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Summer Disobedience School | Occupied Stories

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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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Summer Disobedience School Week Two: Dealing with the NYPD

New York, NY–Earlier in the week I had forgotten about the second day of Summer Disobedience School, and had planned on visiting family in New Jersey, from which I would return on Saturday night. But I was reminded that SDS was happening because a few of my friends were in on the planning for one of the actions—an SDS staple is that each week, your average activist with little experience facilitating actions is given the chance to bring his or her ideas to fruition—and it seemed too good to pass up, so I cut my New Jersey visit short and left for the city 40 hours after my New Jersey arrival there.

My train arrived at Penn Station right at noon, the official starting time for disobedience school, and I rushed to Bryant Park not knowing how much time was left before things really kicked off. I easily found the familiar group of occupiers, many of whom were present last week, along with many new faces—but first I had to make a pit stop at the bathroom. When I returned, the group had already begun a sort of salute; it sounded similar to the flag salute recited in unison during the opening minutes of elementary school, and it finished just as I’d found my place in the group.

As with last week, this session opened with a warm up vocabulary exercise; we “hup-hup-hupped” towards a central point, hopping like cartoon soldiers—a heckler from outside of the group said that our admittedly ridiculous, though very fun, method of assembling made us look like fools, which we found more funny than offensive—and we practiced melting and forming lines by linking arms.

One great exercise that hadn’t happened last week was practicing being aware of your body in your surrounding environment, and being aware of those swarming around you—an extremely important but easy-to-forget tactic within big marches. Standing in a large circle, we were told to find the point directly across from us and to run to it as fast as we could. You can imagine what happened our first time trying: a lot of confusion in the center, people bumping into one another in joyous confusion. The second time around, we were told to imagine ourselves each as a geometric shape, becoming aware of the shapes of our bodies in relation to those around us.

On a final note before today’s actions were to be revealed, a National Lawyers Guild member spoke out on some legal advice if you are approached by a police officer at a protest: ask if you are being detained, and if not, walk away; stay silent and do not speak otherwise; state multiple times that you do not consent to a search, if one is being performed on you. Little did we know at the outset of the day, but this advice would become important at the afternoon’s climax.

The day’s three actions were announced shortly after. One action was to sing popular Broadway hits outside of a Broadway theater, the lyrics changed to reflect the plight of student debt and raised tuition in light of Quebec’s protests and similar tuition hikes in New York’s own CUNY/SUNY systems, as well as schools everywhere. Another action would utilize a smartphone app to create flashmobs and stage images/live statuary at secret and unexpected spaces close to Bryant Park. The last action was to try out a new de-escalation tactic: stage a march around the park towards the Bank of America tower, which was to be picketed in the hopes of amassing a police presence; the march would then continue to the NYPD station at Times Square, where a statement would be mic checked to the police explaining that we understand their place in the 99% as well, after which flowers would be given to the officers.

Each action seemed very interesting or wildly fun; this week it would be hard to choose. I picked the last action, partly due to my friends’ involvement in the planning but also because I was very curious to see what the police response would be to our appeal to them. Our group was fairly small, initially somewhere between 10-15 people, but we were able to enlist the drummers into our group to add some raw energy. After practicing our march formation and picket, we marched out of the park’s south entrance and made our way east on 41st street.

It was a delightful surprise to see how much attention our small mini-march drew: people in the park, along the street and in front of the library paused to take pictures and video of our ruckus; we took advantage of the spotlight and were careful to snake around the park very slowly. The atmosphere was upbeat as bystanders raised their fists in solidarity, simply waved, or smiled and laughed with us as we made our way up 5th Avenue and west on 42nd Street. But despite attention from tourists and midtown’s lunching business class, police presence remained minimal; from what I could see, only one officer was following beside us until our first destination.

Reaching Bank of America at 6th Avenue, we began our picket. This also caused quite a stir from passersby—in fact, there were many more people watching us now than my last picket there on May Day. Thankfully, there was also a new handful of officers observing the action. After a few minutes of picketing, chanting “Bank of America, bad for America!” and singing, “Oh when the banks come crashing down,” we continued on our way to Times Square.

When we reached the police station, we broke out into an impromptu dance party, chanting “Dance for democracy!” while clapping and jamming to the beat of the drums. This, too, caught the attention of onlookers, and one couple even joined the dance briefly in the hubbub. After a few minutes of this, we amassed in front of the station before a small audience of NYPD officers and a large group of tourists watching us from across the street. We mic checked the following statement in support of the NYPD:

Mic check! Hello, NYPD patrol officers. During the turbulence of the past 8 months, many of us, and many of you, have experienced an entirely new relationship between peaceful citizens and street cops, which at points has been ugly. But we don’t need any more tune ups.

We recognize that in our struggle against the 1%, we have come into conflict with others of the 99% who are directed to shut us down by the very forces we oppose.

More and more rank and file police, who have chosen to put their lives on the line to protect us, to assist us when disaster strikes, to look for our lost children, are told to do more with less, and to work within the paradox of a quota system that places arrests for violations over pursuing real criminals; that angers over stop and frisk rather than serving the community; that criminalizes peaceful political dissent instead of fighting crime; that puts stats over duty.

All while the brass assumes that with your respect for the system and duty to your fellow officers, you would not speak out. But we hear you.

We know your pension fund is bankrupt because bankers gambled with your money, because your pension fund managers lied to you, because politicians refuse to raise taxes on rich corporations, because they need those corporations.

The banks have sold you out. The pension managers have sold you out. The politicians have sold you out.

The people you keep arresting are literally the only ones trying to change any of this.

You have the right to refuse an unlawful order. You have the right to refuse to arrest peaceful protestors. You have the right to stand up for yourself and your future, just like we’re doing.

You are us. We are all each other. Stand up for us as we are standing up for you.

After we finished, those of us with flowers dropped them in a line in the street where the officers stood. While they did not respond to the flowers, it was clear during the statement that they had been listening to the point it was we were trying to make, which seemed a good enough result given our small group and meager police presence. At least we gave these officers something to think about while watching over whatever next action they would be assigned to; it’s my personal philosophy that if one mind is changed, the overall action is a success. We then went civilian, and my friends and I went for a quick bite of lunch before setting off for the red steps in Times Square, where all of today’s Summer Disobedience School participants were to meet in a half hour.

When we reached the steps, a group of occupiers stood in pose in the plaza, their image being projected live on a large screen high up and across the street. This camera was meant for some sort of touristy kind of attraction whose point alludes me, but today’s flashmob action had commandeered it for their own purposes, spelling out “LOVE” with their arms for all of the square to see. Just when my friends and I took to the steps, the occupiers began the chant of “Come on up!” to attract anyone around to join our ranks. Just like last week, we mic checked the “people’s alarm,” describing our point of view that the American dream was becoming more and more a romantic nationalist fiction, and that it was time we awoke from our slumber with a call to action. We then made our march from the steps back to Bryant Park.

Our return to the park heralded arguably the best moment of the entire day, a new tiny victory. We arrived both pumped from our separate actions earlier in the afternoon and also from the unity shared in our collective march, but the atmosphere quickly shifted when we began to notice that a black man had been singled out from us by a few police officers, who were now checking his ID. Many of us stood close by on the steps at the park’s northwest entrance to observe and to try and find out what this was all about.

A girl made a mic check, in which she said something to the effect that this very same man had been standing right next to her a few minutes ago and, as far as she knew, he hadn’t done anything remotely illegal or suspicious. Was he being detained, she asked? (The police did not answer.) Why the police attention in the first place? She suggested that everyone who had been live streaming or recording video—there were a lot of those—come forth with their footage to get to the bottom of what was going on. The live streamers jumped up and approached the police to demonstrate that this man had done nothing wrong; by now nearly the whole march was surrounding the police, chanting things like “Stop, stop & frisk!” and “Let him go!” Lo and behold, the police walked away from the situation as we chanted “Racist, sexist, anti-gay; NYPD go away!” So after each of our small actions and outreach, here was a small, but very tangible, achievement of the day, which gave a huge boost to our celebratory atmosphere just before debriefing—and hopefully showed onlookers outside of occupy that all our running around and yelling did in fact bring results.

At the debrief, people from each action group gave the pros and cons to their day. From the group I had participated in, we realized how much energy the drums give to marchers and how we should make an attempt to have a drummer at every action we do. We also entertained the possibility of maybe doing a similar de-escalation action again, with a larger group of people or perhaps at an action already happening with a large police presence.

And where had the police been all afternoon, if not at the one action designed to attract as many NYPD officers as possible? Oddly enough, they were with the Broadway show tunes group—since the group had infiltrated a street fair happening close by on 6th Avenue, much of the police had followed to try and keep the hijinks in order. You win some, you lose some.

The day concluded with a planning meeting for the next week, as well as Free University’s teach-ins, though after a bleary-eyed, early morning and my rushed journey into the city from New Jersey, I decided to call it a day early and set off for my apartment in Brooklyn for a nap. As with last week, another successful and rewarding day of Summer Disobedience School!

– Joe Sutton –

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