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Outreach | Occupied Stories

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A Small Red-Square Story, Montreal, Night 87


Editor’s Note: This story is part of our ongoing first-person coverage of protests in Quebec against student debt, tuition hikes and Law 78, as well as actions elsewhere in solidarity to those causes. This post originally appeared at Outside the Circle.

Montreal, QC–I’ve been doing dual-purpose with my pot to bang on during the weekly (now in week three) Mile-End Orchestrole by using it to hand out free red squares too as we orchestroll our way through the streets, sans permission. The Orchestrole itself, an outgrowth of the Popular Autonomous Assembly of Mile-End, is multipurpose: bringing friends and neighbors together, outreaching about the assembly that meets weekly on Thursdays at 6:30 p.m. in a neighborhood park, serving as a magical wake-up call in residential and business areas about the student strike and related austerity concerns, showing solidarity with the students, and asserting with our voices, sounds, and feet that special law 78 won’t silence people nor keep them from demonstrating . . . and making music. (For my earlier story, written about our first Orchestrole, see here.)

As I hold out my saucepan filled with red squares to passersby or folks who come out of their front doors to see the clanging, singing, dancing, and beautiful-sounding (and growing, with well over a hundred folks this time) band, people first hesitantly peer in and then their faces light up. If they are in support, of course. That’s usually a lot of people — except when we swing through the more upscale part of Mile-End. So many people are so appreciative and excited about getting this surprise gift as they are wandering down the streets when our ragtag solidarity march goes by. Others, strangely enough (or strange to me), ask me how much the squares cost, and then are overjoyed when I say, “Nothing! They’re a gift.” Last night, I must have given away some two hundred red-felt squares, and I can see — to my great joy — that people generally pinned them on their shirt or bag ASAP. And multiple folks asked for me extras, for friends or to give out. One guy told me, “Great, a new one! I’ve given away about ten and figured I’d never be able to keep one of my own.” I told him to take about ten, which he did. I arrived home last night with maybe twenty squares left in the bottom on my pot, and sleepily put it aside, knowing that tomorrow I wanted to get more felt to make more squares.

So this morning, when I emptied out the few remaining red squares in this saucepan before heading off to the fabric shop, I was surprised to find $6 in coins underneath–either from confused or kind people, and magically, just enough to buy another yard (at $6!) of felt today to cut out more red squares during tonight’s popular assembly in Mile-End.

I’d been to this same fabric store before. The cashier is a talkative — really talkative — woman. But she didn’t seem to be there. Instead, a completely silent guy took the bolt of red felt from me, and without any words, cut the two yards I’d requested — since I figured, the more squares, the merrier, and so why not double my good luck of last night’s donation with my own $6. He set my felt on the table and then, just as wordlessly, disappeared.

The talkative woman rushed back in, apologizing profusely that I had to wait maybe thirty seconds for her to ring up the sale. Then she launched into a much-longer tale of how she went out to take a cigarette break, after working hard all day, and had asked the guy who helped me (who apparently isn’t allowed, in the workplace hierarchy, to use the cash register) to keep an eye on the counter. Apparently, too, she’s not allowed to take such cigarette breaks, because she told me that her boss had run after the guy when he went to out to fetch her and admonished her severely. She told her boss that she’d only been taking out the trash, because she’s supposed to do that. “But he smelled the smoke on my breath!”

She then looked at my red felt on the cutting table and the red square pinned to my shirt. “To make red squares? For the student strike?” “Qui,” I responded. “Good! Good luck! Good!” she exclaimed over and over, as she raised a thumb’s up high into the air. So I, in turn, figured it was OK to wish her “good luck” with maybe telling her boss that she deserved breaks. She kept her thumb in the air and smiled a knowing smile, without words, as I walked out, my red felt in hand ready to be turned into other small red squares.

* * *

Photos by Thien, who made and gifted me many of the red squares I handed out last night. He also told me recently (something that others have said too) that what’s great about the red squares, among many other things, is that they open up a space to smile at people on the street who are also wearing them and sometimes talk to them about politics too. For many other magnificent photos of his documenting the red of maple spring-summer, see here.

– Cindy Milstein –

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Summer Disobedience School, Week 4: “Frack Wall Street!”


New York, NY–I skipped Summer Disobedience School last weekend to take a break from things, but was reigned in again with the program’s new location (the second of four): Central Park! Curious to see what sort of targets this location nested and what actions they would inspire, I strolled from the subway and around Columbus Circle to the park’s south-west corner, where we would be meeting.

As I approached the park I was a little confused as to where the SDS crew was. There were two reasons for this: first, this happened to be the day where a huge skating event was to take place, so the entrance to the park was clogged with a crowd of people and skateboards that was tough to navigate and see through. Second, I am of the rare breed of occupiers who makes every effort to arrive on time to an event, which means the group I sought was, at that moment, very, very small.

I found the handful of people waiting for Summer Disobedience School to begin, and was glad to be one of the first there, as there were a few familiar faces who I haven’t yet had the chance to sit down and talk to. But this quiet moment as we awaited more to come finally provided the opportunity to get to know others and discuss things in an unstructured environment, free of any goal or consensus-seeking. The popular topic among us was the ongoing trial for those accused of trespassing in Duarte Square on December 17 and facing possible jail time. Everyone traded the latest gossip they’d heard from the trial and shared their own stories of ridiculous arrests, or questionable arrests of others that they’ve witnessed recently.

Eventually, we had a nice-sized group going. Now running maybe an hour late, we did a very short and quick practice of melting, linking arms and hup-hup-hupping before hearing what today’s action would be: we would use the space to our advantage, using one of its attractions as a symbol for the thing we wanted to raise awareness of: hydro-fracking. We would march to the fountain at Bethesda Terrace, focusing on outreach along the way, passing out hundreds of flyers and shaking maracas. We did not want to appear angry today; instead, we would be jubilant and inviting.

So why the fountain at Bethesda Terrace? We learned that the fountain was built to celebrate the completion of the Croton Aqueduct , which brought into New York City some of the finest drinking water in the country that we continue to enjoy today—whereas beforehand the poor were reliant on wells that contained contaminated water and spread cholera. But with hydro-fracking the Marcellus Shale, New York once again runs the risk with dirty water, as evidenced by those in other communities who have been able to ignite their tap water.

On our small march, some of us carried maracas, some had flags, bright blue balloons to symbolize drops of water, and most of us carried flyers to pass out to spectators that we passed. The people at Central Park were very receptive; they were overall happy to take our flyers that explained the dangers of hydro-fracking, and those riding by on their bikes often raised their hands in support as we passed. We received the best response from the group of skaters close to where we began, who roared in unison when someone called out “Occupy Wall Street loves skaters! Join us!”  While we wanted to both spread awareness and get people to join in on the march, we were unable to pick up new participants. There was also a very minimal police presence; I only saw some park rangers, and there was no conflict whatsoever with authorities.

When we approached the fountain, we marched under the terrace and chanted “Frack Wall Street, not our water!” which echoed nicely from within the hall’s darkness and demanded the attention of all those around. We walked to the pond behind the fountain and formed a wall, where we mike checked this statement explaining why we were there:

This beautiful space is called Bethesda Terrace. Its centerpiece is the Angel of the Waters Fountain. It celebrates the completion of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842.

Before the Aqueduct was built, most New Yorkers had no reliable source of clean, safe water. Rich New Yorkers could afford to buy water, but poor New Yorkers shared common wells. Wells were often contaminated with sewage. Thousands of people died from the contaminated water.

Ever since the Croton Aqueduct was built, New York has had some of the best drinking water in the United States. Its sources are so pure that it doesn’t need treatment on its way to our homes.

Hydro-fracking may change that.

Hydro-fracking involves injecting millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals underground to release trapped gas. This waste water, and the heavy metals and radioactive particles that are released in the process, can find their way to our ground and surface waters. Methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times worse than carbon dioxide, is also released in the process. This has led to residents near drilling sites being able to set their tap water on fire.

New York State wants to crack its portion of the Marcellus Shale, which is in the same region as our unfiltered watersheds. If a filtration plant is needed, it would cost us 10 billion dollars to build. Fracking is both economically and environmentally a complete disaster. Fracking places profits over people. Ban fracking and protect our remaining sources of clean water.

Utilizing the space concretely to get a message across was a smart tactic. You can imagine that many people at Central Park may be tourists, and opening with a brief history lesson on what it was they were enjoying around them seemed to be a great draw. But not just an interesting fact, it also brings attention to history, of promises made to us by our ancestors—in this case, clean drinking water—which, it’s becoming apparent, are our responsibilities to hold those in power accountable for.

We climbed the steps to the terrace—which was a moment of confusion, our group breaking formation, some far ahead of others and many not knowing that we intended to do a banner drop from the terrace. After our brief photo-op and the passing out of more flyers, we made a casual walk back to our starting point for debrief.

– Joe Sutton –

Photo by Julia Reinhart

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Occupying Over Coffee


Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Ryan Rice’s blog.

Los Angeles, CA–I recently made a post on Craig’s List calling for an open-ended “Talk to an Occupier” meeting. I wanted to offer a dialogue that was more intimate and accessible than marches of thousands of people or contentious general assemblies. With our peaceful assembly destroyed, we all know we need space to congregate and organize. I had visions of curious bystanders coming out of the woodwork, filling up cafes, bars, and restaurants as they heard eyewitness accounts of one of the most unique movements in human history.

It has yet to reach that fevered pitch, but I have faith that is where it is destined. In what I believe must sweep the world, people are contracting a dose of reality and empowerment. Reality free of the televised sort, filled instead with the stark truths of how we’ve steered the ship aground. Empowerment free of the hollow “you can be anything” mantra, filled instead with the recognition that the power in ‘All Power to the People’ is ours for the taking.

I had a great start with an undergrad colleague I recently met with. We hadn’t seen each other since her graduation in May, and her political science degree was gathering dust. She enjoys her job, but reached out to me simply because she missed talking politics and knew I was involved in the occupation efforts.

And talk politics we did! Whenever I talk about the occupy movement with “outsiders”, I always like to get Socratic and ask them to explain their hot-button issues, finding some way to connect their opinions to the greater theme of oligarchic control and money in politics. Refreshingly, my date was no hesitant bystander walking through Occupy LA on their lunch break. She went out of her way to get to the bottom of occupying, and she peppered me with questions.

She asked about my arrests, admitting it was on her bucket list to get arrested while standing up for justice. I told her of shotguns and tear gas in Oakland. Careful not to romanticize what must have sounded fairly otherworldly, I pulled her into a discussion on the elites’ desires to shut us down, white privilege in jail, class warfare and the prison-industrial complex.

She asked where the movement was going, of the mind that the occupiers had successfully shifted the dialogue and would be tea-partying Congress with real lefties with a progressive agenda in 2012. We ended up talking electoral politics, diversity of tactics, and just how realistic it was to believe that fresh faces in a morally bankrupt system could change anything.

She mainly asked how we would accomplish things, which I thought was significant. Bypassing what was wrong in our society and why it was exploiting the 99%, she was concerned with how we’d fix it. And that’s it. People across the nation and world know who is responsible and why, and they’re fed up. The pressure now lies on those alternative ideologies and perspectives to deliver solutions. By the way, they already have; evidenced in the decisions of Portugal with drugs, Iceland with banks, Sweden with education, Switzerland with health care, and Canada with income equality.

As the afternoon wore on, we talked the physical occupation and peaceful assembly, the effects on the pundit and politician rhetoric, the successes, the reasons behind crackdowns & arrests, and globalized activism. I found myself working through some positions on the fly, but I felt I accomplished what I envisioned occupying coffee would be. I know I made her think deeper about the issues and gave her the space to verbalize what she knew. Which was a lot, as it is with most people on this planet. We all know that our policies and power structures are not really what they should be. We just so often don’t have the time or the appropriate space to find our voices.

Like clockwork, a peaceful assembly between two people in a cafe at Sunset Junction provided that space and time. Rejecting the pressure to politely avoid politics and religion, as we’re so often told to do, proved captivating. She helped an occupier practice defending a radical alternative to the present society. And she helped a house full of penniless activists eat for a few days with her spontaneous $100 gift.

I’d like to think I helped her to dip her toes into activism. It was absolutely amazing that she felt moved to write a check to an unkempt, wretched idealist such as myself. I feel honored that I inspired, but what is needed is today is more than a check. She warmed my heart and her contribution filled stomachs, but we need people continuing to transfer to unions, stop paying student loans, join sit-ins and boycotts, and work to educate their friends and family, too.

It is going to require a Herculean effort to save the world. I had to coax, prod, and painstakingly convince a liberal political science grad that the occupy movement was a legitimate David to the plutocratic Goliath. This is someone who knows the issues, knows the oppressions, and has a grasp on policy-making. I hope I helped her shrug off those chains of apathy, but it gave me some perspective on the scope of outreach necessary in the years to come.

This is going to be an incredibly long fight and we need to build this movement with any and all tools. If we want to be the change as we so often say, then occupying is a 24/7 commitment. I am going to continue the Occupy Coffee series, and encourage you to join in any way you can. Set up an Occupier sign, get together with friends for the express purpose of talking politics, hold documentary screenings of Restrepo, The Union, or Inside Job.Wear “99%” gear and hold eye contact with strangers, make pot-lucks and neighborhood block parties events to talk about local issues instead of who won the game. Go do!

– Ryan Rice –

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