Occupy Movement Defends Civil and Human Rights

As a Black Panther, Aku Abdul-Samad fed breakfast to over 300 children every morning when he was 16 years old. “We started the breakfast program before schools had a breakfast program,” he says, describing how the Black Panther Party had a good relationship with the Des Moines police department until COINTELPRO stepped in. When the Des Moines Panther house was destroyed by a bomb in 1969, Abdul-Samad was one of the six people inside who survived.


“I realized then that human rights was the key,” says Abdul-Samad, who went on to organize a teachers union, serve on the Des Moines school board and become an Iowa State legislator. He says the occupy movement is a continuation of the ongoing struggle for civil and human rights in the United States. 


“You cannot have civil rights if you do not have human rights,” Rep. Abdul-Samad told the crowd of Occupy the Caucus activists at their headquarters in Des Moines Thursday, December 29: “I don’t believe you can be in a movement and not be involved with civil disobedience. You have to be in the streets. You have to be organized.”


The Iowa Caucuses are over, but Occupy Des Moines continues to organize and activists are energized by the success of their efforts to maintain a strong nonviolent presence during the week leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Des Moines police made 62 arrests at actions held from December 28 to January 3, with no reports of violence. Long-time direct action organizer Frank Cordaro explains how they did it. “In this campaign we chose to be completely transparent and work with the police,” says Cordaro, a former priest and the founder of two Catholic Worker houses in Des Moines. “We’re in a unique situation in which the Occupy Des Moines effort has been given a lot of support locally, specifically through the mayor, who offered a park and created an environment where occupiers and the city and the police all work together.”


While they continue to keep their encampment at Stewart Square where they’ve based their occupation since October 14, organizers moved to adjacent buildings on Locust Street that served as a communication and organizing center for occupy efforts that began Monday, December 26. 


They produced a 26-page guide to “Occupy the Caucus” that included maps and addresses of all the candidate headquarters; paid $1,500 to rent the ample space; and did live streaming of actions during the week that began with teach-ins and training in nonviolence. On Tuesday they held their own version of the caucuses called “the People’s Caucus” that was televised on C-Span.


Republican presidential hopefuls spent more than $10 million on their Iowa caucus campaigns. While the focus of mainstream media was on them, activists who formed affinity groups at the People’s Caucus decided to target President Obama, as well as the Republican candidates.


Shawn Gude and Ross Grooters each wore a dollar bill taped over their mouth as they stood in the front doorway to the Iowa Democratic Party headquarters in Des Moines Thursday night.


“This symbolizes how money is silencing our voice,” Grooters says. “We don’t have the money to buy our elected officials. We don’t have the money to buy legislation that benefits the majority of the American people.”


Gude says he voted for Obama in 2008, but now believes the president has not delivered on the promises he made to the people who elected him. Gude and Grooters were among 12 arrested at the Democratic headquarters Thursday night.


Earlier that day, four women dressed all in black with teardrops painted on their faces protested at a Ron Paul event.“We had a message that Ron Paul was going to be destroying our planet by dismantling the EPA,” says Julie Brown, a bartender with a 16-year-old son. “I believe that the federal government has a job and one of the things they need to do is make sure we all have the same civil liberties. We have a right to clean air, and clean water and food and things like that.”


Frank Cordaro says they are changing the discourse and not doing it with money. “We don’t have the money, so the only way left is a good old American democratic tradition of civil disobedience and protest,” says Cordaro. “That’s the coinage of people and that’s what we’re left with.”


Kathleen McQuillan of the American Friends Service Committee in Des Moines facilitated civil disobedience training and served on the civil rights panel with Abdul-Samad and John Nichols.


“The human rights being lifted up by the Occupy Movement are the same human rights that Dr. King talked about so long ago,” says McQuillan, who herself was most recently arrested October 9 at the Capitol building with 31 other protesters calling for the overturning of the Citizens United legislation that allows unlimited corporate money to influence political campaigns. She notes that the Occupy movement makes conversation at holiday gatherings much easier. “Because you can talk about the money that’s going out of your family’s pocket, or the health care that they are not receiving is related to what the people in the streets are doing.”


Abdul-Samad says that economic struggle is nothing new to the black community, but he emphasized the importance of joy in our actions. “This is about the children,” he said. “What we’re doing now is laying the foundation so our babies don’t have to go through what we’re going through today. That’s the joy we’re talking about. That’s why you should be able to smile if you are arrested and be nonviolent. You know…you’ve left your mark for a cause.”


David Goodner of Occupy Des Moines says they did what they set out to do.“We mobilized hundreds of people and elevated bread and butter issues like jobs, housing, and Medicaid that are affecting Americans all over the country, but the candidates won’t talk about,” says Goodner. Jessica Reznicek of Occupy Des Moines agrees. “Our representatives have failed to speak out about real issues, and so it is up to us to reshape the political discourse,” says Reznicek, who was arrested five times in recent weeks. “I am very excited to learn that activists in New Hampshire are occupying presidential candidates’ primaries and events,” she says. “I hope to see this become a trend that gains momentum in every state throughout the nation.”


Nichols, who is political correspondent for the Nation magazine and the Progressive, described his experience in South Africa where he personally witnessed the country change from Nelson Mandela being in prison to serving as President. “Anyone who thinks Occupy has a tall hill to climb, I’ve seen taller hills,” says Nichols. “It is a joyous experience, but tragically, in America, politics has become a spectator sport. We generally watch it on TV. What’s been happening in Des Moines and around Iowa with the occupy movement is a refusal to accept the spectator role and that is a very big deal.”


Lisa Bonar of Occupy Iowa City came to Des Moines to join Occupy the Caucuses. “This year the media spotlight will be on the 99 percent,” says Bonar. “The nation will be watching regular people using our voices and our bodies to remind those bought-and-paid-for candidates that it’s us that they’re supposed to be representing.”


Abdul-Samad holds up his hand with fingers outstretched and then folds it into a fist. “The fist is not about violence,” he says. “It’s about power, people power.”  


Gloria Williams is a freelance journalist, activist, and member of the War Resisters League. Photos by Williams.