Friday, September 27, 2013

Building a new activism: OccupyMaine at two years

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two years ago, OccupyMaine founded its encampment, which was to become one of the longest-lasting in the country (and one of the few shut down peacefully, rather than by force and police violence). Like the Occupy movement nationally, the local effort can claim some clear victories, though other efforts remain in the works, or even stalled by countervailing forces.
In the national success column, the group’s protests and continued pressure fundamentally changed the discussion about Wall Street risk-taking and government support of the investor class. The principles of Occupy Wall Street have provided populist support for activist politicians like US Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat who has made her name (and many viral videos) holding federal regulators’ feet to the fire, and upping pressure on financial institutions to behave in socially responsible ways.
While student-loan debt has not been forgiven, Congress has taken important steps to improve student borrowing conditions, such as removing for-profit middleman companies from the federally insured loan system, and keeping interest rates down.
More recently, the Occupy goal of reducing income inequality came a big step closer, with the Securities and Exchange Commission proposing a rule that would require publicly traded companies to reveal the difference between CEO salaries and those of average workers at the company. That won’t necessary change anything itself, but it will provide improved transparency for workers, customers, investors, and union representatives to use to evaluate companies’ values and performance.
And Warren has introduced a bill that would restore the Glass-Steagall Act restrictions on banks making bets with depositors’ money (which is backed by, among others, Maine independent Senator Angus King). The modest support for that is, however, dwarfed by the outcry against prospective Federal Reserve Board nominee Larry Summers, who withdrew his name from consideration earlier this month after protests from people concerned about economic  justice and his role in creating the conditions that led to the financial meltdown (as well as those who take issue with his demeaning attitudes toward women).
Still yet to bear fruit, unsurprisingly, is the effort to reform campaign finance laws, which remains as stalled as it has been since the Citizens United decision in 2010. (Though locally, in January 2012, an Occupy-initiated effort resulted in Portland’s city council passing a resolution asking Maine’s congressional delegation to abolish corporate personhood.)
In Maine, and in Portland specifically, Occupy’s local goals are most clearly expressed in a December 2011 petition from the OccupyMaine General Assembly to the Portland City Council, asking for four things, only one of which has received any real attention at all. And there have been efforts involving many people who were involved in OccupyMaine, such as the protest against tar-sands being transported through Maine, and the objections to the sale of Congress Square Plaza to an out-of-state investment company with close ties to Wall Street.
No for threeThe Occupiers asked the city to move its money — anywhere between $70 million and $150 million — away from TD Bank, to a locally owned bank or credit union. TD Bank was once a local bank, founded in the city in 1852 and growing to become Peoples Heritage Bank in 1983; around 2000, it expanded and renamed itself Banknorth, but kept its local ties. In 2007, though, it was bought by Toronto Dominion Bank, which remains the owner today. TD Bank US Holding Company has assets of more than $228 billion, making it the 14th-largest financial holding company in the country, according to the Federal Reserve.
At the time of the request, the city had contract with TD Bank that expired at the end of 2012. That contract has since been renewed, says city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, who notes that municipal demands on financial institutions involve “thousands of transactions daily,” issuance of bonds, and other specialized functions that smaller banks aren’t always equipped to handle.
While the OccupyMaine group never specifically targeted TD Bank, concern over the misdeeds of Wall Street that gutted the economy while fattening the wallets of the rich was a clear focus. Bank of America’s Monument Square branch was specifically picketed on several occasions, for example.
Despite TD’s local origins and relative innocence in the financial collapse, “the city of Portland should support a local bank,” says John Branson, an OccupyMaine member who has served as the group’s attorney but specifies that he is speaking for himself and not for the leaderless group.
Beyond that ideal, environmental issues, which also concern Occupiers, may result in an additional push to get the city to invest locally.  In recent months, TD Bank has come under fire for its $1.7-billion investment in TransCanada, which has proposed the Keystone XL pipeline, the Energy East pipeline, and is related to other efforts that might seek to transport tar-sands oil through Maine or other parts of the Northeast.
Second in the petition was a request for the city to “develop methods for increased direct democracy and public engagement,” specifically by making the State of Maine Room at City Hall available for weekly General Assembly meetings, with ideas coming from those sessions being presented to the City Council.
While that room is available for public use, rental fees in the hundreds of dollars may apply; nonprofits are charged $450 for up to six hours, according to the city’s facilities-rental website.
But Branson says Occupiers had hoped for more: A piece of the proposal was the idea that “the city would encourage citizen participation . . . that there would be a channel of communication between these groups and the city.” He says that unfortunately, there has been “no effort to connect what’s going on in those rooms and what people are talking about [there] with the direction of the city.”
The petition also asked the city to “create a 24-hour free speech and assembly space in Monument Square where people can assemble at any hour to engage in non-commercial First Amendment activity.” Councilors rejected that idea, as well as a modification that would have placed the free-speech zone in Lincoln Park instead.
And while in its lawsuit against the city, OccupyMaine did ask Judge Thomas Warren to rule on that rejection, “it’s never been fully decided,” says Branson. He is clear that “the city has to make some space available for First Amendment activity beyond the curfew,” but there is, at present, no provision for that in the city code.
Brian Leonard, another OccupyMaine member, says he wasn’t surprised at the rejection, saying city officials are not going to be very energetic about creating a space in which they and their actions might be roundly criticized.
That said, in the context of the OccupyMaine lawsuit, the city did describe a practice that it said would not violate local laws, which amounts to express written permission for a 24-hour continuous march through Lincoln Park: “OccupyMaine members could march through the park after 10:00 p.m. while expressing their message in a peaceful way, and there would be no ordinance violation.” It also gives OccupyMaine specific permission to engage in “their expressive activities twenty-four hours a day on adjoining sidewalks or in other public spaces not subject to the City’s Parks Ordinance.” (See “10 Fun Things in the OccupyMaine-Portland Lawsuit,” by Jeff Inglis, August 24, 2012.)
That issue almost arose again in the context of the Congress Square Plaza protests, when people planned to spend the weekend in the square starting on Friday, September 6, until the council’s meeting to decide the fate of the park on Monday, September 8. But Police Chief Mike Sauschuck arrived in plain clothes, with no accompanying officers, and worked out a peaceful way for the protesters to make their point and leave.
“At some point, I think the issue’s going to be reviewed in a court of law,” but not necessarily as a result of an Occupy-related protest, Branson says.
Fighting homelessnessThe petition also asked the city council to fight homelessness in Portland; that request has been met with action, though not always in the way local Occupiers appear to have hoped.
The city has undertaken several initiatives to combat homelessness in Portland, including getting increased federal and state money to help find permanent housing for homeless people, and engaging in what is often called a “housing first” model of addressing other problems often faced by homeless people, such as addiction, medical, and mental-health issues. In that model, people are provided with housing to form a steady and stable base on which to make improvements to their health and well-being, as opposed to being required to overcome addiction or find medical care while still living on the streets.
People are definitely getting help: 300 people who had used city shelters in the past are now in permanent housing, the Forecaster reported in August. Other initiatives include sending out more workers to offer assistance to homeless people on the street or in their campsites, and working to arrange for more housing to be built or converted into housing for people without shelter. (See “Homelessness: Tackling a Growing Need,” by Deirdre Fulton, October 5, 2012.)
But the city’s efforts are far from the full-support effort Occupiers hoped for. While the city and the relevant local non-profits have trumpeted decreased demand for homeless shelters, it may be that some of that drop are because of increased requirements on those who wish to stay: people who want to stay at city shelters indefinitely must accept help finding permanent housing.
Branson is particularly critical of new city laws that target homeless people, such as banning panhandling from the median strips in roads. “The real goal is to get these folks out of sight,” he says. “It was a visible reminder of poverty and homelessness in our society.”
Beyond the PetitionOccupiers have also appeared in other areas of Portland’s public life. Holly Seeliger traces the beginnings of winning a seat on the Portland School Committee to her involvement with OccupyMaine. It “provided me an opportunity to meet and network with local and regional activists, introduced me to the Green Party through members that stopped by the camp in Lincoln Park, and encouraged me to ‘think globally, act locally’ and run” for office, she writes in an email to the Phoenix. She is not the only OccupyMaine member to have run for office, though she is the only one who succeeded in her campaign.
A small group has continued to fight foreclosure, advising people whose homes are in foreclosure, or who are at risk of being foreclosed upon, on ways to defend their property and their rights.
Other Occupiers, including Leonard, have joined the fight against tar sands being transported through Maine. (See “South Portlanders Petition to Put Tar-Sands Project on the Ballot,” by Deirdre Fulton, June 14.)
And a great many have reappeared in public consciousness through the effort to save Congress Square Plaza from being sold in a hurried, discounted sale to an Ohio-based investment company run by former Wall Street fat cats. The concrete space was home to several Occupy protests during the height of the group’s activity, including one against President Barack Obama’s fundraising dinner at the Portland Museum of Art.
The plaza has been the site of general-assembly meetings and other actions by OccupyMaine and related groups for more than a year, since RockBridge Capital first proposed buying the park from the city. Many ideas have come forward for revitalizing the space (for example, see “Reimagining Portland,” by Calvin Dunwoody, August 24, 2012). The council falsely limited debate to RockBridge’s proposal or the status quo, ignoring fascinating options from design firms and citizens alike.
As a result of this limited, broken process, there is likely to be more protesting and civil disobedience in the coming weeks and months; Leonard says when the time comes, “I’ll be there to record it.”
Opposing corporate ownershipThe Congress Square Plaza situation is emblematic of the problem Occupiers identified two years ago: important organs of our democracy no longer answer to the people, but act as if they have been bought and paid for by corporate interests.
“They wouldn’t sell me that park for $500,000,” Leonard scoffs, noting the pitifully low value placed on public space in the heart of the downtown, even by those charged with protecting the public’s interest.
During the conversations about what should be done with the one-third of the park that the city did not sell to RockBridge (see “Talk Now About the Future of Congress Square?” by Jeff Inglis, September 20), Leonard says he’ll propose putting up a podium at which the six councilors who voted in favor of the deal “can resign from the City Council.”
As Branson puts it, all these individuals are putting in so much effort because they see real problems in our city and our society, but from the national down through the local levels, they “have given up on Congress and elections as a solution.” Instead, they have ushered in “a new form of activism and community involvement,” one that has already long outlasted the encampments, and spread far beyond Lincoln Park. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Press releases: Down with talking heads

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Television producers love sit-down, in-studio TV interviews. They’re cheap and easy, with controlled lighting, and all the right camera gear at hand. But it’s next to impossible to do them well. Charlie Rose and the late David Frost and Charlie Rose are great, as are Amy Goodman and Lesley Stahl.
But here in Maine, our versions of it are largely crap. Whether it’s Jennifer Rooks pandering to some academic or official on Maine Public Broadcasting’s MaineWatch or the fresh-faced early crew WPXT talking to whomever will show up at an ungodly hour of the morning, we need less banal chatter and more substance about Maine people on our screens. Sure, WCSH’s Rob Caldwell has some chops, but it’s been a while since he’s been in a situation where they’re really useful. (Get that man a sit-down with Paul LePage! Or any leader of the Maine Democratic Party, if there is such a thing.)
To the rescue — maybe — comes Shannon Moss, let go by the Hearst-owned WMTW Channel 8 earlier this year. She had worked there since 2007, and before that at the Gannett-owned WCSH Channel 6 starting in 1999. Now she’s starting her own show, Split Screen with Shannon Moss, which she’ll produce and host on WPXT Channel 43 (Saturdays at 9 am and 10:30 pm), WPME Channel 35 (Sundays 11:30 am), and her own site, (streaming live 24/7).
Whether she’s able to give Maine something new in the TV-personality-talks-to-someone-else department remains to be seen. In a web preview, she says each show will have two segments. One will be “an interview with a local celebrity, but in an unexpected and unique location. And then I’ll introduce you to a Mainer you’ve never heard of, who has an unforgettable story.”
This sounds promising, so let’s help her out. Her website lists several upcoming famous guests, so here are some ideas of “unexpected and unique locations” where they could be interviewed that would give us something new. Each person gets one serious suggestion and one ironic or comic one, but we’re not saying which is which.
Former US senator Olympia Snowe An Occupy Congress Square rally | A Portland diner other than Becky’s
Former governor and for-profit education financier Jock McKernan Lunchtime at the USM food court in the campus center | Over dinner at Preble Street
Swordfishing captain, Perfect Storm survivor, memorist, and cookbook author Linda Greenlaw Hunting moose in Maine’s North Woods | During an open-ocean swim
Two-time Olympic gold-medalist snowboarder and restaurant owner Seth Wescott In an office cubicle | On waterskis
Guitarist and singer Don Campbell In the upstairs green room at Geno’s, during a Dead Season show | Singing for quarters on Exchange Street
Guy who’s less funny than he thinks Bob Marley At a funeral home | During a Portland Comedy Co-Op show at Mama’s Crowbar
As far as meeting up with less-famous Mainers, let’s hope Moss doesn’t go down the road of the tired Bill Green’s Maine show, or the “Doug’s Discovery” and “Where’s Amy” segments from local news shows of years past. She should put on Mainers’ televisions those who really get the shaft from the state’s mainstream media: immigrants, young people (with and without health-care coverage), drug addicts, Occupiers, the under-employed, and Portland panhandlers.
Moss’s website says she’s looking for “everyday heroes so we can give them the attention — and the round of applause — they deserve.” Marginalized people who manage to eke out their livings and their lives despite pressure from Republican and Democratic politicians, bankers, and society in general are indeed heroes and survivors, whose appearance on local television would be a major improvement to the white-on-white, privileged-class diet we are served at present.

Civic Action: Talk now about the future of Congress Square?

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If you have ideas for the future of Congress Square, the city of Portland is interested in hearing them. Except, of course, if those ideas include revitalizing the concrete plaza at the corner of Congress and High streets. The city council voted Monday night to sell two-thirds of that public space to Rockbridge Capital, which is renovating the old Eastland Park Hotel.
If you think the sale is putting the cart before the horse, you’re far from alone. In fact, we warned about this very prospect more than a month ago: See “Getting Congress (Square) to Work,” by Jeff Inglis, August 16.
Nevertheless, the city has gone ahead and made the deal with Rockbridge. Opponents say they’ll go through the courts to challenge both the decision and the city’s refusal last week of a petition that would have increased restrictions on selling city-owned parks.
If you still want to have your voice heard — or at least listened to and then ignored — then put these two events on your calendar:
Monday, September 23 @ 6:30 pm | State Theatre, 609 Congress St, Portland
Wednesday, September 25 @ 6:30 pm | Williston-Immanuel United Church, 156 High St, Portland (enter off Deering Place)
And if you’re unable to attend but still want to put in your two cents’ worth, visit or
Of course, even if everyone in Maine put in their two cents’ worth twice, that still wouldn’t equal the $524,000 price Rockbridge is paying for the formerly public space.

Water Rights: Activists fight Poland Spring, conflicted regulators

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Objecting to the prospect that allegedly biased state officials might approve a decades-long deal that would let Poland Spring bottle and sell for massive profit Maine’s naturally occurring drinking water, a growing group of Mainers is stepping up its activity with an audience-participation protest in Portland during this week’s First Friday Art Walk.
The deal, arguments for and against which were heard by the Maine Public Utilities Commission on Tuesday, is between Nestle, the Swiss-based multinational conglomerate that owns Poland Spring, and the privately owned Fryeburg Water Company. It is a 25-year agreement that would have four five-year automatic extension periods.
Under the contract, which needs PUC approval to take effect, Nestle would pay for at least 75 million gallons of water each year (roughly the amount it now takes, though it’s allowed to take nearly twice as much).
The current rate of one-tenth of one cent per gallon means Nestle is agreeing to pay just $75,000 for all that water, though if the water company raises its rates in the future, Nestle would have to pay more. Nevertheless, the markup is pretty big: a 24-pack of 16.9-ounce bottles of Poland Spring water can be found for $6.99, or $2.20 a gallon — 2200 times as expensive. The deal would also have Nestle pay a flat fee of $144,000 a year in rent for its use of water company land as a loading station for trucks taking water to Nestle bottling plants in Hollis and Kingfield.
The protest event’s announcement comes just days after Portland Press Herald investigative reporter Colin Woodard revealed that all three members of Maine’s Public Utilities Commission, which will rule on the contract, and the head of the Public Advocate’s Office, which is charged with defending the public interest in utilities-regulation proceedings, have longstanding professional ties to Nestle.
One PUC member, Mark Vannoy, who worked as an environmental engineer on as many as 15 Nestle projects in Maine, has already recused himself. So has Public Advocate Timothy Schneider (his deputy, William Black, is handling the case). PUC member David Littell, who was a former partner in Pierce Atwood, Nestle’s lobbying firm, but never worked directly with the company, has said he will not recuse himself. The remaining PUC member, chairman Thomas Welch, is an attorney who used to represent Nestle; he is considering recusing himself — which would render the PUC unable to approve the deal.
Friday’s event, called “45 Years of No,” in reference to the projected duration of the deal, will have large and small stencils of the word “NO,” decorated by various artists, and blank ones to be filled in by visitors to the show. Various art supplies will be available for use; guest speakers will address issues related to the topic of water rights, and other activists will be in attendance to answer questions from the public.
The show, including the audience-participation elements, will be up through September, after which it will go on the road, taking the big and small “NO” artwork to the State House in Augusta, as well as Nestle’s Maine headquarters in Poland, and the town of Fryeburg.
A special element of the road show will be what organizer William Hessian calls “a human gallery” — all the artists, professional and amateur, will be invited to attend the exhibitions and stand with their artwork, to show not just their opinion of the deal, but their faces.
‘45 YEARS OF NO’ | September 6 @ 5-9 pm | Meg Perry Center, 544 Congress St, Portland |

Friday, September 13, 2013

Palpable suffering: A crushing tale, beautifully told

Published in the Portland Phoenix

It’s rare that we can put a human face on American foreign policy. And even rarer that the visage belongs to a person who steps willingly into the limelight — though admittedly for other reasons. A House in the Sky, a new memoir by Amanda Lindhout and co-written by Portlander Sara Corbett (a writer for the New York Times Magazine, among other publications), splits the difference beautifully, and devastatingly.
In 2008, Lindhout, a Canadian reporter cutting her teeth in the harshest places on the planet (Afghanistan and Iraq during the wars), went to Somalia to write about the unrest there. Warlords, tribal leaders, and government officials with varying degrees of popular legitimacy were engaged in a massive tug-of-war; the US, through the “war on terror,” backed several opposing players, sometimes simultaneously.
Lindhout stays away from the geopolitics; her story is very much her own, though it is important to read it not just as a human tale of suffering, resourcefulness, and survival, but also as an object lesson about the real cost of US intervention overseas.
Four days into her trip to Somalia, Lindhout was captured by a band of militants who held her for 459 days. That’s not a spoiler: The only spoiler that could possibly exist is Lindhout’s name on the cover — which is at times the only reassurance a reader has that she actually survived the ordeal. (Also, you can meet her on Friday at the Portland Public Library.)
No matter what you imagine might become of a white Western woman kidnapped by Islamic  militants (who are mostly in their late teens) in the middle of an anarchic gangland, the reality is far worse. Seriously: This is a soul-breaking book about the daily, hourly, secondly ordeal of surviving a mental and emotional crucible that would, at many times, have been easier to exit feet-first.
With Corbett’s expert help and reporting, Lindhout’s story is told directly, vividly, without artifice, hyperbole, or euphemism. A scene in which she hears her mother being beaten, and her mom fighting back against her boyfriend, is told quietly, understatedly. She expertly seals the deal: “In the bunk below me, Nathaniel started to cry. ‘Are you scared?’ I whispered, staring at the dark ceiling. It was an unfair question. He was six years old.” Lindhout was just nine. Her stark self-awareness forms the foundation of a uniquely probing reader-author connection.
The account of her captivity, which forms the second two-thirds of the book, is an unrelenting read, detailing the range of physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual weapons employed against her in an attempt to extract a ransom, but always including elements of Lindhout’s impressive depth of spirit. She explains — often approaching detached wonder at her own resilience — what, exactly, happened to her, and how she found within herself the will, the means, the power to carry on.
During one particularly brutal assault, she describes an out-of-body experience: “From above, I could see two men and a woman on the ground. The woman was tied up like an animal, and the men were hurting her, landing blows on her body. I knew all of them, but I also didn’t. I recognized myself down there, but I felt no more connected to the woman than to the men in the room. I’d slipped across some threshold I would never understand. The feeling was both deeply peaceful and deeply sad. What I saw was three people suffering, the tortured and the torturers alike.”
It is left to us, as it is to Lindhout herself, to make sense of, or peace with, this horrific tale — and we in the US must pay special attention to the detailed personal accounting she offers of the ripple effects of American power.
Perhaps we can even start to take our lead from Lindhout, who has chosen to transcend her suffering by bringing to her tormentors not condemnation, but compassion — in the form of a foundation providing educational support to young people in Somalia, kids very like her captors.
AMANDA LINDHOUT + SARA CORBETT | at the Rines Auditorium, Portland Public Library, 5 Monument Square, Portland | September 13 @ 6:30 pm | | Free
A HOUSE IN THE SKY | by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett | 384 pages | Scribner | $27

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Crime Watch: Downtown shops ‘under siege’ from thefts

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Two prominent Commercial Street retailers are installing video-surveillance and other security equipment in the wake of a summer marred by thefts.
Late last month, both Motifs and Old Port Wine Merchants and Cigar Shop stepped up security, and are trying to get help combating crime in the high-pedestrian-traffic area around their shops.
Motifs owner Paula Jalbert says crime “has gotten aggressive this summer, very aggressive,” well beyond “normal run-of-the-mill shoplifting.” Thieves are “more organized, and it seems to be groups”
operating together.
“On July 5 my petty cash bag was stolen right out from under us,” she says, among other thefts of money and easily marketable items. “They’re looking for purses, wallets, cell phones, iPads, computers.”
The thieves are “older — they’re not young kids,” Jalbert says.
Earlier this summer, a woman selling jewelry from a sidewalk table set up to cater to cruise-ship visitors was found to not have made the pieces herself but stolen them from Motifs and at least one other Old Port shop.  When confronted while brazenly selling them in the open air just down the street from where the items had been taken, the woman packed hurriedly and left the area; she hasn’t been back, Jalbert says.
So in August, she stepped up security, or, as she puts it, “I’ve gone on lockdown.”
“Now I have security cameras and they record video;” she has added a keycode lock to her office door, and all the shop’s clothes have security tags on them, too. She says the preventive steps have resulted in a significant dropoff in thefts.
Next door at Old Port Wine, owner Jacques deVillier has also stepped up security, a move he lamented in an email to customers.
He lost several hundred dollars’ worth of wine a few weeks back, and earlier in the summer police caught a well-dressed middle-aged man with a bag full of stolen cigars from his shop.
“This street is rampant,” deVillier says. Now he has four cameras feeding live video to monitors at the cash register, as well as recording footage for later review if needed.
It’s not a move he made willingly. “With much trepidation I have wrestled with the decision to install video cameras,” deVillier wrote in an August 26 email. “I have put off doing this because I think of this store as not just a wine shop but a place where all of my friends can congregate. Placing cameras seemed to be a matter of distrust and not the message I’ve received over the last seven years in Portland or the message I wanted to communicate to my friends. I love being here and I had hoped with Portland’s growth things could remain the same; things do change unfortunately, and not always for the better.”
Both shop owners say police and city officials need to do more, though Steve Hewins, interim executive director of Portland’s Downtown District, a nonprofit comprised of businesses in the city center, says he didn’t hear anything about the topic at his group’s August membership meeting.
“We’ve got great police, but how much can they do?” deVillier says.
Jalbert, who has owned retail stores in the Old Port since she opened Communiques in 1981, says she feels “like we’ve been under siege.”
She says police officers on patrol now “make a point of walking through every store” — but that only started about three weeks ago, after offices upstairs in Jalbert’s building were hit by thieves. She says officers blame the uptick in thefts on drug users, telling her illegal “drugs are on the rise in the Portland area.”
Portland Police Department spokesman Lieutenant James Sweatt says some thefts — such as those of electronics or other easily resellable items — could be connected to the drug trade, but others — of merchandise, for example — may be because a person actually wants the item stolen.
He says, though, that “there hasn’t been a significant change whatsoever” in the number of thefts reported citywide this year, compared to 2011 and 2012. He doesn’t have data broken down by region within the city, but “we’re not seeing a trending pattern here” at the police department. Sweatt did say that “businesses that do a little bit better job at security . . . are less likely to be targeted.”