By Lori Spencer
This is Part II of a series of reports from our traveling correspondent in the American heartland. Part I covers the arrest of 10 Occupy OKC protesters as they “mic checked” a local Walmart on Black Friday. Part II takes them through 13 hours in an Oklahoma jail. Part III will culminate in the occupiers’ final standoff against police as they face a forceful eviction from Poet’s Park.
All Chris Thomas remembers of his arrest was that “several officers ran past me and tackled Jay (Vehige) first. I was grabbed from behind. I informed the officer that I had a compound fracture and had five surgeries on my elbow. I asked the officer to be careful because my arm does not extend fully. He said, `we will fix that!’ – as he forced my arm behind me and cuffed me.
“They left me in the cuffs for over an hour,” said Thomas. “I meditated while I was in cuffs and tried to ignore the pain. The officer that finally un-cuffed me commented that my had was twisted into a weird position. My hands were numb. My arm was forced into a position that my arm can not normally go in.” When I interviewed Thomas nearly 36 hours after the incident, he was still in a great deal of physical pain.
Del City police deny that excessive force was used in handling the occupy protesters. Police Lt. Steve Robinson said that only one of the protesters – Jay Vehige – was “combative.” Vehige and his fellow demonstrators say this allegation is untrue. Video of Vehige’s arrest shows that he was complying with all of the officer’s orders. He is lying face-down on the floor and does not appear to be physically resisting. Regardless, Vehige was also charged with resisting arrest.
Other Occupy OKC members arrested that night were Thomas, Agnew, Destiny Smith, 22, David “Cody” Grandstaff, 21, Sean Lovell, 25, Mark Faulk, 55, and siblings Helen Lavictoire, 27, Cassandra Lavictorie, 27, and Griffin Lavictorie, 19. All were charged with disorderly conduct.
“It’s a pretty vague charge,” according to Brittany Novotny, an attorney representing the Occupy OKC protesters. She told KOCO-TV, “I don’t think these folks are guilty of disorderly conduct. They were asked to leave by store personnel. They tried to do so and, at that point, a couple of them were tackled and arrested.”
“We weren’t being hostile at all,” Agnew insists. “We just wanted to raise awareness.”
Once booked at the Del City jail, Faulk and Thomas paid their own bond and gratefully avoided occupying a jail cell. The three siblings were bailed out by their parents. That left the other five – all financially-strapped young people under age 25 – stuck in jail because they were unable to afford a bail bondsman’s fees. “I think this highlights how the system preys on the poor,” Thomas says. “Justice and freedom are only available to those who have the cash.”
“When we got to the station we were almost immediately separated by gender,” says Bronwyn Agnew. “They processed me and the other three women in a courtroom. After that, the five of us that didn’t bond out were separated into two-person cells. Destiny and I were in one, Jay and Sean in one, and Cody was with a man that was already in the jail when we got there. The officers that processed us were nice enough, but once we were in the cells, the way they treated us was reprehensible.
“I was finally allowed to make a phone call on Friday morning,” she remembers. She called her parents to get the phone number of one of the other occupiers who had bailed out earlier. “We needed to contact him to ask if he and the others could help get us out. Once I got his number I asked if I could make another call and at first was told no. Then the officer said, `Oh, is it that Mark guy?’ And when I said yes, his response was, `Well, if it’ll get your ass out of my jail, okay.’
“A couple of hours later they served us lunch – mystery meat, potato paste, re-hydrated corn, and applesauce sweetened with aspartame – and we still hadn’t heard anything. Sean asked if he could use the phone and the officer said, `sure, right after lunch. Two hours passed and nobody came to check on us or let us make a phone call.” Agnew says she caught up on her sleep while waiting what seemed like an eternity.
Finally, exasperation became the mother of invention. Bronwyn cried out from her cell, loud enough for all her fellow protesters (and the jail guards) to hear:
“Mic check!” the others repeated.
“Attention, Del City Police Department: We would like to use the phone. It is imperative that we contact our lawyer and bondsman before five o’clock p.m..If you do not wish to host us over the weekend, and be treated to many more mic checks, chants, and songs, we urge you to let us use the phone now!”
It was clever. It was courageous. It was cool. And it didn’t work.
“We got no response,” she says. “Although we heard officers laughing at us and saying, `yeah, that’s our Occupy Walmart crew.’ Finally we decided to hold our blankets over the doors of our cells, so that the cameras couldn’t see into the cells and officers would have to check on us. When they came in we immediately asked to use the phone. They said, `use the phone in your cell,’ took Jay’s blanket away from him, and left. The phones in the cells didn’t work. When we said, “We tried, but they don’t work,” we were ignored.”
Jay Vehige remembers getting his cell phone returned to him for a short time. “I immediately called Channel 9 news and let them know what was going on.” He said. “As soon as the police overheard me talking to the media, they came in and took my phone away.”
“Taking my blanket away was another thing I believe they did intentionally to dish out extra punishment,” Jay says. “Bear in mind it was about 30 degrees outside and the jail felt even colder. I don’t think they had any heat in there at all. So the blankets they gave us were our only hope of staying somewhat warm. It was bone-chilling cold in there. The lights were on bright the whole time, shining in your eyes, a classic sleep deprivation technique. The wall next to the toilet was smeared with feces. I mean, it was like a concentration camp or something.”
At that moment, Jay couldn’t take it anymore. All the stress of the past two months hit him like a mack truck. The constant financial struggles, the marches, the rallies; sleeping in a tent, yelling until his voice was completely shot, and now this – his second time in jail this month for civil disobedience. Jay flashed back to Tulsa on November 3rd. He remembered that two of those same occupiers were in the jail again with him today. Jay broke down in tears.
“When the others heard me crying, it was a very somber moment.” He says softly. These other four people were some of his closest friends. They had already been to hell and back together. Now they all sat miserable, watching time tick away ever so slowly, wondering when they were ever going to get out of this place. Jay might have even felt somewhat responsible for their predicament. Then again, nobody ever expected to actually get arrested for chanting “buy local” in a crowded Walmart.
Later that same evening, Jay complained to me that his wrists still hurt. “I’ve got circular bruising from where they had those cuffs as tight as they could go. I have a mark on my face, on my cheek, that you can see in the TV interview I did at the jail. And one side of my face is still swollen from when they slammed me to the ground.”
All day long Occupy OKC organizers were frantically trying to round up help for their jailed comrades. Prior to the Del City arrests, Occupy OKC was already struggling with funding. Donations had dropped off in recent weeks, often rendering them unable to pay for porta-potty rentals and the city’s $55/day permit fee for use of Kerr Park. Beth Isbell, the group’s Media/PR coordinator, even ponied up her own rent money last week to pay the group’s bills. She may soon find herself occupying a tent by default.
With the organization in such desperate financial circumstances, there was no legal fund available to post bond for the 10 arrested occupiers. At $526 per person (plus a $45 “jail fee” – that’s the part where you pay them to treat you like dirt), the total bail added up to more than $5,000 – money the Occupy OKC group simply didn’t have.
As a result, five of the ten arrested protesters sat in jail for nearly 13 hours while occupy organizers scrambled to get them out. When sufficient funds were raised for only one person’s bail, all arrestees refused to accept the offer. As a show of solidarity, the remaining occupiers had agreed that none would not leave the jail without their other brothers and sisters. The last five were finally bailed out around 3:30 p.m. the following day. (See video of their release here.)
Destiny Smith was the last to get sprung. “Thank you guys for saving us!” She exclaimed, smiling.
The “Occupy OKC 10” will appear in court at 4 p.m. on February 6th, 2012 and say they plan to fight the charges against them. They maintain that the arrests were unlawful and that police used excessive force. They are also strongly considering filing a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Del City.
In the meantime, Anonymous (or some anonymous person pretending to be Anonymous, anyway) has created a viral video campaign urging supporters to phone bomb the Del City Walmart store and request that the charges against the “Occupy OKC 10” be dropped. The phone number to call is (405) 670-1007.
LORI SPENCER is a veteran journalist and musician from Austin, Texas. The newest member 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). Look for more of Lori’s traveling occupy journals on TCBH! in the months ahead. Also check her Facebook and Twitter feeds for breaking news updates from the road.