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How the Occupy [Insert City Here] Movement Began

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"We are the 99 percent." Erin Cass, a local activist, speaks, organizes, and deliberates at Occupy Gainesville's third general assembly on Oct. 9.

CREDIT: Henry Taksier / The Fine Print

It started with an article in Adbusters calling for a popular uprising against corporate greed and corruption, inspired by a wave of insurrections across the world: the Egyptian revolution in December, the Tunisian revolution in January, and finally the Greek and Spanish popular assemblies in May.

Could it happen in a country as divided as the United States? Adbusters thought so: “On Sept. 17, we want to see 20 thousand people flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street for a few months.” The magazine referred to Wall Street as the “financial Gomorrah of America” and “the greatest corrupter of our democracy.” The goal of the occupation, as originally suggested by Adbusters, was simple: remove money from politics.

Two young anarchists and a seasoned community agitator joined forces to launch occupywallst.org, which would serve as an unofficial hub for the movement. “Our goal isn’t to be the leaders of this movement, but rather to grant people the tools they need to rise against corporatocracy,” said Justine, 26, one of the website’s original creators.

“My goal is to empower the people,” said Bill, 57, a retired U.S. Department of Labor employee who worked with Justine to contact over 100 sympathetic organizations, like Industrial Workers of the World, to promote the occupation. “I’m just trying to get 20 thousand people to Wall Street on Sept. 17,” he added. “They can decide their own goals when they get there.” The interview took place in a public chatroom on July 29, four days after occupywallst.org went public.

(The 99 Percent Movement on CampusProgress.org)

The “99 Percent” Awakens

General assemblies occurred in New York City, and the attendees proceeded to rally others. #OccupyWallStreet became a popular hash tag on Twitter, followed by #TakeWallStreet, #Sept17, and #LibertySquare. By Sept. 17, up to 5,000 protesters gathered under the shadow of New York City’s financial sector.

The mainstream media wasn’t impressed. It was Saturday, after all, and Wall Street wasn’t open for business. Two days later, the International Business Times reported, “The leaderless, generally peaceful protest disrupted Wall Street’s normal activity Monday, as police barricades closed off several blocks near Wall Street and the New York Stock Exchange for security.” Corporate media outlets portrayed the protesters as naive, aimless college kids, ignoring the presence of military veterans and blue collar workers. New York City Mayor Bloomberg blasted the occupation for “trying to destroy jobs” shortly after he laid off 700 public workers.

Despite hundreds of arrests, thousands of protesters have formed a seemingly permanent community on Wall Street, complete with its own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Unions across the country marched in solidarity with the occupation. General assemblies and subsequent occupations have popped up in hundreds of towns and more than a few major cities, including Washington, Austin, San Francisco, Baltimore, Madison, Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Protesters across the Atlantic are planning to occupy the London Stock Exchange by Oct. 15. President Obama said he sympathizes with the occupation’s concerns. Congressional Republicans seem to feel threatened.

But the movement isn’t political, at least not in the traditional sense. The Occupied Wall Street Journal condemns the U.S. corporate sector for essentially buying out the Presidency, Congress, Supreme Court, and Fourth Estate over the last two decades. The occupation includes leftists, socialists, anarchists, and environmentalists, but it also includes Ron Paul supporters and even former Tea Party members.

Protesters call themselves the “99 percent,” rising up in defiance against the alleged “one percent” that extract billions of dollars from working people through a crooked system of banking, trade, and taxation. They assert that nothing will change in a system that allows billionaires—like the Koch Brothers—to co-opt movements and purchase elections.

Occupy Gainesville

Florida is no exception: the movement has spread to Miami, Orlando, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, and finally Gainesville. Four general assemblies have occurred downtown. More than a hundred people from all walks of life—students, parents, workers, veterans, artists, teachers, radicals, public servants, and local business owners—have gathered at Bo Diddley Plaza to deliberate, organize, and learn from each other.

The fourth assembly occurred Wednesday at 6 p.m., and an occupation at the center of downtown will commence Thursday at 8 a.m. Organizers haven’t agreed on everything, but one of their central goals is to support—rather than stand in the way—of local workers and businesses. Protests will take the form of street theater, workshops, open discussions, and peaceful direct action toward banks and other centers of corporate influence. As expected, many protesters have lives, families, and jobs, and their hope is that a flexible group of people will stay downtown at any given time. General assemblies will continue every evening at 6 p.m. unless otherwise announced.

“Everyone has their own personal story,” said Maya Garner, 35, the elected facilitator for Gainesville’s general assembly on Oct. 9. Garner, a small business owner and mother of two, envisions a more pure form of democracy in which elected officials, free from corporate influence, can establish incentives for socially conscious businesses. “My main concern is for the environment and how corporations can act without liability for the destruction and bodily harm they inflict on their workers and the world as a whole.”

Garner stressed that her personal viewpoints do not speak for the entire movement, which simply seeks to remove money from politics. “There’s this illusion that it makes a difference whether you’re red or blue, Democrat or Republican, leftist or libertarian. It doesn’t matter what side of the line you’re on, as long as we all work together.”

Organizers voiced their frustration over a wide range of issues—health care, education, unemployment, budget cuts, tuition, foreclosures, climate change, pollution, labor, imperialism, the Federal Reserve, and campaign contributions—and shared solidarity with the protesters on Wall Street.

The general assemblies in Gainesville, like those of other communities, may address local issues as well: the Cabot/Koppers Superfund site, the shortage of transitional housing facilities for troubled veterans, the struggle of local businesses against property developers and national chains, the Biomass controversy, government-imposed restrictions on feeding the homeless, and the fight to support sustainable food from local farms, to name a few.

“Let us be undefined,” Garner said, referring to allegedly shallow media coverage. “So what? Our working groups are based on the Occupy Wall Street model. Within, it’s pure democracy. Everyone has a voice, and the group as a whole decides.”

The Occupy movement’s central demand is broad and revolutionary, but it includes a few stepping stones, like bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act, which would separate investment and commercial banking activities, and repealing the Supreme Court’s ruling last year in favor of Citizens United, which granted an unprecedented level of First Amendment protection to corporate entities.

“I want to be able to look at my kids one day and say I actually tried,” Garner said. “I won’t get attached to the outcome. I’m sensitive and it would destroy me if nothing changed. But I have to be able to look at them and say I tried.”

Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn offered protesters a one-night permit—allowing them to spend the night downtown—with a stipulation that the occupation will not continue afterward. At tonight’s general assembly, organizers agreed that no government official has the authority to call off a peaceful occupation. If necessary, the protesters are ready to fight for their Constitutional right to assemble.

This article originally appeared in The Fine Print, a student publication that receives funding and training as a member of Campus Progress' journalism network.

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