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.