Above: Occupy Denver protest for Freedom of Speech and an independent media.
I can still recall my sense of ‘shock and awe’ when, at home on a break from four months of ‘occupying’ a tent, two General Assemblies (GAs) a day and multiple protests each week, I watched on live stream as the police charged through the Washington, D.C. encampment at Freedom Plaza. They tore down our tents, took apart the kitchen and issued threats to the Occupiers still standing their ground. From home, I did the only thing I could do and responded to tweets that the Occupiers were hungry and put out a call to send them pizza. When all was said and done, a few symbolic tents remained, but the Occupy movement was declared (according to mainstream media) ‘dead.’
I sat at home for months, depressed, deflated and yet unwilling to be defeated. In July, 2012, I was in Paonia, Colorado to scatter my parents’ ashes, when a local guy named Sid and I decided to protest the younger Koch brother, Bill’s, WWII tank that was to lead the July 4th parade. Brandishing a homemade sign that read “Are You Trying to Buy the Planet or Just Take It” with “Democracy Can’t Be Bought” on the reverse side, Sid stopped the tank and parade, and I filmed it on my phone. I uploaded it to YouTube, and to our surprise, it became the lead story on the Rachel Maddow show the next night.
Fueled by that incident, an idea began to germinate. Perhaps the mainstream had declared Occupy dead, but I knew of Occupy groups who were still meeting, protesting and making a difference. I realized that if we continued to film and report everything we could, some of it would inevitably get picked up by the mainstream — and, better yet, we might find the way to creating our own mainstream.
So, I bought a camera, took a week-long course in film production, packed my Prius and, on January 13, 2013, I took off with my Japanese Chin, Wilma (my constant dog-companion since her rescue while I was still living at Freedom Plaza) to search for Occupy. I truly did not know what I would find, and must admit to a gnawing fear that I was going to return home to report that Occupy was, in fact, dead. As it turned out, that was most definitely not what I discovered.
59 Points on the Map
Starting in Maine in the middle of a blizzard, I traveled south, zigzagged into the mid-West, hit the West coast and took a northern route home to Vermont some four months later. I put more than 30,000 miles on my car, and visited fifty-nine points on the map. I met Occupiers and activists who, whether or not they clung to the ‘Occupy’ moniker, had been compelled to action by Occupy and, like me, were unwilling to say ‘uncle’ just because the encampments were gone. I have some 400 hours of footage that will, I hope, document some of what I discovered. As I skim through photos and footage, I know that what I found in the people I met and the places I visited, was more than resilience, more than courage, more than determination: it was hope.
In Maine, I met activists who told me about a proposed 23-million gallon ‘natural’ gas tank in a seaside village called Searsport. Its dimensions were gargantuan, and the impact on this scenic, sleepy tourist town would be devastating. But, the infrastructure was in place and, in spite of very determined Maine activists and Occupiers, there seemed little hope of stopping the Denver-based corporation that would pipe Canadian gas to be stored in the tank and then shipped across the Atlantic.
A couple months later, when I arrived in Denver, a young Occupier named Mark Chavez enthusiastically told me how Occupy Maine had contacted Occupy Denver to ask, “If we send you lobster suits, will you wear them and protest at the annual shareholders meeting. It’s our last chance to stop this tank.” Believe it or not, the decision to scrap the tank was made just a couple days before I arrived in Denver. Wow, I thought. This is what Occupy looks like.
In Kentucky, I walked with a group called Footprints for Peace. One of the walkers had helped to organize an OWS walk from New York to D.C., and now they were walking through snowstorms, with chanting Buddhists at the helm, to bring attention to mountaintop removal. On the first day of the walk, we met Rick Handshoe, a Kentucky mountain-man, who was packing up his home to move because he could no longer survive the health effects caused by the mountaintop removal next to his home.
Every day, Rick, someone who “don’t even have a high school diploma,” had been testing the water seeping out of his mounting. Rick’s family had owned the mountain rising up behind his trailer for generations, and since the explosions began on the property next to his, big craters, eroding soil and gushing streams of toxic water began to appear with increasing frequency. Day after day, Rick tested and warned his family and neighbors of the dangers. He showed them his fingernails that were falling out.
“Nobody listens,” he said. “They are owned by the coal companies. But, they’re my people. I gotta keep telling ‘em.” Rick wasn’t an Occupier except on his own land, but he is a hero who exemplifies the Occupy story. This man with no diploma provides the EPA with the water tests they use in their own analyses, and every day he battles the corporate giants. “Everything is dead here, now. Even the bugs are gone,” Rick says. “Even if they stop now, nothing will come back in my lifetime.”
In the Deep South
One day, I got a Facebook message from a woman in Jackson, Mississippi that said, “I don’t suppose you’d consider coming down to little old Jackson.” You bet I would — and, in Jackson, I found another shining example of what Occupy still means to a tireless group who now call themselves ‘family.’ When I arrived at the scheduled time and place, I was met by three men, a street artist, a Libertarian and a homeless fellow, who would, I was told, take me to where I would be staying. With a slightly apprehensive shrug, I followed, thinking, ‘It’s all an adventure.’
They led me through an upper-middle class suburb to the home of a couple, probably in their late 60’s or early 70’s. Everyone embraced everyone and I was ushered inside. Soon, the rest of their Occupy family began to arrive bringing food, wine and hundreds of stories to tell. My host couple turned out to be life-long Republicans who just got fed up and one day decided to ‘go down to that Occupy picnic and see what it was all about.’ They went back every day. When the encampment shut down, this widely diverse group continued to meet twice a week. Among them they had acquired 2 acres of land and were working on building a self-sustaining community.
They also acted as escorts for women coming to the only women’s health clinic in Mississippi that still provided abortions. They apologized for the fact that they didn’t have time to be out in the streets much anymore. They weren’t getting arrested. What they were doing was occupying OWS ideals and providing proof that we can be — and some of us are — the change we want to see.
As I write this, the names, faces, places and tireless (and, too often, thankless) efforts of groups and individuals across the country flood my consciousness. In New Orleans, I visited a warehouse that had been full of old tires and machinery. By the time I got there, Occupy NOLA had not only cleared and cleaned the warehouse, they had jackhammered through the cement flooring and installed plumbing, a bathroom and a kitchen. There was a bicycle shop, a puppet theater staging area, an information center and activist library. There was a stage for holding concerts and places where traveling occupiers could sleep.
Gulf Coast Waters
Traveling along the bayou, I stopped in Rayne, Louisiana to talk with Cheryl Foytlin, mother of six, who has been arrested countless times after trying to rescue a pelican drowning in oil from the BP spill. From Rayne, I drove to Seadrift, Texas where I spent a day and night with the infamous Diane Wilson, a shrimper who has been single-handedly fighting the chemical companies and oil refineries since she realized they were dumping their toxic waste into the Gulf of Mexico.
The fishermen are mostly gone now, but Diane refuses to let up on her fight to restore some kind of environmental sanity to earth and sea. When I visited, she was just off a 60-day hunger strike fighting the tar sands pipelines. Most recently, I was in Washington, D.C. to support her in court after another hunger strike that culminated when Diane landed on the White House lawn trying to bring attention to the prisoners long ago cleared for release but still detained at Guantanamo.
A stop that brought me to my knees was Houston. I was staying with a couple who had a beautiful home on Galveston Bay, smack in the center of a picturesque inlet bordered on one side by the tip of the Houston Ship Channel, a tangled mass of steel, pipes and furnace plumes gushing fire and smoke into the stratosphere, and on the other side by a counter-symbol of oil money, the Houston Yacht Club. I woke up on my first morning there and was lured outside by a paint-brushed sky as the sun rose over the Gulf. In the center of the scene, a heron stood, staring out at the pinks and purples that bled into this deceptively tranquil toxic sea. It was the perfect metaphor for the juxtaposition of majesty and travesty for which this country has come to stand.
But, what shocked me most was my meeting later that day with a father and son team, Juan and Bryan Parras, who founded and ran an organization called T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Activist Services). They took me to their offices, where they were providing shelter for the Tar Sands Blockaders. Then, one evening, Juan took me on his ‘toxic tour.’
After a look at the recycling plant which emits all kinds of hazardous pollutants and is conveniently located in Juan’s neighborhood of lower-middle class homes whose residents are mostly people of color, Juan’s pick-up exited the ship channel highway and wove between the towering spires of steel through the maze of industry-in-action. We entered the very bowels of the Houston Ship Channel. I could literally feel the heavy metal toxins in the air I was breathing into my lungs. I’m not prone to headaches, and yet, the longer we stayed, the worse my head ached.
Juan told me his son, Bryan, could no longer conduct these tours because his headaches got so bad. As I’m fretting over my own level of toxicity intake, Juan points out the neat, small homes with yards literally backed up against the storage tanks. People live here. Children were playing in the yards. Patio furniture and barbecues decorated patios. “Valero Oil built a school here,” Juan tells me as we approach a floodlit football field. “To show their ‘good will,’ they named it Cesar Chavez School.”
Juan, who worked alongside Chavez in his younger years, laughs at the irony. “See those particles in the air where the lights are?” He points to a foggy haze of swirling particles weaving patterns in the glare of the floodlights. “You think it’s smog, or fog, but it’s not. Those are heavy metals. Mercury. Benzene. Butadiene.” I stared in disbelief at young boys tossing a football, a little girl riding a tricycle in circles inside a picket-fenced yard, a couple sitting on their front porch. Juan went on to tell me that children living in a two-mile radius of the Houston Ship Channel have a 56% greater chance of developing leukemia than kids living outside a 10-mile radius. I’d never seen anything like it. One more time, I understood what we were fighting for.
In Seattle, I met up with Josh Farris, who had come to Freedom Plaza at one point. The Seattle Occupy was fraught with problems and distractions, and so Josh began looking around for ways to contribute the most help. He discovered that housing foreclosures were a major problem in the ethnically diverse neighborhood where he lived, and so he began working with people willing to fight the banks. He introduced me to two women, one Chinese and the other Puerto Rican. Both had faced foreclosure when due to illness and job loss they had missed a payment.
In Portland, Oregon, I stayed with a woman in her 80’s, Nan Wigmore. She had been a regular at the encampment there, and I had met her in Chicago at the NATO protests some months earlier. When the Portland encampment got shut down, Nan decided to open her home to some of the Occupiers and her house was now a bustling center for Occupy activity.
Of all the people I met, and all the issues being confronted, there was one issue that touched me more deeply than all the rest. Early in my journey, I took a detour to St. Louis to join some of my Veterans for Peace friends (who had provided security at Freedom Plaza) in protesting Peabody Coal’s devastating mining practices. I was filming the rally in front of the corporate headquarters when Don Yellowman, Dineh from Navajo Nation in Arizona, began speaking. He was talking about genocide, the broken treaties, the children with asthma, the preponderance of kidney disease, diabetes and cancer, the formerly pristine springs now infested with arsenic and other heavy metals, the elders without electricity or potable water. He talked about the part played by Peabody Coal, the U.S. government, the tribal government, the BIA and BLM in all of this.
As he was talking, I realized I couldn’t see what I was filming. I was blinded by my own tears. My parents had retired to Arizona, and I used to drive through the Navajo Nation, stopping at the Cameron Trading Post for Navajo tacos. My parents befriended weavers and bought Navajo rugs. And, yet, as politically aware as I considered myself, I was largely ignorant of the genocidal policies carried out for generations on the people of the First Nations.
Tar Sands Resistance
After St. Louis, I went to Oklahoma for the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance Camp and met Casey Camp-Horinek and her brother of AIM fame, Carter Camp. They described the web of pipelines under their land, their inability to grow crops because of the toxins left behind in the soil in the name of progress, their culture being eroded away as younger generations were forced off the reservations to find work. They talked about how they used to go to dances and birth celebrations; now, they went to at least one funeral a week.
I went to Arizona and New Mexico and, again, met Don Yellowman, who presides over a group called The Forgotten Navajo People. I stayed with his parents and his mother, Louise, showed me her photo albums with pictures of her as a child herding goats. She talked about the history of her people, and the hope she still holds for the survival of their culture. Don’s father came out to meet me in a wheelchair. He ran heavy machinery at the uranium mines. Louise told me he had handled yellowcake with his bare hands. Now, he is on dialysis several times a week.
I also went to Pine Ridge, where I met Charmaine White Face, who works with Defenders of the Black Hills to get the open pit uranium mines that are killing her people cleaned up. Garvard Good Plume and Richard Broken Nose talked to me about the case of broken treaty rights they want to take to the World Court in The Hague. Nathan Blindman has followed the paper trail of the property at Wounded Knee where the relatives of the people I met had been massacred by the U.S. Calvary.
As I talked to my new friends of the First Nations, I understood that although they were the embodiment of all the principals the Occupy movement stood for, although they continued to invite us to join them and begged us to listen and learn from their traditional ways, they could not, as occupied nations, become part of a movement named ‘Occupy.’
As I drove toward Vermont, heading home where my daughter and grandsons live off-the-grid, and where I was about to open our house to activists and community members, I teared up thinking of the heroes I met. Whether it’s called Occupy or First Nations or just a solitary guy in Kentucky, the meaning is clear. We are family. We’re in it together. We all live downstream.
More photos from the Searching for Occupy journey.[nggallery id=”65″]
Occupy’s Legacy: A Massive Burbling of Possibilities, by Ethan Earle
Radical Reflections, by Matthew Wasserman