Police in riot gear with shotguns and gas masks march through the park, facing down a rag-tag group of protestors who have been using the space to spread a message of justice and equality. The image has been repeated across this country thousands of times. Front in the consciousness of the student community has been an ongoing dialogue about such movements and tactics, but forgotten is our history: we have done this before.
In 1986, a navy veteran and college student, Brian Evans, was fed up with the system of oppression. Evans, who was a popular KUGS DJ who went by the name “Cloudhopper,” climbed a tree in the area between Viking Union and Old Main. Police demanded that he come down, but he refused, instead dropping a list of demands that included a halt to logging operations and a release of WWII-era archives. He spent nine days camping in the tree, during which time he hosted a radio show with his friend Rowan Petersen, and was even shot at by an angry counter-demonstrator, who stormed up the tree to confront Evans with a gun.
In 2007, I got a permit for an eight-day protest in downtown Bellingham, where I set up a mock army guard tower to protest military policies. While I was occupying, I heard many stories of “mini-occupations” in Bellingham. In the 1960’s, young men burned their draft cards in front of the Federal building on Cornwall street, sometimes camping for as long as three days.
The reality is, Occupy Wall Street (and its Bellingham counterpart) is quite an old idea. Protesting full-time has often been the catalyst for nation-shaking political and social change.
To learn the lessons of the past is to re-learn the minor histories of oppressed groups- veterans seem to have played a key role in most major social movements, as have college students. Often these movements start with one or two people, like Brian Cloudhopper, and have little visible effect. But the truth is, the changes which these long-term occupation tactics accomplish are manifold if not visible: they prove to the participants the efficacy of their own voices. They prove to the world the seriousness of the issues in question, and they demonstrate the will of the people for justice.
Serious activism takes many forms, and follows many paths. But at its heart is the persistent belief in the goodness of one’s neighbors and the willingness to sacrifice for the imminent world where oppression is non-existent and ultimately where there will be no 99% and 1%. So here’s to the Brian Cloudhoppers among us, waiting for the right time to speak out.