On its surface, Friday night’s police raid, eviction and arrest of occupiers from the steps of City Hall in Austin, Texas, resembled other instances of state repression carried out against peaceful assemblies nationwide in recent weeks.
But in this case, something stood out: police failed to issue an eviction notice through the government “point of contact,” who’d been in regular talks with Occupy Austin, and instead launched a late night sneak attack that left many homeless people particularly vulnerable ahead of a big storm.
“We had no idea this was going to happen, we weren’t prepared at all,” said Ronnie Garza, 28, an Austin Interoccupy correspondent who took part in a nationally coordinated march Friday against the National Defense Authorization Act.
Up until yesterday, Garza said, all messages and official notices from city government had been relayed to Occupy Austin through a specific contact person, “who had been coming to general assemblies and relaying communications in an official way.”
On Friday afternoon and evening, however, Garza said there was no communication between the liason and the occupiers. Instead, at around 9:00 p.m., Garza and others were on their way home from the NDAA march “when I got a call saying, ‘We’re being evicted, there’s a bunch of cops down here!’”
“It came out of the blue, there was absolutely no prior mention of it, nothing,” he relayed by mobile as he watched the raid take place a little after 10:00 p.m., when dozens of police officers formed a single file line and slowly pushed crowds off the east end of City Hall property. “The person who issued the eviction was unknown to us, it was someone anonymous who simply handed the slip of paper to a random person who passed it to one of the members of the facilitation working group,” Garza recounted.
Police recorded seven arrests, including one legal observer. A woman had an epileptic seizure during the eviction only to be pushed to the ground by police. She reportedly did not receive immediate medical attention.
While he and about 150 others regrouped at nearby Republic Square Park, Garza explained that he could not afford to be arrested because he is still facing a felony charge, along with six others, for locking arms inside a PVC pipe and blocking a roadway during the December 12 action carried out in Houston in solidarity with the West Coast ports shutdown.
That incident garnered national attention when police—the names on their badges covered over with duct tape—lowered giant red tents over the occupiers and, out of public and media view, unlocked them using bolt cutters before arresting them en masse.
The fallout from that day was extreme for Garza, who spent a couple of nights in jail before being released on a $2,000 bond. After a Houston judge dismissed the charge, based on no probable cause, that he and other occupiers had “manufactured and used a criminal device,” Houston’s district attorney ordered the case to be brought before a grand jury. By the following weekend, the grand jury had indicted Garza and issued new warrants against him and others.
And that wasn’t the end of it. On December 23, while Garza was out of town visiting his family for the holidays, four Austin police officers—not Houston officers, where the purported “crime” took place—reportedly visited his house and spent hours peppering his roommates with questions about Garza’s whereabouts: what he looked like, what kind of car he drove, who he was likely to be spending time with, what sorts of outside activities had, and so on.
As the crowd of evicted occupiers marched loudly down 6th Street through downtown Austin’s bar district on Friday night, Garza—an unemployed tech support worker who showed up at Austin’s first General Assembly on September 29, a week before the occupation began, and has contributed in outreach, media and web development efforts ever since—said the major concern now was for the 40 to 50 people who had been living on the City Hall steps in relative safety and now had no place to go.
“The homeless population seems to be among the most affected people, and to find a way for them to have some kind of a safe camping ground, a shelter, or something—that’s been a main priority,” he said. “Occupy Austin will be fine in terms of being able to organize. We have plenty of working groups. But we’re concerned with the people who were living down there. It was just a safer place to be.”