Exercising a First Amendment right to sleep in public

Photo by Colin Moynihan for the NY Times

About 75 Occupy Wall Street protestors held sleep protests outside banks early Friday morning, citing a New York District Court ruling from 2000.

In that decision the judge wrote, “the First Amendment of the United States Constitution does not allow the city to prevent an orderly political protest from using public sleeping as a means of symbolic expression.”

More case law from Occupy Wall Street’s legalassistant.

Occupy DC: An emotional day

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(Images by coolrevolution.net)

Cool Quote of the Day

artwork by davis.jacque

A violent act can never put down another violent act. If you do not believe in violence, you should not exhibit violence in any way. Every act of yours must be based on non-violence. That means you have to build up that capacity within yourself, that faith in the virtue of non-violence. Until that capacity is developed, peace marches, demonstrations, protests and things like that will not bring any real benefit. It would be better for you to sit still and find peace within yourself; then you will be able to take peaceful thoughts, peaceful vibrations, with you wherever you go.

-Sri Swami Satchidananda

When Women Occupied Congress

“It was a great moment. But we lost it.”

How could the largest gathering of women in America since the suffragettes be summed up with such a harsh appraisal? Yet that’s how an organizer of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade protest of 1968 recalled it.

A fusion of the anti-war and emerging feminist movements, the Jeannette Rankin Brigade was a coalition of women’s groups who came to Washington, DC to protest the Vietnam War on January 15, the first day of the Congressional session. Among the 5,000 women in attendance was 88-year-old Jeannette Rankin herself, the first US congresswoman and devotee of Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence.

If one of the protest’s leaders characterized a historic mobilization as a failure, do the events of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade offer any lessons to modern activists? This is a timely question, since another mass movement will soon converge in Washington to confront Congress on its opening day 2012. This time it’s Occupy Congress, or J17.

The January 17 event will be the first major protest on a national level attempted in the US by the Occupy movement. Focusing less on wealth inequality than Occupy Wall Street, J17 will protest corruption, bribery and deadlock in Congress.

Looking back at 1968, you can see that some things haven’t changed. The unresponsiveness of Congress and the media circus have only been super-sized over four decades. Shulamith Firestone describes the pragmatic viewpoint of the organizers of the Rankin Brigade:

From the beginning we felt that this kind of action, though well-meant was ultimately futile. It is naïve to believe that women who are not politically seen, heard, or represented in this country could change the course of a war by simply appealing to the better natures of congressmen. …So that we came as a group not of appeal to Congress, but to appeal to women not to appeal to congress. Rather we believed that such a massive gathering should be used to devise ways to build up real political strength.

Occupy Congress knows better than to appeal to “the better natures of congressmen.” Sheer numbers might have to impress on the political establishment the strength of the movement by building up currency in public opinion.

Unfortunately, coverage by a capricious, biased media can dominate perception. What’s more, disagreement over media tactics and a certain amount of disorganization thwarted the Rankin Brigade. When they conducted a mock funeral of the “Traditional Woman” at Arlington Cemetery–complete with faux corpse adorned with blonde wig and curlers, S & H Green Stamps, and garters, accompanied by a drum corps with kazoo–it was too much for the moderate elements. Five hundred women split off from the convention.

The more radical reformers didn’t shy away from media manipulation and agitprop, yet a minority felt that catering to mass media was only reinforcing their hegemony. They resisted having a spokeswoman and established rules about talking to reporters, all to prevent a “cult of personality.” The superficial media in turn took its usual route of seeking out human interest stories and latching on to the most sensationalized bits. Even the “Left” media undermined them with overt sexism. The cover of short-lived but popular Ramparts magazine featured a headless woman’s torso with “Jeannette Rankin for President” pinned to its breast. (Patricia Bradley, Mass Media and the Strategy of American Feminism, 1963-1975; 57)

Firestone describes the women as “fully aware of their impotence.” Her conclusion is unexpected:

We learned the value of spontaneity, of quick and appropriate political action, the value of learning to size up a situation and act on it at once, the importance of unrehearsed speaking ability. For I think one good guiding speech at the crisis point which illustrated the real causes underlying the massive discontent and impotence felt in that room then, would have been worth ten dummies and three months of careful and elaborate planning.

If she’s making the case for unifying and charismatic leaders, it’s something that Occupy has scrupulously avoided. The women’s movement is an imperfect analogy for Occupy, but many of the challenges it faced still apply. Occupy has factions favoring radical political solutions and anarchism, moderates who prefer less aggressive approaches, and everything in between. The allergy to spokespersons for Occupy is infamous–nobody “speaks” for Occupy, it wants no charismatic leader as its face. “Branding” and “messaging” are questionable strategies for a movement that doesn’t want to reinforce hegemonic, corporate media, yet lack of them can make it incomprehensible to mainstream media and vulnerable to the same pitfalls as before–superficial human interest stories and sensationalism. Not manipulating the MSM is often to be manipulated by them. Occupy’s solution has often been to bypass it altogether.

On January 17, Occupy Congress will bring thousands of activists to the National Mall to confront a Congress who may or may not care if it’s Occupied. It’s likely to succeed in strength of numbers and media attention. One of its main challenges however will be to unify its diverse elements for a few days both in common cause and strategy, and hopefully in doing so, it won’t “lose its moment.”

Bringing so many Occupiers together could at least take the temperature of the movement:

We found out where women, even the so-called “women radicals” were really at. We confirmed our worst suspicions, that the job ahead, of developing even a minimal consciousness among women will be staggering, but we also confirmed our belief that a real women’s movement in this country will come, if only out of the sheer urgent and immediate necessity for one.

For Occupy, developing even a minimal consciousness in the American public is indeed staggering. There could be no more urgent and immediate necessity.

Evicted But Not Defeated: Occupy thrives outside of camps

Occupy Richmond marches through VCU campus

Occupy Richmond clustered in tents on Kanawha Plaza in the shadow of the Federal Reserve Building of Richmond for a mere two weeks before police moved in to evict them. With nine protestors arrested and the camp bulldozed, the newly formed activist group grappled with its next steps.

Now Occupy Richmond’s website simply states, “We occupy the yard of Raymond Boone.” Above is an embedded map marking the location.

Eviction is not dissolution

The physical space of encampment has important symbolic and practical advantages, which is why many Occupiers are fighting to keep it, take it back, or re-occupy another space. Many cities and towns never established camps yet their numbers are large, and they keep up an active and vocal presence.

The Occupy movement has initially been identified so strongly with the urban encampments of the major cities, where protestors have sometimes clashed with para-militarized police, that the many Occupy camps and active groups of smaller cities in the US have gone unnoticed except in local news.

This omission among the mainstream media has led to underestimating the size and scope of the movement. “Sleepers”–those who sleep at the camps–are but the front line of a legion of Occupiers.

If that weren’t the case, Occupy would be tossed to the winds when authorities successfully ban camps. Instead, groups like Occupy Richmond seem galvanized by eviction and determined to prove their resilience. Others like Occupy Roanoke never pitched tents, but still have managed to occupy their city. And Occupiers are finding other spaces besides city parks to occupy, like highways and foreclosed homes.


Richmond Free Press publisher and editor Raymond Boone invited Occupy Richmond to come and stay in his yard in the Brookbury neighborhood southwest of town. It’s far from the former downtown site convenient to Virginia Commonwealth University students, next to the Federal Reserve Building, and just down the hill from the Richmond Statehouse and the Virginia State Capitol.

It does have one advantage, however. Boone’s next-door neighbor is Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones. The City served Boone with a zoning violation because of the camp.

General Assemblies are held three times a week at the encampment and once a week in town. Without the central location, fewer of Occupy Richmond’s actions have revolved around it. Still, activity persisted through November and may not scale back for the winter.

Maintaining the Occupy presence is finding expression in a diverse mix of protest, education and creativity. There have been educational series, flash mobs, a photo project and a benefit for the homeless. Three Occupy Richmond participants walked 110 miles from Richmond to DC as part of Occupy the Highway. Occupy Richmond recently welcomed the marchers of “Walkupy” on their way to Atlanta from DC. A Statewide Solidarity Rally included a march through downtown, stops at infamous places like the Bank of America building, and a potluck and Human University celebration at Kanawha Plaza.

This week Occupy Richmond occupied the City Council meeting to ask questions about the eviction at Kanawha Plaza and the future of the Boone camp. One city councilwoman introduced an ordinance to exempt Kanawha from restricted park hours and prohibitions on camping. Here’s hoping that Occupy Richmond may re-occupy its original camp.

UPDATE: December 20: Occupy Richmond is packing up the Boone camp. No official statement yet.

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Not Cool: Kids as Props in Political Protest

Parent Occupiers in New York used their kids to send a message to Mayor Bloomberg that police brutality and arresting Occupiers is bad. They got the kids to make paper hearts–one for each arrested Occupier–to present to the Mayor. Aw, sweet, right? No, definitely not.

I couldn’t think of a worse way to involve kids in political protest. The only preparation the video shows is a speech–delivered through the human mic no less–about policemen being bullies, but maybe not EVERY policeman. A procession through the streets chanting OWS slogans.

Final scene, the bully policemen rip the children’s hearts off the fence. The crowd shouts, “Shame! Shame!” Children cry.

The only things these poor kids know and understand is that they did something in a highly fraught situation that caused a big ruckus with the grown-ups and the scary policemen. Children can’t help but internalize it and think it’s their fault, especially with a heaping helping of “Shame!” on top of it.

I always got a sick feeling when Sarah Palin shoved her little boy with Downs Syndrome into the spotlight to further her cred with fans. This video gives me a sicker feeling. Parents, don’t use your kids as props to further your political aims.