BY RICHARD L. FRICKER
Earthquakes and tornado warnings have not forestalled the ritual between OccupyTulsa and the Tulsa Police Department. At 10:53 p.m. Saturday with tornado warnings in effect, a 5.6 earthquake rolled the earth beneath Centennial Green where OccupyTulsa has made their encampment. At 11p.m. the park curfew kicked in and police began issuing curfew violation citations.
It has been about a month since OccupyTulsa held its organizational meeting at the Agora Coffee Shop. Fifty supporters have been jailed or cited for curfew violations. Police began using the citation option in recent days allowing for a reduction of manpower at the park.
Except for the first police action Nov. 1 the encounters have been peaceful. Occupy organizers have been adamant about wanting to avoid situations such as Oakland, Atlanta and other cities where police and demonstrators have engaged in direct confrontations.
The more recent police approach is in sharp contrast to their first contact with OccupyTulsa. A cadre estimated at between 75 and 100 officers took control of the park. Occupiers believed they had an agreement with TPD that nine demonstrators would be arrested.
The police contingent, commanded by Deputy Chief Daryl Webster, pepper sprayed the nine before dragging them to waiting police vans. OccupyTulsa cried foul.
The general reaction within the city appeared to be less than favorable to Webster’s conduct of the operation. Webster has not been seen on site since the incident.
The ritual: Officers, vans, and marked police units begin arrived a few minutes before 11. Occupiers have already selected the volunteers who will remain on the grounds of the park.
The remaining demonstrators retire to the public sidewalk to sing or shout various slogans of the occupation, “We are the 99% … Banks got bailed out, we got sold out … This is what democracy looks like.”
Demonstrators are equipped with laptop cameras for streaming video of the arrests.
The police announce their presence over a loud speaker, telling the demonstrators remaining on the grass they are in violation of city ordinances. Since the Webster incident the police have changed their warning to include, “you will be treated professionally and in a humane manner, but you must comply with instructions given by the officers.”
Following two or three broadcasts 30 or 40 officers in dark blue street uniforms, some carrying crowd control weapons, emerge from the perimeter of the park. There is an inescapable irony: the police use, considering a central focus of the Occupy movement is the banking system – “banks got bailed out” – a bank parking lot as their staging area.
Once the arrests are completed the officers step backward in unison until they have cleared the area. Watching the officers back away, in dark blue against the black night conjures images of Bunraku dancers without the puppets.
On one occasion the demonstrators had moved a half block away for a meeting. The officers remained in position. The police stood gazing into the midnight at an empty downtown street, no demonstrators in front or even near them, they gazed and walked backward from the green.
A lone reporter, notebook in hand, watched their egress. It was unclear if this had become part of the ritual, or if those in charge feared hordes of screaming pacifists would emerge from the empty office buildings brandishing tempting bowls of tofu.
This eerie ballet begged the question, “What is it they are afraid of; there’s no one is here.”
The origins of OccupyTulsa are embedded deep in the digital space of Facebook and Twitter, according to organizer Daniel Lee, 29, part-time student, full-time father holding down a full-time job. “I remember watching the teacher protests in Wisconsin and the Sept. 17 onset of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab spring demonstrations in Egypt.”
“I remember thinking I wish this could spread. America’s greatest enemy is not the 1%, it’s apathy. But you could smell something coming.”
After following the streaming from OWS Lee said he went to Facebook and typed in OccupyTulsa. “Nothing came up so I created a page. We held our first general meeting Sept. 23.”
Stephanie Lewis, an independent businesswoman, joined the movement. She brought organizing skills from previous union activities as well as from having built small businesses.
The Facebook response was large enough and broad enough that OccupyTulsa was able to stage a successful downtown demonstration Oct. 15. While there are no official crowd estimates it is generally accepted that the crowd generated by the Facebook response was in excess of least 300 assorted demonstrators.
Shortly thereafter plans began for the occupation of Centennial Green.
Initially OccupyTulsa was allowed to camp overnight in the downtown the park. The situation changed after a couple of days and they were ordered to vacate the park because of curfew laws.
It remains unclear what caused the change in the city’s position. Some, wishing to remain unnamed, blame Mayor Dewey Bartlett, suggesting he was upset the park was occupied during a visit by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The mayor, for his part, says the City Council is in charge – it is their responsibility to issue permits allowing camping on Centennial Green.
OccupyTulsa appeared before a City Council meeting to request a permit. They were met with bureaucratic and political confusion. As with many political bodies confronted with the Occupy movement, the Tulsa City Council elected to do nothing and wait.
The council’s inquiry took on the same surreal nature as the police/Occupy contacts at the park when rather than talk to Lee who was standing in front of them, the council inquired of the city attorney: just what do these people want, what’s the purpose? It was as if they had never encountered a national news broadcast.
The attorney replied he didn’t know the answer. Occupy pointed out they weren’t surprised. Because they had never met with the city attorney and he had never inquired of them about their movement.
The following Saturday OccupyTulsa mustered another 100-plus supporters for a demonstration at one of the city’s busiest shopping areas. There was a large but very polite police presence. Lee estimates there were about 100 demonstrators at the Saturday event.
Sunday night there was a pouring rain and another earthquake. OccupyTulsa had returned to the park.
The police arrived, this time only a couple of cars and a van. No citations were issued or arrests made. OccupyTulsa complied with request to step off the park grounds. They offered coffee to the police, but they declined saying they had coffee at the station.
OccupyTulsa says it will continue occupation of the park as a non-violent participation in the Occupy movement. The police will continue arresting and issuing citations to the demonstrators. The eventual outcome of this nightly dance is far from known.
This much is certain: neither chants and placards, nor ordinances and weapons will stop the next earthquake.
– Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, OK and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, providing both essay and video commentary. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at http://www.richardfricker.com.
PHOTO: Daniel Lee, OccupyTulsa