Occupy Raleigh

Occupy Raleigh

Before I continue my story I wanted to get one thing out of the way. My real name is Antonio Rahman. When addressing me, I respond to Antonio, GnomeDigest, Gnome, or GD.

So as I had planned I slept in late on Tuesday. When I got up I spent some time surfing different news about Occupy Raleigh and our different organizational sites. I then began sending out mass emails to friends and family with the story of the first two posts of this Diary. It was after that I decided it would just be easier and more effective to start a Diary on Firedoglake and just direct everyone to here. This way all my friends and family who were interested could keep up with it, I would be spared the trouble of having to constantly send it out to folks, and the story would reach a wider audience.

I think its also worth mentioning now that back when Firedoglake was running its campaign to support Halter I believe it was, to challenge Landrieu in Louisiana in a primary, I was very critical of Firedoglake’s decisions to do that. While I openly acknowledged their wonderful journalism I was worried that their political activism was just a deceptive way to funnel people disillusioned with the Democratic party back into the two party system as they were fund raising for the challenger, a Democrat. I had a brief and contentious back and forth with Jane in a thread and for the most part stopped commenting on the site’s discussions though I still often read the wonderful journalism. I have since been proven wrong. I now believe it was just one tactic that was attempted to challenge and force the establishment to listen to true progressives and take us seriously rather than to undermine those progressive forces. You rock Jane. I am truly ecstatic to have been proven wrong and am honored to be able to post my Diary on Firedoglake.

I arrived at the occupation shortly after 5pm as that is when its much more likely to find free parking in downtown Raleigh. I brought a mid-sized plastic container that was basically water proof as we were shifting into getting our gear ready for the rain. I was happy to find several stacks of other plastic, water-proof containers already there, and I added mine to the stack. There were also already tarps and some rain ponchos, though not deployed as the rain had not begun. I meant to join the facilitation committee meeting that happens before our 6:30pm GA’s to represent the media and outreach committees as needed, but I guess I got caught up in greetings and socializing because I completely missed their meeting. Today I will be more diligent. (edit: and yet this took me so long to write, I will likely miss the meeting again…doh!)  The cops had two cars parked on the side of the road at either end of the sidewalk we occupied with their siren lights on (but no siren sound). I realized quickly that what they were doing was blocking off traffic from being able to drive too close to us on the sidewalk. They had literally blocked off a piece of the lane closest to us on the three lane one-way road to make us safer. They were protecting the occupation.

In my defense for missing the meeting I had meant to attend, one of the stories I heard when I arrived left my head spinning and wanting to come back and type it up immediately. The person who told me the story was Charles. He is not from North Carolina but is here living with family because he is one of the many economic casualties of the recession. He is of Native American descent, though he says he is often mistaken for a Latino. I think its important to mention his heritage because it often comes up in his comments about his past, beliefs, and personal characteristics. I don’t think he has left the occupation since it began on Saturday. I am certain he has not left since Sunday afternoon. His endurance and positive attitude astounds me. I have quickly recognized about myself that my endurance has very strict limits and when I reach those my attitude takes a rapid dive, so I make it a point to go home and recover when I reach my limit to avoid spreading any negativity. So I have a great deal of respect and admiration for his ability not to succumb to that. The following is what he related to me.

Apparently around 4am Tuesday morning someone called the Raleigh PD and claimed that the police who are stationed watching our occupation where harassing or mistreating the occupiers in some way. Charles did not believe the call came from anyone actually at the occupation because he was there at that time and there was no such thing occurring. Later that morning around 11am a policeman of higher rank, that I would rather leave ambiguous, came to the occupation. He said he had heard about this complaint and was troubled that the occupiers where being harassed. He gave the occupiers his business card and told them that if they had any sort of trouble from his officers to call him and he would take care of it. Charles stepped forward and told the officer that no such trouble had occurred at 4am and that in fact the officers had been respectful and had not bothered the occupiers at all. Charles further added that he was not even from North Carolina, but that he knew that the Raleigh PD had suffered significant budget cuts and layoffs during the last year and that he understood that some of the officers friends where now unemployed. Charles told the officer he wanted him to understand that we were here in part fighting for them. The officer took off his sunglasses, his eyes welled up, and a few tears trickled down his face. The officer thanked him and shortly after took his leave. (The officer may have said more but I don’t remember more details from Charles’s account to me)

Hearing this I was blown away. I already had a feeling many of the officers where not happy with the orders they were receiving from the powers that be about the restrictions they were being ordered to enforce on the occupation. But I understood they were going to follow those orders for a myriad of different reasons like a sense of duty, professionalism, concern for losing their job, and others I probably have not considered. We as a society often place a higher expectation of “toughness” on people in jobs like policemen, firefighters, or military personal. To hear of an officer showing that sort of emotion publicly, and intentionally, shows how this movement is giving the freedom to people who are not even actively occupying to cross those barriers that isolate us. The officer wanted the occupiers to understand how he felt. Rather than using his sunglasses to hide it, he removed them making the active decision to show it. I am a very emotional person and I am getting goosebumps just typing this.

The 1% are obsessed with divide and conquer. They want us isolated from each other. They want us to think that we are the only ones who feel the way we do and that the differences we see on the surface of other people persist all the way into their souls and private thoughts. The 1% is afraid of us reaching out to each other in part because it quickly shatters stereotypes we don’t even realize we cling too. When we make those emotional connections with one another, its creates a bond that is difficult to even put into words and fosters a unspoken trust that immunizes us for at least a time to some of the 1%’s divide and conquer strategies. Just stop and think about that for a few moments.

We started the GA at 6:30pm with around 40 or so of us there. I don’t want to go into much detail about what was discussed at this GA. Overall it was short and included some strategizing about how to deal with the various local government agencies. I also will point out that a new action committee was announced that would start planning new actions of civil disobedience and protest to bring to the GA. We had up to now been so focused on getting organized, working on outreach, and achieving a permanent occupation on the capitol grounds, that new actions had not really come up. I am excited that we have reached a point where some folks are thinking about that again.

I am not sure exactly what time the rain started but sometimes after 8 or 9pm it came. It never was torrential, but once it started, it with was fairly steady until around 4:30am when it stopped. (I went home around 5am to sleep so I am not sure what the rain was like after that. When I got up around noon it was drizzling where I live, about 7 miles from downtown.) One of the reasons I had planned to occupy during the rain, other than being well geared for it, was that I thought we would have less willing to do so. We ended up with around 20 people for most of the night while I was there so I was happy to have my suspicions proven wrong.

About an hour into the rain a young women brought out a couple tent poles and starting creating a sort of tarp shelter. Think of the sort of awning that looks like a pipe cut in half where you end up with an upside down U that shelters you from the rain. One end was fastened to the temporary metal fence that the police placed between the sidewalk and the capitol grounds, a largely symbolic barrier that the occupiers cannot cross. It extended about 5 feet out onto the sidewalk, and ended up having room for about 4-5 people to sit underneath in lawn chairs. While they were setting it up I kept watching the remaining cop car (which still protected us from traffic getting to close to us) to see if the cop would get out to stop us. They never did. Around 3am or so in the morning a separate cop car did stop and the officer told us that while they had been lenient about that awning due to the rain, they ordered it removed by 6am. One person told the officer we would do so, and the cop drove off.

This brings up an issue that keeps popping up between the occupiers; How compliant should we be with the cops orders? Some people argued that we had every right to keep the awning up and that we shouldn’t remove it. The person who had told the cop we would take it down felt uncomfortable leaving it up after they had said we would comply. I have been so amazed by our positive relationship with the police that I didn’t want to push our limits except for more important matters, like when they had told us we could use chairs but not sit on the ground, and people tried sitting down anyway. While the awning was helpful, I didn’t think it would do well in the higher winds that were forcasted and it is just not something as necessary as being able to sit down. Some have had negative experiences with cops in other protest environments and seemed to feel it was a sort of unnecessary capitulation and set a bad precedent where it suggested the cops call the shots for the occupation instead of the occupation itself.

A day or two ago one of our occupiers had been driving by the occupation (maybe dropping things off, not sure), and instead of just giving a couple quick honks in solidarity, they had blasted their horn constantly for several seconds. Before he drove off a cop close by immediately went to his window and told him to stop. The occupier later told me the cop had told him that they were trying to be understanding with us but that sort of thing felt like the occupier was basically giving the finger to the cops. The occupier explained that had not been his intention, but told me later he understood the cops feeling and now we are all more careful not to do that. I mention that because that is basically how I felt about the awning. We didn’t really need it, and we might be able to put it up again late another night when it gets less public visibility, but if we kept it up it would be like giving the cops the finger and I doubt we would be able to use it again. I see the rational behind those who feel differently but I really want to see how far building a positive relationship with the Raleigh PD can take us. They are part of the 99%. They seem to be trying in good faith to give us as much room as they can without getting in trouble with the powers that be. I don’t see much gain in risking that increasingly positive relationship.

As the rain got stronger I ended up in a long conversation with a fellow occupier. I am sorry to say I don’t remember his name, even though I asked it twice to try to avoid forgetting. I will edit in his first name (edit: Chris) when I see him again as I can picture him perfectly in my mind. I have been trying to learn more names in the past two weeks than I have in the past two years. Anyway, our conversation wandered all over the place. We discussed the problems we saw with the system ranging from the wars, our infrastructure, the environment, and local education. One theme that seems to repeatedly come up when I talk to people is how the movement shattered the feeling of isolation. Many of us had tried to discuss these issues with those around us but never felt people were interested or as concerned about them as ourselves. But once the occupy movement started we knew for a fact there were countless people who felt the way we did, and it allowed us a path to seeking those people out and having the conversations we craved with others who care about the issues, even if they disagreed with specific positions or points. While I often find a lot of agreement with people, like I did with this gentlemen, its perfectly acceptable to anyone I have talked with to not agree. The movement celebrates individual expression instead of conformity, and disagreements can be expressed without the need to try to convince the other they are wrong. This doesn’t mean the disagreement is not discussed, it just means that the discussion is centered around making your thoughts and ideas understood, not changing how the other person thinks. It may be a subtle difference but it profoundly reinforces the notion of Consensus Democracy instead of the typical adversarial approach where folks try to feel as though they must “win” an argument.

Thinking back on that long and wonderful conversation there are two things that stick out. First both of us found it really funny how lately it just didn’t even seem like the government was even trying hard to deceive us anymore. It was almost like they had become so complacent and comfortable with their power, and felt such little challenge from the population at large, that they just throw stuff in our face. Much like myself, many officials clearly did not see something like the Occupy Movement coming. One example was Romney declaring sometime over the last year that corporations were people. Romney didn’t try to say it in a more subtle way that still let his corporate masters know clearly where he stood while trying to obfuscate it to the rest of us. Nope. Just flat out, corporations are people.

Another was Barney Frank was recently on the Rachel Maddow show who after having the gall to whine about the movement not starting in 2010 to help him get the Dodd-Frank financial bill passed with stronger regulations – ok hold on. This is a politician who has been in elected office for decades screwing us, and was even the Chair of the Financial Services Committee from 2007-2011 (during the bail out), but apparently its the movements fault that the financial bill was weak, even though from 2008-2010 the Democrats had large majorities. The sense of entitlement that reeked from his whining was noxious. But the part where it didn’t even seem like he was trying was in his attempt to co-opt the movement. He basically said that while the protests of the Occupy Wallstreet Movement had value, it basically could not achieve any change if it did not become a get out the vote campaign for the Democrats. What I felt while watching the clip was that he was annoyed that the illusion of his progressive, pro-the people facade was crumbling, and he was exasperated. Anyway, that’s just a feeling. You can look for the clip and judge for yourself.

And finally the last example of where it just doesn’t seem like they are trying anymore that we discussed was the latest terror plot where an Iranian used car salesmen, who apparently couldn’t even keep track of his keys, was in fact the lynch pin of a plot involving the Iranian Quds force and a Mexican drug cartel with the intention of assassinating the Saudi ambassador. This “plot” is absurd on so many levels that its like which ever government official dreamed it up was just not trying. If you are not sure why its so ridiculous, check out Glenn Greenwald, EmptyWheel, or Juan Cole’s obliteration of the plausibility of the governments claims about this being a real plot. Both of us agreed however, that as absurd and laughable as this “plot” was, its deadly serious that it seems to be an increase in volume of the beating of the drums of war with Iran. The 2012 re-election for Obama seems to be shaping up to be a very difficult campaign if nothing else due to the ongoing struggles of the economy. Is Obama so depraved as to start a war in an attempt to use the patriotism card to boost his numbers? I don’t put anything past our elected officials anymore, especially the more supposedly powerful a position they hold.

The second thing that stood out was something Chris taught me. He explained that North Carolina was the first state to desegregate its schools based on economic wealth. So the same way racial desegregation would bus minorities in from further away to attend a largely white school, in North Carolina we would for example start busing in poor white kids to schools in a wealthier white neighborhood. Other states ended up following NC’s model. And it turns out there are elections going on right now in NC in regards to school board type positions where part of one of the candidates platform is to abolish this practice. The first round of elections there was only a 17 vote difference so there will be a run-off soon. While I can understand why some claim that voting doesn’t matter, and part of the Occupy Movement is a realization that voting alone is not enough to fix the extent of the problems with the system, at the local level voting can have a huge impact. 17 vote difference on such an important issue. Yea, voting does matter, and Kevin Hill is the one to vote for if you want to continue this wonderful NC progressive tradition.

As our conversation was beginning to wind down I was starting to get pretty chilly. I only had a short sleeved shirt on underneath my fantastic rain coat, so I returned to my care to put on a sweater underneath. He said he had to leave soon and by the time I returned he was gone, but as with all the occupiers, I know I will see him again soon enough. I think it was shortly after I returned that we had our first random pizza delivery where some one had just ordered a pizza and had it sent to the occupation. We asked the driver if they had been tipped and he said he had been. After having watched the Occupy Wallstreet livestream a good bit and heard their talk about all the pizza deliveries they got, it felt to me at that point that Occupy Raleigh was official. We got a two large orders of bread sticks a hour or so later. When we opened the boxes of bread sticks messages where written inside lid of the pizza boxes. They read, “Robin Hood was right.” and “People in denim built this country. People in suits destroyed it.”

The next conversation that really touched me was much shorter but still impacted me strongly. There is an occupier who has taken to asking everyone what specifically brought them to occupy. I don’t think they mean so much the particular issue, but more then internal motivation. I and another named Antonio where standing together when he asked us the question. Antonio, who answered second, said that he had been part of the financial industry that largely caused the crisis. And while he had left that work, and as a religiously spiritual person felt God had forgiven him, he did not forgive himself for his role. So for him this was a in a sense a form of atonement where he could allow himself to forgive himself.

My answer had to do with fear. I have a Muslim last name and my sister married into a large Arab-Muslim family. While that large family is very western and not radical in the terrorist sense at all, and I look and sound as American as the next person, I could not avoid certain clear realities. I could end up on a terrorist watch list just by mistake. The latest relative of Anwar al-Awlaki (American citizen assassinated by US government by Presidential decree with no due process) to be killed is a 16 year old boy name Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. This is just the latest example. Very rarely do we get to hear the stories of those rendered because they are never heard from again. When we do, like the story of the Canadian resident Maher-Arer that was just transiting through Kennedy Airport on his way home to Canada, the stories are terrifying. He had no connections to terrorism what so ever. Yet he was rendered for 2 weeks inside the US, then deported to Syria and tortured for a year before miraculously surviving and returning home to Canada.

While I never considered this likely to happen to me, and in fact always considered it highly improbable, I could not escape the fact that it was indeed possible. When I tried to talk to people around me for several years leading up to this movement about the many things that bothered me about the US’s trajectory, it seemed as though few really cared or were willing to give it much thought. People seemed to react as though I was exaggerating or just a pessimist. Eventually it got to the point where I felt as though if no one else cared, why should I keep talking about it which only served to increase my personal risk, even if only in tiny increments. So I resigned myself to just sit back and watch the world burn. My life was already half over. I do not have any children nor do I want to have any. In general all I asked of others is that they just start talking about these things to those around them and generally it seemed even that was too much to ask. So screw it. I love disaster movies. I would just sit back and watch one in slow motion.

Then the Occupy Movement started. I won’t lie. I still feel fear. Fear of my government. Fear of the personal repercussions of open dissent. But knowing there were others willing to stand with me is why I joined the occupation. I have certain issues that are most important to me but the core reason I joined was the defy my personal fear through the support of those who will stand with me. I don’t think the people who occupy Raleigh with me will ever understand what they mean to me.

I know this is already pretty long but I have one more conversation to relate. Throughout the night I had occasionally noticed one tall fellow in a yellow raincoat that consistently stood near the edge of the sidewalk near the road. I never noticed him talking to anyone, though that does not mean he didn’t. Just when I would notice him he was alone but still near the rest of the occupation. His name is Brian and it turns out he was one of the ones arrested. I feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t recognize him from the night of our arrest but I think he went in the first paddy wagon, and had already passed into the finger printing area before I was taken to the first waiting room. It could also be that he was just quiet and though he was in the same room with me in the jail, I just did not remember.

Anyway, I walked up and introduced myself and we began talking. While he might seem shy in starting a conversation, he was certainly not in carrying on a conversation and I had a great time talking to him. At one point he mentioned something about how Orwellian the situation seemed these days. I had read “1984” in highschool and it really didn’t make of an impact on me. I re-read it about a year ago and it floored me. I felt like I had read a primer for the 1%’s playbook. I described this experience with “1984” and he asked me if I had read Huxley’s “A Brave New World.” Again this is one I had read in highschool that did not have much impact but I have yet to re-read it. Brian commented that both Orwell and Huxley were right, or perhaps half right, as one  just had to combine the systems in both books into one system, and you had our present situation. From what I remember of “A Brave New World” that seems a very appropriate observation. Re-reading it became the next book on my “to-read” list.

As the night wore on we received 3 or so deliveries of coffee and someone even brought some really tasty spicy spaghetti. In just the three homeless people that came by, each time it was a remarkably different experience. One actually was interested in our GA process and began learning the ropes. At one point during announcements they got on stack, and when their number was called, they simply said, “Thank you.” Another came to see what food we could offer and left with a banana and chocolate candy bar. They had no teeth and most of our food happened to be kinda hard when they stopped by, so the options where limited. The last came a bit after the spaghetti arrived, we set them up with some to eat, and they ended up intentionally dumping  it on a chair and leaving. It seemed pretty clear to those that interacted with him that he was mentally unstable.

If you’ve noticed I rarely mentioned the rain. It did impact us. At one point my supposedly water-proof boots finally got soaked through and my socks where drenched. I ended up going to my car and changed into dry socks, then put grocery store plastic baggies over my socks before putting the boots back on. That helped keep them dry for a while and I was comfortable, though I realized when I got home at little after 5am that the second pair of socks where indeed wet, and that baggies had only been partially effective. I did take a bunch of baggies back to the occupation when I returned from my car and others did the same. While not perfect it did buy folks an hour or two of feeling better after they switched into dry socks.

But overall the rain was largely irrelevant. In the past its bothered me to have my glasses have raindrops all over them. I barely noticed. As great as my jacket was at keeping good portions of me dry, some of my arms and  legs where soaked but it didn’t bother me. What made me leave was reaching the end of my endurance and feeling my patience evaporate quickly. There is one fellow who I think means well but is one of those types that doesn’t seem to recognize subtle, and even not so subtle, social ques. I didn’t notice it at first but some of the women pulled some of us aside and mentioned that they were feeling a little uncomfortable. Some of his comments made them uncomfortable and I don’t think he could pick up on it. He also had tendency to follow you around if you tried to casually walk away to join another conversation. When we cleaned up toward the end of my time there between 4-5am, he was helpful. I do think he means well but once people start getting tired and worn out from hours in the rain its just harder to remain tolerant and patient. For me especially so around 5am I left for home.

Occupations mean we all have to find ways to get along. We have to rely on honesty, patience, kindness, and trust to navigate our many different personalities and beliefs while holding on to the understanding that everyone occupying ultimately is there for at least one positive reason. The 99% is as varied as humanity gets. That is a great strength and an equally great challenge. Its also why when I made strong personal connections with those I spoke with it felt so wonderful.