Assembling a Movement

The Occupy Cincinnati protest begins to refine its message

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click to enlarge General assembly at Occupy Cincinnati
General assembly at Occupy Cincinnati

As of this writing, it is now nearly a month since Occupy Wall Street first occupied Liberty Square in the Financial District in New York City. What began with a handful of people has grown into a worldwide movement with at least 1,000 occupations popping up all across this country and around the globe.

Just over a week ago, Cincinnati followed suit, beginning with a march of at least 1,200 Oct. 8 that swept though Downtown into Over-the-Rhine and ended on Fountain Square for an all-night rally. As the event ended, 10 determined protesters remained on the square in defiance of a 3 a.m. curfew that closed the area to the public, but by morning no arrests were made or citations issued.

Occupy Cincinnati was born.

The local movement has found a home in Piatt Park, straddled between Vine and Race streets by the Cincinnati Public Library's downtown branch. Piatt Park is the oldest public park in Cincinnati, as its historic plaque states, “… donated to the people in 1817.” The symbolism of this is hardly lost among the current occupiers.

As this fledgling movement seeks to find its voice and its message, one issue that is clearly emerging is the right to assembly in public spaces. There are no public spaces in Cincinnati that remain open 24/7. While this certainly isn’t the main thrust of the Occupy argument, it clearly has practical application if one is going to occupy any space for a lengthy period of time.

“It’s a public place, and yet we are restricted on when we can publicly be there,” says Les Courtney, who was one of the 10 who remained on Fountain Square that first night. “If we’re not really occupying, then we’re just protesting. By occupying we are saying that we are here and we aren’t going anywhere. We’re here to stay, and even if they take us from here, we’ll be back the next day.” While no citations were issued the first night, Courtney has since received one every night but one. He believes that it is of the utmost importance to be cited, or arrested if necessary, to make a political statement.

“To be cited is me voicing my opinion that I am here and what they are doing is wrong,” he says.

But certainly there is more to all this than that. A quick scanning of media sources or conversations on Facebook make it clear that a great number of Americans just don’t understand what all this Occupy stuff is about. They see the message as muddled and unspecified. They identify the occupiers as out-of-work rabble-rousers looking for a handout or irresponsible malcontents who are angry because they have dug themselves into financial debt by attempting to live beyond their means.

So who are the 99 percent and what do they want? Perhaps a related question that is just as important is why so many people who obviously must fall into the 99 percent financially have no interest in associating themselves with the movement or its views?

Despite what many detractors seem to think or want others to believe, it's clear that this movement is made up of an incredibly diverse cross-section of the populous. It crosses barriers of race, income, politics and religion. Independents, Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists and, yes, even a few Republicans can be counted amongst its ranks.

A majority operate on an even playing field trying their best to keep their personal politics separate. A majority seem to believe that our country has been hijacked by Big Business, that our politicians in Washington operate in the interests of these corporations first when it is their sworn duty to represent the will of the people. A majority seem to believe that these “too big to fail” corporations need to have responsibility and accountability for their actions, and that instead of bailing out businesses that then turn around and pay huge bonuses to the very same CEOs who caused them to fail in the first place, America’s tax dollars would be better off spent bailing out the people themselves.

A majority seem to believe that big corporations such as General Electric, which paid virtually no income tax last year, as well as the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, need to pay their fair share of taxes. A majority seem to believe that in these difficult times it is absolutely irresponsible that our government continues to feed the Military Industrial Complex billions of dollars per week on foreign wars that have no clear end, no clear purpose and ultimately no clear justification.

It’s hard to argue with all that, and harder still to consolidate it into one clear 15-second sound bite. The issues are complicated, but the movement is just beginning. Where does it go from here?

Well, in Piatt Park occupiers continue to discuss and refine their message and their actions on a daily basis. They have broken into committees that meet throughout the day, planning actions, dealing with legal issues, communicating with media and attending to the day-to-day practical issues of occupying a public park in a downtown location. They hold general assemblies each day at 6 p.m. where these committees present their reports and any attending member can speak and/or make proposals. Everyone in attendance can vote on proposals that must pass by a 90 percent consensus before being acted upon. It's a slow and messy process at times, but this is what democracy looks like.

The biggest problem the movement seems to be having in Cincinnati is one of momentum. While 1,200 people turned out for the opening march and 6,600 have joined the Facebook page, the numbers of boots on the street aren’t growing in much of a discernible way, and convincing people that the occupation of a public park is the best way to change the world has not been an easy sell.

Although there are many people finding ways to show their support, the Cincinnati occupation doesn’t have the population resources to put thousands of people on the streets like they have in New York City.

Still, Nathan Lane, one of the original organizers here, remains positive.

“The one thing about the movement that gets lost is that people drive by and they may see the people who are sitting here hanging out, because they are the people who have physically taken the space, perhaps because they may not have a job, they may be unemployed, they may be under-employed,” Lane says. “They have the ability to stay down here. But there is a whole network of people that support these people staying down here. And that’s the part that the media doesn’t totally encapsulate. When they come down, that’s the people the media wants to take pictures of, but in reality they are just the tip of the iceberg. The movement is very, very broad.”

Though young and dreadlocked, Lane is not at all the poster boy for the detractors of the movement. A single dad with a 9-year-old daughter, he holds a full-time job, freelances on the side and is active both in the PTA and as a volunteer at his church.

When asked what occupying a park could accomplish, it boils down to making issues visible to the public in the real world in real time.

“At 10 p.m. we shouldn’t be cut off,” Lane says. “This movement started online. What you see with the occupations across the country is the manifestation of those online communities in the real world. This gives us the glimmer of hope that perhaps we can start to reclaim our democracy back to how it was originally intended to operate. The key thing is we are trying to build awareness, draw attention to and hopefully change corrupting influence of money over the flow of the process.”

Of course, occupation does come with a price — a $105 citation price per person each night. So far, unlike in other cities, the Cincinnati Police Department has been friendly and tolerant and has had a fairly hands-off policy. This can be seen as a major achievement for both sides, as you don’t have to look too hard on the Internet to find videos of police in New York, Boston and elsewhere responding with aggression and violence to a mostly peaceful group of protesters.

Cincinnati Police seem very aware of the actions of their counterparts in other cities. At the start of the march on the very first day, Capt. Daniel Gerard was quite clear on that account.

“We have been watching the videos from New York City,” Gerard says. “We certainly don’t want to see that happen here.”

The communication between the movement and the police has been cordial and clear. The movement here has not only been peaceful, but it has also gone to great lengths to police itself in a way, to make sure that it is not infiltrated by any extremists looking to cause any radical or dangerous disturbances and to drive disruptive elements out of the Piatt Park encampment.

Still, come 10 p.m. every night, the police arrive to issue citations. The movement did try to obtain a permit from the Cincinnati Park Board on Oct. 11 but were denied. To his credit, Park Board Director Willie Carden Jr. did show up later that evening to attend the general assembly; at least he was willing to come down and hear for himself what was going on. Later that night, Mayor Mark Mallory arrived at the park to speak with occupiers. Perhaps due to these visits, there was a brief reprieve Oct. 12 and no citations were issued. But they did return the following night and every night since.

Currently the amassed issued ticket fines are nearly $15,000.

On Oct. 15, Occupy Cincinnati joined in solidarity with the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, marching with them through Over-the-Rhine. The Coalition’s director, Josh Spring, has also been working closely with Occupy Cincinnati and sees a strong correlation of issues.

“The necessities of life are not making it to everyone, because they are being hoarded by a few,” Spring says. “Politicians are not doing their jobs, as they are simply representing the highest bidder. Seats should not be bought, council members should not be bought, legislators of all sorts should not be bought. It’s very invigorating to see people standing up and saying, 'That’s enough, we want the power back.' ”

Spring sees the ever-widening gap between the extremely rich and the poor as a major issue to be addressed.

On Oct. 15, Occupy Cincinnati partook in its second march, moving in an orderly manner along the sidewalks to Fountain Square, then to the Federal Reserve, past Paul Brown Stadium and back to Piatt Park, hoping to bring awareness of their issues to a downtown Saturday population. About 165 people joined the march. Finding clear and succinct methods to communicate that message to an uncertain audience will be this movement’s greatest challenge.

How long the occupation continues is anybody’s guess. Certainly the issues the movement presents are not going to be fixed overnight, or even any time in the immediate future. A system this broken is going to take a long time to repair, but first people need to be able to admit to themselves that something is wrong and needs fixing. Protesters hope through their actions to gain the hearts and minds of those resting on or by the fence and find a forum in which to educate the rest of the 99 percent to the needs of the nation.

Right now the Cincinnati Police are tolerant of the occupation, but many have expressed their frustration in having to spend manpower on it when bigger crimes than breaking park curfews are happening nightly all over the city.

It will be interesting to see what happens as fall moves into winter and what toll the weather takes on the physical occupation, though there is a hardy and determined core group that does seem ready and up to the task. But even if the physical occupation disperses when the first snows fall, it seems clear something has started here that will not easily fall by the wayside.

Occupiers also need to deal with maintaining a good relationship with their immediate neighbors and businesses in the area. There is the constant question of where to wash and take care of basic bodily functions for those who choose to remain at the occupation day and night, a problem known all too well to the city’s homeless population in a downtown with virtually no public restrooms. Occupation committees are currently trying to work with businesses in the area to find places that will allow the protesters to use their facilities.

The Occupation also headed off a major public-relations disaster by working closely with a reception hall on the block and directly with a bride and groom who held a wedding reception there Oct. 15. Tents and structures that would have been in the way for guests and wedding photos where moved for the night so that the bride’s day would not be ruined. The newlyweds showed their appreciation for the consideration by sending over a tray of lasagna to the occupation kitchen at the end of the wedding.

That night there was a short delay as police waited until the wedding guests left before moving in at 11:30 p.m. to issue citations. But in the days to follow they will likely fall back into what is becoming the common routine. At 10 p.m. the police arrive. They give everyone fair notice to leave the park and move to the sidewalk if they want to avoid a summons. Those bent on civil disobedience form a neat line, some chatting and joking with officers they have now come to know by name. Identification is shown, citations are written and then they pin them to their chests with the rest of their citations, as if medals of honor in an orderly war for change.

To view new photos of the Occupy Cincinnati movement, go here. And to view the Occupy Cincinnati live feed, go here.

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