DESERT SOLIDARITY: OCTOBER 15-16, 2011
It’s Sunday evening in downtown Phoenix, and with any luck the temperature should dip into the low 80s. Perfect weather for sleeping outdoors if it weren’t for the police readying riot gear around the corner.
Cesar Chavez Plaza, the ideal park for Occupy Phoenix. Located on Washington Street—a main thoroughfare—and overshadowed by Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, and Ernst & Young towers, the plaza served as staging area for around 2,000 protestors yesterday afternoon. Now the space is nearly empty, a couple hundred people retreating to the adjacent sidewalks to comply with a 6:00 p.m. curfew.
In general assembly, protestors discuss Plan B: marching around the empty plaza. “They can’t arrest us as long as we keep moving!”
A forty-something man in a blood-red shirt crosses his arms to block the proposal. Michael Smith, United States Marine Corps, Afghanistan vet. “We came here to occupy,” he says. “We can’t just keep moving whenever they want us to move.”
He’s got a point. Nobody wants a repeat of Saturday.
Occupy Phoenix organizers spent more than two weeks preparing for October 15th . It was a demonstration similar to others across the country—punchy chants, quirky signs, Guy Fawkes masks—but being Arizona, it was hot and militarized. Daytime temperatures peaked at 99 degrees. A neo-Nazi militia showed up, decked out in desert fatigues, clutching assault rifles permissible under the state’s Wild West gun laws. The Phoenix Police Department patrolled the crowd, some officers distributing water while others surveilled, pepper spray and gas masks close at hand.
Aside from a few cases of dehydration, the rally unfolded as planned. At 5 PM the general assembly agreed to march to Margaret T. Hance Park, a larger green space across the freeway. The move would afford them a later curfew, perhaps an opportunity to negotiate with the city manager for camping rights.
It seemed like a victory, and progressive wins don’t come easily in Arizona, which likes to name highways after Barry Goldwater and John McCain. But in recent years, Phoenix has become a magnet for human rights activists fighting tirelessly—if futilely—against the state’s draconian immigration policies. In the right light, the city looks ripe for occupation. The local economy has been crushed by the housing crisis, and nearby Tempe is home to ASU, the largest public university in the country.
Yet the crowd dwindled during the migration to Hance Park. As the sun set, the few hundred remaining gathered around a playground to plan for the night. Police SUVs, mobile jails, and dozens of officers in riot gear assembled on the outskirts of the park. By dark the people who stayed put faced something like a 1:1 protestor to police ratio. A helicopter circled overhead, blaring final warnings from a crackly megaphone—leave or be arrested.
By the third round of final warnings, the helicopter had attracted more people to the park, sleepy-eyed families from nearby homes, watching from a safe distance. The park lights went out. From the darkness emerged a wall of police in helmets and riot shields. Two or three held strobe lights, as if to create a music video ambiance. 46 protestors remained on the ground, arms locked, including former Arizona State Senator Alfredo Gutierrez. They were swallowed methodically, one by one.
“This is what a police state looks like,” cried a bystander.
Not so fast. This is what a public relations coup looks like. In a police state, bystanders don’t get to sit back and photograph the action before retreating to the nearby café to drink beer and play guitar until the park opens again at seven.
Despite the great optics at Hance Park, in the light of Sunday, everyone seems to agree that leaving Cesar Chavez Plaza was a mistake. So tonight, nobody wants to get pushed out again. Trouble is, the police are lining up in their riot gear again, and Occupy Phoenix seems to have run out of people willing to get arrested.
Extensive hardware aside, Phoenix PD has been pretty mellow, at least in front of the cameras. But last night’s protestors were hauled to the county jail, which falls under the purview of Joe Arpaio—“Sheriff Joe” as he loves to be called—the self-proclaimed “Toughest Sheriff in the U.S.” Best known for his prickish stance on illegal immigration, Sheriff Joe’s tactics range from the despotic (erecting tent prisons where detainees roast under the desert sun) to the homophobic (“humiliating” prisoners by making them wear pink underwear) to the just plain mean-spirited (posting all mugshots online and allowing website visitors to vote on a Mugshot of the Day). Yet it’s more than fear of Sheriff Joe’s Jumbo Jail holding people back.
Confusion is in the air. The general assembly is dithering.
“Everybody’s been too busy figuring out what we’re doing, where we’re going,” says one protester.
Would getting arrested even help? The police don’t seem to be running short on zip-ties. Occupy Wall Street made it seem so easy, which is to say that by the time the media actually picked up on their protest, they were already camped out. How do you occupy a park, anyway?
A petite blonde TV reporter smirks at her cameraman, already framing the occupation as a dud. Greybeards offer advice from the 60s. “We need an agenda! We need marching orders!”
Then there is Michael Smith, the former Marine (or rather “the Marine”—there’s no such thing as a former Marine). Michael Smith sits his ass down in the center of the park, Arizona flag at his side, as if showing these youngsters how to shit.
Occupy’s tech team sets up their LiveStream. A bandana-clad fellow steps in front of the shot. “How many viewers do we have?”
“30,” the webcameraman says. “We had 87 earlier.”
A plainclothes detective collects Michael Smith’s ID. Some protestors shout obscenities and others shout at them for shouting obscenities. Michael Smith says don’t blame the cops.
“They’re just doing what they’ve been told to do,” he says. “If I had a job, that’s what I’d do.”
Ah, News 15 is rolling now. Two dudes are suddenly fired up, accusing their comrades of cowardice. How can you sit back and let Michael Smith go down alone?!? They take seats beside him with an American flag. But they don’t sit for long. The two new occupiers stand and deliver heartfelt monologues for the press. Tears—real tears—and frothing at the mouth. Soaring rhetoric about patriotism, a screed against outsourcing.
Helmets off, the police chitchat on nearby park benches, fairly bored. The two loud guys run out of steam. One lights a cigarette. The other hangs his head. Within 30 minutes, they abandon Michael Smith to go buy alcohol. If they’re going to jail, they might as well be smashed! The police are content to watch them leave.
Before long, responding to some silent cue, the squad creates a line of defense around Michael Smith. The tech team is upset because it’s blocking their LiveStream.
“Does anyone want to take over the colors?” Michael Smith asks, offering up the flag.
“Who’s going to take over the colors?”
It’s a while before somebody hears him. At last a cameraman relieves him of the flag before he’s taken into custody.
Without Michael Smith, Cesar Chavez Plaza is empty. The plainclothes detective goes home, badge glimmering on his belt. The remaining protestors measure the official definition of a sidewalk and stake out territory on either side of Washington Street, waving signs at passing traffic. It’s been a while since the last mic-check. Some of the prisoners from last night have been released from Sheriff Joe’s Jumbo Jail. They’re hungry, and folks at the donation table are sorting through food, trying to decide what’s vegan.
“I can hardly see anything right now,” says one of the freshly released prisoners, a 30-year-old former machinist. The authorities won’t return personal items until Monday, so for now, he and the others have no eyeglasses or phones, no wallets or house keys. “I got to get home,” he says. Until he gets his shoelaces back, the tongues of his sneakers hang open.
“Hopefully my roommate can let me in.”
Almost midnight. Plan C: A small cadre of demonstrators is dispatched to the U.S. Airways arena where tonight the Foo Fighters are playing.
“We need bodies at the plaza,” pleads a protestor, speaking to the LiveStream. “Just watching it on the Internet isn’t going to change anything, but we love the support, it’s super helpful!”
Broadcasting from outside the venue, they chat here or there with passersby, or with the 58 people who are watching online.
“If anyone could tweet the Foo Fighters and tell them that we’re outside, that would be fantastic.”
The concert ends. The crowd stumbles out. Basecamp advises: Drunk people aren’t welcome. The Occupy cohort chants, “We are the 99%, You are the 99%!”
Most folks stream past, ears still ringing from the Foo. It looks like Occupy Phoenix will have to do this without Dave Grohl for now. It looks like they are going to have to do without most people. Like many of their comrades across the country, Occupy Phoenix needs bodies. Not Retweets, not Likes, not Reddits. Bodies.
But isn’t this how it starts, with a handful? It’s almost 1 AM--day 3 now. A few stalwart men and women occupy the 4-feet of concrete between Cesar Chavez Plaza and Washington Street, 4-feet they didn’t have yesterday. They aren’t going anywhere. At least until the police decide what to do next. At least until reinforcements wake up.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the week following this initial dispatch, Occupy Phoenix has made significant headway. Thanks to rumored behind-the-scenes support from two anonymous city council members, protestors now occupy Cesar Chavez Plaza 24/7 without threat of arrest. Although camping is still forbidden, they have established a food station, an information booth, a media center, and other resources. More on Michael Smith here. More on former Arizona state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez here. For the latest, follow Occupy Phoenix on Twitter or via live video.