Monthly Archives: October 2011

Occupy Phoenix Finally Occupies

Earlier this week I posted some photos of the pre-occupation march and initial occupation at Cesar Chavez Plaza. On Wednesday I returned in between classes for a few minutes and then again in the evening for a few hours. It turned out to be a pretty big night for the occupation.

The water and food station near its height.

After the initial confrontation on Saturday, the occupation has been constantly in flux, shifting from plaza to sidewalk. The plaza closes at 6.00 in the evening, and around 5 or 5.30 occupiers pick up and move everything. Cars pull over to load up countless coolers of water and boxes of chips and bread, the first aid station is packed up, everything is taken off site. Protesters remain, but they remain within four feet of the road, on the periphery of the plaza – and they can’t sleep.

In a show of support, several businesses have tried to lend a hand. The Five Guys around the corner has offered its restrooms to occupiers, and those who can patronize there to return the favor. After Wednesday night’s General Assembly a large group walked there to buy dinner, and there was even a proposal to buy cleaning supplies and send crews to clean the bathroom for them as a sign of thanks. A cafe called Conspire has been a hub since the beginning, gathering food there even before the occupation began. On Wednesday there were rumors of the cafe extending its hours to allow occupiers to use the internet and get some rest.

Small emergency GA discusses staying in Cesar Chavez Plaza

On Wednesday, as it got closer to closing time, we began to pack things up. As we loaded water into a truck there was a sudden call for a time-sensitive GA. The police had decided to stop enforcing the plaza closure. It’s hard to say whether it was pressure of the City Manager (who had been somewhat shamed at a city council meeting earlier that morning when occupiers stated that he could have prevented the mass arrests Saturday night by giving an earlier warning) or from police department worries about putting sleep-deprived people on the edge of the road in the middle of the night, but either way they made their decision. We discussed the caveats as a group – sleeping would still be prohibited and no-camping rules were still in effect, and we were trying to figure out where that line fell.

That night, someone brought a kettle of warm pasta, which was a well-received change from the peanut butter sandwiches and chips that we had been eating. More and more people flowed in as we prepared for the general assembly. The number of occupiers has big spikes and lulls, like I’m sure many occupations have. Compared to what I’ve heard from people in New York and Oakland, the occupation in Phoenix doesn’t have the community feel just yet. It might be because there had been so much back-and-forth in the first few days. Last Saturday there was a market place and a library, but both seem to have been shelved during the move. Despite having lasted six days now, when I was in the plaza it felt temporary. During most of the day the plaza had one gazebo, a bench, a computer, and a collection of coolers – the rest was people and food. The authorities must be happy with this – it looks more like a birthday party at a park than a politically engaged and self-sustaining community, if not for the countless signs. But with the plaza opened indefinitely, I hope to see the occupation grow.

General Aseembly on Wednesday Night

It seems that the authorities are already trying to stymie the growth. As the police presence dwindled on Wednesday, the sergeant on the scene discussed with a couple of us some of the finer points of what would be allowed and what wouldn’t be. Right as he left, he told me that the media center – a desktop computer under a tree running the livestream - was borderline and might have to go.

This afternoon, the power to the plaza was cut, shutting down the media center and anything else the occupiers had plugged in. There are a handful of car batteries and two solar panel chargers, but the occupiers don’t have enough to provide power to the whole plaza. In addition (and maybe only because the power is out) the city WiFi network usually available at the plaza is also gone. The occupiers are currently marching, and there is a campaign going to call the mayor to convince him to turn the power back on. Meanwhile, it seems that while the plaza may be open to the occupiers to stay in, they won’t be able to sleep, camp, cook, record, connect, or organize. The city gives, but the city also takes away.

Photos from Occupy Phoenix

Occupy Phoenix has begun this week, although it’s had a rough time. I was only there for the very beginning, but plan on returning tomorrow and give you all another post. Here are some photos from days 0 and 1, followed by a short run-down of what I’ve missed.

Last Friday, there was a pre-occupation march through downtown Phoenix. It lasted a few hours, replete with lots of chanting at numerous locations before ending at Cesar Chavez Plaza, where a group of Arabs were demonstrating against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The two groups joined up pretty seamlessly before an occupier read the Occupy Wall Street declaration and a band played some anarchist acoustics.

Pre-Occupation March snakes through downtown

Outside Chase Tower, chanting "Chase got bailed out! We got sold out!"

Crowding the Channel 12 studio

Protesting outside the BofA at Collier Center

Angry suit looks angry.

This is only about half the crowd (I was in the middle) headed towards Cesar Chavez Plaza.

The Syrian demonstration is joined by Occupy Phoenix.

Saturday, protesters returned to Cesar Chavez Plaza to begin the occupation. I arrived about an hour and a half after it began, and missed the armed presence of a local militia, which caused some controversy. What I saw was a small but thriving community. I didn’t get photos of everything, but there was a main circle of speakers outside City Hall, surrounded by smaller circles, a book store, a “free” market, a food table with bagels and pizza, a water station, and people signing petitions for an open primary. The whole plaza was well over 1,000 when I was there, I heard 2,000 quite often.

Speaking outside of Phoenix City Hall

My favorite sign.

Speaking about nonviolence in a smaller circle.

Everything else I know is from Twitter, the Downtown Devil’s Saturday coverage, and the livestream. Saturday night the crowd marched from the Plaza to Margaret T. Hance Park to set up camp. Phoenix Police warned that anybody in the park when it closed would be arrested. After initially claiming to be leaderless, the Occupy Phoenix crew eventually designated representatives to meet with city officials to negotiate a lawful occupation. It was around this time that a rumor circulated that Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said that if the police arrested the protesters, he would come out to get arrested. In the end, the negotiations collapsed and the mayor never showed (later stating that his support was behind civil rights groups and anti-SB1070 groups). Police gave four warnings before marching in and arresting about 30 protesters, leading to this epic photograph.

A photo circulating on Twitter: Police close in on protesters on Saturday night.

Sunday morning, the occupation reconvened at Cesar Chavez Plaza early in the morning. A group of protesters marched to the 4th Ave. jail to demonstrate in solidarity with protesters inside, but left after finding out that their presence had put the jail on lock down, restricting visitation rights to the protesters inside. The occupation returned to Cesar Chavez Plaza until the park closed, at which time a Marine veteran and protester sat down and was arrested. Two more protesters were arrested while demonstrating in the middle of a street. The occupation slept on the sidewalks.

Monday’s protest was generally subdued. The occupation moved back into Cesar Chavez Plaza during the day, and was prohibited from sleeping on the ground at night. Protesters were mobile on the sidewalks of downtown, with live music and lots of coffee.

So far, today has seen a lot like yesterday from Twitter and livestream. For this evening’s general assembly, the protesters moved to a county island a block away from Cesar Chavez Plaza. This way they were able to conduct the assembly without worrying about Phoenix PD getting involved, although there were worries that the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputies might make an appearance to enforce loitering laws. I heard something about the Phoenix City Council meeting tomorrow regarding urban camping ordinance, and some plans to take part in that, although I’m not sure if it’s a protest or actual involvement in speaking at the meeting.

That’s all for now. More tomorrow!

It’s Rebel Leader-Hunting Season

On Friday, the press began to run numerous stories about the announcement that President Obama had authorized the deployment of about 100 combat-ready troops to Uganda to take an advising role in order to help capture or kill LRA leaders. Obama wrote a letter to John Boehner about the deployment two days after the first troops had landed in Uganda, placing the statement square on a Friday afternoon. This was a scrolling headline for some, but for me it was all over the internets. Stuff like this happens when you’re Facebook is filled with Invisible Children activists and your Twitter is dotted with development wonks and academics that are experts in the region. Let’s look at what exactly is happening here.

Let’s start with why this is happening. In the letter, (which can be found here) Obama references that the LRA are impacting regional security, the passage last year of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, and national security interests in the region. The troops are destined for Uganda, but will be going to the DRC, CAR and South Sudan as long as each of those countries agree to host them. The troops will be combat-ready, but will only be serving in an advisory role.

Full disclaimer to the few readers that don’t already know, I volunteered with Resolve to help advocate for passage of the aforementioned bill. I’ve continued to work with them to advocate for more action from the Obama administration on this issue. That said, I’m not sure where exactly I stand on this decision. Over the years, I have had at least a few conversations with fellow activists about the possibility of deploying American forces – advising or combating – to remove LRA leader Joseph Kony. Let’s take a look at some of that, shall we?

Why don’t we send some U.S. troops to just go snipe Kony?

Well, for starters, that’s a really bad idea and it probably wouldn’t work.  First we’ll be needing permission to run the operation (well, I guess we don’t need permission if we decide to just fly in on a stealth helicopter and shoot him in the face, but still. We should). Kony could be in one of a few places: northeastern DRC, southern CAR, South Sudan, or Darfur. The DRC has a history of being used as a training ground for atrocities, place to push a rebel group you don’t like or place to start your own rebel group if you want. It’s not fond of having more armed forces in the area. The DRC has already asked the Ugandan military, currently hunting for Kony, to get out. Twice. And it tried to kick out MONUC despite never really solving the 20-rebel-groups-hide-here problem. Supposedly Kabila is “pleased” with the recent U.S. decision, but I can’t read French and he’s changed his mind after the fact before.

Anyways, if we were to send U.S. troops in to do the job, they would face quite a few setbacks. The terrain is densely forested and rural, and there are very few chances to use surveillance such as cell phones and satellite tracking. Kony has historically established wide networks of soldiers around him so that he knows when trouble is afoot. That’s how he’s survived for 25 years, outlasting the Holy Spirit Movement and the UPDA and evading the UPDF, SPLA, and even Guatemalan special forces (killing 6 when the UN tried to catch him a few years ago). He will know what’s up. Not knowing the terrain or the language puts the forces at a disadvantage against a guy who has literally lived in the bush for twenty years.

That, and the specter of Somalia (despite huge differences between the situations) seem to be why Obama has gone with the advisory route, which still smells a little bit like Vietnam to many, but that is also a vastly different situation. Museveni has already given assurances that the Americans are here to advise, not to fight, simultaneously boasting about how the UPDF don’t need help to fight their wars. And so the US “personnel” have begun to arrive in Kampala, and will pretty soon begin to deploy to the other respective countries in the region.

Except for Sudan. While the LRA are currently scattered across DRC, CAR, South Sudan and Darfur, a year ago reports said that Kony was en route to Darfur. Darfur would be part of Sudan, and thus out of reach to both central African militaries and US advisers. I feel like if anybody asked Omar al Bashir if it was okay to enter Sudan to apprehend a leader indicted for war crimes, he might think you were talking about him since, you know, you could be. If Kony hasn’t made it to Darfur yet, he’s probably thinking about it.

But why send the advisers there now?

The LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act passed in May of 2010, and the requisite strategy on the LRA was released in November of that year. Since those have been around for a while, some are asking, “why now?” Well, since then, all has been quiet on the LRA front until Resolve mentioned AFRICOM’s nudge-nudge that a deployment could happen soon. ABC News reported that the plans have been in the works for over a year, but that resources were not available until now. Some have speculated that the U.S. is rewarding Uganda for its contributions to Somalia’s fight against al Shabaab.

I don’t quite know if that makes sense. Uganda itself is really not concerned with the LRA anymore. The government is dealing with economic protests and its huge effort with AMISOM fighting al Shabaab. The LRA haven’t been active in northern Uganda for years, and when I was in Uganda last year many people told me they were far more concerned with the upcoming elections and Museveni’s continued rule than with a rebel group in the DRC – especially in central and southern Uganda, where civilians never really faced the threat of the LRA. This deployment is fueled by grassroots efforts, and I think that Uganda will accept it as another way for the UPDF to project power in the region.

One other piece that fits nicely that I haven’t seen reported is that it is yet another nod from the Obama administration to support the ICC. After Bush relaxed the hatred late in his term, Obama has stepped it up with a yes-vote on the Libya resolution and a heavy, heavy presence at the ICC Conference last summer. Assisting in the capture of Kony could show real U.S. support for the ICC without all the supposed worries of actually joining up and ratifying the Rome Statute. It’s an international and human rights win without any of the duke-it-out-with-Jesse-Helms bad press.

Will it work, and if not, what will?

I’ve been pushing for the Obama administration to address the crisis for a long time. The region that the LRA operate in has almost zero infrastructure and is completely ungoverned. This is why there is so much lawlessness in these corners of the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan. The key to protecting civilians and ending these types of insurgencies is to make it difficult to operate there. Whether the advisers go there or not, the thing that needs to happen is more support for infrastructure in the region.

Speaking specifically to the LRA, Kony has got to go. There have been reports about how fractured the LRA are, but they are usually followed by a former abductee mentioning that Kony is communicating with other leaders constantly. The LRA has a highly concentrated command structure, and getting rid of Kony could actually resolve the entire issue.

While training troops and assisting with intelligence to find Kony, we also need to help build up government legitimacy and accountability. Resolve indicated in a recent post that the US personnel will be able to investigate UPDF abuses “and (hopefully) hold them accountable to a higher human rights standard as they interact with civilians across the region.” I have yet to see that reported anywhere else, but if that is true it is a huge step. The Ugandan government’s handling of both the civilian population in northern Uganda and abroad has been abysmal and needs to be addressed. The UPDF itself testified that it had committed 501 human rights abuses in 2005 alone. If a handful of advisers can simultaneously help catch Kony and bring accountability into the UPDF, it will go a long ways.

In summation, the decision has little guarantee of succeeding, but there is little risk for the US. AFRICOM has said that the advisers will not be accompanying on any missions to actually capture Kony, only on training missions. This means American soldiers should not be in any real danger, although that’s really hard to say for sure. If Kony is captured, it will be an easy foreign policy win and a great step for human rights in central Africa. If it doesn’t work, the advisers can quietly return and say they did their job, which was to train the regional forces. There’s a lot to gain and not a lot to lose, so why not try it?