Note: This Article first appeared in the October 28th edition of Streetvibes.
by Ben Stockwell and Mark Grauhuis
Occupy Cincinnati is now in its third week. Much has changed since it began on October 8th, but participants are still finding that they have to struggle just to allow their voices to be heard. The amorphous nature of the occupation makes it difficult to for those outside the movement to understand the meaning and goals of the action, though recent General Assemblies have made the state of things most apparent.
Many questions about Occupy Wall Street and the satellite movements have been raised. The claim of the corporate media has been stating over and over that “they don’t know what they’re protesting,” but for the occupiers it’s clear. Tyler Huff, 23, of Clifton, believes that “this is our chance to start fighting back” against the war that is being waged and won by the white wealthy 1%. Since 1987, African Americans have lost more than half of their net worth; Latinos, an incredible two-thirds. Five-and-a-half million manufacturing jobs have been lost in the United Sates since 2000, more than 42,000 factories closed, and an entire generation of college graduates now face the highest rate of downward mobility in American history.
The main themes have been money in politics, the rise of corporate power and the lack of accountability at the top (especially after the housing crisis, the Wall Street Bail-Out and the resulting recession). It is a matter of the 99%, the workers, excluded and the poor, against the 1%, the stockbrokers, business class and the rich. To mention just two examples the movement cites: Bank of America, currently under investigation for its role in the mortgage collapse, gave $14 million to PACs (political action committees); and Comcast pays big bucks to the American Legislative Exchange Council (given national attention following efforts by Cincinnati activists this past year) for the privilege of sitting side-by-side with state legislators to draft bills to protect its media monopoly. The great issue is not raising taxes on the rich or achieving a better regulation of banks, but economic democracy: the right of ordinary people to make macro-decisions about social investment, interest rates, capital flows, job creation, and global warming.
The Cincinnati Occupation adopted “Peace,” “International Solidarity,” “Equality” and “Justice” as some overarching principles that they believe encompass the movement, as well as a commitment to experiment with and further the cause of democracy (especially through collective learning and direct actions). The tactics of the movement itself embodies the change that the protesters want to see: general assemblies, where everyone has a voice and a vote, based on the demcoratic principle of face-to-face, dialogic organizing, take place each day at 6 PM and show a microcosm of democracy that is missing in politics today. The meetings can be long, tedious, frustrating, sometimes foolish, but they are often inspiring, and through the consensus process people from diverse backgrounds develop. During the day, discussions about the occupation, politics, culture and personal life take place among the activists, who have now become friends, and passersby who are trying to better understand what it is about. In addition, the Education Week has featured workshops and teach-ins at the Public Library on topics that include: financial regulation, credit unions, a living wage, a guaranteed minimum income, international conflicts, identity politics, economic inequality, the history of labor struggles in the US, the culture of democracy, poetry, yoga, etc. Many guests have stepped onto the site, including a superb performance by leading protest singer David Rovics, who lead the crowd in a rousing version of ‘Solidarity Forever’ as the police stepped in Monday evening.
The movement has supported several local groups, like those working for affordable housing, and has also spawned new community groups itself. One of those, Food Not Bombs, has served the occupiers each day, and has shared food with not only those most active in the movement, but anyone who is hungry. And some of the most devoted allies have been the homeless population, with whom the occupiers have new-found affinity, having themselves been pushed around from place to place.
The occupiers have been evicted from their location of choice, Piatt Park, on Vine and Garfield. They chose the space for two reasons, first, because it was Cincinnati’s first public park, having been donated to the city over a century ago by the Piatt family. (Piatt also wrote his own attacks on Wall Street — and, by extension, Corporate America – through his independent media outlets, and Garfield called for universal education.) The park is also in a symbolic location, on the northern end of downtown and just south of Over the Rhine. The park sits in a gateway between wealth and poverty, between gentrification and corporate greed. Additionally, the occupiers are proposing and practicing a new form of ’embodied’ organizing that respects no curfews and demands “Democracy never sleeps.”
The city has resisted and outright attacked the occupation since it began. For over a week, occupiers were issued citations totaling over $23,000 for remaining in Piatt park after hours. But the protesters were not budging and even challenged the citations in federal court. They enjoyed a relatively open relationship with police, until the businesses in the area nearby met with city officials to complain about protests.
The elected officials in city hall have also taken a stand on either side of the occupiers. Only two of eleven council candidates polled supported the right of the occupiers to stay in the park. Leslie Ghiz who has been very outspoken advocating the removal of protester, went so far as to post personal information of two constituents who disagreed with her stance on her facebook page. By the end of the first week, it had become clear to the participants that arrests were imminent.
The Occupy movement has been about challenging corporate greed and the existing power structure, so it should not be surprising that the first arrests and forced removal of the tents and other materials came the night before the funeral parade of Carl Lindner, the controversial millionaire and Right-wing ideologue, was set to pass the park. Lindner and his businesses, which over the years included Chiquita, American Financial, the Cincinnati Reds and United Dairy Farmers serve as a local example of the type of institutions that the movement is targeting. Lindner donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to mostly conservative political campaigns over the years.
Since their eviction, the occupation has not stopped. The right to free speech, though codified in our nation’s constitution, is often ignored or not so free. Though the Occupation movement, which has spread to over 1500 cities worldwide after starting on Wall Street over a month ago, is primarily about money in politics, in Cincinnati, the fight has mostly been about how late occupiers are allowed to protest.
Though they are public property, the parks close to the public usually around 10PM. But protest does not end because the parks close. Now, the protesters, who have turned the downtown park into a dynamic public space and catalyst for protest, are employing a new tactic to illustrate this. Roving demonstrations occur past midnight each day to show that they are not going home when they are told to, and that they have things to say all day long. The police cannot arrest these protesters because they are staying on the sidewalks, which are well-defined as “free speech zones.”
In other cities protesters have been violently removed from their occupation, and many instances of police brutality have occurred from New York, to Boston, to Denver to Austin and, most recently, Oakland. These events have only galvanized the movement, showing that the citizens will not stand idle as their rights to freedom of speech and assembly are threatened. The police actions in Cincinnati have not been violent, but they illustrate the same issues that the local government has with first amendment rights.
The arrests and citations that have occurred are also somewhat ironic. Many of those active in the occupation have also been active in the fight against SB5, now issue 2, which would strip public employees, including police, of their rights to collectively bargain and strike. Suhith Wikrema, who was arrested (in his wheelchair) along with ten others on October 21st, reports, “two corrections officers were so excited when they saw my buttons against issue 2.” He said that it illustrates that “they are not in solidarity with the actions, but in the larger scheme, we are in solidarity with them, and they with us… In the larger scheme, their interests and our interests overlap.”
This overlap of interests has not stopped the police from arresting and citing, but it does show a common thread that the protesters have with those that are the enforcers of the 1%’s laws. Those laws and the other gross political advantages of the 1% are what the protesters are fighting to abolish. Many times in casual conversation and during the general assemblies, the word “revolution” has been used to describe the potential of this movement. As recent polls confirm, two thirds of America’s youth think it might be a good idea to jettison the capitalist system before the next crisis cripples the nation and wider world. Given the growth and courage of the Occupy Movement, nothing should be left off the table.