Since its beginnings near Wall Street in New York two months ago, the Occupy movement has heartened, vexed and perplexed Americans. What are their demands? What do they hope to accomplish? And, especially in Maine, do they really plan to camp out all winter?
The answer to the last question is the easiest to answer: Yes. In both Portland and Augusta, the earliest encampments in Maine — another in Bangor began settling in Oct. 30 — the Occupy groups have heard from winter survival experts and are replacing their flimsier tents, packing straw bales around perimeters, studying igloo construction and figuring out how to retain heat produced through cooking.
In Bangor, after city leaders forced the evacuation of the Occupy Maine camp in Pierce Park early this week, negotiations were under way Friday to allow campers to remain in the park during the day, but not to continue camping overnight through the winter.
In Lewiston, the Occupy movement has not established a permanent camp, but there have been some daytime activities in the downtown to bring attention to the movement.
Visits to the Augusta and Portland sites over the past two weeks produced some clues toward the answers to the other questions, although, as the occupiers themselves emphasize, this is very much a work in progress.
These are unquestionably diverse groups of Mainers — people of all ages, from infants through seniors. And their backgrounds are equally divergent. Some haven’t graduated from high school; others have college degrees. Some haven’t worked in years, while others have full-time jobs and are moonlighting at the Occupy sites. There’s a disabled veteran from Jackman and a bank employee from Portland, a commercial fisherman who sold his boat and a baker.
Perhaps more surprising, in light of assumptions that Occupy originated on the political left, is that a significant number of disgruntled tea party members have been there from the beginning.
Jarody, who goes by a single name, has run for the Augusta City Council and was an early tea party enthusiast, but he says the movement sold out to corporate interests almost immediately.
“To me, it was over when various people started describing themselves as spokespersons for the movement," Jarody said. "We were all supposed to be equal. There weren’t supposed to be any leaders.”
With Occupy, Jarody thinks he has found the leaderless movement he was looking for. And that principle has led to some interesting discussions.
Will Neils of Appleton, a volunteer community organizer who spends a lot of time at Occupy Augusta, said that last weekend featured a lengthy debate between leftist activists and former tea party members.
“After a long time, we began to realize that we’ve been butting heads for 20 years and we’re not getting anywhere,” he said. “It hasn’t made any difference. We don’t have security in our homes, or our jobs, or our families. And we’ve lost our sense of community.”
Achieving a sense of community does appear to be a major goal of Occupy in Maine. Members point out that they’ve worked hard to avoid some of the problems at other Occupy sites, such as the police-crowd violence in Oakland, Calif., or the noise and neighborhood conflicts in New York.
However, two men were arrested at Lincoln Park in Portland this past week, charged with assault and disorderly conduct in separate incidents.
Lincoln Park is a 3-acre green space in front of the federal courthouse, two blocks from Monument Square, where the group first attempted to set up camp. City officials deemed that unsuitable and suggested they move to Lincoln Park. And there they have been for six weeks, with about 60 tents and an overnight population of about 70 people.
Heather Curtis, 42, who sells hand-made bags from “found” materials, led an impromptu tour of the park, pointing out where the campers have gone out of their way to make regular park users feel comfortable.
“A lot of neighbors have told us they like it better since we’ve been here,” she said. “It was pretty sketchy before, particularly at night. Now they can stop and chat and see the sights.”
The General Assembly, as the daily evening meetings in each Occupy camp are known, has debated a lot of serious political topics, but has also made decisions about what Lincoln Park’s “streets” — the concrete sidewalks that crisscross the site — should be called.
So far, there is Intently Awesome Avenue and the Boulevard of Dreams, as well as the Southern Promenade and Donation Alley — the drop-off site near the kitchen. The sidewalk near the courthouse is Court Court, while the family area around an old fountain is the Magic Roundabout and the path to the portable toilets is Civic Duty Lane.
Signs are popping up among the tents, such as “The New School of Applied Tarpology,” and “The Anarcho-Syndicalist Space Heater Collective.”
As the names suggest, there is a lot of fun to daily life. The surprise October snowstorm produced a carnival atmosphere, and dogs and children are a constant presence.
And it’s quiet at night, and mostly during the day, too. The drumming that neighbors found annoying in Augusta has ceased. One refugee from Occupy Wall Street said, after arriving in Portland, that it was the first good night’s sleep he’d had in weeks.
In Augusta, the 20 or so tents are huddled in the upper northwest corner of Capitol Park, between the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the State House. Even before pitching tents, Occupy had permission from Capitol Security, which has jurisdiction over the state-owned park. Like their counterparts in Portland, Occupy Augusta emphasizes its friendly relations with the community, and the police.
“We need to have the respect and support of the people,” said Ryan Begin, 31, of Jackman, a disabled vet who was wounded in Iraq in 2004. “It’s all about networking, and how we can connect to other groups and organizers. We need all of them.”
When police are called, as last Monday in Portland when a woman who’d arrived the previous night was confronted by her ex-boyfriend who insisted she return home, the situation is defused quietly. Police told the man, politely but firmly, to leave. One of the campers said of police, “They can’t say it, but you can see from their faces that they’re on our side.”
So far, there’s been no apparent tension between Maine officials and the Occupy movement. In Bangor, campers were told the downtown park they’d chosen was unsuitable for camping, so they moved to the public library lawn nearby. Library trustees later voted to allow them to stay, in recognition of their free-speech rights.
As for politics, there’s plenty of it, and the consensus-style General Assembly can make for some long discussions. Heather Curtis says hand signals providing a variety of cues can help move things along. While someone is speaking, others can indicate agreement, indifference or mild disagreement by the angle of their gestures, from up to down. There are signals for “move it along,” a point of order, and a quick point of clarification. Strong disagreement is indicated by a “block,” hands crossed on the shoulders.
“I’ve only used that once,” Curtis said. “That’s when someone suggested a mandatory meeting. This is supposed to be voluntary. Nothing is compulsory.” The meeting was scrapped, and Curtis now has the “Mandatory Play” mailbox, for suggestions.
The issues and complaints that members bring to the table are strikingly varied. For Ryan Begin, the big issue is NAFTA, and the fact that “high-grade, beautiful wood” is constantly shipped over the border to Canada, returning as expensive finished lumber, while many Maine loggers struggle to find work.
For Steve Demitriou, 55, of Portland, a commercial photographer who hasn’t found much work lately, it’s the core economic principles of the country. He consults “a dozen economics blogs,” and says they show how far off track the corporate-based political system is. But Demitriou is equally focused on the tasks of providing electricity and communications on site, including a bicycle-powered generator for recharging cellphones and laptops. He also is exploring the possibility of solar panels in the park.
In Augusta, Jarody thinks the biggest issue is keeping federal interference to a minimum in Maine, “although a lot of people here might not agree with me,” he said.
That would be true for John Schreiber, 27, a baker from Portland who says he embraces anarchism, in the sense of a political system with no hierarchy. But he also thinks “big government” is necessary to guarantee certain services, such as health care. “I’d rather have big government that’s effective than small government that’s incompetent,” he said.
Schreiber takes inspiration from writers like John Locke, whose "Second Treatise on Civil Government" influenced the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Locke wrote that when “a people has been denied justice,” they have the “right to appeal to heaven,” which is how Schreiber sees Occupy.
So what do Occupy and its many members agree on? There are some things. They all seem to believe that corporations have far too much influence on politics, and that corporate lobbyists must be separated from politicians for the system to work well again. They also think corporations shouldn’t be legally presumed to be people — as in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling striking down limits on corporate contributions to political campaigns.
“The issues are complex,” Will Neils said. “It’s taken us a long time to get into this mess, and it’s going to take a long time to come back.” Occupy does not pretend to have all of the answers, he said, but the very act of citizens gathering in numbers for serious discussion is at least a start.
Occupy supporters point out that “leaderless” movements are not unusual, and can be highly effective. In recent decades, the American civil rights movement, women’s liberation, and equality for gays and lesbians are all movements that produced substantial gains without central leadership, particularly at the beginning.
Then there’s the aspect of personal convictions and how they can change. “Marcus,” 27, who uses an alias because he’s concerned about potential repercussions at the bank where he works, says corporations “want to convince us not to expect anything,” and that “corporate control is about keeping people divided, about not talking to your neighbors, about not caring.”
Even though he believes that every day, when you walk out the door, you have to do something to make someone’s life better, he found himself coming home from work and playing video games all evening. Now, he spends his evenings at Occupy. “I can’t play a video game for 20 minutes without feeling guilty.”
At the bank, he used to see homeless people come in to cash welfare checks, “and I’d think, 'They’re wasting our money.' That’s what the corporate atmosphere makes you think.” He now feels that his job has “tainted” him, and he’s hoping to find more rewarding work.
In the meantime, Occupy fills a need. “This is the first protest movement we’ve had that’s speaking out for the majority,” he said.
“Marcus” insists the movement is not hostile to wealth and getting rich. “No one is looking for a handout here. What we’re protesting is the political corruption that money can bring with it, and the lack of humanity in using the wealth. No one should be looking down on their neighbors.”
Politicians are understandably not popular in Occupy discussions, since the premise of the movement is that money controls them, from President Barack Obama on down. But a few elected officials get praise.
In Portland, “Marcus” says that Bernie Sanders, the one-time socialist mayor of Burlington, Vt., who is now a U.S. senator, is a hero. “During the TARP hearings (on the bank bailout passed under President George W. Bush), he was saying exactly what I was thinking, and he wasn’t polite about it, he was yelling.”
Newly elected Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who visited Occupy last week, got some favorable comment. Said Alan Porter, 45, an arborist, “the state and federal governments are pretty much hopeless, but you can still do a lot of good at the local level.”
In Augusta, Demi Colby, 23, of Gardiner, said she liked Rep. Andy O’Brien, D-Lincolnville, who recently wrote a fiery letter to Gov. Paul LePage, objecting to what he saw as the governor’s characterization of the unemployed as unwilling to work. O’Brien said he, too, has struggled to find work the past two years.
Colby was also favorably impressed by Maeghan Maloney, a freshman Democrat from Augusta. “She wanted to listen to us and what we had to say,” Colby said. “She wasn’t trying to tell us what we should think.”
No one knows exactly how many Occupy encampments there are, but there are reportedly 1,000 in the U.S. and countless others around the world. And there is a plan to identify what the movement stands for, and what it wants, “Marcus” said.
The idea is for two delegates, one male and one female, from each congressional district with an Occupy site, to gather in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012, and assemble a “petition for the redress of grievances” that is the right of all Americans under the Constitution’s First Amendment, he said.
And by that time, Occupy members predict, the movement will be big enough, and strong enough, to be heard, loud and clear.