State of Freedom

Freedom Plaza, January 2013
Freedom Plaza, January 2013

Freedom Plaza was the site of the Occupy Washington DC encampment.  Since it’s on the Inaugural parade route approaching the White House on Pennsylvania Ave., you’ll find an occupation of bleachers there today instead of tents.

Freedom Plaza, December 2011
Freedom Plaza, December 2011

AWOL combat veteran turned war protestor faces uncertain fate

Sgt. Micah Turner

This post has been updated below.

Late Sunday night Sgt. Micah Turner, an active-duty soldier deployed multiple times to Afghanistan,  surrendered to authorities at Fort Hamilton after being absent from his unit for more than a month.
He had abandoned his post on September 7, and as of today, would have been officially considered a deserter.

The day before in Washington, DC, Sgt. Turner, 24, risked immediate arrest by revealing his status as a soldier absent without leave (AWOL) and publicly stating his opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Today he joined Veterans for Peace in New York and again spoke out against the war, saying that what was happening to soldiers and citizens in Afghanistan was a tragedy. Then he drove with supporters to the gates of Fort Hamilton near New York City and surrendered to military authorities.

“The Army tells us to be people of integrity, personal courage, and duty,” he said. “As a person of courage, it is my duty to dissent.”

He walked away from his post 31 days ago. Saturday at Freedom Plaza, he said, “As of today I am officially designated AWOL.” He wore his Class A uniform blouse, “Army greens” and stood in front of a line of supporters who held “No More War” posters. The announcement was livestreamed over the internet to large audiences.

He has served five years in the Army, only one year short of his six-year commitment, and has been deployed to Iraq once and Afghanistan three times. His assignment was in PSYOPs, which, according to the Army Field Manual, uses manipulative techniques “to influence foreign target emotions, motives, objective reasoning” to achieve the goals of a military mission. Sgt. Turner’s 6-year obligation to serve in the Army would have ended with an honorable discharge had he not gone AWOL.

During his most recent deployment to Afghanistan, his feelings about the 12 year-long war began to change. He recently became active in the Occupy movement. He also participated in the Occupy DC anniversary protests and the Veterans for Peace rally and vigil in front of the Veterans Administration.

Sgt. Turner will have a long legal road ahead of him before he knows his fate. He may be tried by court martial with the possibility of losing his rank and all pay and benefits. It could take years before the final disposition of his case is adjudicated by the Army Court of Criminal Appeals.

Sgt. Turner speaks to media about his reasons for going AWOL.

UPDATE 10/8/12: According to Sgt. Turner’s twitter account, authorities at Fort Hamilton released him last night after he turned himself in and requested that he come back in the morning. He returned to Fort Hamilton at 8am and once again was released, because today is a federal holiday, Columbus Day, and no military detectives are working.

He’s currently considering his options, including seeking Conscientious Objector status.

Video of Sgt. Turner speaking in New York at Veterans for Peace Vigil on October 7:


Occupy DC: Beyond tents

Occupy DC needs to think about how it will function without a camp at McPherson Park.  Of course, there hasn’t been a camp in the same way since February 4 when police conducted a “compliance inspection” and tore down two-thirds if not more of the tents–and began enforcing the no-camping policy in earnest. This was essentially an eviction, even if it didn’t follow the narrative of Occupation evictions in other cities. Freedom Plaza followed the next day with a quieter raid and tear-down.

Since then the camp and consequently Occupy DC have evolved. Tents which sheltered a bonded community of both activists and homeless then became a symbolic “vigil protest” where no one could sleep. Even as many Occupiers scrambled to find housing–and all mourned the loss of the round-the-clock community so many had invested their hearts and souls into building–inevitable questions of “What’s next for Occupy?” arose. The media concluded that it was hunkered down for the winter and would re-emerge in the spring. This wasn’t really accurate. Direct actions–usually “targeted occupations”–continued without much interruption. Internal conflicts were and are a constant drag on energy and enthusiasm–and have driven some people away–but Occupy DC was never in danger of dying. It might have gasped, but it never choked.

Several initiatives have been undertaken: Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Faith, a conference on corporate personhood and campaign finance, a week of Earth Day activity, loads of working groups tackling issues such as criminal justice and budget autonomy/statehood for the District. Occupy DC has taken part in nationwide actions like Shutdown the Corporations targeting ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. And Occupy DC isn’t the only Occupy game in town–Occupy Education is spear-headed by American University students, and groups of students at other local universities like George Mason and Georgetown have an Occupy-related focus.

Direct actions and targeted occupations in the last few months have continued at a furious pace. Bank of America is the object of the Sleepful Protest, with protestors tucked in nearly every night at one branch or another around town. Protests and marches have been non-stop (sometimes coordinated with other groups)–at Monsanto, BP, the World Bank and IMF, the Department of Justice, and Freddie Mac, just to name a (very) few.

Occupy DC bustled during the American Spring, and it culminated in May Day–locally, a joint venture with unions to celebrate a workers’ holiday and bring labor issues to the forefront. A few hundred people gathered at Malcolm X Park and marched to the White House. That’s good numbers for Occupy in the District these days. But in comparison with other major Occupy hubs like New York, Oakland and Chicago where thousands took to the streets, it was a paltry turnout.

Occupy DC took a further step in evolution when Freedom Plaza decided to dismantle and merge with McPherson. And recently there was a serious encroachment on space at the park when the Park Service decided to plant grass and put in flower beds. With its greatly reduced number of tents, McPherson has provided some shelter from the elements (but not housing) and visibility for the movement in the heart of the lobbying district. It’s been a meeting place, a place to hang out, and a hub for information. It may be less of an information provider in the future since Park Police demolished the information tent, and there’s no plan to replace it. Coincidentally, Occupy DC finally realized its plan to get office space. The Occupy Resource Center (housed at the Institute for Policy Studies on 16th and L Streets), however, has a different function than McPherson. It isn’t about community-building, visibility or hanging out. The motto is “Getting Shit Done.” The two similarities are that it will serve as a meeting place and sleeping is verboten.

There’s a possibility that the Park Service will ban tents altogether, for whatever reason–re-sodding the north side of the park, or just deciding that Occupy’s time is up. In any case, May Day was a turning point. The American Spring is nearly over, and the American Summer is about to begin. Occupy DC is going to have find ways to Occupy–to be a presence and maintain visibility–without defending a space, to be effective without dispersing its energy in a thousand different directions. Most of all, it needs to bring in more people who believe in the core issues of Occupy–economic inequality and intolerable corruption in politics–to swell its numbers. People questioned the viability of Occupy DC after the winter eviction, but now may be the crucial moment determining the future of the movement in the District.

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Activist community seeks to keep its home at Peace House

It’s a race to raise half a million dollars in one month.

Otherwise, the resident activists of Peace House on 12th Street will be turned out on the streets.

Peace House now serves as a refuge, usually a temporary one, for activists on the streets. Particularly since the February raids on the Occupy DC camps at Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square, when 24-hour no-sleeping rules went into effect, Peace House has provided a couple nights of sleep and a shower for displaced Occupiers.

But Peace House will soon be sold, if not to the activists under its roof within the next month, then to a buyer on the open market.

Peace House stands out among the other houses on 12th St. with its turquoise brick facade, bright flags, and the word “Peace” arching over the entrance. When I visit, someone is stretched out with a laptop on the comfy purple velvet sofa in the living room, and a few gather in the small room off the kitchen with a couple of well-loved dogs. Lots of artwork hangs on the walls, and even more “protest art” is lying around, most of it from the BP protest marking the Gulf oil spill the previous week, including paper maché “Frankenfish.” Resident artist Ray is in the backyard working on a paper maché Uncle Sam.

While Denise Valdez cooks black bean soup in the kitchen, Mira Dabit shows me around and talks about the mission of Peace House–art, education and activism. Mira wants it to be “a real space for anybody who has a revolutionary idea, an idea to change society. We’re trying to do events relevant to everyone.”

Resident artist Ray

Even though time is short, she wants fundraising to tap more than just big-time donors. “We want to have a dollar from everybody–so everybody has a share in this house.”

Both Mira and Denise see Peace House as important in keeping Occupy alive in DC and stress that it’s a vital center for community. The moral support the house provides to full-time artists and activists seems clear. Mira says, “There are some days I wake up and don’t want to do this any more, but by noon I’m energized.” “Yeah,” adds Denise, who has a son in Austin, Texas. “Sometimes I just want to go home. But this is my home now, this is my family.”

If the community of activists can’t buy the house, they have no real contingency plan at the moment. They would probably be dispersed. They seem to take the attitude of founder Concepcion Picciotto, who says, “This is my life, what will be, will be.”

Concepcion carries on a 31-year vigil started by Bill Thomas in front of the White House against nuclear proliferation.

Concepcion Picciotto

Unable to leave the vigil tent unattended, she returns to Peace House only when a volunteer relieves her. “God has given me health and strength to do this,” she says.

She’s adamant that Ellen Thomas, wife of Bill, is not authorized to sell the house, which is titled to non-profit Proposition One. “[Bill] Thomas never signed anything, he bought the house for activists.”

But others don’t seem to be challenging Ellen Thomas’ authority to sell, and the goal is to raise a half million–or a good portion of it–by the end of May to purchase the house.

Peace House will hold an art show and auction on Sunday, April 29 from 12 to 6pm. Peace House is located at 1233 12th St., between M and N Streets.

To donate to Peace House, go here.

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With a little help from our friends: Kunzang Palyul Choling

Seven DC Occupiers visited a Buddhist community in Maryland as part of Occupy Faith DC.  Kunzang Palyul Choling (KPC) delivers food to the Occupy DC camps several times a week, motivated by their philosophy of service and socially engaged Buddhism.

April Parsons of McPherson Square said, “Going to KPC was such an enlightening experience.” She enjoyed the tour of the main building and prayer rooms: “As you walk inside you can feel such an intense beautiful energy. It’s like a feeling of purity. I felt connected to everything around me through an energy of love and peace.” She’d like to visit again when she gets the chance.

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Monsanto protest in DC part of “Shutdown the Corporations”

Occupy DC took to the streets early this morning, participating in a coordinated protest against a right-wing corporate coalition with undue influence on legislation. Occupy Portland initiated the action, called Shut Down the Corporations, and claimed that as many as 90 protests took place today around the world.

The target was the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC drafts “model legislation” to benefit its members–multinational corporations such as ExxonMobil, Bank of America, BP, Monsanto, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart–hands it to legislators, who then write it into bills as is. It’s known for a right-wing agenda, for example, writing the strictest anti-immigration legislation in the country (SB 1070 in Arizona) and proposals in 38 states to undermine the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).

Fabian, a Freedom Plaza Occupier, stated his objection to ALEC: “They are a group who ghostwrites legislation, that favors corporations and subjugates humanity, where their interests are directly working against the interests of the people. They have no place in America.”

DC Occupiers headed down Vermont Avenue, stopping by ALEC’s headquarters to deliver a mic check, then proceeded to the offices of Monsanto on I Street, where they rushed the doors. Police and protestors got into a shoving match as they tried to push large wooden signs into the lobby. Police arrested 12 people after demonstrators lined up in front of the building in the pouring rain and barred entry for more than an hour.

Many protestors cited their objection to Monsanto’s involvement in Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and patenting of seeds. Earlier this month, Monsanto won a dismissal of a lawsuit brought by organic growers who are afraid of GMOs contaminating their crops.

Monsanto Director of Corporate Affairs Tom Helscher issued a statement concerning the protest group: “We believe farmers should have the opportunity to select the production method of their choice and all of the production systems contribute to meeting the needs of consumers.”

After police broke up the protest in front of Monsanto’s offices, demonstrators moved on to Pfizer and plan to go to a Wal-Mart construction site and the Capital Grille, which is part of the Darden Restaurants.

View more photos here.

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Pitching a Tent of Dreams

When I arrived at McPherson Square that Monday afternoon, all I could think was, “Good god, what have they done? Are they crazy?” Yes, I knew instantly that the DC Occupiers were crazy in a daring and stupid way. At the same time a giddy, elated feeling arose in me, and I also knew that they were crazy in a bold and beautiful way. The Tent of Dreams was already casting a spell on me.

We all knew that weekend that Occupy DC was under grave threat, particularly McPherson Square, which didn’t have a permit like its sister protest at Freedom Plaza. Following the hearing of the House Oversight Committee the previous week and under political pressure, the National Park Service announced that it was going to enforce its “no camping” regulations. Park police officers posted flyers at the camps making clear that enforcement would go into effect at noon on Monday.

Tension was high. No one knew exactly how this would play out, whether the Park Service had found a way to gradually kick Occupiers out by giving them citations and barring them from returning, or if this was the harbinger of a Zuccotti Park or Oakland-style eviction. It seemed like everyone anticipated a paramilitary police invasion promptly at the stroke of noon, although that scenario was unlikely to say the least. A call went out for all Occupy DC supporters to come to McPherson at midday–ready, it was assumed, to defend the Square.

A blaze of blue rose up from the center of the park. A huge tarp draped the statue of the General, except it was no longer Lee McPherson straddling the fiery steed high above our heads, it was Guy Fawkes. The tarp was painted with yellow and white stars, figures and slogans, and large letters spelled out “Tent of Dreams.” Occupiers defiantly stationed themselves at the base of the statue under the tarp. “Oh, shit,” I thought. “They’re toast.”

This deed surpassed even the erection of the OccuBarn on December 4, something that I eventually concluded was misguided and poorly executed, putting the camp in unnecessary jeopardy. The modular, wooden structure was intended to shelter General Assemblies and other meetings and symbolically to highlight the problem of foreclosure and homelessness. McPherson Occupiers seemed not to know that the US Park Police would come down on them like a ton of bricks–which they did as soon as morning light broke.

Although I had been involved with Occupy DC at McPherson Square since early November, the camp at Freedom Plaza was probably a more natural fit for me. A slightly older crowd who tended to work with authorities suited my style of conciliatory activism and preference for nonviolence than the younger, more radical crowd at McPherson Park. They had often disappointed me with high tolerance for drugs, alcohol, and unacceptable behavior and reflexive hostility toward police or any authority. Yet I was drawn to them and not Freedom Plaza. Freedom Plaza was boring, frankly. The McPherson Occupiers always made the news, were the news, for good and bad reasons.

Now a huge tent on the sacred icon of the General? Not even George W. Bush could say “Bring it on!” in such clear and unambiguous terms. The raid didn’t happen immediately. It was five days later when the Park Police invaded at dawn with full paramilitary force. The subsequent compliance inspection exceeded the scope of recent court rulings and, with the sleep ban, was the equivalent of eviction.

The Tent of Dreams was folly, I thought, wrecking any chance the camp had for compromise and survival, and given the outcome five days later, maybe that was true. Yet the striking appearance of the Tent and its symbolism was palpable. It became the image seen throughout the nation if not the world that day. My 40-something sensibilities weakened, and I began to believe in revolution again like a 20-something. I got a vision from the Tent of Dreams.

That day the Occupiers chanted, “Let us sleep so we can dream.” Sleeping in the park was something that the Park Service was trying to prohibit, according to their definition of camping versus protest. DC Occupier John Zangas argued that “sleep is a human right,” not that sleeping in a park is allowed under the law. I knew that much of the camp was made up of homeless people, who wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep if the camp was evicted. Before Occupy DC and after, the homeless have no legal right to sleep and are not only exhausted but deprived of dignity because of it. Zangas continued, “If moral correctness doesn’t coincide with legal correctness, then [we] need to be morally correct.”

“Let us sleep so we can dream.” Sleep invokes dreams. If I could never fully square the presence of Occupations with fair application of urban statutes, I’ve supported them because of the overwhelming knowledge of our loss of power as citizens. Bit by bit, our civil rights have been whittled away, our economic worth decimated, and our votes rendered worthless to an unprecedented degree. There is nothing left but to get out on the streets. To Occupy. To dream of taking back our power and our dignity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream.” To make that dream a reality, he asked people to consult an inner compass that knows what dignity is, what our true inherent rights as human beings are. The Day of the Tent of Dreams taught me something: to be unapologetic in asserting that moral compass, to be bright and bold and beautiful. And that big dreams will come to pass only if many people dare to dream them together.

Counter-protestors at Freedom Plaza are no-show first day

Freedom Plaza on Feb. 5, 2012 as Park Service workers in hazmat suits remove tents and belongings

CORRECTION: One to two dozen counter-protestors did rally as scheduled on Monday, a smaller than expected turnout. The think-tank FreedomWorks is also a sponsor of the counter-protest.

Counter-protestors didn’t appear today for their first scheduled lunchtime rally at Freedom Plaza, site of one of the two Occupy DC camps. A conservative think-tank called the National Center of Public Policy Research obtained a permit to protest on the east side of Freedom Plaza, planning a kick-off of “Occupy Occupy DC” on February 13. They can easily make up for lost time, however, since their permit extends through March 15.

Skateboarders often frequent the east side of Freedom Plaza

Freedom Plaza lost one quarter of its encampment on February 5 when Park Police conducted an inspection, removing any tents deemed not in compliance with Park regulations. The mood was distinctly different from the raid at McPherson Park the day before, when Park Police moved in before dawn with full paramilitary force, including helicopters with spotlights. Occupiers at Freedom Plaza have cultivated a friendlier relationship with Park Police and put up little resistance to the raid.

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Occupy DC: A sleepless, vigilant night for most

No police raid after all at Occupy DC last night. But there were those who slept in the open as an act of civil disobedience.

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To sleep, perchance to dream

Will DC Occupiers sleep tonight? Most Occupiers in McPherson Square believe the Park Police will raid the camp in the early hours of the morning after no-sleeping enforcement went into effect at noon today.

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