Tensions came to a head when the city gave Occupy Cleveland an October 21st deadline to remove its tents, and the two factions clashed over how to proceed, with liberals tempted to comply and radicals like Stevens and Baxter insisting on standing their ground and getting arrested en masse. At 10 p.m. on the appointed night, as a crowd of 500 gathered and police arrived in riot gear, a staged bit of symbolic protest unfolded: Eleven volunteers preapproved by the Power Circle were peacefully arrested. Then everyone packed up their tents and dispersed. "This is bullshit – fuck this!" the radicals grumbled, stalking off in a huff. The glory days of Occupy Cleveland had lasted less than three weeks. For Baxter and Stevens, the movement that had jolted them with optimism and purpose felt like a crushing disappointment.
Someone else was there the night of the arrests. Shaquille Azir stood in the crowd, checking out the scene. He was 38, with ears that jutted from his bald head, a double chin and an imposing presence – six feet five, 350 pounds – a physique he described on his MySpace page as having "some extra baggage." Azir homed in on the mad-looking, bandanna-clad dudes waving anarchist flags. He approached one, a 26-year-old with a black mohawk and a pitted face named Doug Wright. Wright was a lifelong trainhopper who told friends he'd hitched his way across 40 states and once worked as a roadie for the garage band the Scurvies; his status as a real-deal gutterpunk inspired respect among younger Occupiers.
Wright was fired up that night. He bragged to Azir that his missing teeth and crooked nose were from past riots. He added that if he went back to jail, he wouldn't be out for a while. (In fact, Wright did have a history of violence, having served time in New Orleans for aggravated assault.) Soon Azir was listening to Wright bitch about Occupy.
Wright confided that he suspected the Power Circle was in cahoots with the government; he'd already told them so, shouting, "You're gonna get us sent to FEMA camps!" He was ready to start some real shit – like detonating a smoke grenade as a diversion, then pulling down the bank signs from the tops of Cleveland's towers. "Wright was still in the planning phase and was unsure how they would go about bringing down the signs," an FBI report reads. "Wright stated that . . . they need to make sure everyone knows that the action was against corporate America and not just some random acts."
Azir listened with studious sympathy. It was a technique honed over the course of his devious, dishonest life. His name had once been Kelvin Jackson, before he'd spent three years in state prison for robbing a bank, using a toy gun, while his girlfriend and their baby waited in a cab outside. His rap sheet also included cocaine possession, receiving stolen property, forgery, theft and passing bad checks. That was Azir's thing, writing worthless checks – a "crime of dishonesty," as it's known, a conviction used as evidence of a person's untruthfulness, the sort of thing that can cripple your job prospects or undermine your credibility in a court of law. In the eyes of the FBI, however, Azir's crimes had posed no impediment. Months earlier they had hired him as an informant, finding his leads fruitful enough that they'd opened several investigations, paying him $5,750, plus $550 in expenses.
Azir needed the cash. He owned a construction company that rehabbed houses, Desdy Property Group, which he bragged earned him $75,000 a year. But in reality he had been fending off foreclosures, the state tax department and lawsuits from stiffed contractors and people to whom he had written worthless promissory notes; he had been on the losing end of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of civil judgments. Seeking financial shelter, Azir had filed nine attempts at bankruptcy. Now, as he sat across the table from boastful Doug Wright, Azir was on the verge of being busted in two more bad-check cases – placing him on probation, for which the FBI would take him off its payroll. Azir needed to prove his value to the feds, and fast.
Which might explain why over the next three months, Azir kept in touch with Wright, even when Wright showed no sign of action. In February, Azir and Wright met for breakfast to discuss the issue: Did Wright still want to bring down those bank signs? Sure, Wright answered. Explaining that he had drifted away from his Occupy friends, he told Azir he wanted to touch base with them first and see what they thought. He would begin with his buddy Brandon Baxter.
By this time, Baxter wasn't doing so well. Even though he'd been trying his hardest to play his role as Occupy Cleveland's slogan-shouting cheerleader, the group was rapidly disintegrating. One big reason was that its members had nowhere to meet: Since the loss of the encampment, Occupy's presence had been reduced to a single information tent on Public Square – too chilly a gathering space in winter, especially when the gusts coming off Lake Erie whipped through the plaza and caught the tent like a windsock. For a short time, Occupy had rented a 10-by-15-foot office in a downtown high-rise, but Baxter and others had swiftly moved in with their sleeping bags and got the group evicted.
Therein lay Occupy Cleveland's other problem: Its thinning ranks were dominated by homeless teenagers. "They had no place to go," says Leatrice Tolls, a veteran activist who became Occupy Cleveland's maternal figure. "These were kids that were very lost, and needed a place to get fed and sleep." Still, homeless teens were better than no members at all, and Occupy was anxious enough to keep them that there was talk of renting a space for them to live – like a new incarnation of Agape House, which had disbanded for lack of funds.
"It's just so hard to sleep outside," Baxter complained to his friends. He was loath to return to Lakewood, the site of his traumatic childhood, where a restraining order barred him from his mother's house. Such a constant font of positivity was Baxter that few realized he had grown up in a household his sister Rachael Garcia calls violent. "He was very fragile as a child," she says. "He was so sensitive. He'd come to me every day, crying," given to nervous tics, doodles of people hanging in nooses and writing violent poetry. "In my deepest darkest fantasys [sic] I see myself as evil," he wrote, "lacking all reason and empathy spilling the blood of the innocent."
When Baxter was 17, the stress had reached an apex. Believing his stepfather had beaten his mother, Baxter pulled a kitchen knife. "Cut me if you're going to cut me!" the stepdad urged, before Baxter sliced the knife across his chest. Baxter did a stint in a psych ward, says Garcia, after which he was legally forbidden from coming within 500 feet of his stepdad, and maintained little contact with his mom. Instead, he'd moved in with his biological father, a tense, out-of-work roofer whom he barely knew.
Occupy had been Baxter's escape hatch. Now he reluctantly returned to his father's home, which the bank was trying to foreclose on. Dad was scraping payments together by selling Native American handicrafts online. Baxter continued to faithfully walk or bike the seven miles into Cleveland for Occupy's meetings. Late one February night, furious with himself at his inability to somehow repair a broken world – or even his own broken life – Baxter had what he called a "mental break." He leapt in front of a moving car, shouting, "Kill me!" Police responding to the driver's 911 call found Baxter standing on the railing of the Hilliard Bridge, looking down onto the lanes of traffic below and screaming incoherently. The cops talked Baxter into coming down, then tackled him as he tried to flee. He had a 10-and-a-half-inch knife in his coat and a smaller one in his pants pocket. Charged with carrying a concealed weapon, he was sent to Lakewood Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. On his way out of the police station, Baxter gave officers the finger, yelling, "Fascists!"
Days later, Wright and Azir picked Baxter up from his dad's house and took him to lunch at a Lakewood restaurant. They wanted to talk about fucking shit up – for Occupy's sake. Baxter was in.
They brainstormed and discussed possible targets, like a bank. Or Cleveland's new casino, during its grand opening. Or what about the G8 in Chicago, or the Republican convention? At one point Wright mentioned explosives, but dismissed it as too costly. They kept on talking.
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