regular basis, maybe now would be a good time to check it out.  Also, if you like the Obama/White Sox poster it can be found here.

Observing the Gaza protests in Amman on Friday

It’s a bit surreal standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd of 1000s, many of whom are chanting in a language you don’t totally understand.  Such was my experience when I decided to buck most everyone’s advice and check out the protest in the balad (old city) on Friday January 9th.  The embassy had sent out an ominous sounding note that there was a heightened risk of American interests being targeted.  Call me jaded by years of “elevated risk” at the nations airports or maybe just convinced that I’m not much of an American interest.  I asked a few Jordanians I trusted and was advised where might be risky (near the Israeli embassy – “duh”, and in Wahidat a very Palestinian neighborhood).  To my surprise the Jordanians said I should have no trouble in the balad.  My Western friends thought otherwise – but who are you going to believe the locals or the foreigners?  (Warning: Blondies with blue eyes, embassy workers, those who have to speak out loud in English and anyone nervous about crowds should probably not attend.  Plus I have the trump card that I used to live in Gaza.  Just because I went to the protest doesn’t mean I recommend it to everyone or will necessarily go again.)

(Note: If you’re looking for pics, there is a large gallery at the end of the post.  Click on the thumbnails for the bigger image.  Click on the 2nd pic for an even bigger one.  Pics in the post do not enlarge but they should be repeated in the gallery.)

For starters

Jordanian riot police bloc the street as the protest march nears. (Friday Jan 09 2009)

Jordanian riot police block the street

It had been labeled the “Day of Rage” with protests planned all over the city.  Police outfitted in riot gear seemed ready for it to be an anger filled afternoon in the balad.  However the atmosphere on the street seemed fairly relaxed.  I could hear the chanting of the oncoming crowd echoing off buildings as I looked for a ground-level vantage point with a good “escape” route in case things got dicey.  Spectators were gathering and no one paid me any special attention as I stood waiting on the sidewalk near the alley with a red checkered keffiyeh wrapped around my neck.  It not only served to stave off an ever so slight chill in the shadow of the building, but also identified me as Jordan-friendly.  To truly blend I would have needed to sport the  black and white Palestinian version that many have been wearing lately.

I was struck by three things as the marchers reached my section of street:

  • How quickly the street filled up and the atmosphere of the placed changed.  There was definitely a psychological shift from “I am standing here with a few people minding my own business” to “I am part of a crowd and anything could happen.”
  • The number of youth, including very young children who were participating.
  • The handicap of knowing only a little Arabic
Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

Protesters crowd the balad in Amman on Fri Jan 09 2009

In the crowd

As the parade of flag waving protesters passed me in the street, the masses of people following along on the sidewalk swarmed around my location.  To keep my view of the street I had to step to the curb and within a minute there was nothing but a sea of people all around me.  Some were moving, others like myself were planted in one spot.  There was no jostling and people seemed to respect each other, allowing people to stay put or move as desired.  However, claustro- and agoraphobics beware!  Some people in the middle of the street were chanting slogans, but people near me were just watching and listening.  Many were holding up camera phones or cameras to record the moment.  A father with his children stood next to me.

Although everything remained peaceful, I sensed that my ability to move 100% as I pleased had now changed.  Group dynamics and psychology were in play.

Shortly a truck outfitted with a PA system halted near us.  I’m pretty sure it was a huge Saddam poster on one side.   Things got loud.  The men on the truck took turns rallying the crowd with various chants.  The 50 or so people immediately behind the truck raised their hands to punctuate their chant with fists or “V for victory” signs.   I was relieved that the people around me were not participating as I had hoped to speak as little as possible while at the protest.  My silence didn’t feel conspicuous.

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

Some shebaab burning Israeli "flags"

However, there were two parts where the entire crowd got involved.  One was when a couple of shebaab (young guys) lit an Israeli flag replica on fire up on a roof.  It was kinda funny as it took several attempts to get the flag going.  Apparently flag burning is not as easy as one might think.  People around me were laughing and offering all sorts of advice such as, “You need more gas!”  After a few minutes it was ablaze and the whole crowd cheered.  At another point every  man, woman, and child on the street lifted aloft the victory sign.  My hand shot up too.   It seemed the prudent thing to do.

I realized pretty early on that my movement was at the whim of the crowd.  It’s a slightly unnerving feeling.  Later as the crowd was allowed to progress towards the municipality building and beyond, there were a handful of “Fast-breaks” that got the heart pumping as well.  By fast break I mean a number of people turned around and began running in the opposite direction yelling about tear gas.  I’m fairly certain the first four of these were just shebaab being shebaab as they were followed with laughter, and the older men in the crowd simply held their ground with skeptical eyebrows raised.

The handicap of not understanding

ammanprotest015

A truck outfitted with a PA system, and guys leading chants

I understood the Israeli flag on fire and the pictures of Saddam Hussein (understand is a loose term) but couldn’t understand most of the banners or chanting.   I figured that the crowd with the hammer and sickle flags and the pictures of Che Guevara and Hugo Chavez were part of some sort of communist party.  And  I got that the people with the banner displaying a big red heart and the word Gaza probably love Gaza.  Beyond that it was all a bit fuzzy.  The chant/rant-wagon was catchy though, and after about 10 or 15 minutes of listening I think I might have been able to chime in.  I’m pretty sure 1/2 of the chanting was saying very good things about Gaza and Palestine (and maybe Venezuela), but the other 1/2 was putting down Israel, America, Egypt, and France.  Pretty much in that order of frequency.  Needless to say I quietly snapped pics and took videos.

People seemed angry, but not out of control.  No one directed any anger towards me.  Why would they?   I was just another soul quietly showing my support.  Friends who looked at my pics have commented, “Wow that looks scary.”  Was it?  Not really.  I saw a few locals that I knew and they smiled from afar or greeted me warmly.  Overall, I am sure it would have been better to understand more of what was being said but I got the message very clearly that people are upset with innocents being killed and at the political machines unwilling or unable to do more to stop it.

Would you bring your kids?

2 guys wave to a little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf.

A little girl wearing traditional garb and sporting a Palestinian flag scarf flashed the Victory sign to onlookers.

The day before (Thursday) there had been a children’s demonstration for families.  Mothers, fathers and kids marched to the Unicef headquarters to ask for stronger actions against Israel due to the number of kids that have been killed.  Before leaving for Friday’s protest I had joked with my wife and a couple of friends that I should bring the kids along.  To my surprise they would not have been out of place.   There were a number of youth out on Friday.  The youngest (maybe 5 or 6 years old – I even saw some babies) seemed to be accompanied by parents or older siblings.  Many were decked out in patriotic gear, sporting keffiyeh’s or Palestine scarves.  One held a “blood stained” doll aloft.  A couple of youngsters wore black masks.  On the one hand kinda freaky.  But on the other hand  think about how often we dress our kids in camouflage or drape them in patriotic clothing on the Fourth of July.  To Americans dressing in the Stars and Stripes and camo are symbols of hope, freedom, and courage.   I wonder if that kind of gear would play differently in other parts of the world.  And maybe kids wearing keffiyehs and Palestinian flags isn’t as ominous as we might think. I have a bad feeling that Western pundits might spin children marching like this as teaching them to hate.  From where I stood it seemed more like teaching them to speak out.  We haven’t told our 6-year old son what’s going on in Gaza yet so as not to needlessly worry him, but the vast majority of kids here have heard loud and clear that children are dying in a war just a few hundred miles away.

A less than perfect ending

I’m not sure how many were in the crowd.  Thousands I am sure, but how many exactly I have no idea.  The police released the crowd to march and we progressed towards the Amman municipality building and beyond.  The crowd stretched across four lanes of traffic.  There were cars trying to pass, but they were completely stopped.  Near the chant/rant-wagon and the flag carriers the crowd was noisy, but for the most part people walked quietly or in conversation with their friends.  It wasn’t until we reached the big intersection at the end of Ras-al-Ain where the road splits off towards Jabal Amman and 3rd Circle on the right and Abdoun on the left that the police finally stopped the crowd again.   We had walked about a mile.  The crowd had been thinning for awhile and once it was stopped many more turned around and walked away.  When the Communist Party flagbearers started backtracking I figured things were pretty much over and wondered if I should leave to.  However, a vocal crowd of hundreds remained at the police line so  I joined a dozen or so people gathered on the terrace of a large office building a safe distance away.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

My view of the final few minutes of the protest.

We were about 20 feet above street level and on the other side of a walled off parking lot full of red trucks.  Chanting protesters still choked off one of Amman’s busiest thoroughfares connecting the Old City with affluent western Amman.  The crowd mostly consisted of shebaab now.  There was a small street that intersected the main thoroughfare near the police line. It ran up the hill to the left and was beginning to fill with spectators.  Traffic began to back up on the other side of the riot police.

I was wondering what would happen. Were the police waiting to let the protesters continue marching as they had before?  Would they send the protesters around to the other side of Ras-al-Ain to march back towards the balad?  How long would they let them stand there chanting?  My answer came about 10-minutes later in the form of a fast-break of 25 or so shebaab yelling about tear gas.  I saw none, but it was obvious that police were trying to disperse the crowd and meeting with some resistance.  To my surprise rocks began to hail down from the side street on the hill and even from the crowd.

It was then that the the first can of tear gas was shot.  The crowd scattered pretty quickly.  Lots of bark, but fortunately little bite.  Another canister was shot towards the retreating crowd for good measure.  As it skittered down the street past our safe vantage point many yards away I got a small whiff – not pleasant to say the least.  My left eye watered and stung for a good 15 minutes afterward.

Moral of the story: always head home when you see the Commies packing up their flags.

Final Word

My taxi driver and I talked about the protests this morning on the way to take my son to school.  He told me that most of the protests in the city were peaceful.  He hadn’t heard that tear gas had been used in the balad, but knew that it had been used near the Israeli embassy where apparently protesters were the most aggressive.  He told me that he and his brother had taken their children to the march to UNICEF headquarters the day before.  Then he said something that really caught my attention.

He said that even though people march here in Jordan and across the Middle East people are still dying every day in Gaza.  Almost 800, maybe more now.

He then told me about 4 children that had been trapped in a house with their dead mother for days with no food or water.  Later I read the report that the International Red Cross is accusing Israel of breaking international law over this specific incident.  Apparently the Israeli army blocked aid workers from entering the area to look for casualties.  Once the volunteers did get to the house they found the 4 children and 12 corpses in the house.  While the children were being rescued the Army continued to order volunteers out of the area.

Honestly, to me the “Day of Rage” in Gaza seemed to be a little more like the “Day of Being Really Upset.”  But as long as stories like these keep coming out of Gaza the protests will continue and the anger  will grow.  Unfortunately rage is like a fire that smolders quietly for a long time only to burst into flames once it’s too late to put out.

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