Business & Economy

Occupy movement confronts limitations as it celebrates one year anniversary

Occupy protest
In fall 2011 hundreds of protesters gathered for an Occupy General Assembly in City Hall Park. File photo by Greg Guma

On the one-year anniversary of the Occupy movement, a planned picket at the doors of the Citizens Bank in Burlington did not happen.

A few supporters and journalists waited across the street from the bank in City Hall Park for more than an hour on Monday afternoon before several more people showed up for a celebratory picnic, with free food for “The People’s Kitchen” provided by Food Not Bombs.

Later in the evening, a message was left in chalk on the ground just outside the bank’s door. “Boycott this bank,” it read.

Some people who showed up expressed their disappointment. But they also felt that the movement has already made a significant impact on the national political debate by focusing attention on economic inequality, corporate abuses, bank bailouts and the top 1 percent, who own a third of the nation’s assets and have at least 7½ times the median household income.

The 4 p.m. picket, which was supposed to be followed by a rally “in global solidarity with striking students, teachers, workers, prisoners, and the unemployed,” was announced on Facebook. But dozens of people who might have participated were in New York commemorating the date that thousands of protesters occupied Zuccotti Park near Wall Street and sparked a movement that quickly spread to at least 147 cities in the U.S. and dozens overseas.

A speak-out was held in front of the Citizens Bank in early October 2011. File photo by Greg Guma

A year later, several hundred people gathered near the New York Stock Exchange and staged a sit-in. Police report that about 180 were arrested.

Rapid growth

According to David DeGraw, editor of the organizing site, the original unifying principle was, “Anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.”

At first the new wave of activism was downplayed by many media outlets. But the rapid spread of the movement, combined with rough tactics used by police in several cities in response to protests and civil disobedience, led to more sympathetic coverage. A focus on the divide between the 99% and the 1% at the top of the economic ladder tapped into widespread resentment.

In Burlington, a series of weekly rallies and marches began about two weeks after a Sept. 17, 2011, call to occupy Wall Street. Local activists expressed outrage about “economic tyranny,” and organizers pledged to return every week until the roots of the problem were addressed. On Oct. 15, rallies were staged in several Vermont communities, drawing support from labor unions and mainstream politicians.

At the end of that month, adopting a strategy that had emerged elsewhere, about 50 people began an encampment in Burlington at City Hall Park. The decision was reached at a General Assembly, the movement’s direct democracy approach to decision-making. General Assembly gatherings continued for months, moving indoors during the winter and returning to City Hall Park this summer. Working groups were formed to study specific issues and develop strategies.

However, the movement’s broad scope and “leaderless” approach made it difficult to sustain momentum and build on a promising start. There were also organizational problems and internal disagreements about process and tactics.

In Burlington, the flashpoint came in early November with the untimely suicide of Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man, in a tent at the Burlington encampment. An impromptu concert had led to relaxation of the group’s rules. Pfenning’s death was traumatic for the local movement, especially for those who had attempted to help him.

In response, Mayor Bob Kiss, who had permitted the encampment despite an ordinance restricting overnight use of city parks, shut down the small tent city.

Continued action

In recent months, the most visible aspect of Occupy has been weekly picketing at the Citizens Bank. In an April 29 statement Occupy Burlington announced plans for a permanent picket line outside the bank until it closes and leaves. A small group of activists with signs and handouts have gathered weekly to talk with bank patrons and get the word out.

“Ultimately, our goal is for there to never be a time when someone can bank at Citizens Bank without first crossing a picket line,” says the group’s “Resolution for the Ejection of Citizens Bank from Burlington, Vermont.” The bank was chosen because it is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, which received the largest “Too Big To Fail Bailout,” according to Occupy Burlington, and also “because Burlington deserves democratic, local financial institutions that keep our money in our community.”

A related focus, pursued by Occupy organizers Matt Cropp and Eric Davis, has been to obtain seats on the board of the Vermont Federal Credit Union. Davis succeeded this summer.

Gwen Hallsmith, an Occupy supporter who serves as director of Planning/Development for Montpelier, is working with legislators on a proposal for a state-owned bank as a way to insulate Vermont from Wall Street excesses.

Jonathan Leavitt, a leading figure in Occupy Burlington and other local campaigns, has focused lately on the police response to protests at the Hilton hotel in July. Leavitt was struck by rubber pellets during that incident. He hosted the Facebook page that called for Monday’s gathering and contacted media, but did not attend the picket.

Occupy march
Occupy protesters marched through downtown Burlington last fall. File photo by Greg Guma

Despite press coverage concluding that the movement is “a shadow of its mighty infancy,” in the words of an Associated Press analysis published by the Burlington Free Press, not everyone agrees.

According to Laura Gottesdiener, author of the forthcoming book, “A Dream Foreclosed: The Great Eviction and the Fight to Live in America.” Occupy continues to thrive “both as a protest in the symbolic centers of neoliberal capitalism, and as a direct action network doing organizing where Wall Street’s injustice affects communities: in schools and in homes across the country.”

Gottesdiener argued that more people are turning to eviction blockades and debt strikes. “These actions are building on the work of organizing that has been happening for years, but is now connected by this systemic analysis that understands that all our grievances are connected,” she explained.

According to Nathan Schneider, an editor of the Waging Non-Violence website who observed Monday’s protests near Wall Street, the organizing was impressive. “Hundreds gathered in a spokes council, grouped in affinity groups, ready for a diversity of actions. There’s a lot less interest in just battling cops and more interest in being organized and disciplined.”

Schneider acknowledges that the movement’s future remains an open question, but says “it is still bringing out a lot of talented people who, as a group, are definitely deepening and maturing in their resistance.”

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Greg Guma

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  • David Streeter

    not a clean one in the bunch. this group of protesters needs to give it a rest !