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Arrests & Police Brutality: Members of Occupy share their stories

Blog Oakland, United States - 01 June 2012

As the worldwide offshoots of Occupy Wall Street gain momentum, Citizenside editorial intern Tabitha Waggoner took some time to find those Occupiers who have had run-ins with the police, what the reasons for arrest were, and if their arrest(s) changed their outlook on the Occupy movement at all.

Some say the Occupy Wall Street’s world movement lacks a single message. Others brush off the Occupiers as a bunch of hippies, anarchists, druggies or lazy people who are up to no good and deserve to be arrested. But another part of the world sees Occupy as a revolution, a mass of every day, middle class workers who have had enough of government and banks “controlling” their lives. Who are the Occupiers, really?

One is Chris Burkhardt, a 28-year-old computer programmer, living in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. He makes his living by developing mobile apps for Apple’s iOS platform. Burkhardt admits that other than his one arrest, he’s only been superficially involved with Occupy Denver. “I’ve never attended a General Assembly, for example,” he says.

Down under, the Occupy movement has gained attention as well, especially with the leadership of Vicki Smart, a yoga instructor and part of Occupy Sydney since the beginning of the Australian Occupy movement.  She’s been arrested during Occupy Sydney events not just once, but three times. Once Smart was arrested alone for “trespass” at a sit-in protesting the big bank Westpac.

The second time she was arrested with five others for “public mischief” relating to a demonstration in solidarity with Greeks and against austerity measures. The third time she was arrested alone for “breaching bail conditions” resulting from the Greek action arrest. Her involvement with Occupy has also opened interests in other areas — she currently works with the indigenous social justice association in Australia. They campaign against police brutality and justice for the aboriginal community.

On the left coast of the USA lives The Red Son, 27, who does not want his real name used. He’s extremely involved with Occupy San Francisco, Occupy Oakland, and Occupy the Farm. He joined the Occupy movement in the fall of 2011 and was arrested during the January 28 Occupy Oakland action along with at least 400 others. The #J28, as it’s called on Twitter, brought a lot of attention to how police were treating protestors in Oakland. But with increasing austerity against the protestors, non-activists question why people keep joining Occupy.

“I joined out of curiosity—to see if like-minded people who demand change could foster this,” Smart explained. “I was drawn in by the passion and desire to make our world better and our voice heard.”

Likewise, the Red Son felt a kinship with the others of the self-proclaimed 99 percent.

“I saw a vibrant, broadbased popular uprising in the United States, unlike anything I had ever seen,” he said. In fact, it was “exactly the type of revolutionary conditions I had been waiting for.”

But Burkhardt was more passive, following the movement from afar via Facebook and live video streams. Like most Americans, he agreed and disagreed with facets of Occupy.

However, it was until he heard rumors that Occupy Denver was going to be evicted from their camp that he felt moved enough to be involved. Burkhardt believed that Occupy Denver had a right to protest — and for as long as they wanted. “If the state did forcefully evict the camp, I wanted to be there to oppose those actions in person,” he said.

That night, Burkhardt packed camping gear and spent the night with those who had been living there. And in the end, he was arrested. Burkhardt thought the eviction was “violent” and intolerable.

“I was awakened at 3 am by police ordering us out of the park,” Burkhardt remembered. Then, riot-gear clad state troopers entered the park and began dismantling tents, he said. “I picked a grassy spot at the edge of the park and sat. I kept that small area clean, was not obstructing anybody else's use of the park, damaged no property, and injured no persons,” he said.

“I was not seeking to be arrested in the sense that if I was allowed to remain seated there I would have happily done so until going for breakfast. But I was not going to become complicit with the state in helping to annihilate that space, so I refused the trooper's request to leave and was instead peacefully arrested.”

And the government didn’t stop there. After Burkhardt’s arrest, an “urban camping ban” was drafted and implemented by the city council. “As a result, beginning May 30 it will be illegal to be homeless in Denver,” Burkhardt says.

“It is exactly that criminalization of homelessness, denying health and safety to those who have nowhere but a public place to live in the name of ‘health and safety,’ that I was protesting by sitting in the park with Occupy Denver.”

Getting arrested is not something most people are proud of or like to talk about, but for Occupiers, each case is different.

The Red Son says his family was unsurprised when he was arrested since it was only a continuation of political organizing that he was already involved in. On the other hand, Smart’s family overseas didn’t know about her arrest, and “friends were inquisitive then supportive from a distance.”

But Burkhardt’s friends and family came to his arraignment hearing and helped him during his arrest. His family also replaced his Kindle and hiking gear that was “trashed” by the Colorado State Patrol. “Many friends and family members took an entire day off of work to support me at my jury trial,” Burkhardt said. “This whole thing would have been much more discouraging without them."

Maybe it’s a sense of duty that causes the Occupiers to be arrested. Sometimes it seems that they are purposely arrested, or at least expect to be arrested. In other instances, such as at the Chicago NATO summit protest, America’s watched as protestors fight or run from the police who are beating them with batons.

The Red Son predicted to himself that he’d be arrested, and he was right. He’s been arrested at two pre-occupy political actions and on #J28, plus two other times.

“I always know it's a potential risk and knew I would likely face arrest in Oakland.”

It’s not a duty, but if he doesn’t go to an occupy action simply because he’s afraid of being arrested, the police have already won, the Red Son said.

“I was arrested in a kettle in front of a YMCA, I tried to find a way out but OPD had us surrounded.”

As for Smart, “I never thought I’d be arrested,” she said. Then she heard that Occupiers were being policed heavily, so she thought “maybe” it would happen. But Smart admits she wasn’t willing to be arrested at the start.

“I didn’t want to be arrested [the first time] but chose to highlight the action,” Smart said. She knew there was a lot of media watching. “I guess I felt it was my duty as the action organizer.”

But, with the Greek action incident, she never wanted to be arrested at all. “The arrests stemmed from a huge police overreaction thinking art items we left outside the Greek consulate were bombs!”

That time, Smart was under arrest for 12.5 hours.

The third time she was taken into the police’s custody because she had forgotten to report to police. The next day she was put in front of the bail court.

But Burkhardt says he doesn’t think that it’s his duty as an Occupier to be arrested. “But as a resident, a citizen, I feel an obligation to offer resistance to unjust laws,” he says.

But resistance doesn’t always come without fear of the uncertainty. Some protestors are fearless, others are not — after all, they’re regular people.

Smart says she was afraid more than once during her life as an Occupier. “At our reoccupation rally in November we were surrounded by the public order riot squad who put on gloves, rattled pepper spray and were overheard saying 'it will be the bitches who scream first,’ ” she remembered.

When she was arrested a third time, Smart said she suffered a panic attack in custody but was ignored.

“I couldn't breathe and was genuinely frightened,” she said.

The Red Son found himself afraid similarly, but only when OPD had batons or other ‘less-than-lethal’ weapons deployed, he said. “But in general, during street actions, I am aware of my surroundings, including potential threats,” he said. “Being aware and in control takes a lot of the fear out of the situation.”

But Burkhardt says he feels a debilitating discouragement more than fear. “Living a peaceful and principled life, even in the most free republics in the world, can very easily have you spending months or years in jail cells or prisons.”

And it’s even worse when the people they love don’t seem to understand or completely agree with them.  

“It has also been frustrating watching my friends and family agree that while my particular arrest was probably unjust, the State and police are relatively good in general,” Burkhardt said.

Many say arrests can bring more attention to the cause for good or for ill. Do arrests make a difference for Occupy?

“I think the arrests have helped quantify police overreaction; we have had around 90 arrests in Sydney and the police have spent nearly $1,000,000,” Smart said. “Their budgets have been called up and to account. The Greek action arrests opened the floodgates for Aussie media to begin to report on austerity.”

The Red Son also believes his arrest helped the Occupy movement. He was detained in a jail with 130 other Occupiers.

“We all connected and shared the experience, spending hours talking while we were detained,” he said. The news of four hundred-plus people arrested was international and it brought a lot of positive solidarity to Occupy Oakland. Plus the world saw the savage nature of OPD and how repressive they really were.”

But Burkhardt disagrees. “I don't think my arrest has had any significant effect on the greater Occupy movement,” he said.

But do these three feel so strongly about Occupy that would they do it again?

“For the right cause I would absolutely do it again; I am not scared of utilizing my right to peacefully protest,” Smart said.

“I will avoid arrests in most situations,” the Red Son said. “But I am not afraid to be arrested during a street action; as a comrade once said, ‘there is way more to be excited about than to be afraid of.’”

Burkhardt admits he would go through it all over again — although “less enthusiastically now that I've had a first-hand taste of how the state, the police and the courts, will not hesitate to cast aside innocent lives in defending its own interests.”

But how do the police respond to Occupy? “With brutal violence,” the Red Son answered simply, while Smart called the police in Sydney forceful, arrogant and disdainful.

“Some ask questions, but we are mainly policed by The Rocks local area command who effectively manage drunk and disorderly on weekends,” she says. “They have very little experience with protests. Our commissioner of police, Andrew Scipione is clearly very eager to be rid of us.”

Burkhardt agrees about the police situation. “I'm not sure the psychology of the phenomenon, but police everywhere appear to have a deep-seated and irrational fear of tents.”

Photo by Citizenside reporter ksergeyev. See more photos like this.

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