Thursday, April 9, 2015

Burlington Gets Occupied

Progressive Eclipse – Chapter Three

Thousands of people were taking to the streets, protesting the growing global disparity of wealth and income. Beginning on Wall Street a decentralized rebellion had spread nationwide, and was on the verge of turning into a significant multi-issue mobilization. By October 2011, the fledgling movement had reached at least 150 communities across the country and more overseas. In the nation’s capital a group calling itself Occupy DC set up camp in McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House; more events were being planned from New York and Boston to Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and San Francisco.
In Burlington, hundreds of people began to gather as part of the broader uprising, giving voice to local anger about economic inequality and the excesses of banks and economic elites. Inspired and emboldened by the wave of protests, they promised to return each week until the roots of problem were addressed. They also began to discuss whether a local “occupation” should occur.
On a typical Sunday, after a warm up in City Hall Park, the group would march and sing their way up Church Street’s pedestrian mall as shoppers watched. Then, without having requested a permit, they’d turn down College Street to the Citizens Bank, a convenient symbol of excess across from City Hall. Standing in front of the bank door, people took turns addressing the crowd, which repeated key phrases so that everyone could hear. Participants were also learning a new language, one linked in turn to a radical democratic process.
“You go bankrupt you lose your house,” shouted organizer Matthew Cropp on a Sunday in early October. “The largest banks in this country go bankrupt and they get a free ride from the government. They get billions of dollars in bailout money.” Each sentence was repeated by about 125 people.
The local protest was part of what was now called Occupy Wall Street, or the 99% movement. Spokespeople – it claimed to have no leaders – described it as a decentralized, non-violent rebellion against economic tyranny that had burst forth through social networks, websites, and a loose alliance of groups and activists.
On June 13, as part of a “day of action” in New York, a group had attempted to occupy Zucotti Park, a public space close to Wall Street and the New York Federal Reserve. Although that early attempt to “occupy” the park failed a People’s General Assembly was formed, and by October Zucotti had become the site of what was looking like a permanent encampment attracting thousands and serving as the nexus for decision-making and broader action plans.
On September 17, Adbusters magazine issued a public call to Occupy Wall Street, which immediately became known as OWS. Radical groups with names like Anonymous, A99, and US Day of Rage were among the earliest to endorse its goals. According to David DeGraw, editor of, the unifying principle was that, “anything you can do to rebel against the system of economic tyranny in a non-violent manner is welcome.”
It was radical, but in some ways mirrored the outrage and defiance of the conservative, anti-government Tea Party movement that had preceded it.
After weeks of rallies, police eventually arrested 700 protesters for attempting to block Brooklyn Bridge. This hardly discouraged the movement. In fact, more people joined. OWS wasn’t focusing primarily on the government, although it did have a legislative agenda. Its primary targets were “banksters” and corporate forces that had destabilized the economy and widened the gap between the rich and poor while enriching themselves.

Burlington’s OWS wasn’t just complaining about Wall Street; its objective was to give the growing activist urgency a local focus. Social networks made it possible both to mobilize people within hours and provide local examples of larger problems. “We need to start looking here in Burlington with our homeless shelters being more than three times of capacity,” suggested local organizer Jonathan Leavitt. Months earlier Leavitt had been a leader in the local anti-Lockheed mobilization.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Congressman Peter Welch were among the first officials to back the goals of Occupy, and even offered some legislative proposals to address its grievances. For example, Welch was opposing attempts to add banking fees to checking accounts. He called the plan by Bank of America and Citibank to charge users a monthly fee for the use of their debit cards “simply shameless.” At a time when consumers are struggling, “they stick the knife in by charging customers to get access to their accounts,” Welch charged. “When will enough be enough for big banks?”

Sanders meanwhile praised the protesters for “shining a national spotlight on the most powerful, dangerous and secretive economic and political force in America.” He floated a list of ideas to change the financial system, including a proposal to break up banks that were supposedly “too big to fail,” cap credit card interest rates, provide low-interest loans to small businesses through the Federal Reserve, end excessive oil speculation, force Wall Street to invest in job creation and impose a fee for speculative investments like credit default swaps and derivatives.

At Marlboro College, Ralph Meima, director of the school’s Sustainability Management graduate program, launched an online “crowd-sourced” Google document that let contributors around the world help to develop an American People’s New Economic Charter. Crowd-sourcing had recently emerged as an Internet strategy to promote diverse, democratic input. Contributions varied from the profound to the superfluous.

The overall goal was to create a comprehensive list of legislative, regulatory and social reforms consistent with the new movement. Billed as an “experiment in total inclusion and transparency,” Meima described his project as “a declaration of the economic changes that the 99 percent want to see come out of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Labor leaders also backed the general goals of the Occupy movement, according to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. During a conference with reporters he announced, “We are going to support them in any way we can. We’re not going to try to usurp them in any way.”

General Assembly in City Hall Park

The poster for an October 15 Montpelier rally captured the mood with this pointed headline: “The War on Wealth.” The schedule for the day included a solidarity rally at City Hall, then a March to the Statehouse and a people’s General Assembly. Similar events were organized in Burlington, Brattleboro and Rutland. In Burlington, more than 500 people marched for two hours, taking their jobs and justice message from downtown to the University of Vermont campus. In Montpelier, 300 turned out on the steps of City Hall and the Statehouse.

At this point, almost half of all Americans felt that the economic system was personally unfair to them, according to a Gallup poll.  A big reason was that they were getting the picture: The top 1 percent had amassed greater net worth than the “bottom” 90 percent. And, in an unusual generational twist, more people under 30 viewed the concept of socialism in a positive light than capitalism.

The movement’s objective was nevertheless ambitious – to occupy parks, schools, corporate offices, streets, basically anywhere and everywhere – until something substantial was done about what was now being called economic tyranny. It was an uncomfortably apt description of the current “world order.”

On the other hand, many in the movement expressed shock at the heavy-handed official response, as if they had discovered something new about the relationship between the state and those who disagree. Others tended to be overly suspicious about cooptation or thought that even unions and were political “Trojan horses.” Still others suggested that their efforts to create self-governing communities represented a breakthrough of paradigm-altering significance. Was it hubris, naiveté, or just idealism and youthful ambition?

Many saw OWS as a counterculture, a transformational social experiment. To survive, they argued, it would have to remain separate and uncompromised by the dominant culture. The problem was that, in order to fully participate in its non-hierarchical, consensus-based process, people had to make it a central part of their lives. This posed a problem for those without that much “free time.”

Combining 18th century democratic principles with 21st century methods, Occupy activists wanted to change the political culture. And to some extent, they were starting to succeed, shifting the focus from debt and deficits to wealth inequality. But they also wanted much more. As writer Todd Gitlin explained, “They wanted to produce a society of their own, and half believed they were producing it.”
By late October OWS activists in Burlington had launched an encampment at City Hall Park. As long as some basic rules were followed, announced Mayor Kiss, he was prepared to be flexible. Things went well at first, in contrast with the violent confrontations between police and protesters that shut down encampments elsewhere. But an impromptu concert in the park led to the relaxation of normal rules one night, and the next day some campers were still intoxicated -- including Joshua Pfenning, a 35-year-old homeless man.  His death that day from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was traumatic for the local movement, and especially for those who had tried to help Pfenning. It also marked the abrupt end of the Burlington encampment.
By that time, however, almost everyone was talking about the 1%, the few with most of the wealth – bankers, energy tycoons, hedge fund managers and the rest. And as filmmaker Robert Greenwald pointed out, there was an even smaller elite – the top 0.01 percent, wealthy military contractors. That made the welcome given to Sandia Laboratories and Lockheed Martin by Vermont’s progressive leaders even more troubling for local liberals and peace activists. 
As protesters on the streets chanted "We are the 99%,” election season was just heating up in Burlington. At a Democratic debate two days after declaring his candidacy for mayor, State Sen. Tim Ashe, a former Progressive member of the City Council, proposed an unusual alliance – fusion with the Democrats to defeat the Republican challenge from Kurt Wright. Yet on the F-35s and partnering with a predatory corporation, leading progressive critics of concentrated wealth and the military-industrial complex like Bernie Sanders and Bob Kiss were making basically the same arguments as their conservative opponents. Most local Progressives preferred to ignore it and focus instead on survival.
NEXT: The Fusion Option

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