From this angle all I can see are his boots, more particularly the black military boot, buckled in silver that is blocking my ability to finish my chalk drawing. It is three in the morning and I am about to be arrested. I am using chalk to draw out the blueprints of where the tents had been prior to the dismantling of the Occupy Wall Street encampment by the NYPD in Zuccotti Park. The park sits on a north to south slope just two blocks south of Wall Street and just above the site of Ground Zero. Surrounded by a modern black framed building to the east and a marble brick building remnant of opulent French architecture to the west, in the waking hours these buildings cast an almost permanent shadow over the park, chilling its cement degrees colder than the surrounding areas.
I am kneeling on the cement in what had been the Meditation Circle during the encampment. I can hear the echoes of chants and vaguely see the circle of brightly dressed meditators in my memory. Time has left a shadow imprinted upon me, a memory of the altar built of candles varying from glass cased Virgin Mary candles to hundreds of tea lights. I can recall the heavy smell of sage and frankincense. I can see the yoga mats laid out neatly across the cement. Now the red and deep grey cement forms a circle around a small yearling elm tree, which in turn is surrounded by cold steel blue benches. A lonely businessman sits with his briefcase open on his lap, his eyes blank for he is merely a statue. Directly across the street is a towering, two floor Burger King. Its familiar lighted logo helps cast light onto my drawings.
I had already drawn the blueprints of most of the park under the watchful and suspicious eyes of a crowd of twenty NYPD officers and their white shirted captain. What had been the drummer’s arena was to the east of the meditation circle. Before the eviction, bright clothed drummers had hammered in unison for hours upon hours during the day and into the night, while crowds of tourists swayed unconsciously to the ever present beat. In this mostly dark moment, however, it was an empty set of four stairs overlooking the street and the Burger King and pizza joint on the other side. From the former drummer’s circle you could look straight up and to the right and be humbled by the frame of the 9/11 memorial building. Heavy steel frames, mostly deep red were piled, it felt, as high as the eye could stand to look without looking directly into the sun. What seemed like hundreds and hundreds of feet up the memorial frame someone had spray painted Local 616 in fluorescent orange.
The center of the park had served as our makeshift kitchen, which served 10,000 free meals every day. It had been a bustling center of operations, but now it was quiet. Two cement chess tables complete with benches sat beneath where an eight by ten tent had covered them. Two ten foot wide circles stretched out around another pair of saplings, these with white glittering Christmas lights. In fact, the entire cement ground of the park had been laid with intermittent lights. Every ten feet or so what should have been just another floor brick was a thick glass cover to a floor lamp. It had the effect of making the park appear to be a chess board in the evening.
On the side facing Wall Street was the 15 meter tall sculpture of bright orange. I had never taken the time to look into its origins but had heard the rumors it was called “Liberty.” There was in fact a certain spot where one could stand where the humbling orange sculpture seemed to appear as a massive dollar sign towering over the business people who rushed to and from their workplaces every day. As I drew, I heard the sound of the falafel trucks closing down for the evening. In the days of the encampment there would be almost ten of them circling the park, each truck highlighted by massive photographs of meal options. In this moment, in the tense darkness, there were only a few left. One or two I could see out of the corner of my eyes, packing up their tools for the few hours before dawn.
Now, as I stared at the boot of the police officer, who informed me if I got any chalk on him I was going to be sorry, I tried to recreate the beautiful altar in the meditation circle. I drew dripping candles with flames, flowers and sets of beads. I knew my arrest was imminent and put my heart into the last few flower petals. I wasn’t facing the park, but from my kneeling position I could imagine the empty chessboard behind me. I vaguely hear the park official tell me stop, and the sound of police officers echoing his commands, but I wasn’t finished. As the police officers circled around me and the captain made his order, I held on to my chalk as tightly as I could.
It was surreal standing in the middle of art walk with two friends knowing that Occupy LA were essentially banned from Spring Street due to a police riot that broke out a month before. On July 12, 2011, the LAPD shot rubber bullets into a crowd of art walk attendees mixed with members of Occupy LA, myself included, because some were writing with chalk on the sidewalks. In an effort to avoid any more injuries from police violence, the Occupy LA General Assembly accepted a proposal effectively relegating all activities related to “chalking” to Pershing Square for the August 9th art walk. Occupy LA also called for solidarity “chalking” actions across the World on the same day.
In the week leading up to art walk, the LAPD arrested members of Occupy LA for chalking and other public misdemeanors, while the media published various articles debating the LAPD’s use of a vandalism law to arrest people writing with chalk. Early in the morning of August 9th, the cops detained members of Fresh Juice Party shortly after they finished an enormous chalk mural in Pershing Square. Later that day, the LA Times reported that a fist fight broke out between someone from Occupy LA and a visitor from Occupy Oakland over chalking skills. This only compounded the tensions that were amplified in the media over the LAPD “bracing” for Occupy LA’s return to art walk.
“No stopping! No talking! Just buying! Everything’s fine!” I shouted as people passed on the crowded sidewalks of 5th and Spring. My two friends and I posted up near a KCAL reporter on the corner and unfurled our “Class WARhol” banner, while another held a sign that read “Legalize Art.”
Within a few minutes we were asked to move by the LAPD. We crossed the street and stopped again. This time we positioned ourselves behind a parked police car and a fire hydrant, so as not to disrupt the flow of pedestrians. LAPD Sergeant Bogart approached us on his bicycle and said “I’m going to need to ask you to move.”
My friend replied, “Where to? Three feet this way? Three feet that way? We were just told to move from the other corner.”
“I can’t tell you that. You just have to move” repeated the Sergeant.
I was looking down at my feet, a bit nervous to be around so many police, when I saw spit land next to my right foot. I looked up and asked the Sergeant, “Did you just spit at me?”
He smirked and said, “Does that make you feel intimidated?”
Choking on my words, I quietly said, “Why? Should I be?”
The Sergeant spit to my left side and smiled, “Did it look just like that?”
My friend then asked the Sergeant if it was department policy to allow officers to chew tobacco while on duty, to which the Sergeant replied, “I see we are going to have a problem here.” The Sergeant then got off his bike and spit again. This time it landed a little further from me, but still within a few inches.
My recent research into police tactics during protests made it easier to detect what the Sergeant was doing. He wanted either me or my friends to overreact to his taunts, so that we could be arrested and the LAPD could declare a moral victory over Occupy LA in the morning’s press. I stepped back and stated loudly “I am backing up! No need to spit at me!” By this time, there were at least five cameras on us, yet no one intervened. Because the cameras were not there when the altercation began, there is no ‘proof’ of his assault, but because the cameras were present during the aftermath, they may have protected me from further insult. Ironically, I had two cameras on me, but did not want to be shot for “reaching into a pocket” like so many others. Due to the Sergeant’s smugness, I have no doubt that this man has used a similar tactic to force compliance on other occasions. All that remains is my word and those of the witnesses against the Sergeant. I imagine the frustration I experienced is quite common in communities that are forced to interact with the police “for their own safety.”
The situation gives me pause to reflect again on police provocation, testimonies, and cameras. If anyone surrounding me did intervene, the consequences for all could have been tragic. There were no less than 30 police officers in that intersection, some on horses, others on bikes, and many on foot. The build-up by the local media to Occupy LA’s attendance at art walk, like Tyson Vs. Holyfield, put everyone on edge. No one wanted to back down. By spitting at me, Sergeant Bogart could have triggered a much larger reaction that would have provided the rationale for deploying hundreds of extra police to stamp out the vestiges of political speech in Downtown LA.
I remained collected enough to walk away with my body intact, but my dignity obliterated. The next day, The LAist wrote that Occupy LA claimed that the LAPD stood down (which they did because there were no arrests in a chalk covered Pershing Square), while the LAPD claimed that Occupy LA backed off (which they did because they did not go to art walk en mass). Importantly, this battle of Los Angeles has nothing to do with the medium of chalk as reported in the media. For the LAPD, it is really about vilifying those already marginalized and legitimating the increased policing of downtown, but for Occupy LA it is about slowing the gentrification of downtown in defense of the very poor.
The abundance of police during art walk- and in downtown more generally- has been questioned many times before Occupy LA even existed. In fact, the majority of Occupy LA unknowingly stepped into the debate after the raid on November 30, 2011. For years, the LAPD and The Central City Association’s private security have patrolled art walk to stave off the wayward homeless from neighboring skid row, so that the very poor, with their cries of hunger and untreated open wounds, do not disrupt the roving middle class crowd. Moreover, the art walk crowd is taught to fear skid row as lines of cops audibly warn middle class attendees not to travel far from Main Street.
My “Class WARhol” banner was designed to engage intelligent art walk attendees in conversation about the on-going class war in LA’s historic downtown core. I spoke with some art walk patrons who thought the banner was clever, but did not know much the treatment of the very poor in downtown LA. Others knew about the dangers of life on skid row (including rampant police harassment), but did not know that the police typically searched and arrested homeless people from skid row in preparation for art walk. While the galleries are busy washing their walls white to prepare for new art, the LAPD and CCA security are conducting their own kind of whitewash just outside.
CCA Prepares to “Clean Up” Skid Row
“Clean streets” in downtown LA does not simply mean removing trash and washing human waste into the gutters, it really implies ridding the streets of poor people and what little they own. Recently, it has come to include removing all memory traces of political speech by erasing the most ephemeral form of expression: sidewalk chalk. In the case of Occupy LA, they are getting lambasted by the police for calling attention to the problems of the very poor. Even more disheartening though, the shifting demographics of Occupy LA over the last 3 months are used to justify the actions of the LAPD – the poor, gay, black, and brown are now at the forefront of the Occupy movement and consequently, they bear the brunt of the attacks from the police. These populations are the favored marks of an institution that derives its own authority by depriving the people of their own power.
Lastly, I am beginning to better understand the imperative of ‘camera power’ to new social movements. Footage of cops enforcing their requests does in a flash what it might take years of filing official complaints to accomplish, the images reveal the non-institutionalized means by which compliance is actually accomplished: spitting, hair pulling, arm twisting, finger bending, and so on… all the things that children usually resort to in order to get their way. Resembling Tyson, when faced with an opponent that won’t yield, cops must also resort to cheating. Sadly though, like DNA evidence, future reliance on technology is at a cost to human witnessing itself as people’s testimonies become a comparably less authoritative account of an event. Like I said before, ‘give me the YouTube link, or it didn’t happen!’
Austin, TX–On Thursday, August 9, I took my two children, ages 4 and 7, to an Occupy Austin event called “Chalkupy the World.” Many other cities around the country, and even abroad, participated in this event. I’ve been to a few Occupy events, support the methods and messages of Occupy, and am somewhat active in one of the Occupy groups that does work dealing with the local school district. The Chalkupy event was supposed to be a gathering of people using sidewalk chalk to express, well, anything really, but mostly dissent or disenchantment with the way things in our country have evolved to either favor the ultra-wealthy or punish the poor, middleclass, marginalized, or otherwise “different” people.
I anticipated that this was going to be a small event, and one that would allow me to show my support of the Occupy movement while also letting my children participate, or at least keep them occupied. They like chalk; they like to draw. I wasn’t really expecting police intervention. I’m a responsible mother; I would never knowingly put my children in harm’s way. I thought, particularly in Austin, this event would be reasonably innocuous. But I’m also responsible enough to want to teach my children to participate in the citizenry, to stand up for what they believe in. I can’t say I’m altogether surprised at what happened, which is really a sad comment on our society.
I took my children because I thought it was an appropriate place for children to participate in coming together, in citizens who don’t know each other meeting in person, in public space…in space that is for the public. I think it’s worth mentioning, too, that the day before, I had just read William F. Buckley Jr.’s essay “Why Don’t We Complain?” Writing in 1960, the famous conservative commenter remarked on how much people at the time were willing sit back without remark and endure unreasonable situations. He explains that it’s sometimes complex, that there are often hidden reasons for why some things are the way they are. But his essay challenged me. And on August 9, I was feeling a duty to myself and my country to speak up for things that seem unjust. If I didn’t, who would? How would my children learn to speak out against injustice?
We had picked up two packages of giant-sized sidewalk chalk earlier in the afternoon. They were the biggest chalk sticks I had ever seen, and I found their cartoonish proportions a little humorous. Two sticks in each pack. Two sticks for each child. I knew there would be more chalk waiting at the event, but it’s always good to come prepared. As we drove to the event, I reminded my children they could draw anything they wanted. I want my kids to participate in the public sphere, but I don’t want to be too heavy handed in what messages they feel forced to repeat. They will change their minds about many issues many times as they grow. I don’t think I need to force them to accept any point of view right now. I did tell them, though, that they might want to think for a minute about one thing they thought would help make the world a better place. My younger child thought about rain. My older child mentioned recycling. I told them that would be great, and that they could draw as many pictures as they liked.
When we arrived, there were about 10 Occupiers on the southwest corner of 11th and Congress, just across the street from the Capitol, where Occupiers had been warned not to use chalk. But we were all on public property on this corner. We noted the large box of sidewalk chalk on the bus stop bench. It had many more color options available. So both of the children picked out a couple of colors. My son, my older child, set in on his design. He decided that drawing the earth in a “recycling triangle” would be good. My daughter started drawing butterflies. She’s just recently developed the skill of representation, so her drawings are actually starting to look like something. I wrote a message about how I would be better off financially had I never decided to pursue graduate studies.
This is true, by the way. I would have been earning a middle class income from the time I graduated college in 1997 through today. I wouldn’t have any debt. In fact, in my one year working in a corporate office after I earned my bachelor degree, I saved over $7000 dollars. I’m pretty thrifty with money. I would not have had to take out student loans (all subsidized), and I wouldn’t have had to live on the approximately $800 monthly most graduate assistants make. Of course, I would not have become more educated about history, philosophy, justice, and education. It makes a difference in your perspective. It’s important to remember that education is not a commodity. I don’t owe money for student loans because I wanted a boat or an expensive purse. I owe money because I wanted to be an educated citizen. I thought that was a responsible decision. I’m still waiting for someone to tell me it would have been more responsible to keep my office job and keep my mouth shut.
The adults had already noticed the group of state troopers gathering across the street in front of the Capitol. Apparently, one was also hiding in a car across Congress. Whatever the case or the number of eyes, four troopers crossed 11th Street over to our corner. They promptly arrested two adults who had been chalking. One of the arrested chalkupiers was wearing a mask covering his face. When my children and I first arrived, they asked about the mask. I simply explained that some people like to be private. They accepted this answer without further inquiry. Indeed, children are often at ease when their parents or role models help make sense of the world for them and are honest with them about what they see. That’s not always a very easy task. Taking a moment to consider one’s response and how it will potentially frame the world for children does take a little more effort at times, but I’d rather not go around dividing the world up into “people like us” and “people not like us” for my children. I imagine there are parents who would have explained that the young man with a mask was just weird, wanted attention, thought highly of himself, whatever excuse they could use to make sure that their children understood that he was “different” and that “we” don’t act like that.
When the troopers came to our chalking area, my children were frightened. My son began to cry. He’s pretty sensitive, but very logical. My daughter feigned crying to be like her big brother. She’s big on drama and intensity. She has asked me to recount the story of the time I stepped on a nail when I was 12 years old a thousand times, but she’s not given to crying, unless someone else has tried to pick out her outfit for the day. Without any warning, the troopers arrested two chalkupiers. I approached one of the arresting officers and politely asked if he could help me understand why two people were being arrested. He deferred to the other who explained that chalking public property was considered criminal mischief. I asked if it was explicit in the penal code, if the code was specific in naming the use chalk on public property as criminal mischief. He explained that no, but it could be considered such.
Let us remember, too, that a number of courts have upheld citizens’ use of chalk as a form of expression. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals wrote, “No reasonable person could think that writing with chalk could damage a sidewalk.” (Mackinney v. Nielsen 69 F.3d 1002, 1995). To make this absolutely clear, in our country, we have freedom of speech to protect unpopular speech. This does not, however, protect use of dangerous or slanderous speech. We all know that we may not use words to threaten another or incite violence. That kind of speech is not protected. Similarly, had there been threatening messages or even obscene drawings, that use of chalk might reasonably be considered mischievous. But there were no such messages or drawings, only messages of dissent and drawings of the earth and butterflies.
After the troopers took the arrestees across the street, I calmly gathered my children and started toward the car. I certainly did not want to keep them in a place where they might be subject to violence or see their mother arrested for chalking. They were both teary. We walked for a minute. Then, I literally asked my children to stop for a moment while I thought. As a parent, you really have to do this sometimes. Sometimes, you have to stop and figure out what is best. If we left at that moment, what lesson were they going to learn? What meaning would they make of what just happened? Of course we were going to be discussing this at length; that goes without saying. But what would they take away from this event if, having told them it was not right for the police to arrest those two people, I simply walked away, too. I knew, already, I wasn’t going to go back to the chalking corner. So I simply turned around, crossed 11th Street to the Capitol, and I told my children I wanted to talk to the troopers, to see if I could understand what was going on.
Now, I’m an adult who (not that it’s anybody’s business) has never been arrested. And that might even be a damning statement against me, depending on who you’re asking. Because, without doubt, there is injustice in our country. We have one of the highest rates of childhood poverty in the “developed” world; we have the least amount of access to health care in the “developed” world; we don’t let consenting adults of the same sex enjoy basic civil liberties; we allow bankers who stole millions of dollars to continue their practices without so much as an investigation. These are surely injustices. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful we live in a country where women are allowed to obtain an education; I am thankful our country attempts to educate every child, whether poor or rich; I am thankful for many things. But that does not absolve me from my duty to make this country better for the vast majority of people. What I’m stalling in admitting here is that talking to police makes me nervous. Which is a shame. At any rate, I had an example to set for my children. Children should learn to speak respectfully to officers of the law; they should be willing to approach one if it seems that something wrong has happened. And as a mother, I honestly did not want to walk away from this with children frightened of a police officer who might be trying to help them if they were lost or if there were an emergency such as a fire.
Hillary Procknow confronts a State Trooper about chalk arrests. August 9, 2012. Photo: Kit O’Connell.
The three of us walked up to two troopers standing in front of one of the gates in front of the Capitol. Honestly not knowing protocol, I extended my hand to the trooper closest to me and said, “Hi, I’m Hillary Procknow.” Her arms remained around her chest. I fumblingly said, “Oh, I guess you’re not allowed to do that.” I explained to her very politely that I did not understand why two people had been arrested and that I was indeed concerned because my children were now afraid of police. “What,” I asked, “can you help me understand to explain to my children that they do not need to be afraid of the police.” She repeated what the other officer had said about chalk and criminal mischief. I reminded her that chalk is not explicitly mentioned as mischief. She said that just like free speech, if a citizen is offended by what someone says (or chalks) an officer can tell the person to stop or arrest them. No trooper had explained that a citizen had complained. I replied, “I’m offended by what a lot of people say, but that doesn’t mean I want them to be arrested.” In any case, when I pressed her about what I should tell my children about their fear of police, she recommended that I go home and have a discussion about how it’s wrong to damage public property, and that it was going to take tax payer money to remove the chalk. I offered to go home and get rags and buckets. She said it wouldn’t make a difference. Of course, we did go home and have a discussion. I did tell my children not to be afraid of police. (We are not people of color, so it’s a lot easier for me to say this to my children than it is for others. If we had dark skin, this particular issue would have been much more complex. And that conversation will come, too.) But, I also told them that our country is not perfect. Just like at home, we all have to pitch in.
Many people wonder, I’m sure, what chalking a sidewalk does to make this country better. I want to be clear on this. People coming together, in public, to express themselves is something that makes the country better. I don’t mean this to apply to any particular political persuasion (and, in fact, Occupy has a firm stance on its resistance to embrace any particular party). When people meet each other, disagree, agree, argue with civility, see each other’s faces, learn to be in a public space and tolerate the presence of others, important things happen, and not necessarily or even mostly sweeping political change. The country learns what it looks like when people participate, when people recognize each other as human. The country learns what it looks like when people decide for themselves to think beyond political platforms and party lines, and come together to imagine new possibilities that simply are not available on a ballot coming to you in November.
Jane Addams, one of the great educators in our country’s history, who fought for the rights of poor and women, for sanitary conditions for immigrants all over Chicago, had some reservation about women’s suffrage, which she did fight for. Why? Because she knew in the 1910s what we have witnessed over the past 100 years: when people have the right to vote, it’s all too easy to dismiss the other important civic obligations they have. Did I vote this season? Yes? Check. Done with my responsibilities. When you feel your obligations are limited to a multiple choice form once or twice a year (if you’re a very conscientious voter), you have failed to understand every other obligation to your country, your fellow citizens, your neighborhood, your local public school, the poor, the sick, the marginalized. Being in public and expressing in public are ways to make this country better. Not the only ways, certainly. If I should have known better than to bring children to a public display of dissent, then I truly hope people will come out in public and make the public a safe place for all of us to be.
The two arrested Occupiers were charged with Class C misdemeanors. Apparently the charges may be increased to Class B. Class B misdemeanor charges result when the damage done costs between $50 and $500 to remedy. The cost of erasing dissent, in this case of erasing chalk from a public sidewalk, will cost tax payers less than $500. The cost of erasing dissent, by making the country’s citizens fearful of participating in a robust public sphere, by making them fearful of coming together, by making its children afraid to be with others and afraid of the police, will be paid for generations to come.
Chicago, IL – Sunday, August 12, President Obama stopped by Chicago to celebrate his birthday like most of us do: see some people, run around to a bunch of different places, pick up some money. He arranged for five fundraisers that day, totaling $4 million. For his third event, he came to Bridgeport Art Center on 35th and Racine to celebrate his 51st birthday with a few hundred of his supporters.
And me and my daughter and my comrades and our chalk.
Our action was simple: utilize our first amendment rights to colorfully educate Obama’s supporters on the public sidewalk. Secret Service and Chicago Police couldn’t stop us.
We grabbed our boxes of chalk and started writing messages on the sidewalks as people trickled in by twos and threes.
*#unHappy51 to Obama: A list of reasons to stand against Obama
*Obama criminalizes free speech and antiwar activists! Free the NATO5
*Welcome to Chalkupy Obama2012
*corporations are not people
*wish an #unHappy51 to Obama
*#occupyObama 9/3 to 9/6 Obama HQ
*Obama criminalizes free speech Free the NATO5
*Immigration rights now!
*Obama – Married to Corporations
*Obama, we won’t be fooled again!
*Obama admin deports millions – 400,000 per year!
*We are the 99%
*Obama stop killing brown people with your drones
*We need peace now
*Obama will not prosecute Goldman Sachs for their role in financial collapse
-death by drones
–Pacific Northwest Activists
–Environmental destruction with coal pollution
*Obama stop FBI & Grand Jury Repression of Pacific Northwest Activists
*Free Jeremy Hammond
*Obama is the drone president
*Hope for who?
*Obama kills ‘enemy combatants’ with drones
(enemy combatants = male, brown, Pakistani)
As supporters walked over our silent messages, they stopped along the sidewalk. Some read them aloud, taking pictures that would be tweeted out, looking at one another or the blonde, chalk-smeared little girl beaming at them. “Obama…kills brown people? With drones? What?” one was overheard saying. With a few bits of multicolored chalk, we managed to alter the discourse of the fundraiser. People inside were talking about our messages, Secret Service came over to read them, supporters snapped photos of them. Our anti-Obama messaging and education was effective with its engaging bit of expression because people chose to be seduced by the bright colors and coopted logo. They started to read and internalize the facts and possibly be sobered to realize there was no Hope and Change for them if they continue supporting someone who doesn’t support them.
Our lawyer remarked that our chalkupied messages were like the turd in the punchbowl. By shining light on dark facts of Obama as typical, 1%-serving politician, we reminded them to remember reality, not rhetoric. As a member of Occupy Chicago, I was not attending intending on a physical, imposing disruption. Our goal is empowerment through education. That day, it was my intention to spark people to examine their choices for a leader. It was my goal to start a dialogue where Obama supporters listen to why Occupy cannot be fooled by his words. We don’t support Obama’s broken society of drone strikes, immigrant deportation, silencing dissenters like the NATO5, Pacific Northwest Activists, Jeremy Hammond and opposing First Amendment rights, valuing corporations like Goldman Sachs over people, among many other charges. Only by standing together, all of the 99%, against oppression, false consciousness and illusions of choice can we begin to make substantive, systemic changes to create a better world.
Starting with a box of chalk.
For #occupyObama actions on 9/3 to 9/6 in Chicago, see OccupyChi.org
Chicago, IL–The day after watching riot cops shoot rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of peaceful sidewalk chalk artists in LA, I bought the biggest box of chalk I could find. I had a feeling I’d be putting it to good use soon, and I was right.
Saturday night, there was an unofficial call put out on Twitter for friends of Occupy Chicago to Chalkupy in solidarity with Occupy LA. We have incorporated sidewalk chalk into other actions, most recently at the NATO summit protests and Occupy Independence on July 4th. We’ve also had confrontations with CPD, most notably when a Bank of America security guard called them out because a small group of occupiers was eating a donated dinner and chalking messages of hope and peace on a street corner in Chicago’s financial district. (In that instance, Streets and Sanitation came and power-washed it all away.) Luckily, though, we’ve never had the kind of violent reaction seen in LA.
The location chosen for Saturday night’s action was a section of Uptown that had been blocked off by the city that weekend for Ribfest. It was perfect for our purposes – the streets were closed, so we had a rather large canvas to work with. We were right outside a train stop, so there were plenty of people walking by to see our work. And the next morning the streets would be full of hundreds more who could be influenced, however slightly, by our messages.
As I parked my car nearby, I sent a message to the friend who had initially tweeted out the action to check exactly where everyone was meeting. When I glanced at my Twitter feed, however, I saw that he was in the process of being arrested. Whoops. He was charged with disturbing the peace for the chalking, along with another unrelated charge. Not the best start to the night.
After CPD got done threatening everybody else with arrest, they took him away and the rest of us continued chalking. Many people stopped to talk with us – most in support or out of curiosity, although a few were upset by our action. They said it was vandalism and illegal. They said it was a childish way to express ourselves. They said it wasn’t a proper use of our First Amendment rights. Of course, we disagreed. We tried to explain why but the few who came looking for an argument weren’t interested in listening, unfortunately.
Thankfully we had an overwhelming amount of support from others we spoke with. We moved to two other locations and had the opportunity to talk to many more people–including Ribfest security guards, who didn’t try to stop us at all but actually encouraged us to continue. They told us they agreed with our messages and pointed out open areas that we hadn’t chalked up yet. “You missed a spot over there!” they would say, pointing, a mischievous grin pulling at the corners of their mouths.
The only disheartening thing to me was the number of people walking by who refused to take the chalk I offered and leave a message of their own. They would say, “No, it’s okay, you write one for me,” or “I don’t really have anything to say.” I want to do this again, all summer, all over the city, but put a greater emphasis on getting non-occupiers to leave their own messages. I want to give a voice to the people of Chicago in a simple, easy, dare I say fun way. I want to fill our streets with the words and ideas, hopes and dreams of the people who live and work here. I want to show my neighbors that you don’t need someone else to speak for you, that you don’t have to ask permission to be heard, that it’s acceptable and even laudable to share your thoughts creatively and publicly. I want to empower others as I have been empowered by the Occupy movement.
In one of the hottest, driest seasons our city has seen, our messages are likely to remain visible for a while. But even when they fade into the hot, dirty pavement, our words will live on. After all, chalk is temporary – ideas are forever.
Los Angeles, CA–#OWS Energy is powerful. So many of us live oblivious to beauty, truth, freedom and love. However, what I saw in the streets of Los Angeles on Thursday night was instead an embodiment of all four.
The streets were covered in color. Pregnant with people, full of Angelen@s that were standing up for their freedom of expression, art, and speech. The police response was predictable and unconscionable. Those in power are trying (and failing) to apply the insane broken windows theory on the 1st Amendment! The gall of this system is shocking. They will do anything to stop dissent, and people are waking up. Kids shot and tackled and beaten and gassed for using sidewalk chalk on a sidewalk.
It’s not really about the chalk, and you and I both know it. It’s about what’s being written.
One of the components to this movement in my opinion is the recognition of the power of the people united. On Thursday night, it felt like Los Angeles was the People’s Town. For an evening, public space became one of meaningful expression. Messages to lovers were written on street corners. Inspiring quotes from social justice figures were drawn on bleak emtpy walls. And smiles were everywhere as people were empowered to be heard through chalk.
The #LAPD, just like the police forces in New York, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, UC-Davis, Miami, Seattle, DC, and Philadelphia, reacted how they always do. It is systemic fascism. Lest we forget, the day before the Brooklyn Bridge saw 700 arrests last fall, JP Morgan Chase donated $4.5 million to the NYPD. If you’ll remember, the Oakland Police Department received “counter-insurgency” training from Bahraini military police and Israeli Defense Forces. Training for what? How to deal with some tents and signs? For peaceful assembly?
The connection to that type of money in politics & policing in LA? The lobbyists for the 1% in corporations like the Central City Association, the Central City East Association, and other business improvement district firms throughout the city. The free speech crackdown began when activists laid their heads on the sidewalks at #626Wilshire, the offices of the CCA. These groups give money to every single City Council seat and are “helping shape policy” in City Hall nearly every day.
Who is lobbying for Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, Verizon, Walmart, Ralph’s, Chevron, AEG [property developers]? The Central City Association. Who is pushing for further criminalization of the homeless, rent hikes on the long-term community residents, “intelligence-based graffiti”, a Walmart in Chinatown (and 211 other locations in LA County)? The Central City Association.
So the police fired gas, flashbangs, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, and beat people with batons. Who are they protecting and serving? The 1%… and a system that values profits over people, property over community, stifling dissent, imprisoning people, and keeping the status quo. On Thursday Night in DTLA, chalk became a catalyst for the people to take the power back.
Los Ageles, CA–On Thursday at the Downtown Los Angeles monthly Art Walk, a police escalation erupted into an uprising of the people. All because Occupy Los Angeles activists organized an action around our right to free speech through chalking. The action started at 7pm, and immediately the police made aggressive arrests for using chalk on the sidewalk. By 9pm, hundreds of cops had amassed on 5th street, some in riot gear because the people of Los Angeles had taken it upon themselves to create their own art at Artwalk. Energy and anger buzzed around the crowd as people spilled into the streets from the filled sidewalks, furious and frightened at the amount of police. A woman of small stature was slammed to the ground, face first, and then arrested for using chalk on the streets. Her face was contorted in pain as three officers twisted her arms back to zip tie her wrists. People in the streets, yell “Shame.” Chants of “Whose Streets? Our Streets” and “Fuck the police” spread through the crowd.
But really, what did the police expect? They showed up in large numbers, with weapons and riot gear. A line of motorcycle cops formed, lights flashing, engines ready. As they moved forward, the crowd ran in a dizzying, angry and frightened manner. Riot cop lines formed on all sides of the intersection, pushing people in two directions – to Pershing Square and North on Spring. Guns with rubber bullets fired at the dispersing crowd. On Spring Street, I watched a man get shot at close range, stumble from the sidewalk into the street and collapse. I ran up to him to see if he was okay; as soon as I touched his shoulder, the police surged forward towards the man. One male officer pulled back his foot and kicked the man on the side. I saw him flinch, but ran back as an officer reaches for my arm. The man was grabbed and dragged behind police lines. His limp body was cuffed and taken away. The police continued to move forward, in what the media would call the next day clearing the area block by block. Every five feet, the police line stopped, and their commanding officer yes, “Maintain the line. Whatever you do, keep the line!” Otherwise, what? The several hundred frightened people on the street, who were at least thirty feet away, would rush the line? Was this a police who are supposed to protect and serve or a militaristic group attacking civilians?
Each time they advanced, both men on either side of the line would point their guns at the crowd threateningly aiming, occasionally firing in the crowd. I later heard that the Pershing Square contingent was tear gassed. Helicopters buzzed overhead, their lights shined on the streets. The crowd continued to mill around the streets, as the police continued to move forward. Tourists and groups of young people approached the riot line and take pictures. It was a spectacle now. Riot cops in downtown Los Angeles because of chalking. The city was shut down – streets are blocked off, freeways are jammed, the train stops are closed. Clearly this is bigger than just chalk.
When we started to organize around the Central City Association after May 1st, we knew it was a good target. After all the CCA is money in politics, it is corruption, it is a pretty big gear in the system we are trying to fight. Since our siege on CCA began, we have continually faced state repression vis-a-vis the police. It has not stopped. Captain Frank is always there lurking in the background, at least when he’s not dressed in his suit and lunching with the CCA members (as he did last month!) We have a hit nerve. Several nerves. CCA. And then the idea of private property and free speech. Free speech is not really free – we are limited to where, when and how we can exercise our right to free speech. The state makes laws in order to repress the people. Our founding fathers had no qualms about admitting that – we cannot have a true democracy, because the mass of the people must be controlled. That is the basis of our principle of democracy, that only certain people have the authority to do what they want, the rest of us must obey their laws. The masses of the people are stupid, illiterate gremlins. We cannot allow the masses to rule. It is the marginalized masses who are criminalized by most laws. This is why you cannot sit, you cannot lie, you cannot have your belongings with you on the streets of Los Angeles. Laws are made to criminalize the bodies and the existence of those who do not fit into our society.
So this is not really about chalk. It is about repression. It is about who has the authority. It is about who has the control. It is not us, it is them. And they are trying to turn the rest of the us against us. But we have to see through the media fog and their justification of their action. We must stand together as humans and realize that there are bigger problems in our society: poverty, inequality and corruption – in a word, capitalism. Capitalism is the systemic problem. This movement, which is sometimes called Occupy, for better or worse, and may never admit it, is anti-capitalist. Somewhere in its decentralized core, Occupy is about abolishing the system and restructuring our society in a completely different way. Occupy dares to shake the status quo. What happened at Art Walk is what happens to us, activists, and us, houseless, poor, and of color, all the time. We are brutally arrested, we are kicked, we are harassed by the police. Welcome, Art Walkers, to our life; welcome to the new phase of this movement: state repression.
LOS ANGELES, CA – It’s unfortunate that time and time again we have seen peaceful events grow to riots caused by an excessive show of force by the LAPD. For a bit of background- the chalk walk event was organized by a group of activists associated with Occupy Los Angeles to bring attention to the arrests that have been occurring at 626 Wilshire (the Central City East Association building). Arrests that have largely occurred due to activists chalking political messages outside of the building to bring attention to various initiatives being pressed forward by the CCEA to essentially strip downtown clean of people the ‘not-for-profit business corporation’ sees as undesirable. Since NBC is uninterested in doing any research to coherently articulate what the organizers intention was and since even the Artwalk co founder seems to be incapable of reading a press release or stay aware of what people in his community do; Let me state again. The purpose of Chalk Walk was to bring attention to the arrests that had been occurring at the CCEA.
The action was planned to take place between 5th and 6th on Spring street and was intended to be a peaceful outreach event to encourage friendly dialogue. Many Artwalk regulars (parents and their children included) stopped by to draw with us.
Many interesting conversations sparked from discussing MacKinney vs. Nielsen, the ninth circuit court of appeals decision that ruled that chalk could not be considered vandalism and was a constitutionally protected form of free speech under the first amendment. 8 arrests occurred between 7:30- and 8:45. All for - you guessed it – chalking. Everything remained peaceful during the first 7 arrests as the chalkers remained calm as they were taken into custody.
The escalating incident happened during the 8th arrest. Apparently the LAPD wanted the chalk gone, the rain wasn’t working fast enough, and formed a skirmish line in front of the chalkers. Occupiers formed a line and started chanting. A lot of the Artwalk patrons were confused as to why there were riot police when no riot was occurring. A female art patron (not associated with OLA), trying to de-escalate the situation, walked in the middle of the two lines and drew a smiling stick figure. She was then tackled to the ground with such force that it caused her boyfriend to panic and lunge toward the police to protect her. He was shoved away by a couple officers. The womyn was then grabbed, flipped over, dropped face down onto the street and then pinned down by an officer’s knee. Her boyfriend was visibly upset and had to be restrained by 4 of his friends. It was at this point that a multitude of art walk patrons rushed into the street to protest her treatment. Tear gas was fired.
As the crowd swelled, residents watching from their windows began to throw bottles at the police line. It was this excuse that LAPD took to begin firing rubber bullets into the crowd. Some Artwalk bystanders were hit by the less- lethal ammunition* and suffered some pretty ugly injuries as a result.
One man -not pictured below- was shot in his chest, had the wind knocked out of him and ended up collapsing right in front of the skirmish line.
A few female protesters holding the front line rushed forward to help him and called for a medic. However we could not get to him before the police kicked the skateboard he was cradling into his face.
As we were all forced to take a step back we watched as he was trampled over, flipped onto his face, zipped tied and dragged onto the sidewalk.
It was at this point that some bar patrons came out and hurled a couple bottles at the police. Two female occupiers mic checked and told the crowd, “Don’t throw bottles- when you do that the cops don’t care to aim at you. They just shoot in your general direction. Keep your brothers and sisters safe, we are not prepared to deal with less lethal ammunition.”
At one point the police attempted a right flank to kettle protesters but everyone was able to get out of the designated area. We believe an additional 3 people were arrested as LAPD pushed the crowd North on Spring, none of which was associated with Occupy L.A. A couple hours and probably hundreds of thousands of city dollars spent on LAPD machismo later, the crowd naturally dispersed and continued along with their night.
So- now the real nitty gritty- Why did this happen? This wasn’t about chalk, this wasn’t about ‘people provoking the cops’- it was about finding any excuse to lock up individuals speaking out about what is going on in downtown.
The CCEA’s safer cities initiative is nothing more than a way to gentrify the area into a mono-socio/economic neighborhood that does not have to worry about “ethnic problems”. Harassing the houseless population of skid row and co-ercing them to leave is just the first step to expand CCEA’s current 97 block territory to cover the whole of downtown. Don’t believe the houseless get harassed without reason? Go to LACAN and talk to any of the individuals that work there and I guarantee you will have an entirely different perspective on what goes on in downtown. The safer cities initiative also lays out a plan that CCEA plans to implement by 2020 that would in essence clear out all of the businesses from Santee Alley.
Skid row is comprised mostly of African American residents and Santee Alley is comprised mostly of Latino or Korean business owners. While this 2020 plan may not be intentionally racist, it certainly brings into question the morality of determining someones future or making decisions about someones livelihood in a way that will not benefit them in any way. As well as the morality of such decisions being made by people who only stand to benefit by other’s misfortune. In the end, this is all about economics and keeping money in the hands of the “right” people.