Tuesday, October 25, 2011

After Action Report: Freedom Plaza and Beyond...

By Willie Hager

When the Occupation of Freedom Plaza was first brought to our attention in September of this year, it came in the form of a press releasefrom a group calling itself the October2011 Coalition.  It also came on the heels of an article that I had posted on these pages on September 25th entitled "Ten Years and Counting in Afghanistan", which in part questioned the effectiveness of a continuation of mass demonstrations, as they were organized and carried out, prior to Oct 6th, 2011, when the people's Occupation of Freedom Plaza in Washington, D.C. began.

I was wary of the cost and commitment of time that these types of demonstrations in D.C. required, given that our repeated visits had become routine in nature, and that once we left D.C., there never seemed to be an organized effort to capture the spirit and momentum of the occasion, and to take it back and share it at the grass-roots with those who were unable to attend. Those who were unaware that it was even happening, and educate and inform those folks as to the issues that were relevant to their daily lives and to demonstrate to them, that by simply coordinating their talents and resources that they could do something about their circumstances, and could involve themselves in the process of confronting those issues (and those responsible for them), right there at home.  I need not have been wary; that was not to be the case this time.  This time, all the forces came together and a prairie fire was lit.

My initial purpose for going to D.C. for the October2011 Freedom Plaza Occupation was because the tenth anniversary of involvement in Afghanistan was one of the core issues of the Occupation. Also, I wanted to do a piece for VetSpeak on the Occupation of Freedom Plaza, and the subsequent downline dynamics resulting from it and it's impact on bringing about awareness out where it needs to be; out in the heartland, rather than on the doorsteps of the institutions of government.
VetSpeak Photo-journalist Sarah Wilder
I even recruited my daughter Sarah to accompany me, as the VetSpeak photo-journalist for the piece. While we were preparing for the journey, some critical VVAW business arose that needed to be attended to. The result was that a delegation was formed to go D.C. to meet and resolve the issues, and at the same time to represent VVAW at the Freedom Plaza Occupation and any subsequent actions that might spontaneously occur.
At about the same time as these events were developing, a Canadian consumer Activist group, Adbusters Media Foundation, called for the Occupation of Wall Street, coinciding with the already planned Freedom Plaza Occupation. Fact is, Occupy Wall Street came to D.C. while we were there and began yet another Occupation there in the city, and made an alliance with the Freedom Plaza Occupation.  Turns out, occupations were now springing up in cities all over the US, in rapid order.  A perfect storm was brewing.

Our VVAW group was headquartered at the at the Harrington Hotel, in D.C.  We arrived on Wednesday, the 5th.  We had scheduled our meeting for the afternoon of the 6th, the first day of the Plaza Occupation. We were booked in through Sunday the 9th, which gave us several days following our meeting in which to participate in Occupation activities and actions.  This was a prime opportunity for us to spend a few days together getting to re-know one another personally and to work together democratically to achieve our stated objectives.x 

The purpose of our meeting was to demonstrate our nationally resolved organizational unity around stopping the war in Afghanistan and it's negative impact on our economy and society, given Obama's assertions that we were to be there at least until 2015, and to tighten up our network of still active VVAW members and Regional Contacts for the long fight ahead. 

We were also there to develop an ad-hoc infrastructure, one designed for the purpose of presenting a visible and effective public face of unified VVAW activists with-in the movement, and to discuss strategy and tactics, and how we could become an active arm of VVAW in interfacing with other anti-war organizations and Veterans groups and thereby,  share our history, talent, and resources, in any future movement planning, with an emphasis on the power of grass-roots messaging and the power of the networking aspects of organizing, and the empowerment of democratic decision making, incorporating the spirit of one of the slogans/chants of the Freedom Plaza Occupation: 

"This Is What Democracy Looks Like!"


Messaging, networking, and democratic decision making were the three critical elements that enabled VVAW to be successful historically, and at the forefront of the movement which  back in the day brought about the end of the war in Vietnam, and was  instrumental in bringing about the downfall of the Nixon creature's police state. And yet, here we were again, 40 years later, right back on square one; meeting as VVAW to try and bring a halt to another war of corporate, capital, and political imperialism, in an increasingly militaristic America. We had to do something different in order for our efforts to ring about permanent change, this time around.

Those of us who met in D.C. believe that our old school formula for organizing can be a powerful tool in today's anti-war movement, in order to get main-stream America into the fight.  We also believe that it is our jobs, as ones who have "been there", to demonstrate how the current wars, just as with Vietnam, break down our families and our society, and is tied directly to the failing economy, and to the cuts to education, health, and mobility of the 99% of us who do not share in the corporate billions in profit being made at the expense of American blood and treasure, by the remaining wealthy 1%. 
But, as stated earlier, we were also there to support and participate in Occupy Freedom Plaza. So, on the evening of the 6th, we went down to the Plaza to participate in the general assembly, and to listen to movement folks giving speeches and playing music.  We wanted to hear what folks had to say at open mike at the general assembly. One of our own, Watermelon Slim was on the venue and played some movement blues for the occupiers.

Others who played that evening were a troop of Afghanistan Veterans and supporters from the Southeast who were bicycling the eastern seaboard bringing and singing messages of peace, and some local talent who helped to get the crowd revved up and in the mood for some serious protestin'.  
The most notable thing about the events in the park, was the lack of ideological sloganeering and dogmatic rhetoric. There was an air of hippie festivity mixed with pragmatic determination.  What appeared to be gathered here, judging from the speeches and people in close proximity to us in the park, were folks who recognized that as we harnessed the energy this time around, we needed to so in a pragmatic way, rather than in a knee jerk reactive way. That, in order to win hearts and minds to the cause; it was understood that we needed to inspire, rather than cajole those who weren't standing there in D.C. with us...this was new, and refreshing.  
What else was new was the all out effort to make sure that all who wished to speak could be heard, bolstered with a new phenomena called "Mike Check!".  When shouted out, it required all hands to stop talking and to listen, and to repeat after every five words or so whatever the speaker was saying...it worked really well and no one missed out on the message or necessary information with this form of 21st century public speech.  All decisions were being put to the crowd for affirmation, through what we in VVAW came to refer to as "twinkling"; extending both hands in the air, and wiggling your fingers.  This was now the universal sign of consensus or approval.

Our opportunity to march came the next day,  in the form of a march to,  and a rally at, the MLK Memorial, where there was to be a press conference with Iraq Veterans Against The War (IVAW) & Veterans For Peace (VFP),  linking MLK's opposition to the Vietnam War to the premise that he would also be outspoken about our current involvement in the middle-east, and in the world wide War on Terror. In the end, VVAW, and a Veterans group named March Forward also participated in the press conference supporting the Occupation, and all gave a united message of discontinuance in our current wars, full health care for Veterans, and support of IVAW's Operation Recovery, which addresses the topic of re-deployments of service personnel identified as exhibiting symptoms of PTSD following previous deployments.

We finished the rally with a gathering under the MLK quote station addressing Vietnam, that starts "I oppose the war in Vietnam because I love America. I speak out against it not in anger, but with sorrow in my heart." We can relate, Martin...same goes for the current wars...

Our last action in D.C., was to join with Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), VFP, and March Forward, in a march on the White House on Sunday the 9th. The purpose was to demand a Beer Summit with President Obama. We wanted to have a beer and discuss the war and the economy with the Commander in Chief.  Of course, like so many other times that we had come to the gates of the White House, no one was home...they never are when we get there, but we rallied anyway and a representative from each Veterans group delivered a personal message to the crowd, and a personal invitation, relayed through the gate guard, that we wished to have a beer with Obama, and discuss the state of the nation. 

By the time that we were ready to roll back to Florida on Sunday, Occupations had sprung up in 103 cities, with more to come as of this writing. There was already an Occupy Jacksonville, back home; This, in a town where if it can happen, it can happen anywhere. The Occupy movement, with the advent of the joining in unity of purpose of the Wall Street and Freedom Plaza Occupations, has been the spark that has lit the prairie fire that has now become the Occupy movement.  
This time, the message and energy from mass demonstrations held in far cities was getting back out to the grass-roots, and people are becoming aware, and are coordinating their talents and their resources, and starting to do something about their circumstances. They are beginning to confront the issues of corporate domination of our lives, politics, and economy, and bringing to an end wars of corporate and political imperialism, and abandoning the lock step mentality of the two main political party's who no longer speak for the people, but instead for the corporations and the global economy, rather than your's and your  family's economy. 
If nothing else comes of all of this, I would like to see all involved re-register as Independent voters, so that the parties and politicians could no longer lump us all into defined groups of voters, i.e., Democrats, Republican, latino voters, black voters, veteran voters, women voters, and tell us we should vote as such. As Independents, they couldn't stereotype us as voters who all vote the same way as identity groups, as they do now. The current practice of two party politics is racist in nature, and disrespectful of the fact that as Americans, we are capable of thinking of ourselves.  
As Independents, the power brokers couldn't categorize and predict our votes by our demographic grouping and as a whole and united people, we could win our Constitution back from the corporate power brokers and politicians who are only in this for political, personal, or capital gain, and replace them with those who desire to serve the people in accordance with our hard fought for and hard won Constitution and Bill of Rights, forged in blood, way back in 1776.  We could go back to electing folks who would work for us, rather than for the money men and corporate power brokers.  
Think about it; as I see it that is the power of the Occupy movement...all of us, despite all of our differences...standing together and speaking as one against the political tyranny that has become our current manner of governance.  For a short week, that spirit was alive in Freedom Plaza, and it is now spilling over into plazas and parks all over our great nation. See you at Occupy Jacksonville, this Saturday. Power to the People.

Friday, October 14, 2011

We the People--A New Movement: Freedom Plaza Occupation, Washington, D.C., October 2011

We the People—A New Movement
Submitted for VetSpeak.org
Michael and Cynthia Orange, 10/14/11

There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear...
—From “For What It’s Worth,” Steven Stills and Buffalo Springfield, 1967

We participated in theStop the Machine! Create a New World” 
gathering in Washington DC to launch the occupation of Freedom Plaza. The occupation was the culmination of efforts from a large coalition of previously existing grassroots organizations, including the Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. What we saw in DC and have been seeing in broadcasts from some of the other “occupations” throughout the country convince us that we are witnessing the birth of a new movement.

For months, we felt compelled to make the trip from our home in St. Paul primarily because the focus of the gathering in Washington DC was to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the US war and occupation of Afghanistan. It was also to “connect the dots” that link our imperial wars as the root causes of our country’s debilitating domestic problems. The military-industrial-media complex bears increasing responsibility for our growing economic inequity, chronic joblessness and union bashing, defunded public education and public services, decaying public infrastructure, the assault on the environment, the health care debacle, and the hijacking of our democracy by the rich and powerful.

We’re not novices at this. We’ve been peace activists for over four decades now, sustained by an abiding hope that eventually the people will rise up to take back our country. This DC Occupation is not new but it’s certainly different. It’s the latest chapter in a two-century history of struggle by Americans who sought fair treatment.

In addition to the war economy focus, the DC Occupation embraced a broader range of interests that garner wider support and are more in harmony with the Occupy Wall Street purpose. In fact, a large majority of the American people consistently support ending the wars, creating a more equitable tax system, ending corporate welfare, protecting the social safety net and worker rights, transitioning to a clean energy economy, and reversing environmental degradation. Of absolute necessity is getting the money out of politics.

We were very impressed with the event organization. This is in contrast to some of the corporate media spin that wants you to believe that Occupy Wall Street and the similar actions are led by a bunch of angry losers or old hippies who don’t have a clue. In DC, there were tents for the media, legal aid, first aid, free donated food, electronic tie-ins, and a long line of porta-potties.

The small grassy side of the totally paved plaza became a crowded campground for the hundreds who spent the night there. As the crowd grew to nearly a thousand, the buzz of hundreds of conversations from people of all ages, races, and walks of life created their own energy. There was music, dancing, laughter, and deep discussion. And everywhere, there were people with signs, most of them hand lettered:

·A Vietnam vet’s sign read: “How’s the war economy working for you?”

· A man held a sign that said, “I wish I could afford my own politician.”

· A middle-aged woman’s signs said, “You screw us, we multiply.”

· A white bearded veteran held a US flag with corporate logos where the stars should be.

· A young woman stood alone holding a piece of brown cardboard with penciled letters that read “Another single mother in foreclosure.”

· There were two children, one with a sign reading, “Please don’t steal my future,” and the other with “Toddlers Against Corporate Greed.”

· “Capitalism ate Democracy” read another.

· And there were Vets for Peace banners from across the country.

The women from Code Pink created a cardboard village with labels such as “Foreclosed Dream House.” It served as a playground for kids during the day and shelter for the overnighters to “rest” after the Park Police banned sleeping and the use of tents on the plaza.

A display of worn combat boots carried tags that listed their now-dead owners. The backdrop for the main stage was a twenty-foot-wide, parchment-colored banner, titled “We the People,” which proclaimed the text and calligraphy of the Preamble to the Constitution. In the middle of the plaza was a companion banner titled “We the Corporations” with a parody of the Preamble complete with a host of corporate logos.

To begin the formal program, the Raging Grannies from Madison sang original songs that we had first heard when we attended the massive pro-labor rallies there last spring. (photo)
During the evening program, we heard from an Iraq War vet and his artist friend who had biked 6,000 miles to bring attention through their music to the stupidity of our ongoing wars.
We spoke with event “Peacemakers” whose job was to quell hot tempers and prevent violence. They were called into action at the demonstration two days later at the Smithsonian’s military drone exhibit when an agent provocateur in the group created a violent situation. 

The incident serves as an excellent example of how peace demonstrations are often infiltrated and discredited. Patrick Howley, who is an editor at the conservative magazine The American Spectator, boasted that he shoved his way into the museum and this led to the security guards dousing the group with pepper spray. This is what Howley wrote about his motives: “As far as anyone knew I was part of this cause — a cause that I had infiltrated the day before in order to mock and undermine [it] in the pages of The American Spectator.”[1]

There is a striking contrast with the two-year-old Tea Party whose members are also voicing their anger at conditions for the average person. Unlike the “Occupy” movement, the Tea Party has been co-opted by the corporate elite who have bankrolled it and used their corporate media to mold opinion and to serve their own interests and those of the Republican Party. In contrast, these occupations, like the one we attended in DC, are part of an organic grass-roots movement that actually resists outside control from even traditional progressive groups (e.g. organized labor).

Like the peace movement of forty years ago, we protesters are angry and completely frustrated by the imperial wars and the oligarchic control of the many by the wealthy and powerful few.

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self reliance describes it, “We’re mad at the devastation wrought in the last four years by the toxic combination of unrestrained greed and concentrated wealth.... We’re mad at Wall Street for taking our money and giving nothing back.... We’re mad at the 1 percent of the country who make decisions that enrich themselves while impoverishing the rest of us.” His article, “It’s Labor vs. Capital, Stupid,” is rich with the facts to back up his assertions.[2]

As Gerald Gannon, fellow member of Veterans for Peace, writes, “Let me be clear here: we are not anti-business or anti-capitalism.... The great majority of entrepreneurs, sole proprietors and small-to-medium sized business [that] provide most of the jobs in our country and practice true capitalism ... [are] more than willing to pit themselves against the competition for a fair share of the marketplace.... But the giant ‘multinational’ corporations seek to stifle competition.... These Godzilla-like corporations built on the backs of American workers and with American dollars now deny the people in the country of their origins—jobs for their livelihood, their tax dollars, the fundamental control of their own government and any allegiance what so ever. They are driven only by insatiable lust for ever greater profits with no concern at all for the American people or the environment in which we all live. They have been allowed to metastasize into traitorous monsters....”

Chris Hedges,[3] the keynote speaker for first night of the DC Occupation, has stated, “The greatest gift the occupation has given us is a blueprint for how to fight back. And this blueprint is being transferred to cities and parks across the country.” As we write this in mid-October, there are nearly 1,500 occupations in the US, and many more around the world.
In his remarks in DC, Hedges challenged us all by saying “Either you are rebel or a slave. (Hedges photo) Here are some excerpts of his speech:

There are no excuses left. Either you join the revolt taking place on Wall Street and in the financial districts of other cities across the country or you stand on the wrong side of history. Either you obstruct, in the only form left to us, which is through civil disobedience, the plundering by the criminal class on Wall Street and accelerated destruction of the ecosystem that sustains the human species, or become the passive enabler of a monstrous evil. Either you taste, feel and smell the intoxication of freedom and revolt or sink into the miasma of despair and apathy. Either you are a rebel or a slave....
“Choose. But choose fast. The state and corporate forces are determined to crush this. They are not going to wait for you. They are terrified this will spread, as it is spreading....

“Those on the streets around Wall Street and here tonight are the physical embodiment of hope. You know that hope has a cost, that it is not easy or comfortable, that it requires self-sacrifice and discomfort and finally faith.... But as long as we remain steadfast we can see our way out of the corporate labyrinth.

There is indeed, “something happening here.” But what it is, is getting clearer. The people are rising up to take back our country. We stand together in this new movement.

About the authors:

Michael is a member of local Chapter 27 Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the author of Fire in the Hole: A Mortarman in Vietnam. Cynthia is also a long-time peace activist and author of Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living with a Loved One’s PTSD.

[3] Chris Hedges was a foreign correspondent who, for 15 years, covered wars throughout the world for the New York Times. He was an early critic of the Iraq War and left the paper to become a senior fellow at The Nation Institute, write books, and teach (see http://www.truthdig.com/report/category/hedges/)