Searching for Occupy

I can still recall my sense of ‘shock and awe’ when, at home on a break from four months of ‘occupying’ a tent, two General Assemblies (GAs) a day and multiple protests each week, I watched on live stream as the police charged through the Washington, D.C. encampment at Freedom Plaza. They tore down our tents, took apart the kitchen and issued threats to the Occupiers still standing their ground. From home, I did the only thing I could do and responded to tweets that the Occupiers were hungry and put out a call to send them pizza. When all was said and done, a few symbolic tents remained, but the Occupy movement was declared (according to mainstream media) ‘dead.’

I sat at home for months, depressed, deflated and yet unwilling to be defeated. In July, 2012, I was in Paonia, Colorado to scatter my parents' ashes, when a local guy named Sid and I decided to protest the younger Koch brother, Bill’s, WWII tank that was to lead the July 4th parade. Brandishing a homemade sign that read “Are You Trying to Buy the Planet or Just Take It” with “Democracy Can’t Be Bought” on the reverse side, Sid stopped the tank and parade, and I filmed it on my phone. I uploaded it to YouTube, and to our surprise, it became the lead story on the Rachel Maddow show the next night.

Fueled by that incident, an idea began to germinate. Perhaps the mainstream had declared Occupy dead, but I knew of Occupy groups who were still meeting, protesting and making a difference. I realized that if we continued to film and report everything we could, some of it would inevitably get picked up by the mainstream — and, better yet, we might find the way to creating our own mainstream.

So, I bought a camera, took a week-long course in film production, packed my Prius and, on January 13, 2013, I took off with my Japanese Chin, Wilma (my constant dog-companion since her rescue while I was still living at Freedom Plaza) to search for Occupy. I truly did not know what I would find, and must admit to a gnawing fear that I was going to return home to report that Occupy was, in fact, dead. As it turned out, that was most definitely not what I discovered.

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In Kentucky, I walked with a group called Footprints for Peace. One of the walkers had helped to organize an OWS walk from New York to D.C., and now they were walking through snowstorms, with chanting Buddhists at the helm, to bring attention to mountaintop removal. On the first day of the walk, we met Rick Handshoe, a Kentucky mountain-man, who was packing up his home to move because he could no longer survive the health effects caused by the mountaintop removal next to his home.

Every day, Rick, someone who "don’t even have a high school diploma," had been testing the water seeping out of his mounting. Rick’s family had owned the mountain rising up behind his trailer for generations, and since the explosions began on the property next to his, big craters, eroding soil and gushing streams of toxic water began to appear with increasing frequency. Day after day, Rick tested and warned his family and neighbors of the dangers. He showed them his fingernails that were falling out.

“Nobody listens,” he said. “They are owned by the coal companies. But, they’re my people. I gotta keep telling ‘em.” Rick wasn’t an Occupier except on his own land, but he is a hero who exemplifies the Occupy story. This man with no diploma provides the EPA with the water tests they use in their own analyses, and every day he battles the corporate giants. “Everything is dead here, now. Even the bugs are gone,” Rick says. “Even if they stop now, nothing will come back in my lifetime.”

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Traveling along the bayou, I stopped in Rayne, Louisiana to talk with Cheryl Foytlin, mother of six, who has been arrested countless times after trying to rescue a pelican drowning in oil from the BP spill. From Rayne, I drove to Seadrift, Texas where I spent a day and night with the infamous Diane Wilson, a shrimper who has been single-handedly fighting the chemical companies and oil refineries since she realized they were dumping their toxic waste into the Gulf of Mexico.

The fishermen are mostly gone now, but Diane refuses to let up on her fight to restore some kind of environmental sanity to earth and sea. When I visited, she was just off a 60-day hunger strike fighting the tar sands pipelines. Most recently, I was in Washington, D.C. to support her in court after another hunger strike that culminated when Diane landed on the White House lawn trying to bring attention to the prisoners long ago cleared for release but still detained at Guantanamo.

A stop that brought me to my knees was Houston. I was staying with a couple who had a beautiful home on Galveston Bay, smack in the center of a picturesque inlet bordered on one side by the tip of the Houston Ship Channel, a tangled mass of steel, pipes and furnace plumes gushing fire and smoke into the stratosphere, and on the other side by a counter-symbol of oil money, the Houston Yacht Club. I woke up on my first morning there and was lured outside by a paint-brushed sky as the sun rose over the Gulf. In the center of the scene, a heron stood, staring out at the pinks and purples that bled into this deceptively tranquil toxic sea. It was the perfect metaphor for the juxtaposition of majesty and travesty for which this country has come to stand.

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In Seattle, I met up with Josh Farris, who had come to Freedom Plaza at one point. The Seattle Occupy was fraught with problems and distractions, and so Josh began looking around for ways to contribute the most help. He discovered that housing foreclosures were a major problem in the ethnically diverse neighborhood where he lived, and so he began working with people willing to fight the banks. He introduced me to two women, one Chinese and the other Puerto Rican. Both had faced foreclosure when due to illness and job loss they had missed a payment.

In Portland, Oregon, I stayed with a woman in her 80’s, Nan Wigmore. She had been a regular at the encampment there, and I had met her in Chicago at the NATO protests some months earlier. When the Portland encampment got shut down, Nan decided to open her home to some of the Occupiers and her house was now a bustling center for Occupy activity.

Of all the people I met, and all the issues being confronted, there was one issue that touched me more deeply than all the rest. Early in my journey, I took a detour to St. Louis to join some of my Veterans for Peace friends (who had provided security at Freedom Plaza) in protesting Peabody Coal’s devastating mining practices. I was filming the rally in front of the corporate headquarters when Don Yellowman, Dineh from Navajo Nation in Arizona, began speaking. He was talking about genocide, the broken treaties, the children with asthma, the preponderance of kidney disease, diabetes and cancer, the formerly pristine springs now infested with arsenic and other heavy metals, the elders without electricity or potable water. He talked about the part played by Peabody Coal, the U.S. government, the tribal government, the BIA and BLM in all of this.

As he was talking, I realized I couldn’t see what I was filming. I was blinded by my own tears. My parents had retired to Arizona, and I used to drive through the Navajo Nation, stopping at the Cameron Trading Post for Navajo tacos. My parents befriended weavers and bought Navajo rugs. And, yet, as politically aware as I considered myself, I was largely ignorant of the genocidal policies carried out for generations on the people of the First Nations.

Tar Sands Resistance