By Kevin Joseph Ryan
The Morning of March the 10th was still winter in Vermont, with but a mere flower or two poking its nose above the ground to see if the coast was clear. Finding themselves surrounded by snow, yet cheered to see sunshine, the young blossoms hardily but cautiously determined to stick around to see what the Spring would have to offer. Goddard College in Plainfield felt like that on that day, as the first Vermont Occupy Conference unfolded in the Haybarn Theatre. The Conference was not an officially sanctioned Occupy Movement event, having been organized by the college itself, but Occupy doesn’t sanction much in the traditional sense.
It may be unusual to see on the pages on TNR such a glowing description of the mysterious and derided Occupy. They have been widely reported by the Right as unwashed, unemployed layabouts, simply demanding their next handout, and those folks are there to be sure, but Occupy turns out to be far more complex and engaged than such an explanation would grant.
The Occupy Movement, for those who have not seen a newspaper since last summer, is a political movement begun in New York City for, ostensibly, the purposes of protesting the bailouts of Wall Street by recent administrations, and who have garnered the most attention by creating tent cities. These encampments, first in Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, spread out across the nation including to Brattleboro and Burlington, the latter of which ended with the tragic suicide of one of its campers. When the tents left the parks, the movement did not end. All winter, both nationally and locally in Vermont, they have continued to meet, plan and proselytize. So, they aren’t going away. This begs the questions who are they, what do they want, and what are they going to do to get it? The Conference, its daylong panels and the attendees gave some surprising insight.
There should be no doubt that the Occupiers, as they call themselves, are predominately leftist politically, pushing for additional government programs and spending to aid the poor, the homeless and other traditional groups targeted for aid by Democrats. However, that label might get some argument from the Occupiers themselves. They would be the first to tell you, the movement is not for sale to anyone. As Michael Premo, a filmmaker from New York, said on the afternoon’s “Going Forward” panel, “The Left is boring. I mean, if I get one more flyer with 1000 words on it…” rolling his eyes.
Recently, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream fame have been working toward trying to raise nearly two million dollars for the Occupy Movement through a group they call the Movement Resource Group. The limited leadership structure that Occupy Wall Street has for finance has rejected this idea and Salon.com has termed the effort patronizing. To hear Premo tell it, “Do it with us, not for us.” To many, the Ben and Jerry effort has been seen as trying to take over Occupy for its own agenda, and the movement is having none of it.
The Occupy Movement began, explained at Goddard, as a group of 80 people in New York, and Amin Husain, an organizer outlined it, “…We were trying to figure out how can you outreach to someone without predetermining the agenda…what the conversations were going to be about.” It would appear that while Occupiers feel society is broken, they aren’t so convinced that any side at this point has all the answers. They seem to be a group that wants to make sure the questions continue to be asked, without falling back into the same traditional conclusions politics has reached thus far. Amin pointed out that they want to, “…Bring in the color and life, so when they arrest us, they look stupid.” He went on to add, “Strikes and protests are acts of negation, so what are acts of affirmation? When we talk about May Day, we’re saying, we’re going to withdraw, we’re not going to participate. But what are we going to do? That’s the other component.”
There’s an old saying that Republicans form clubs, while Democrats form mobs, and Occupy certainly can have the appearance of a mob, looking as wild and as untamed as the Woodstock hippies of old. However, they do organize, holding regular councils to decide what they will and will not do as a group, using the name “General Assembly”. These can be called, at any time, for any reason, by anyone. The question then is whether the group takes the call seriously. What is unusual and difficult to grasp is that the group has no leaders.
According to Emma Lillian, a local Occupy Burlington Facilitator of many assemblies, “We had to have the strength to step back, because there is no power (at Occupy), it’s just opinion.” Another panelist at Goddard, Sandy Nurse formerly of the Department of Defense, observed, “For those who want to smash the state, they should move toward that, instead of trying to reform the system….for those into reform, its not my place to turn them away from that.” This factor can even cause confusion for seasoned professionals in understanding how Occupy works. Shay Totten, formerly a reporter for Seven Days Newspaper noted, “We have to re-train ourselves, not using terms like spokesperson and such.”
Once the assembly decides whoever in the group decides to respect that opinion and move forward with what was decided simply does so, there is no coercion. However, this also limits cohesiveness. Jerry Greenfield observed at a recent event that the loose structure of Occupy was one of the reasons the Management Resource Group was formed. He felt that it causes Occupy to be less effective than it otherwise could be. Greenfield declined to be interviewed by TNR.
One should be careful to not confuse Occupy as being in league with the Left currently in power. One Conference attendee, identifying herself as Marni, told us, referring to President Obama, “I’m extremely disappointed. I realize its an election year, and he has alternative motives for a lot of things…I think this the land of the free, the home of the brave. We’ve literally squashed that, and it’s a Democrat president who’s taking these rights away.” Sources said the Vermont Occupy intends to protest the President during his March 30th visit to UVM.
One common refrain heard within the Occupy movement is that they are the “ninety-nine percent” and are opposed to the “one percent”, which is sometimes explained as the poor versus the wealthy. This also may not be quite so obvious. An attendee to the Conference, Herbert, told TNR, “As long as were gonna talk in opposition, 99 versus 1, or vice versa, or even democracy and capitalism, as long as we do that, I think were going to be debilitating and obstructing…we get into a dialogue where were dependent on the opposition, we have not come home yet.” Keynote speaker Les Leopold pointed out that “One percent is a state of mind.”, while Amin Husain noted that, “I think this movement is, is more than (us versus them)….99% versus 1% speaks to a moral imperative.”
What all these folks seem to be looking for is the uncorrupt, the honest men with honest ideas. While John Knefel, a protestor from Zuccotti claims, “Occupy has bought a lot of left-wing groups under one umbrella.”, if approached correctly, Occupy might well side with the Right on many issues.
Occupy Wall Street, six months past Zuccotti Park, still looks strange to mainstream America, but they examined themselves at Goddard. They use funny hand signals like “Twinkles” and “Blocks”. They chant like monks following the call to “Mike Check” and their demands remain fluid and difficult to quantify. However, a frequent chant heard by Occupy at rallies is, “We are unstoppable…A better world is possible!” and this may give clues as to who these people are. They love America, they strive to be righteous and they feel starved for an emotional connection with their own government. A wise soul told me recently that modern government is all about protecting our bodies, our physical forms, with mandates on health care, bicycle helmets and endless regulation. What gets lost in this morass is the ability to pursue our own happiness as we see fit, as our founders intended. This friend told me that what is missing in modern government, is that it leaves our souls empty. Occupy seems to be on a search for the way to fill those souls…somebody needs to be.