Occupy Cincinnati was reaching its dramatic climax when I arrived at Piatt Park just before the 10 p.m. closing time on Thursday, October 20. It was the protest’s 13th day, perhaps a bad sign. More than 100 demonstrators and supporters were packed into the eastern block of the park, a grassless stretch of urban terrain that runs down the center of Garfield Place between Vine and Race streets. The central walkway was littered with tents and tarps in bright blues and reds, and the park’s lights, strung from metal arches, made everything glow. It felt a little like being back at Boy Scout camp, only the pubescent boys had been replaced with politically disillusioned adults.
Rumor had it that after a week and a half of citations—and escalating chest-puffing and smoke-blowing on all sides—the police were preparing to make arrests. The source of this information was a little murky, but somehow the protesters knew what was coming. They had taken down the large white supply tent at the front of the park, as well as their food tent, and rallied their non-camping supporters. Some of the more experienced activists were training others on the proper way to be arrested, which requires more skill than one would assume; passive resistance (i.e., going limp) counts as resisting arrest in Ohio.
The buzz of nervous anticipation was palpable. Josh Spring, the director of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, was giving a 10-minute pep talk about civil disobedience. “We will be peaceful!” he shouted. A dozen or so protesters repeated his words so that everyone else could hear, a trick the Occupy movement calls “The People’s Mic,” an ingenious if sometimes annoying substitute for a P.A. system. Justin Jeffre, a former member of the boy band 98 Degrees, a former candidate for both City Council and mayor, and current owner of what may be the city’s largest collection of porkpie hats, led a series of chants. In unison, the Occupiers cried out, “We. Are. The 99 percent.” Once that was beaten to death, Jeffre sang out, “Tell me what democracy looks like.” And the crowd yelled back, “This is what democracy looks like.” (“It was raging,” Jeffre told me later. “We knew that we were going to be arrested, but that wasn’t going to stop us.”)
Meanwhile, a group of Occupiers marched in circles holding signs. Taken together, the slogans summarized the group’s major grievances. First and foremost, they’re mad: 99 percent angry. The richest 1 percent of the population holds 40 percent of the wealth, a gap that is only growing: People over profits. Corporations and lobbyists influence politics, leaving regular folks feeling voiceless: Money out of politics. While the working class lost their homes, big banks received massive bailouts: Too corrupt to fail. And my favorite sign, a Jay-Z reference: The 1 percent has 99 problems, and this bitch is one. (Runner up: That stuff trickling down on you isn’t money.)
As time passed, people became a little restless. Dan La Botz, a 66-year-old Spanish teacher, adjunct history professor at the University of Cincinnati, and socialist, led songs on an acoustic guitar. I asked an older guy if he planned to get arrested. Nope. “I did all this in the ’60s,” he said, “but back then we had acid.”
To kill time, I struck up a conversation with a streetcar-supporting naturalist, a couple who worked at a bike collective, and a guy named Alex. They hypothesized that the arrests were coming because Carl Lindner’s funeral parade was scheduled to pass by the next day. I pointed out the obvious irony of the city removing members of the self-appointed 99 percent in deference to a member of the other 1 percent. But the conversation quickly turned from the evils of corporate greed to the new iPhone that Apple had unveiled a few days earlier.
Around 11:30, some of the television news trucks that had been parked across the street gave up on catching any breaking news and left, and the naturalist followed. I overheard a girl telling Jeffre that people were tired but were afraid to drink coffee without a 24-hour public bathroom in the vicinity, a problem that had been dogging them throughout the occupation. Someone said the police were probably waiting until after the news and might show up soon, but Jeffre thought they’d hold off until the middle of the night to wear the protesters down.
Around midnight, yawning and shivering, I convinced myself that no one was getting arrested that night and went home. Within 20 minutes, the police hauled 23 protesters off to jail and cleared their stuff from the park.
For more than two weeks, from that Thursday night through November 8, Election Day, when Occupy Cincinnati turned one month old, I partially embedded myself in the group. I stayed out late enough to witness the next night of arrests and over time attended eight “general assembly” meetings, two marches, a few nighttime protests, a “teach-in,” a candlelight vigil, a bank protest, and even the official Occupy Cincinnati Halloween Party. To fill in the parts I missed, I interviewed roughly 30 members of the group and their lawyers, as well as a city councilman, a police captain, the city manager, the city solicitor, a bona fide 1 percenter, and more. Since these protests played out as political theater, my aim was to talk to as many of the actors as I could in hopes of finding a moral to the story.
With a Twitter feed (@OccupyCincy), Facebook page (Occupy Cincinnati), website (OccupyCincy.org), and committees for every possible need (including direct action, legal, education, and food), Occupy Cincinnati is better organized than your average protest. But because the movement strives to be leaderless (“I like to think of it more as a leaderful movement,” Jeffre told me, whatever that means...) and because no one in the group will make a decision without mass approval, communicating with them can be a pain. Individually, Occupy Cincinnati members were more affable, though many made special requests; I heard the phrases off the record, attorney-client privilege, and not at liberty to say more times than I can count.
Participatory journalism sometimes requires situational ethics, so I made up a few rules as I went along. I abstained from voting at Occupy assemblies, at the request of the group. I generally refrained from chanting, unless I really agreed with the message (What do we want? Free speech! When do we want it? Now!). I should also disclose that I accepted one candy bar and one pen from La Botz—but he’s a socialist, so taking a handout from him is essentially the same as not accepting one that a Republican didn’t offer.
In my effort to figure out the meaning of Occupy, I learned some fascinating things about park rules, the pettiness of local politics, anarchists, the logistics (hygienic and otherwise) of living on a glorified sidewalk, and what really goes on inside the Justice Center. In the end, I came away with a deeper understanding of the problems facing the country and an appreciation for what it takes to Occupy.
Economic and political unrest was the mother of Occupy Wall Street, but its father was Kalle Lasn, the 69-year-old cofounder of AdBusters, an anti-consumerist magazine based in Canada. It was Lasn who had the idea for a camp, came up with the name, and set the date for the protest to begin: September 17, his mother’s birthday. Once Lasn planted the seed, early organizers on the ground in New York City—many of them self-described anarchists—took over, giving Occupy its “horizontal structure” and establishing the first camp in the country at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan.
Last fall, Occupy Wall Street gradually gained a place in the national consciousness when the group’s various clashes with police drew media attention. As more protests popped up across the country (and the Internet), a handful of fans in Cincinnati created a Facebook page to start an occupation of their own. One of the first organizers was Nathan Lane, a 35-year-old journeyman electrician, who had been watching the events in New York with excitement and maybe even a little relief. “I had a long litany of grievances with the state of our government and the level of corruption throughout the system,” Lane says. “We have been waiting for this moment.”
Locally and nationally the media has been obsessed with one crucial question: What do the Occupiers want? When protesters struggle to articulate an answer, the movement is criticized for not having clear goals or demands. “I think they need to sharpen their message,” says former mayor and Towne Properties partner Arn Bortz, whose company owns several buildings on Piatt Park. “Looking for dark conspiracies of corporate influence over elected officials is naïve and simplistic and not really productive at all.”
It’s true that, despite the wealth gap these people are fighting, many of them enjoy a standard of living—laptops, smart phones, fancy camping equipment, expensive nicotine habits—that would be the envy of a couple billion people across the globe. But if you forget about Occupy and focus instead only on the cold facts of the state of our nation, it doesn’t take long to conclude that something is amiss. According to an Associated Press analysis of census data, 48 percent of Americans now either live in poverty or are classified as low-income. And income inequality—the gap between the rich and the poor—is greater in the United States than in any other developed nation, not to mention Tunisia, Egypt, and Iran. The American Dream, that familiar buzzword-filled narrative about self-made men who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to go from rags to riches, appears to be withering. Based solely on class mobility statistics, high school history lessons on the Norwegian Dream would be much more appropriate.
When faced with figures like these, Occupy argues that any political or economic system that creates such inequality is fundamentally broken. And they see nearly everything in the news as proof that the government serves only the wealthiest few. So it may not be a demand, but Down with the rich is a pretty clear message.
Occupy Cincinnati’s first victim was Kathy Holwadel. This was an accident. In the weeks leading up to their opening march on October 8, Occupy Cincinnati organizers tried to put together a peaceful and respectful demonstration. They held planning meetings, applied for a permit to use Fountain Square, and met with police. “We just opened up the dialogue,” says Captain Doug Wiesman, the former commander of District 1. “They were very appreciative of us meeting with them.” When the protesters passed along the map of their proposed route, police asked them to start at Lytle Park instead of Sawyer Point, where another event was scheduled. No problem, said the Occupiers.
What they didn’t know at the time was that Holwadel, the business manager at the School Amici, an Italian language school, had spent the past three months planning an event at Lytle Park on that same day. As a companion project to the Taft Museum of Art’s George Inness in Italy exhibition, Holwadel had put together a month-long celebration called “Cincinnati Dreams Italy.” She persuaded Western & Southern to let her use four empty historical buildings near the park as temporary galleries for local artists (no small feat). To kick it all off, Holwadel organized a bocce tournament. That meant building a bocce court in the park, which in turn necessitated raising $6,000 and acquiring approval from the park board—a body that is not always accommodating of special requests, like those from groups of camping protesters. She’d even lined up pizza, gelato, and espresso vendors to feed the attendees.
The tournament was about to begin when hundreds of protesters filed into the park, some of them with children who used the bocce court as a sandbox. Occupy Cincinnati apologized. “We’re so polite in Cincinnati that we even have very polite protests,” says Holwadel.
But then the police accompanying the demonstration started asking questions about the Italian festival, and it quickly became clear that the Taft Museum had neglected to get a permit. The food vendors were told to leave, the gelato melted, and the bocce tournament was postponed. “Believe it or not, I like a good protest,” Holwadel told me later. “It just was too bad that it happened during my event.”
Aside from squelching the bocce fest, the opening march was a success. Roughly 1,000 people showed up to walk from Lytle Park to Findlay Market and back to Fountain Square, where they set up a sound system and preached, chanted, and sang until even Jeffre lost his voice. For organizers who worried that Cincinnatians would be more interested in watching TV than correcting social ills, it was a proud moment. “We had this huge group of people shouting about democracy and people over profit,” says Erik Crew, a 30-year-old paralegal. “It was a really nice answer to that question: Do people want to see change?”
It was clear from the beginning that the movement appealed to a diverse group of people—black and white, young and old, middle-class and homeless. And it turns out that the employment rate among the protesters was far higher than those jerks who drove by Piatt Park screaming “Get a job!” assumed. Teachers, waitresses, handymen, and social workers intermingled with the customary cadre of hippie/activist types. “Generally, we have a usual suspects crowd,” says Aliya Rahman, a 29-year-old who stages protests for a living at the Center for Community Change. “But [for the Occupy Cincinnati march] we had all of these folks who I had never seen come to anything.”
There’s a reason for that. Put yourself in the shoes of Aaron Roco, a 33-year-old single dad. A couple of years ago, Roco was a well-paid general manager in the hospitality industry. Then he got laid off. Then he got laid off thrice more—four times in 24 months. Now, he’s working two part-time jobs that he describes as “far below my pay grade and experience level.” He remains debt-free, but he struggles to pay his rent and his 4-year-old’s preschool tuition. And given the state of our economy, Roco’s shoes might not feel all that different than your own. “This is something of a universal situation in this country,” he says. “These aren’t abstract things. When you start to slip down the economic ladder, it has really concrete effects in your life.”
By law, Fountain Square closes at 3 a.m., but the group chose 10 protesters to remain past the deadline the night of the march. One of them was Sonnet Gabbard, a 28-year-old graduate student at the University of Cincinnati. Gabbard has been involved in activism since high school, when she wrote a letter to the editor standing up for a teacher whose job was in jeopardy because she had invited an HIV patient to talk to her class. The teacher’s job was spared and Gabbard found her calling. On the night of October 8, Gabbard says, “We were all prepared for arrests.”
But there were none. Instead, a dozen or so cops and those 10 volunteers staged a staring contest until sunrise, when the Occupiers moved to Piatt Park. There they set up camp and for the next week and a half rode out almost nightly visits from the cops, who handed out $105 citations for being in the park after hours (the park is closed between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.). When the police arrived, they would announce that anyone who remained in the park would be cited. Many of the protesters would cross the street to stand on the sidewalk, while those who remained in the camp lined up to accept their tickets (some pinned the citations to their jackets as badges of honor). Occasionally, an officer would show up on a horse or a Segway, just to keep things interesting.
Despite some overblown media reports—in October for instance, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Captain Wiesman was having coffee each morning with the protesters when it really only happened once (“I’ve gotten a lot of crap about that at the office,” he says)—the police and protesters got along quite well. Indeed, Occupy Cincinnati may have been one of the best-managed occupations in the country last fall. Wiesman and other city officials maintained regular contact with the protesters; even after arresting them, he was complimentary. “I’m just thankful that the local Occupy Cincinnati protesters have made a conscious decision to be a peaceful, law-abiding group of people,” he told me.
Because Piatt Park is not designed for camping, the group faced some practical challenges—food, water, where to go to the bathroom—though little seemed to faze them. The food committee posted a grocery list on a bulletin board and on the Occupy Cincinnati website. They cooked at a kitchen in Northside and served meals from a large blue tent. As for the human waste issue, the protesters convinced their homeless members to stop peeing in the alley after the first couple of days. The bathrooms at the Main Library were available during business hours. And at least a couple of local businesses were willing to let the Occupiers use their facilities (though the Garfield Suites did complain that protesters “abused” their restrooms). In cases of major overnight emergencies, a few campers—such as Chelsea Tunnell, a 22-year-old waitress with an apartment in Loveland—were willing to transport people to their homes. They deny that anyone actually defecated in the park. “That’s disgusting,” Gabbard said. “I wouldn’t want to sleep somewhere that that was happening.”
The experience of living together helped solidify the group. Steve Howard, a guitar teacher from Dillonvale, remembers a new camper trying to set up his tent one night. The wind picked up, and then it started pouring. “Then the sprinklers came on—because the city needs to be watering plants in the fall when it’s raining,” Howard said. Immediately, everyone in the camp lent the soggy new Occupier a hand. “It was beautiful.”
Anyone who thought that the arrests would break Occupy Cincinnati didn’t understand the meaning of the movement. The core of Occupy is the consensus decision-making process that they use each night at the General Assembly (GA). Some of the more radical Occupiers nationwide would like to replace our vertical form of representative government with a leaderless, horizontal one modeled on the GA—a proposition that becomes more disconcerting the more time you actually spend at their meetings.
Here’s the basic protocol: Each assembly is led by a moderator who pushes the group through the agenda without voting or taking a stand on any of the issues. Filling this role at many of the group’s early meetings was Jens Rasmussen, an actor from Brooklyn who was in town to play the lead role in Know Theatre’s production of Gruesome Playground Injuries. (Rasmussen had experience with consensus decision-making from participating in Iraq War protests in 2003.) In Piatt Park, the moderator would stand back-to-back with the statue of President Garfield, flanked by two facilitators and a secretary.
To avoid a free-for-all, participants use a series of arcane hand signals. Rather than applaud, members who like what they hear raise both hands and wiggle their fingers. To clarify what a speaker is saying, you make a C-shape with your hand. If there is factual information to add, you karate chop the air with both hands. If the speaker is droning on, you spin your index fingers around in a circle to signal “wrap it up.” If the speaker is off topic or out of order, you make the point-of-process signal (a triangle formed using thumbs and index fingers). And if someone just wants to voice a regular old opinion, they raise one hand. The facilitators call on people based on the frequency with which they speak—meaning people who talk less go first.
When it comes time to vote on an issue, the same motion as applause—waving your fingers above your head—means yes. Extending your arms in front of your body and wiggling your fingers parallel to the ground means you’re on the fence. And making “T. Rex arms” (pulling your arms to your sides, bending your elbows, and wiggling your fingers at the ground) means no. Any motion must have 90 percent approval to pass.
The final hand signal—making an X with your forearms—is the most severe. It means that you are blocking the current vote and will be given a chance to air your grievance. Rasmussen advised that this should be used only in rare circumstances when you have a strong moral or ethical objection to the proposal being voted upon, an objection so strong that you would leave the movement were the motion to pass—which seems like something from an episode of Survivor.
On October 21, the day after the first night of arrests, Rasmussen had just finished explaining the severity of a block when a woman named Courtney stood up and blocked the meeting from even starting. Many of the 23 people who had been arrested the night before were not present and she thought it was unfair to convene without them. She also suspected that some of them were being held against their will at an undisclosed location. It turned out the missing people were just napping after an exhausting night in the Justice Center. When everyone voted to continue the meeting, Courtney stormed off. (She returned the next day, though, which removed some of the doomsday aura from the blocking procedure.)
When meetings are actually able to start, they go like this: First, people issue challenges to the group. Things like, “I challenge everyone to come to the Halloween party.” Next, individuals can ask that proposals be added to the agenda. A vote is taken about each. Then committees give reports. After that, the individual proposals that made it past the previous vote are discussed and voted on again. Then there are acknowledgements—“I acknowledge everyone who had the courage to be arrested”—followed by adjournment with a Tell me what democracy looks like call-and-response.
“It’s a fascinating process,” Rasmussen told me. Absolutely, I thought. But effective? “It really is democratic and open, but still has enough structure that we can actually work through things,” he went on. “Even with this group’s inexperience with it, the process has held up every time.”
That may be technically true, but the process has two major flaws. First, some topics—either outlandish ideas with no chance of ever reaching 90 percent approval or harmless proposals that should pass instantly—are debated endlessly. Second, because of the need for consensus and the ability to block, it isn’t difficult for troublemakers—radicals trying to prevent the group from being “co-opted” by reasonable people—to gum up the works.
Case in point: At the GA on October 26, a protester named Coulter Loeb announced that a splinter cell, Occupy Clifton, had formed at the University Cincinnati. He proposed a sweeping and complicated scheme for creating various “sub-assemblies” around the city, which would all answer to the “metropolitan assembly” in Piatt Park. His plan extended to holding a regional assembly with other cities within a month, a national assembly within the year, and converting all of the governments of the world to consensus decision-making within the decade. Someone sitting next to me joked that within the century the group should “occupy Mars.”
This proposal required no discussion, but that didn’t stop the group from debating it for an hour. A guy named Hugh said the people from Occupy Clifton were putting out slanderous material about Occupy Cincinnati and were not friends. Another person said that Hugh’s allegations were “dangerous.” Someone else said the Occupy Clifton folks should be present to vote on subordinating themselves. There followed a discussion of a group starting in Corryville called Occupy the Hood. And on and on.
As Gabbard noted later, “Democracy isn’t pretty.”
Aside from the citations, the group’s first week in Piatt Park was pretty quiet. During the second week, however, tensions between protesters and city officials escalated, culminating in three successive nights of arrests. Occupy Cincinnati fired the opening volley on Monday, October 17, by suing the city, the park board, and the police department in federal court, arguing that the park rules and their enforcement violated the protesters’ First Amendment right to free speech.
That same day, Arn Bortz and a few other business owners from around Piatt Park went to City Hall to meet with Mayor Mallory, city manager Milton Dohoney, and city solicitor John Curp. Bortz and his cohorts pointed out that the area around Piatt Park is a residential neighborhood, and that those residents have a legitimate interest in having the park clean and accessible. (As Bortz put it: “First Amendment rights don’t include defecating in the park.”)
That Tuesday, Judge Susan Dlott issued a 28-hour temporary restraining order preventing the police from issuing any citations for one night, so that the city and the protesters could discuss a settlement. The two sides met at the main library but no agreement was reached (and the lawsuit remained open at press time).
As if legal matters weren’t complicated enough, that Thursday the park board amended its rules to include specific criteria for permit applications—mostly policies the board claims it has followed for years but had never put in writing. According to park board spokeswoman Deborah Allison, park rules had not changed since 1974 and the board felt it was time to bring them up-to-date. “The rule change was not specifically due to the protest,” she said. To which the Occupiers responded: If the rules haven’t changed in nearly 40 years, why change them now?
Meanwhile, at City Hall, four members of City Council—Wayne Lippert, Leslie Ghiz, Chris Bortz, and Amy Murray—were urging the city manager and police department to remove the occupation. Lippert and Ghiz threatened a vote of no confidence in Dohoney, and Lippert floated a mostly powerless motion asking for arrests. Lippert was worried that the “selective enforcement” of park rules could open the city to litigation. “It was providing a powerful precedent,” he said. But according to Rob Linneman, a lawyer for Occupy Cincinnati who is also using selective enforcement—to argue in favor of the protests—the precedent isn’t all that powerful. “That defense never works,” he said. “Most judges will tell you that if a police officer doesn’t cite the first person for speeding but cites the second person for speeding, that second person still has to pay that fine.”
According to Solicitor Curp, the decision to move from citations to arrests was simply about “progressive enforcement.” The city was talking with the protesters, trying to convince them to leave the park voluntarily. The problem was that the Occupiers couldn’t decide what they wanted.
“There was never a clear line of communication with clarity with this group,” Milton Dohoney said. “It was really the choice of the protesters. Were they willing to abide and clear the park or not? And there came a point in time when some decided they weren’t going to, so they were arrested.”
The police action I witnessed was highly efficient and orderly. Certainly the protesters’ collective pride was bruised. But things could have gone much worse. (Just search “UC Davis Pepper Spray” on YouTube and you get an idea.)
I was talking to a wisecracking protester about his Occupy My Pants sign about an hour after closing time on Friday, October 21, when more than a dozen police cruisers came racing up Vine Street and surrounded Piatt Park. Very quickly, Captain Wiesman and roughly 30 officers entered the park and announced that it was closed. Wiesman made it clear that anyone who stayed would be arrested and that he would much prefer if everyone just left. About 100 protesters crossed over to the opposite sidewalk; the 10 that remained in the park sat down in two lines facing each other. One by one, the police put them in zip-tie handcuffs, walked them to a van, patted them down, and loaded them in while their comrades boisterously recited the First Amendment (“CONGRESS SHALL MAKE NO LAW...”) over and over. In the end, the police made 11 arrests that night. In the heat of the moment, one more protester joined the 10 in the park. “It has that effect on people, apparently,” Linneman said. “People get their First Amendment juices flowing.”
Once everyone was loaded into the vans, they drove off to the District 1 police station for the first round of processing and then to the Justice Center, where they were fingerprinted, photographed, and placed in cramped, bedless holding cells for the night.
One of the arrested protesters was Suhith Wickrema, a 48-year-old social worker for Hamilton County. He has seen the county lay off hundreds of people, all the while paying millions of dollars a year to the Bengals. “For me, that is clear evidence of the disproportionate influence private companies have in our public policy,” he says. Wickrema is in a wheelchair because of complications from cancer treatments, which made extra work for the officers who arrested him. While changing clothes at the Justice Center, he struggled with his socks. “Both young corrections officers knelt down and put the socks on for me,” he said, adding that they were “wonderful.”
On the whole, the only complaint I heard from protesters regarding their treatment was that some corrections officers used harsh language—an indication the Occupiers are probably not suited to a life of crime. After a third night of arrests—this time on Fountain Square—the occupiers ran out of bail money and gave up on camping.
Occupy Cincinnati dubbed the following week “Education Week.” The group held various classes, on topics ranging from yoga to urban planning, in meeting rooms at the main library. Dan La Botz gave a seminar on the industrial revolution. La Botz has a long history as an activist: participating in United Farm Workers strikes led by Cesar Chavez, leaving college to “join the working class” as a truck driver and steel worker, and blocking a federal building to protest the Reagan administration’s moves in Latin America. Surprisingly, his arrest in Piatt Park was the first of his life. In 2010, La Botz represented the Socialist Party in the race for U.S. Senate. Rob Portman won with 2.1 million votes but La Botz garnered 26,454—which is 26,454 more Socialists than I would have guessed live in the state of Ohio. He delivered a fairly typical college history lecture, with a little extra socialist spin. Phrases like “economic servitude” were prominent.
The week after “Education Week” was “Democracy Week,” during which the group tried to influence the November 8 election. They didn’t endorse any candidates locally, but they did oppose the four conservative City Council incumbents who had spoken out against them, and staged protests at their campaign headquarters. For some reason, Lippert’s campaign HQ was in his father’s gynecology office in Christ Hospital, where the receptionists were none too pleased to have a handful of occupiers demonstrating in their waiting room. When a nurse insisted they leave the doctor’s office, the protesters refused on the grounds that it was also a campaign headquarters. Eventually, security escorted them from the building.
Did Occupy Cincinnati make an impact on the City Council elections? Who knows? But all four of those candidates lost their re-election bids. And in a city that historically favors City Council incumbents, ejecting four in one year is unheard of.
Since Election Day, the group has struggled to stay in the headlines. But while cold weather has forced their meetings inside and out of the public eye, Occupy Cincinnati is far from dead. Jesse Jackson addressed the group on November 16, instigating another night of arrests. On Black Friday, they chanted their way through the aisles of several big box stores. To protest subsidies for big oil, they marched through downtown pushing a prop oil derrick built out of ladders. And on December 21, they ruffled feathers by staging a protest at the live nativity scene at Krohn Conservatory, singing carols and handing out flyers in support of the Anna Louise Inn in its fracas with Western & Southern, the sponsor of the event. “Jesus was in fact born a poor child to poor parents that didn’t have anywhere else to go,” Josh Spring told Fox 19 News. “That’s the same state that the women at the Anna Louise [Inn] find themselves in.”
They are still waiting for their day in court, though they thought it had come in early December when Municipal Court Judge Dwane Mallory presided over a hearing for their motion to dismiss the charges against them. The 12 municipal judges who are hearing the cases agreed to use the transcript from Mallory’s hearing to make separate rulings on the hundreds of Occupy cases before the court.
Mallory runs an efficient courtroom in which misdemeanor cases are often decided in a matter of minutes, but it was clear from the start that this hearing was not going to be business as usual. Each side gave lengthy opening statements, making grandiose, nuanced legal arguments and quoting from various Supreme Court cases.
The Occupy lawyers say their case hinges on the validity of the park board’s rules. Rob Linneman—who along with Jennifer Kinsley is representing the Occupiers pro bono—believes the park board’s permit system is unconstitutional if it allows them to discriminate. Linneman sees the case as aligning with Shuttlesworth v. Birmingham, a 1969 Supreme Court decision that declared a parade permit system in Birmingham, Alabama, to be unconstitutional. In the court of public opinion, it doesn’t hurt that the winner of the case was a local hero, the recently deceased Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.
The city’s lawyers say that these cases have nothing to do with free speech. As Curp puts it, “Camping is not speech.” Among other cases, he cites Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence, a 1984 decision in which the court ruled that a National Park Service regulation prohibiting camping on the Mall in Washington, D.C., was constitutional.
But that’s not all: Both sides also made several technical arguments dealing with the protesters’ legal standing; the city charter; a procedural mistake in the filing of new park rules; and a letter that Judge David Stockdale sent in favor of the protesters to the other 11 municipal court judges hearing Occupy cases. And these were just the opening statements. Linneman later spent the afternoon grilling park board director Willie Carden about the enforcement of park rules. The next day, with no end in sight, Mallory postponed the rest of the hearing until the end of January in hopes that the sides might be able to settle. When this issue went to press in early January, talks between the sides had broken down.
Beyond the legal wrangling and the civil disobedience and the political maneuvering, two basic questions remain: What do the Occupiers want? And can they achieve it?
“Honestly, it’s my opinion that the work of a populist movement is actually not to put forward a message or a policy demand,” says Aliya Rahman of the Center for Community Change. “It’s to change climate.”
While Occupy has succeeded in shifting the national discussion, the protesters have loftier goals. They want real change. How to go about getting it is the source of much navel-gazing for the group, resulting in interminable GA debates. “Reform or revolution—that’s one of the classic questions in politics and social movements,” says Tony, an MBA student and head of Occupy Cincinnati’s legal committee who refused to divulge his last name. “Short-term reforms are nice benchmarks. They can hearten people. But the word revolution is on everybody’s lips. I think we’d all like to see a real revolution, a real top-to-bottom system change.”
Realistically, the extent to which Occupy can make an impact will depend on how well it can plug into politics. The anarchists at the core of the movement will never be willing to do that because they reject our governmental system entirely. Likewise, no politician is going to openly align him- or herself with anarchists, not to mention some of the even crazier people—9/11 conspiracy nuts and their ilk—that the movement has attracted.
But surrounding that radical core is a larger body of slightly less radical reformers who seem more willing to work politically. Occupy Cincinnati, which is more moderate than its Wall Street counterpart, has been successful at transferring its rage into actions, such as its campaign against City Council candidates.
The challenge will be to duplicate that on a national scale, without falling prey to the inertia of the two-party system. As La Botz puts it: “The Democratic Party is where social movements go to die.” So, can Occupy organize nationally while maintaining its independence?
Consider this anecdote: On November 3, Occupy Cincinnati held a protest at the Fifth Third Bank at 429 Vine Street. Rasmussen was dressed as the “Piggy Bankster” in a hog mask and suit, with fake money protruding from his collar and cuffs. As people walked past on their lunch breaks, another protester would hand out fake paper currency and urge them to place it in a plastic bucket for Rasmussen to eat. Whenever someone obliged, he would dive in, making strange guttural pig noises. Are these people on the verge of fixing America?
Certainly not. For now at least their all-encompassing theory of corporate culpability is still too vague, idealistic, and naïve. But it’s intriguing street theater and the movement deserves credit for thinking outside the box. Occupy doesn’t have a political action committee or a team of lobbyists. Instead, they’ve harnessed the power of social media, forced police to tiptoe First Amendment lines to break up their camps, and helped nonprofit credit unions achieve record earnings last year. By taking a stand and pushing the envelope, Occupy—and sure, the Tea Party, too, though they do have PACs—has helped keep our government a bit more honest than usual, an essential task in any democracy and one that most citizens don’t take seriously enough.
For that reason alone, long live Occupy.
Originally published in the February 2012 issue. Illustration by Joseph Laney.
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