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Arrested for Supporting Local Business
In the early morning hours of Black Friday, 10 members of Occupy OKC discovered that chanting “Buy local!” in a crowded Walmart is an arrestable offense in the United States of America.
It all started with a group of about 20-25 Occupy OKC demonstrators doing “mic checks” at several mega retailers around the Oklahoma City area open on Thanksgiving night. “We hit Best Buy, Toys `R’ Us, a Target store, and two other Walmarts between 10pm and midnight,” said Nick Saltzman, 19, one of the local occupiers who managed to avoid arrest. “It was going so well.”
That is, until the group left Oklahoma City limits and ventured into nearby Del City (recently voted “OKC’s Worst Suburb” by 41% of Lost Ogle readers.) Unlike the Oklahoma City police department, the off-duty officers working security at the Del City Walmart on Tinker Diagonal were not in a tolerant mood. Maybe they were already unhappy about having to work an extra shift on a holiday when they could have been home with their families. They probably needed the extra dough, and were willing to be on the payroll of the 1%.
“We have taken a lot of steps in our stores to maintain a safe shopping environment,” a Walmart spokesman told the Daily Oklahoman. “As part of these plans, our store worked with police to have officers at the store during the (Black Friday) event.”
All of the earlier protests within Oklahoma City limits had gone off without a hitch. A group had walked in, mic checked the assembled shoppers and employees, spoke their piece, and walked out unmolested. But they did notice something interesting as the night went along: With each new store they visited, there was an increased police presence.
“It’s like someone tipped them in advance that we were coming,” said Bronwyn Agnew, 23, one of the arrested protesters. “There were at least 8 officers that originally arrested us, and I don’t see how they could have responded that quickly if they had not been there waiting for us.”
Saltzman concurs. “There were security guards at the second and third Walmarts we mic checked that were also at the first Walmart. I mean, did they follow us around? Were they tapping our phones and listening to us?”
Chris Thomas, 33, was there to film the protest for a documentary. Although he was not actively participating, Thomas was also arrested. “I was later told by an officer in the jail that they knew we had been doing this at Walmarts all over OKC and Norman that night. He said they were on alert and waiting for us. Also the officer told me that all Walmarts in the area had been notified of the earlier mic checks.”
By the time they reached the fifth big box store of the night, the trap had been set as 20-odd occupiers marched into the Del City Walmart Superstore.
“I could tell immediately there was something different this time,” Thomas recalled. “There was a larger presence of law enforcement and not as many customers.” The men in uniform were mostly off-duty Del City cops and local sheriff’s deputies moonlighting for the company.
For a brief moment, the occupiers wondered whether or not to abort the mission, then decided to go ahead with what they had come there to do. They headed for the busiest department – electronics.
Attention Walmart Shoppers
As happy consumers eagerly loaded their shopping carts with laptops and plasma HDTV’s, former Walmart employee Jay Vehige , 21, stepped out of the crowd and cleared his throat:
Attention Walmart employees
It is a shame and an outrage
That you are forced to work today
When you should be
With your friends and families
It is a shame and an outrage
Walmart makes huge profits
From your labor
But only pays you pennies
It is a shame and an outrage
While you slave away
At below poverty-level wages
Walmart’s CEO Mike Duke
Makes 19 million a year
It is a shame and an outrage
You may earn $8.75 an hour
While CEO Mike Duke
It is a shame and an outrage
That you struggle to survive
And feed your families
While Walmart’s Profits
Are over $10 billion dollars a year
Walmart is unjust
Stop what you are doing
Leave your carts behind
And join us!
“We finished the mic check without incident, and then were asked to leave,” Agnew said. “We complied immediately and began making our way toward the exit. Some were chanting, `Buy local’.”
Just after 2 a.m., Walmart security guards called for law enforcement assistance, claiming the occupy protesters were causing a disturbance in the back of the store.
Video of the incident shows Walmart employees asking the protesters to leave. As the group marched towards the front of the store chanting, a group of store security guards, police officers, and a sheriff’s deputy are seen running towards Jay Vehige before pouncing and tackling him to the floor, slamming his head into a retail display crate.
“We heard the cops yelling, `Get on the ground!'” said Bronwyn Agnew. “And I saw one put a taser against Sean’s back and say, `Get down now if you don’t wanna get tazed.’”
“They tackled a few people and cuffed them,” said Thomas. “I think the others stopped and dropped to the ground when they were told to after witnessing several people being tackled. Some cops had their tazers out and shouted at us, `drop to your knees or you will be tazed.’ This was after several people had already been tackled and cuffed. Then I heard one of the officers yell, `Grab the cameraman!’”
At first Thomas wasn’t sure if the officers were referring to himself or another cameraman. Then he saw his filming partner about 40 feet up the aisle, trying to slip out of the store unnoticed. Just then, Bronwyn Agnew turned on her camera phone and captured video of police officers running after the cameraman, tackling him from behind, pushing him down on the floor and handcuffing him.
The officers then turned their attention to Agnew, the only person still shooting video. “I didn’t realize any officers were near me until they reached from behind me and grabbed my phone,” Agnew said. “As the officer was taking me out of the store, Jay was still shouting things like `Support local business,’ and the cop said to him, `See? That’s why you’re getting arrested.'”
Jay Vehige, aka “Jay Fox,” or “Gay Jay,” as he’s affectionately known by the group, is one of the most politically active and most controversial members of Occupy OKC. Openly gay, Vehige has often shocked conventional Oklahoma sensibilities, and while others may sit around and talk about acts of civil disobedience, Jay is out doing them. He’s gone to jail twice over the past month for taking part in Occupy protests.
The previous arrest was back on on Nov. 3rd. Jay and 15 other members of Occupy OKC had traveled to stand in solidarity with Occupy Tulsa after the notorious pepper spray incident. When police returned the next night to clear an even-bigger crowd from Centennial Park, five Occupy OKC protesters offered themselves up as sacrificial lambs for arrest, including a pregnant woman. (Two others arrested that night – Jay’s friends Destiny Smith and Sean Lovell – proudly bore the cuffs again on Black Friday.)
On that blustery, cold night in Tulsa, Jay’s performance was fearless. Leading chants of “show me what a police state looks like!,” hoisting the American flag, and doing a little dance while being arrested, he looked like young David Bowie in a hoodie and skinny jeans. He struck such a memorable pose that the Tulsa World newspaper put him on the front page. Jay’s the kind of guy you notice. Unfortunately, Oklahoma cops really notice him, too.
Asked if he felt that the Del City police intentionally targeted him, or were rougher because he’s gay, Jay said, “Oh yes, absolutely.”
Agnew was standing right next to Jay and saw him being manhandled by police. “Jay told this cop he was going to call the ACLU, and the cop just slammed him down onto the back side of the car. The officer said, `Okay, I’m gonna take Loudmouth over here,’ and they separated him from the rest of us. Jay still has a bruise on the right side of his face.”
“When I threatened to call our contact at the ACLU, the cops grabbed my phone away from me,” Jay said. “And the cop (Officer Miller of the Del City Police Department) slams my face down onto the car and tells me, `You’re stupid. You never should have tried a thing like this.’ His tone was very demeaning and aggressive. He just kept instructing me to shut up, shut up, shut up. As Officer Miller was pushing me into the squad car, he threatened, “You’re gonna go down, boy. I’m gonna get you charged with assault and battery of an officer.’ He claimed that I had pushed him, which is a lie. An outright lie.”
Occupy OKC attorney Brittany Novotny (also the state’s first openly transgender political candidate, who challenged Republican Sally Kern for the House District 84 seat last year), is planning to subpoena the store’s surveillance camera footage to prove just who pushed whom.
Officer Miller’s threat to charge Jay with assault and battery of an officer turned out to be an idle one. However, Jay was the only member of the group to be charged with resisting arrest. The other nine arrested protesters were charged with disorderly conduct.
Part II of this report, “Occupying a Jail Cell,” describes the OKC occupiers’ experience behind bars.
Lori Spencer is a veteran journalist and musician from Austin, Texas. The newest member (as of today!) of the ThisCantBeHappening! collective, she has visited six occupy camps throughout the American heartland since early October. In recent weeks she’s been an embedded reporter with the Occupy Oklahoma City camp (while managing to squeeze in some holiday time with her family).