The past year has been a busy one at BlogPost — each month a new protest, Internet hoax or natural disaster.
But at the end of it all, there were certain faces we couldn’t get out of our head. During the past few weeks, we’ve tracked down those people to find out where they are now.
From the Occupy protests, we talked to Dorli Rainey, the 85-year-old woman who was pepper sprayed in Seattle, and Brandon Watts, the protester whose bloody head after a confrontation with police at Zuccotti Park made the front pages of many New York papers.
Months after the Japan earthquake and tsunami, we talked to Jessica Besecker, an American teacher living in Japan who lost her friend, another American, in the quake.
And we found out what happened to Tom MacMaster, whose hoax amid the Arab Spring made anonymity more difficult for bloggers across the Middle East.
— Dorli Rainey —
Who she is:
A 85-year-old, longtime Seattle activist who unexpectedly found herself getting pepper-sprayed at an Occupy protest in Seattle in November.
What it was like to be pepper sprayed:
“It is something you don’t wish on your best enemy, it is so awful. I could barely see there for a few seconds. When I got home I took a shower, and I accidentally washed all the pepper spray from my hair into my eyes, so I stood there for 10 minutes unable to see anything. I am only at 90 percent capacity after all this.”
On her picture going viral:
“I am so overwhelmed by the international response I got. I get wonderful ‘thank you’ notes from New York to Indiana, and I have hardly time to get away from my computer.”
“The other day as I was coming back from somewhere in Seattle, a woman in the bus stood up and said, ‘Oh, my god, I don’t believe I’m seeing you. Can I take your picture with you?’ She was beautifully dressed, and I said, ‘Well I’m charging $5 for pictures, for the Occupy protesters.’ (Laughs.) She said, ‘This picture is worth more than that,’ and she gave me $10.”
Where she is now:
Rainey lives in Seattle, but is coming to visit D.C. in late January for the two year anniversary of Citizens United, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that freed corporations and unions to spend whatever they like for and against candidates .
On her participation in Occupy after being tear gassed:
“On my 85th birthday party, as a present I made an $800 donation to Occupy Seattle and the homeless camp.”
“I was also recently with the protests against the port [a day of action held by Occupy to shut down West Coast ports]. But when I saw the horses coming, I said I can’t get pepper sprayed again and I walked the other way. (Laughs.)”
“All the protests I have attended do not even come close to what is going on now [with Occupy]. What’s interesting about what’s going on is the depth to people in this movement. The people that were there at my birthday were people who I would vote for in office, that have made their mark in human rights or nuclear weapons, who worked here in town. There has never been any protest like this in my life. ”
— Brandon Watts —
Who he is: A 19-year-old Occupy protester who left the march from New York to Washington, D.C., to return to Zuccotti Park when the police cracked down on Occupy campers in November. There, Watts had a confrontation with police and ended up with a wounded head. It is unclear whether Watts was wounded because he was struck with a police baton or fell and hit his head. A photo of him, bloodied, appeared on many local New York front pages the next day.
While Watts has now been charged with assault for charging an officer and grand larceny for stealing an officer’s hat, he maintains that a video from the scene shows someone else took the officer’s hat.
Watts says he has been ordered by the court to make visits to Fountain House hospital, a mental health facility in New York, which he says “upsets me a little bit.”
On fighting with police:
“I think we shouldn’t be clashing with police anymore. I think we should start being like Oakland and letting them beat the [expletive] out of us. And we should let them beat us with a smile on our faces. Then we will have the hope. I wrote on my Facebook timeline: what I am fighting with the cops for is freedom.”
On his photo going viral:
“It was cool. But I had so many reporters contacting me with messages, in my e-mail and my Facebook, they were even contacting my half-mom and I didn’t like that.”
Where he is now:
“I am staying with friends in New York. But sometimes I sleep over at night in the park even though we aren’t allowed to. I sleep over with the people I call ‘troopers.’ They link arms so police can’t take them away.”
On his participation in Occupy after the clash:
“I don’t care what people say. I won’t walk away from Occupy. That would just give them [police] more power. I can never stop being a part of Occupy. It’s like a drug to me.”
Read more about Watts at NYU Local.
— Jessica Besecker—
(friend of deceased American teacher Taylor Anderson)
Who she is: Jessica Besecker was a 24-year-old teacher from Virginia working with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme in Japan when the earthquake and tsunami hit in March. She was one of only a few initial American eyewitness accounts from the ground. Her friend and fellow teacher, Taylor Anderson (pictured above), died in the quake and tsunami.
What experiencing the earthquake was like: Back in March, Besecker told The Post about how she had been at the junior high school where she taught in Kesennuma, Japan, when she felt the earth move. As the jolts got bigger, she helped shield her students from the shattering glass. And when the giant wave came, she watched it crest across the horizon. She tweeted to her mom that she was safe, writing: Huge “quake. Will update later. So far it’s all okay. Kids are safe.” After that, her mother didn’t hear from her for seven days.
Now, she talks about her strongest memory from the first few weeks after the quake: “Hundreds and hundreds of people sleeping in gym in little cardboard beds and bookshelves to have some semblance of normalcy. Even at my school, the kids were living at the gym. They would go to the school, then go home to that same school gym.”
On her friend, Taylor Anderson:
Besecker didn’t know until much later that her fellow JET teacher, Taylor Anderson, had died in the tsunami.
On the day of the tsunami, Anderson had similarly helped shield her students from the quake. When the tsunami warning sirens blared, Anderson helped evacuate the school. She then got on her bike to ride home, but never made it there.
Besecker says she still talks a little with the Anderson family, who went back to Japan back in September, around the six-month anniversary, for the dedication of Taylor’s reading corners.
Where Besecker is now:
She came back to the U.S. several months ago, after her contract with JET was up.
On her feelings on Japan, now that she is back:
“It’s kinda crazy to be back in the U.S.”
“Before I left, I helped out a little with Volunteer Akita, a program that... would take donations of fruit, and go deliver it to shelters. In the beginning there was just bananas and oranges, whatever they could get, then as they got better funding, brought apples. Everyone there was always so excited and so happy and very, very thankful, and would try to give us bottles of tea.”
“When I left, it was still quite obvious in Kesennuma [what happened] .… They were building all these temporary housing units, blocks and blocks of little apartments where there used to be schools. A place where there was a baseball field had become a temporary dump, and then a housing space. The baseball field was just gone.”
“There is a ship that is in a lot of photos from Kesennuma. I think they are now trying to make it into a museum or memorial. The place where it is at is close to the harbor. But it got pushed a good half mile inland, and it’s a huge, huge boat, so there is no way to get machinery there to get the boat back. ”
“I hope to go back to Japan near the anniversary ... if I can.”
— Tom MacMaster —
Who he is:
Tom MacMaster, a 40-year-old American student at the University of Edinburgh, wrote online for years under the pseudonym Amina Arraf, supposedly a lesbian Syrian blogger. His elaborate hoax, “The Gay Girl in Damascus,” was discovered after he pretended that Amina was kidnapped during the Arab Spring and got international attention.
What getting caught for his hoax was like:
In June, MacMaster told my colleague Melissa Bell and me that he felt bad for the people he had hurt by pretending to be a lesbian Syrian blogger. He apologized for hurting his wife, the LGBT community, a woman in Canada with whom he had had a relationship as Amina Arraf and Syrian bloggers whose anonymity he had made more difficult.
“I feel bad about misleading people. I’m trying to stop that completely and come clean,” he said then. “I don’t think I need to seek professional help. I always knew that it was a role playing game for me. I just never expected it to get so out of hand. It will be hard to give up blogging. But I’ll be working on my dissertation now.”
Where he is now:
Using documents released by the University of Edinburgh under the U.K.’s Freedom of Information Act, San Francisco activist and blogger Michael Petrelis found that MacMaster was allowed to stay on as a student at the university under two conditions. One, he promised not to create any more fictitious personas online, and two, he vowed not to discuss the Gay Girl in Damascus hoax with the media or public.
MacMaster’s words, from the documents:
The documents include a letter sent to MacMaster from the University of Edinburgh’s Vice Principal for Equality and Diversity Professor Lorraine Waterhouse and Chief Information Officer Jeff Haywood. In the letter, they ask that MacMaster not engage in any more hoaxes. MacMaster replies:
I will not engage in any further actions of this kind whilst a student of the university.
Petrelis writes: “If there was a genuine effort to deliver authentic accountability over MacMaster’s links to the university and the hoax, it’s missing from the file released.”
As for Jelena Lecic, the unsuspecting London-based Croatian woman whose photo MacMaster used to pretend to be Amina Arraf, she has been staying out of the limelight ever since the hoax. On Wednesday, however, BBC chose her as one of the women in their list “Faces of the Year: 2011.”