Occupying Houston: The Faces & People Behind The Protest
Occupy Houston headquarters in Tranquility Park
The Occupy Together movement, begun in solidarity with New York protesters' takeover of Wall Street and Zuccotti Park, is now no stranger to the media. (As to whether they report on it fairly or not, we'll leave that to individual discretion.) With over 1,500 cities involved at this point, Houston's diehard clan of activists is just a sliver of the worldwide support the movement has garnered.
But just who is occupying Houston? We headed downtown to the local movement's third and final base of operations to interview some protesters. After stints at City Hall and Tinsley Park, they've entrenched themselves in Tranquility Park, setting up camp across the street from City Hall, oil companies and the theater district.
Vanessa Edwards Foster displays her in-progress protest sign.
Vanessa Edwards Foster
Why are you out here? I've been out here since the beginning of this. At least made it here everyday, I haven't slept here the whole two weeks. It's basically what we need to do at this moment in time. We're at a very critical juncture in the history of this nation, and it's just gotten at a point where corporate influence has gotten far too unwieldy, and it's corrupted our democracy from the top all the way down. We've got far too many people that are suffering as a result of it, and no one in government seems to pay us any mind.
What do you eat here? We've actually got a pretty good diet. We've had a lot of volunteers that have been very generous, they've brought a number of different things. Anything from pan dulces, taquitos, to donated pizzas...We've had people bring over homemade stews, soups, vegan chili. It's really kind of run the gamut. We've got snacks over there. I've been eating a lot of fruit, jalapeños...that's my breakfast, jalapeños.
I make it here once a day, but I don't stay here every night. I'd say about half of us (here now) are staying overnight, as far as those coming in for General Assemblies -- those of us that are full-time occupiers, we only represent maybe 10 percent. Fifty to 85 people for the GA, then it whittles down to about a dozen or 15 of us.
Where are people showering/going to the restroom? That's actually kind of tricky. During the day it's not so bad because we do have access to City Hall, thanks to Mayor [Annise] Parker. We typically will use some of the other area businesses or the library, until they close. After closing time, we've got a couple of port-a-potties. It's not optimal, but you've gotta make do. People that are able to get home are showering.
I've been out of work since Halloween of 2008. My boyfriend is a construction superintendent, and my mom lives with me. She's got Social Security, but that's only $500 a month.
How do you spend the time out here? Sometimes we just sit around, catnap as we can. Or we'll wander downtown with our signs, let folks know that we're here. We'll stand out on Bagby, especially at night when the theater gets going. Folks will stand out on the front balcony and look down on us. I like the location, seeing such juxtaposition is really symbolic for what we're dealing with now in America. It's coming down to the haves and the have-nots, in a Dickensian fashion.
Actually, there were a lot of folks that were concerned that we were less visible here than in front of City Hall, but I tend to disagree. There wasn't that much visibility at City Hall, due to the shrubbery. Even though we do have a little bit of the same with the walls, I think we get more visibility. Especially at night, with the theater district underway.
Shaun Crump believes the time is ripe for change.
Why are you out here? I'm out here because things are messed up -- things have been going this way for a really long time, and people are getting tired of it. My family went through it, I've seen it all my life. People are blind to it, and I was for a very long time. The problem is, when people realized what was going wrong, they just let it slide because they were afraid of change, even change for the better. Now it's time for it to change -- the way government is run, the cooperation between government and corporations, lies, deceit, non-transparency of government, everything being hid from us. That's why we're here.
What do you do to pass the time? I'm always working, updating the Web site. I'm the sustainability guy, so I'm working on our sustainability efforts -- electricity, water, cleanliness, things like that. Trying to organize to get more people out here for different aspects: for our protests, assistance, a voice. A small group can get a lot done, but a large group can do so much more.
What do you eat out here? We eat a lot -- people are always donating food. I had sandwiches this morning, somebody brought some eggs. Salads, pizzas -- it depends on what people donated that day. But everyday we have food. Every single day. I haven't had a day where I've gone to bed not full. Somebody brought us some corporate, Starbucks egg salad sandwiches today (laughs), but our kitchen gals, they keep up with it.
What happens when people need to use the facilities? We can either go to City Hall, we can go to the library, we can go to one of the hotels down the street. We can go to the port-a-potties that have been so secretly hidden from us, but we've found them.
They've been hidden from you? They're all the way on the other corner, off by the dumpster, hidden by trucks, etc... I think if they knew we were using them, we might have a problem. We're actually working on trying to get some port-a-potties out here. A couple people who have expressed that they would like to cover the expense of them being brought out here and whatever it is we have to do with City Hall to make it legal.
What about showers? Some guys, they like to rough it and wait a few days to take a shower. Most of us, there's a gym. Some folks take people home and let them shower and do laundry. They're readily available, you just have to be around at the right time to get 'em.
You folks have moved a couple times -- from City Hall to Tinsley Park, and now Tranquility Park. Are there concerns about visibility at all? Do you feel like you're more or less visible in this spot? Well, this spot is pretty important because we are across the street from City Hall. Some people would prefer to be in the park in front of City Hall, some people don't like that so much because of the possibility of us getting wiped out, cops coming in, taking all our stuff, arresting everyone, with nobody left for the occupation. I think we're happy here, as a majority. Here, you have new people walking by every day.
We don't stay here -- we go downtown, we march; right now we've got people at City Hall at the housing meeting. We're getting involved in our local government. We're not just sitting here banging drums, smoking pot. The councilwoman who's in charge of the Housing Committee, she came down and talked to us for a good ten minutes before the meeting. That's the first person from City Hall that's come down to talk to us, besides cops.
"Chef" Vanessa Capistran and Mary Belchik have been running Occupy Houston's kitchen.
Chef Vanessa Capistran and Mary Belchik
Why are you out here? Vanessa: I am here because I totally support the Wall Street Occupation, and I think it's about damn time that people are speaking their mind about the corporate greed.
Mary: I like the participation in government. People here are actually trying. When was the last time when we had big protests like this, when it spread from city to city? Vietnam? 'Cause that was a fucking long time ago, k?
There's a sign here that says The Kitchen -- what are people eating? Vanessa: We've been getting a lot of donations -- people have brought us stuff that they've made at home. We have a lot of vegans and vegetarians, and people have been very sensitive to that. People have donated lots of soups, snacks -- we have an abundance of peanut butter and jelly.
Mary: People have been dropping by with pizza. I made eggs this morning.
Vanessa: Crooksandliars.com donated a lot of pizza to us.
Mary: And they did it from Late Night Pie, not Domino's or Pizza Hut.
How do you cook out here? Vanessa: We have a hot plate right now, before that it was sandwiches, a lot of fruit, protein bars. We have a hot plate now, and I'm going to make some soup today.
Mary: We have a solar oven, but it got all crumpled up, so it's not very effective anymore. Somebody used it as a blanket.
Mary: I think that's going to be a big thing with us -- I don't want to say our "alliance," but our partnership with the homeless has just become something crazy. They don't have anything, and we've given them a lot of opportunity here. The cops would kick them out -- "You can't sleep in the park," -- but you can. What's this fake law that says dawn to dusk is when the park is open? You can't tell me when I can and cannot be on public property.
I think we're making huge strides with the homeless, and a lot of them have integrated into our group and are starting to listen, and pay attention, and educate themselves with what's going on.
Vanessa: Not only that, but they offer us protection, too. They're keeping away a lot of the negative ones, the meaner people.
What do you do to pass time out here?
Vanessa: Mary and I are working in the kitchen, this is an all-day long, we're-busy operation. We're constantly washing dishes, we have to rotate our stock, empty out coolers, change out water, meal planning.
I know how we pass our time. It gets very hectic in here.
How many people do you have coming by? Vanessa: It varies. On the weekend people are more free, so we get a lot of people. At night, it's anywhere between thirty and forty people.
What do people do about showers? Vanessa: There's a rec center that has showers, and a lot of people that live around here will come by and say, "I can take three or four people to my house to shower."
Mary: Shaun was talking about building a shower system, so that we can be sustainable. I know in New York they shower with gray water.
So far we've got a compost, garden, recycling... We've built a handwashing station, they're currently building us cabinets so we can store our dishes, spices, canned goods. And he's making us a dishwashing pit -- so we'll have a dish pit and a sink that'll drain to the drainage.
We have all our electric on a solar panel, and we've got four big military batteries.
Francois Collins is hopeful for a better world.
Why are you out here? A better world, in the sense that I'm on disability and I'd like to be able to work. With the loopholes in getting your disability benefits and work, you can't really do anything. I'm actually here to find work. And to support the cause.
What's it like for you out here most days? Are you here most of the time? I'm here most days. I'm always asking people for help -- if they need any help doing something. Just trying to pitch in. What I've learned here is that everyone pulls their own weight and does something. I figure I'd like to help out as much as I can.
Jonathan Miller (left) and Leif Hayman
Leif Hayman & Jonathan Miller
Why are you here? Leif: That's what we've been discussing for the past hour -- you missed it all, man. I'm here because I'm sick of these corporations having a stranglehold on our government and democracy, in multiple forms. In the form of oil companies, food companies controlling the market, pharmaceutical companies controlling our government -- that's the trifecta we're dealing with.
Jonathan: Everything that are necessities, the government has control over them. Our gas prices go up, our food prices go up, everything goes up. Energy, medication, everything is monopolized.
You go to work all week, make 10 bucks an hour -- how far does my 10 bucks take me? You've got high prices on gas, electricity -- by the end of my week, my money's gone. There's a problem with the minimum wage in this country, I think. The cost of living is much higher than the amount of income that's coming in. Basically, it's modern-day slavery. We're slaves, they have us tied down.
Leif: Or Exxon -- they're making record profits, and they refuse to stop polluting. Eight million pounds of pollution out of the Baytown plant, legally dumped into our air. They just paid fines for it.
I think you're asking the wrong question, "Why are we here?" I've been asked that question so many times that answering it is getting monotonous. I think the question you should ask is, "What aren't we here for?" You'd get a more specific answer, because there's so many things we're here for -- the environment, the teachers, the workers, everybody that's not getting their voice heard: That 99 percent.
What do you do out here? Leif: Organizing, thinking, watching -- making sure our stuff doesn't get taken away.
Jonathan: Discussing things with people like yourself that come through, sharing ideas.
Leif: We're having trouble keeping up with stuff, making sure it stays here and doesn't walk off...
What are people doing for showers? Leif: John Powers takes people to his house to shower, and the Beacon has been offering us showers. There's other places we don't like to talk about, because if they knew then the availability might be compromised.
Why are you here? It's a chance for change. I think a big part of this movement is not necessarily that we're going to come out and "rabble rabble rabble." It's more like a forum, a way to express our grievances, so we can figure out an answer to our problems.
As to where this whole movement is going to go, I've kind of put that on the backburner. I'm just seeing where it goes and experiencing it.
What do you do out here? We spent a lot of time trying to fix everything up. Now that we've got a little bit of luxury time -- at least I do -- I been working with the outreach committee. Just planning new stuff, trying to get some stuff together for the Halloween weekend.
Some people say the system drives a wedge between people, and that's what this is about -- bringing down all those barriers. We're all human; let's make a world 2.0. It's about connecting with people halfway across the world, realizing they have the exact same problems we do.
What drew you out here? The Internet -- solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. I think that's the big thing that everyone (here) is on the same page: We think Occupy Wall Street is cool. After that, it's hard to find much agreement.
What do you want to see come out of it? I'm kinda of the opinion that there's nothing to wait for, it's already here -- especially because it's happening globally.
Are you out here every day? I'm here probably 95 percent of my time. I live in Spring, with my parents -- don't have to pay rent, so I'm lucky in that way. I stopped working for this. I basically go take a class once every two weeks -- it's a twice-a-week class, but I drop in once in a while to talk to my professor and try to convince her not to fuck me over.
How do you pass the time? I actually talk to people all the time. That's one of the main things I do. There's a lot of people who just show up and they just sit there -- like that guy right there, nobody's talking to him. So I try to step in there and talk to people. There's this guy Lucas, who was just sitting here studying. So I walk up to him, and he's all into it -- he's really engaged, and now he's going to take flyers to his campus. All it takes is somebody talking to say, "Hey, what's your name, what's your story?" It's community building; it's all about the personal connections.
Other than that, I try to focus on whatever anyone wants me to do right now, and then the community building. I'm pretty active on facilitation as well -- running the general assembly. There's me and a couple other people that are always at the facilitation meeting. I've moderated about a third of the meetings.
Do you have anything you want to add? We desperately need people; we're understaffed. There's this infrastructure that we've got set up, and right now we're all so wrapped up in maintaining our infrastructure that we don't have time to march. That's a big deal right now.
We're having film screenings every night after the general assembly, as well. We want people to come watch, and they can even have input on what we're showing.
A lot of it is documentaries about shit we hate -- Crude, Inside Job, The Corporation.
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