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.