Occupy Austin protesters air grievances without drawing police ire
On the plaza in front of City Hall on Thursday, Occupy Austin was a far cry from Occupy Wall Street.
Unlike the ongoing events in New York City, there were no throngs of protesters getting pepper-sprayed by police. There were no demonstrators thrown to the ground and then taken into custody. There were no marches into roadways that resulted in mass arrests.
But what Occupy Austin had in common with the movement that inspired it was the more than 1,300 people who came together to air grievances about corporate greed, a scarcity of jobs and the growing income gap.
In Austin, the event took on a much more festival-like atmosphere. People held up signs decrying bailouts of large corporations while they danced to a band that played everything from Beatles songs to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Later in the day, a New Orleans-style jazz ensemble began wandering through the crowds.
Protesters praised police efforts at keeping the crowds safe and even posed for pictures with them.
“From our end, I think it’s going about as well as it can,” Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Thursday afternoon. “To me, the people of Austin have shown how to exercise their right of assembly and right of free speech.”
Occupy Austin was inspired by the thousands of people who began demonstrating on Wall Street on Sept. 17. The original intent of the movement was to denounce the role that large corporations had in the financial crisis. The protesters have described themselves as the “99 percent,” saying the financial system rewards the richest 1 percent at the expense of everyone else.
Satellite protests have sprung up in several other major cities, including Boston, San Francisco and Portland, Ore. Hundreds of protesters were reported Thursday in Dallas and Houston.
In New York, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested over the weekend after police said they strayed into the roadway of the Brooklyn Bridge. Videos have surfaced in news outlets and on the Internet that displayed apparent police brutality against protesters.
That was hardly the case in Austin, where the event resulted in no arrests.
“The APD really worked with us, not against us,” said Lauren Welker , a spokeswoman for the event. “They were all about keeping us safe and protecting our First Amendment rights.”
The event started slowly about 10 a.m. with a crowd of people sitting on the steps in front of City Hall, taking turns sounding off about the state of the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate money influencing elections and other issues.
Though the crowd’s turnout was initially low — about 150 people for the first few hours — their anger was palpable. Many were carrying signs that said, “Why isn’t Wall Street in jail?” “End the Fed” and “Boycott standardized testing.”
Speakers were met with chants and applause, and people driving past honked horns or waved in support.
“I’m mad as hell about corporate control of our lives,” said David Van Os , a lawyer and perennial political candidate. “The people have had enough. The people are rising.”
But about 3 p.m., things began to heat up. More than 1,000 people were standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the plaza by 4 p.m.; the crowd continued to increase before dwindling into the hundreds after nightfall.
The crowds included people of all ages and backgrounds. Some wore suits and ties; others wore the Guy Fawkes masks popularized by the comic book and film “V for Vendetta.”
John Buhler , a former U.S. Marine Corps sergeant and Iraq War veteran, showed up in his full dress uniform. He said that he was inspired by members of the military who stepped between protesters and police in New York.
“Reform and change in our financial system has to happen for us to maintain life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” said Buhler, now an Austin Community College student.
Others had grievances with specific companies.
Bill Edwards , an 80-year-old retired military veteran, carried a sign denouncing Bank of America, which he called “a parasitic organization.” He said he was also angry with the influence of large banks and corporations in politics.
If citizens are constantly kept down, “you could have a revolution,” Edwards said.
Welker said that today , the occupiers will march from City Hall to the Bank of America location at Sixth Street and Congress Avenue. Their goal is to withdraw their money from that bank and put it into a local credit union.
Welker said they will march in a peaceful and orderly fashion and don’t need a permit if they don’t block traffic.
She said that although city codes prevented protesters from staying in tents in most parks, some stayed in tents on private land that was donated on East Cesar Chavez Street.
Across the river, on Auditorium Shores by South First Street, the rally to demand a tent city for homeless people paled in comparison.
Despite heavy media coverage beforehand, the event drew less than a few dozen people throughout the day.
Organizer Valerie Romness attributed the low turnout to a heavy police presence in the park. Those who did show up were told by police that they could not erect their tents, she said.
“We can’t even have it up for demonstration,” she said.
Additional material from staff writer Andrea Ball.
Occupy Austin takes over City Hall
AUSTIN (KXAN) – More than three weeks after demonstrators launched the Occupy Wall Street movement, the protest headed to Austin on Thursday.
Protesting what they call corporate greed and corruption, people gathered at Austin City Hall Thursday morning. It’s all part of the larger Wall Street “occupation.”
“Enough is enough. Somebody’s got to pay. Somebody’s always go to pay,” said Cesar Fuentez, with Occupy Austin. “Whenever you have a bad turn of event in a company, somebody has to pay. The same thing here, but nobody sees a pay. The partners just switch around. The players just switch around. It’s the same game. The game has to change. We have to change the game.”
Occupy Austin supporter Jonathan Cronin said the rally is “virtually unprecedented.”
More than 4,000 people have said they are attending the “occupation” via the group’s Facebook page . And while the rally kicked off with a seemingly slow start Thursday morning, it quickly grew outside City Hall.
Group organizers have said the protest will be peaceful. Still, there are extra officers on hand, as was Austin Fire Department Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.
“The bottom line is the police department will be there to protect your rights as Americans,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.
“Making sure the people are safe and making sure the people’s First Amendment right to free speech is being protected and making sure there is nobody there trying to take advantage of the situation and cause a problem for Austin,” said Acevedo.
Occupy Austin organizers said the occupation of City Hall will be a 24/7 effort.
“This is a long-haul movement to fundamentally reconfigure the political process toward the advantage of the people,” said Cronin.
However, demonstrators will not be allowed to camp at City Hall. They said they will rotate people in and out, allowing those who need a break to rest at a camp being set up on private land in East Austin.
“We think real change happens in the streets,” Cronin.