Special Feature: Inside Occupy Burlington

by Kevin Ryan

“We are unstoppable, another world is possible.”

So goes one of the refrains of Occupy – Vermont. We’ve certainly heard a great deal about Occupy – Wall Street and it should not come as news to anyone in the Green Mountains at this point, that a local version exists in the City of Burlington. The question is, who are the homegrown Occupiers, where are they now, and do they matter?

Even before being asked to do this story, I had visited the camp site in Burlington’s City Hall Park on several occasions, spoken to many of the participants there, and even participated in what Occupy calls their “General Assembly.” We all know the general story by now: From the perspective of the people calling themselves the “99 percent”, George Bush cut taxes on the millionaires and billionaires, funded illegal wars and then bailed out Wall Street bankers and big-wigs who caused our current battered economy with TARP funds and other Government largess to the tune of billions. As the Occupiers understand it, the average folks in all this got the shaft. If I stood in their shoes, I too might think it was time to sharpen the pitchforks, light the torches and storm the castle, and that’s just about what they did. Beginning on October 28th, following a number of rallies protesting corporate banks and the like, Occupy – Burlington laid siege to the Southern half of Burlington’s City Hall Park and erected a 24 hour vigil to protest what they felt were numerous injustices.

I can’t say that I blame them entirely. Americans have long enjoyed the right to protest the actions of government with which they do not agree, and I admire the passion of the Occupiers. However, this time, something went wrong. This movement had begun at the behest of the Canadian activist group Adbusters, who began in July to suggest “occupations” of public spaces with encampments, beginning in New York in mid-September and spreading to Burlington by late October. Despite city ordinance preventing such action, the downtown camp was allowed to continue for approximately two weeks, until November the 10th and the tragic shooting death of Joshua Pfenning by his own hand.

The encampment was a lively place, both night and day, with teach-ins, meals served and cracker barrel discussions of the news of the day. The protesters took their occupation seriously, and felt deeply that America had been wronged. Despite the vast majority of them being politically left, many were as upset with the Obama Administration as they’d been with Bush before him. In the words of Kalle Lasn, editor for Adbusters, in regards to Obama, “the feeling that he’s a bit of a gutless wonder crept in.” The general feeling I got in discussions with the Occupiers was they felt that the corporations were in charge of America now, working in cahoots with the Government, and it was time to stop rolling over for them. The promise of a free meal and a warm place to sleep, however, also brought many of the homeless of Burlington to the camp, and with them, alcohol and illegal drugs. The homeless were welcomed by the more political of the camp and many of the those even became interested in the movement itself. One of those was Josh Pfenning.

By the nature of the Occupy Movement itself, people could wander in and out as they chose. It is a leaderless group, as they would term it, with decisions on how to set policy being made at scheduled “General Assemblies”, where the group gathers and debates policy for whatever issues may be at hand. Some issues are handed over to “working groups”, of subsets of Occupiers, but even there, the membership can be fluid, with proposals and solutions being handled by whomever is available at the time. One issue discussed by the General Assembly, at great length, was the policy of drugs, alcohol and violent behavior at the camp, there seemed to be no question those things would be decisively banned. However, the group felt they could enforce such matters themselves, and felt strongly that the legal authorities should not be summoned or even informed when incidents occurred. This policy led to daily substance abuse in the camp, albeit mostly in the tents themselves. On Thursday, November 10th, 2011, at 2 PM, during a round of drinking with associates, it is believed that Josh Pfenning pulled out his pistol, and took his own life.

The rest of the day can certainly be described as a string of unfortunate events. By 4 PM, the encampment area had been closed off by Burlington Police, investigating this suspicious death. Emotions and tempers were high for the remainder of the afternoon, as friends of Josh cried and mourned. Tensions at the camp even led to a scuffle between police a Free Press photographer at one point. As the weeks of the camp had gone on, public opinion toward the Occupiers had deteriorated. It appeared to many in the public, that the camps, even across the country, that little was being accomplished. Given the circumstances of the day, Burlington Police and the Kiss Administration had determined that the camp itself had to go. At 5 PM, Mayor Bob Kiss and Burlington Police Chief Michael Shirling met with the Occupiers at their General Assembly, where Shirling said “..we have to make some modifications to the way the park is set up…temporally…we would like to discuss this with you, at 6 O’clock, in Conference Room 12.”

The meeting took place at 6 PM, but in Contois Auditorium, where the City Council meets. Chief Shirling explained that “We can’t tell what’s happening in the tents, and neither can you. “, He said. Several minutes into the meeting, a cry went up from the crowd. The Burlington Police had moved in over 20 Officers, armed with semi-automatic rifles and tear gas launchers, into the park, and were securing it from one end to the other. The Occupiers fled their seats and moved against the police line. In the ensuing melee, two protesters were arrested, including one Hayley Mason. The crowd surrounded police, chanting, demanding Hayley’s release. Mayor Bob Kiss arranged that this occur. The following day, with the Occupiers quite upset over what they felt was an unfair deception by the Burlington PD, Chief Shirling was asked if he had manipulated the situation. His response was “No, the choice to go inside was not ours.” Ultimately, after a few days reflection, Occupy – Burlington did agree not to attempt to re-establish the camp.

This certainly did not mean that Occupy Vermont was going away. Although some outside this movement were soured by the camps due to the behavior of some across the country, Occupy Burlington has 2643 “friends” on Facebook, and in anything, seems to be intensifying. Following the eviction from Zuccotti Park of the Occupy camp in New York, , a “Day of Action” was scheduled in Burlington on November 17th. The protest rally began at 5:15 that night, as a crowd of over 200 gathered at Elmwood Avenue’s central post office. Although the event had been announced as an action of solidarity with Postal Workers over layoffs, the members of the protest I spoke with seemed to have mixed reasons for being there. Some felt they were acting in solidarity with those evicted from the park in New York, some because they’d been evicted here, and some still stuck to the messages of income inequity and social justice.

This time, the crowd seemed focused and ready to get to work. They led a march up Church Street, armed with signs such as “You Can’t Evict An Idea”, and surrounding themselves with rolls of orange snow fencing to in mockery of similar netting used by police to round up protesters in larger cities. They ended at the Edmunds Middle School on Main Street, settling in for workshops such as “Makin’ Trouble for the 1%” and “Putting People First”, the latter hosted by the Vermont Workers Center. Speakers included one-time gubernatorial candidate Anthony Pollina. One speaker early on noted, “Last spring, people across the Arab world rose up against their oppressors, and we have more in common with them than we do with the 1% right here in our own country.”

Make no mistake, this Occupy Movement will be with us for foreseeable tomorrows. Although they are no longer locally in the street 24 hours a day, the assemblies are still scheduled, the working groups still work, and you can expect more rallies, parades and actions. From a conservative perspective, all this may be hard to understand. There are certainly fundamental differences between Occupy and for instance, the Tea Party Movement. Due to the “leaderless” nature of both, it will be hard to discern the troublemakers from the activists, and admittedly, the line is blurry. What is clear to all is that something is very wrong in America today, from rampant unemployment to runaway budgets, and even the Occupiers are concerned with the results of this. They are not all “dirty, unemployed hippies”. Granted, they offer a very different vision of the future from what Conservatives feel is best, and I would have to point out that I disagree with Occupy strongly on their views of capitalism and government interventions. To conservatives reading this, I would note that from my observations, the Occupiers, locally, are motivated by a lack of understanding of the effect of economic principles. Many are young, and all they know at this point is that financial resources are accumulating to the wealthy at an accelerating rate, and even the middle class face a very uncertain future. To the Occupiers, I would quote US Army Captain Paul K. Chappell “if I wanted to destroy the Occupy Movement, the first thing I would do is encourage people in the movement to have an us versus them mentality.” To everyone reading, I would remind you all as Thanksgiving approaches that Ronald Reagan once said, “There is no Left and there is no Right, there is only an up or down.”

God Bless.

One thought on “Special Feature: Inside Occupy Burlington

  1. “legal authorities should not be summoned or even informed when incidents occurred” this statement is not entirely accurate, The GA empowered the safety teams to call the police if they deemed it was necessary.

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