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On the scene with OccupyMN: My stories and yours

This occupation, above all, is about the ultimate expressions of free speech.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
This occupation, above all, is about the ultimate expressions of free speech.

The Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to more than two dozen cities. Last Friday, the protest came to Minneapolis. OccupyMN is now in its seventh day. For those of you have have not visited or taken part in the protests, I can say one thing with absolute certainty: It is not like anything you think it is.

How can I know? Because it is not like anything we’ve seen from the grassroots in recent decades. The Iraq War inspired wave after wave of national and international protest, but these kinds of “occupations” are usually undertaken by small groups of inspired people and they do not spread.

It is not just the movement that has spread, but the template for a people’s occupation.

(I was live tweeting from OccupyMN Tuesday, and I’ve included links to my tweets throughout this post.)

Twice daily there is a General Assembly, where conflicts are resolved, demands debated, and talking points honed. It is a closely managed process. Anybody who wants to speak gives their name to a moderator. When somebody is speaking, there is interaction from the rest of the people gathered, but it is mostly silent. There are hand signals and everybody knows them. There is a signal for “get to the point” and one to show your opposition to a point. There are signals of approval and a desire for direct response to a comment.

The discussion is so orderly and focused on process that it took me 15 minutes of observation on Tuesday to realize they were discussing something rather explosive. Supporters of the controversial political activist Lyndon LaRouche had propped up a giant poster of President Obama with a Hitler mustache. “So we’re the Tea Party now?” one passerby quipped.

A protest with a sponsor or a more traditional organizing committee would likely have just told the sign’s owners that they were not welcome and send them packing. This occupation, above all, is about the ultimate expressions of free speech, and that was the matter under discussion. Some wanted the sign gone; some wanted it less visible, maybe on the ground; and some insisted it should stay where it is because free speech is free speech.

One General Assembly participant explained that the movement had been striving from its start in New York City to keep the faces of political figures out of the protests, that these protests were not about specific politicians, but a culture of greed.

There was no clear resolution. Somebody came to invite any interested protesters to attend the Hennepin County Board meeting and most attendees popped up and headed for the doors of the Government Center.

About two dozen protestors lined up at the metal detectors made their way to the 24th floor, where they were asked by an OccupyMN organizer to be respectful and just listen. And that is exactly what they did. As the county board discussed bridge reconditioning, lead hazards and bituminous overlays, rows of mostly young protesters in ripped jeans and ball caps listened, laughing with one board member who was laughing at a process misstep and focusing intently as the board moved from one agenda item to the next.

A speaker addressing protesters at Tuesday's march to Wells Fargo.
MinnPost/Jeff Severns Guntzel
A speaker addressing protesters at Tuesday’s march to Wells Fargo.

At a march to Wells Fargo that day, the movement showed its capability to produce bodies — even on a Tuesday morning — and its diversity. The crowd of hundreds who marched to Wells Fargo were diverse in race and age.

Filling up the lobby of Wells Fargo, another hand signal came into play. Fists in the air don’t really mean what they used to. When the fists punch the air at OccupyMN, it means be quiet. It was a remarkable thing to witness. A cacophony of chants echoing inside a cavernous lobby went silent in a blink so organizers could call upstairs to request a meeting with the Wells Fargo CEO. There was no meeting, so the fists went down, and the chanting started up again: “We’ll be back! We’ll be back! We’ll be back!”

No matter what you think about the tactics of the protesters, it would be foolish not to participate in the conversation they have started. What do the protests mean to you? Spare me the quips about jobless hippies — it doesn’t get us anywhere and it demonstrates ignorance about what is actually happening downtown and across the country.

Let’s talk about the issues: What have you heard from the protesters that resonates with you? What have you experienced at the protests that would help people to understand the movement better? What does the term “People’s Agenda” mean to you?

Or to borrow a question from the OccupyMN discussion box downtown, “What is your story?”

Speak up in the comments section below and I’ll pull what you are saying up into this post.

UPDATE: I am not pulling comments into the post. What ended up happening was a pretty long conversation with lots of specific replies. Best just to read through it where it is! Thanks everybody for your participation.

Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by Pat Black on 10/13/2011 - 11:43 am.

    I found the protest dialogue to be inclusive and reflective. I found protesters committed to preventing anyone to put this movement into a bite-size box and hy-jacking the process. I find them skilled at collecting the diverse reasons people are called to be there, and giving them a platform deserving of important and worthy ideas for conversation. I find protesters able to hold all the complexities of these differences without feeling the need to reduce them to their simplest common denominator and able to hold their position no matter how hard the media batters them to reduce it.

    I find myself rejuvenated that Americans can entertain differences not by debating and dismissing as we see in main stream political parties but by listening and reflecting before speaking. I am energized by the collaboration required to maintain this presence. And I have hope again that we can find a way to move this country away from the mean-spirited narcissism that seems to driving political policy.

  2. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 10/13/2011 - 12:17 pm.

    Can everyone agree to sign a petition to prosecute the financial criminals, no matter which political party is responsible?

    Sign the petition:

  3. Submitted by Sandy Ahlstrom on 10/13/2011 - 01:04 pm.

    Reading through the news on the Post today, I was struck by the article about Occupy MN by Jeff Gunzel! It was refreshing to read about the movement from the point of view of honest reflection. Jeff wrote about the parts of our movement with open-eyes and ears. He described the interactions at the General Assembly with a diserning mind. . . I enjoyed his treatment of the discussion over the poster of the President and the description of the folks who went up to hear the Henn. County Board mtg. I hope many read, reflect and then go down to be part of the peoples’ movement that’s sweeping the country. Bring a treat for them if you like but more importantly share your ideas and listen to theirs!

  4. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 10/13/2011 - 01:25 pm.

    I confess that I do not yet see the point of the protest. Greed? Really? Debt=Slavery? Really?

  5. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/13/2011 - 02:56 pm.

    @4: Do you not agree that greed-fueled speculation did a great deal of damage to the economy, and particularly to those who were not engaged in it (and that, actually, those who were were “bailed out” and got their bonuses anyways?). Are you comfortable with the crazy distribution of wealth, the likes of which are seen nowhere else in the first world? I guess if you deny the former and are fine with the latter, then indeed this protest has nothing for you.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/13/2011 - 04:12 pm.

    @#5: Valid points, but they ignore the fact that the greed-fueled speculation was engaged in by people at all points on the economic ladder. It wasn’t just “them” that took us down, it was “us”, whether you want to look at housing, automotive industry labor agreements, union-busting, those calling for and accepting insupportable tax cuts or deductions and, yes, those who feel that the cure for all of our current economic woes lies with the 1%.

    We all ate at the trough, we all have an obligation to re-fill it, some with tax increases and reduced deductions, others with fewer or reduced government benefits, including individuals, farmers, small and giant corporate America and every other group that has had it’s snout in the slop.

    I guess I’ll have to join the party to represent that point of view, because I’ve yet to see it reflected in media reports.

  7. Submitted by Dave Eischens on 10/13/2011 - 04:36 pm.

    @#4: From a spectator position it’s harder to see the point(s). Why not spend an afternoon this weekend at the People’s Plaza? You could get the real info without any media filter.

    I don’t speak for OMN, but my take is that it’s not solely about greed/money. Perhaps more about power and who is really being represented within our Republic. And are the rules heavily favoring a small segment of our population?

    Plus a lot of other “points”. You should go. We took our kids and showed them what democracy looks like. Called it a fieldtrip class in Civics.

  8. Submitted by Lora Jones on 10/13/2011 - 06:29 pm.

    #7 — Ah, yes, civics! That once required course that Reagan, the Texas School Board and NCLB has effectively eliminated. We’re “consumers” now, not citizens, or didn’t you get the memo?

    I, for one, wholeheartedly agree that the current structure of our society, government and tax code is (hopefully not irredeemably) broken. What was once based on a sense of duty and love of country, politics has become an endless search for enough money to win the next election and avoiding angering corporate interests by actually representing the best interests of your human constituents. How far we have fallen to hang on news of Kardasians and Kate and William and fall asleep praying for a lottery win because that’s the only way anyone not born to money or possessed of super-human athletic ability has SOME chance of being more than a couple paychecks or one medical crisis away from bankruptcy.

    GOPers and Banksters had tons of fun ranting about the “moral hazard” of doing anything to actually solve the mortgage foreclosure crisis, while turning a blind eye to the moral bankruptcy of Goldman Sachs et al. creating the bubble, getting Georgy Shrub to bail them out and then going back to lining their pockets again with other people’s money.

    Good on all those who are showing up at OWS! I’ll do my best to make it down there soon.

  9. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 10/13/2011 - 06:36 pm.

    @6: Most of us don’t have enough money to engage in speculation. The fact of the matter is that during this whole debacle – the last ten years or so – the balance of wealth shifted drastically toward the rich. Conveniently – and not coincidentally – their effective tax rate is lower than the rest of ours anyways. So it comes time to look for people to pay it back, it’s pretty hard not to look to them first.

  10. Submitted by Dave Eischens on 10/14/2011 - 12:10 am.

    Lora and Jeff – your comments are so right on. I don’t like to refer to you as numbers because that’s isolating. But for thread continuity #8 and #9.

    I think it’s time for all of us on the sidelines to get involved and get on the right side of history. No, we don’t have to camp at the Peoples Plaza. We don’t have to travel to DC. But we do have to speak up and make our voices heard. We have to do what we can and publicly call bs on focus-group memes. This is a pivotal point in our essence as a nation. Engage or be left behind.

    Let OMN evolve, we deserve it.

  11. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/14/2011 - 05:22 am.

    It’s interesting that you’d mention Goldman Sachs and republicans in the same breath, Lora, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were the top two recipients of their 2008 campaign contributions.

    Obama, Barack – $691,930
    Clinton, Hillary – $468,200

    Other top contributors to Obama’s campaign were:
    JPMorgan Chase & Co $808,799
    Citigroup Inc $736,771
    UBS AG $532,674
    General Electric $529,855
    Morgan Stanley $512,232

    How the Flea Party can rage about the evil banks and corporate America in general and never name names is amusing to say the least. Can anyone ever remember a political demonstration that opposes some actions of government where the current politician in power is never mentioned? Me neither.

    The angry and delusional Left of the 60s at least had the integrity to denounce LBJ by name.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/14/2011 - 07:10 am.

    Mr. Tester seems to have overlooked the fact that elections are now contests between the extremists on one side and the extremists on the other, thanks to decades of gerrymandering. And both sides depend on corporate money to win elections, which means the corporations have essentially suborned the system to their own interests.

  13. Submitted by Brian Nelson on 10/14/2011 - 08:09 am.

    Dennis, in 2004 financial firms gave significantly more to Bush. Why? Because they hedge their bets. When it looked to be Hilary or Obama then they got the money. Once again, Dennis, you are the victim of your own partisanship and short-term memory. Here are donors from their respective top tens:

    Bush: Goldman Sachs Group $295,950.00
    Kerry: Goldman Sachs Group $127,750.00

    Bush: Morgan Stanley $486,125.00
    Kerry: Morgan Stanley $100,204.00

    Bush: Citigroup $246,645.00
    Kerry: Citigroup $169,254.00

    What Big Finance wants is deregulation and if they can pay-off Obama or Perry or Romney they’re going to do it. After all this is about people like you, Dennis, who are against financial regulation. Guys like you want to do away with New Deal regs because the people you shill for have taught you to think regs are damaging to the economy. We are paying the price for that as a result.

    Dennis, we are in this mess because of private lenders like Countrywide Financial. Also, we are here because Wall Street repackaged bad loans and the private Moody’s and Standard & Poors kept their mouths shut. We are where we are because quasi-banking institutions like Lehman Brothers exploited weak financial regulation to create bank-type threats to the financial system without being subject to bank-type regulations.

    Dennis, most of this deregulating and bad loaning occurred when your Con Party had the White House and both houses of Congress. But, your Con Party continues to propagate the myth that the sole cause of the crisis was Barney Frank forcing banks to lend money to the irresponsible. Why your stooges want to ONLY put Barney Frank in jail is absurd.

    So, how does your Con Party want to fix this? Tax cuts! More deregulation! Dennis, you know as well as I do this is really about the robber barons.

    It’s funny how the various Con candidates occupying the many debate podiums are singing ever so sweetly about tax cuts for robber barons and the corporate entities, yet hardly is the word “deficit” mentioned anymore.

    Reagan’s rule about deficit’s has quietly crept back into the party’s platform.

  14. Submitted by craig furguson on 10/14/2011 - 09:01 am.

    On the topic of greed, I find that we are all greedy and want something for free, the rich just appear to be better skilled at it. I was giving some free water bottles, pencils, etc,away for a promotion once, and I was amazed at how many people, rich and poor, came through the line repeatedly. That’s one of the issues with health care, if you get the major portion of your health care paid through the govt or employer, you really don’t pay attention to the cost. But people will drive 5 miles out of their way for a nickel gas discount. We are all crazy for a free deal or getting something for nothing.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/14/2011 - 09:18 am.

    I’ve seen a couple comments that try to spread he greed blame around. Yes, during what I call the “The Great Stupid” (1979-present?) Americans en masse decided public policy was irrelevant, and that it was a good idea to just turn everything over to the greediest people our society produces. Remember- greed was good. So the greedy would solve all our problems so we could go shopping and watch sports. That stupidity was our mistake, but the greed was not universal. The fact remains that the greediest people in society gravitate towards the financial sector, and crime- or both. All bubbles and financial crashes are the product of corporate/white collar crime waves, they are not “natural” economic cycles. Now it was stupid to turn everything over to a bunch of crooks and hope it would all work out, but it was not a “greedy” thing to do.

  16. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/14/2011 - 11:27 am.

    @9 and 15:

    There are many ways to speculate. Millions bought homes at ridiculous prices, betting on continued increases in value to build equity and allow them to move up the ladder in a very short time, relative to historical home values. We told ourselves that the 3 BR ramblers or 2 BR bungalows in which we were raised were inadequate and that we all deserved 4 BR monstrosities with a bath for every bedroom, deluxe appointments and 3 car garages to hold our leased SUVs, speed boats, snowmobiles, motorcycles, and other toys, purchased on credit or with home equity loans that destroyed any buffer against declines in property values. Are we supposed to be surprised that there were those ready to take advantage of our cupidity?

    Millions more entered the stock market, in the belief that they could outsmart the big boys. Again, they often did that with funds obtained from home equity loans, with the same results.

    It was not simply stupidity, it was our greed which blinded otherwise sober and intelligent people into committing foolish mistakes.

    It’s been said that you can’t be conned unless there’s a bit of larceny in your heart. Recent research suggests that all but the clinically depressed are unreasonably optimistic about their own prospects for beating the odds, even though we expect others to fall to the statistics. Perhaps our problems are hard-wired. Either way, we have to recognize and bear our share of responsibility for where we are, if only to delay the time until we do it again. Because we will.

  17. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 10/14/2011 - 02:41 pm.

    I would disagree that the current struggle is between the “two extremes” in Washington. Only the Right is extreme in its slavishness to the corporate agenda. Democrats are either centrist (a little to the right), Blue Dogs (agree way too often with the Right’s financial agenda but do support the social safety net) or Progressives (good liberals — from being very much like Dwight Eisenhower to emulators of Paul Wellstone and Hubert Humphrey).

    The administration and the Blue Dogs pretty much ignore the Progressive Dems, but the Progressive Dems wrote the only budget proposal that calls for everything that would heal our economy. Gooble “The People’s Budget.” Would that we had a few hundred more like them!

  18. Submitted by Lynn Nelson on 10/14/2011 - 03:51 pm.

    I’m very excited to see democracy in action. I called Wells Fargo’s CEO when we ran into financial jeopardy after my husband’s heart attack. The young man in the president’s office who answered the phone told me my interest rate would go UP not down after they learned about my husband’s health problems. I answered irate customers’ calls at a local Fortune 100 co. for years, and from time to time, answered such calls at the Star Tribune. I was never so rude to a customer. Stunned, I looked at the phone, and said thank you very much, realizing that it wouldn’t pay to speak with a stone.

  19. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/15/2011 - 09:10 am.

    James# 16 //There are many ways to speculate..

    What your offering is not speculation, it’s distorted history.

    The housing bubble was financial sector crime wave. Millions of people were duped into buying overvalued houses and believing they could afford them, again maybe that was stupid, but it’s not a product of universal greed. Likewise participation in the stock market was simply a matter of people thinking they could play with the big boys. There has been a systematic effort to move money into the financial sector for two decades, the efforts to privatize social security are a product of that effort.

    Previously there has been an organized effort to dupe people into abandoning traditional pension plans in favor of stock portfolios, and by the late 90s millions of Americans simply had no choice.

    Furthermore, millions of Americans didn’t even know that their money was being gambled in the stock markets until the bubble burst and their retirement accounts were wiped. The gambling was being done on an institutional level, not an individual level.

    Millions of people were duped, told that the stock market guaranteed higher returns, and when the bubble burst the airwaves were filled with so called financial “advisers” that told everyone to leave their money in the markets and “stick to their plan”, while people like Martha Stewart were getting out. This is now a matter of history, not speculation.

  20. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/15/2011 - 09:26 am.

    Craig- //On the topic of greed, I find that we are all greedy and want something for free, the rich just appear to be better skilled at it.

    Craig, this is classic conservative “sinner” view that human nature is dark and untrustworthy. Be that as it may, it simply isn’t true that everyone is equally greedy but some people are just better at it than others. On the contrary, some people are simply more greedy than others. YOU may be equally greedy but untalented, that doesn’t mean everyone else is. Most folks simply want some financial security. Most people don’t organize their lives around acquiring wealth, they value family, children, health, fishing, hunting, education etc. above and beyond having a million dollars in their bank accounts. This movement isn’t about people being frustrated at not being rich, it’s about being losing what they used to have, and what they were pretty much content with.

    There’s no getting around the fact that it was those in the financial sector that created these bubbles by virtue of their greed. In fact, they promised us that their greed was a self regulatory mechanism that would protect us from economic catastrophe. This is and was the core of Randian myth.

  21. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/16/2011 - 09:34 am.

    Sorry, in my post #19 I meant to say that stock market participation was NOT a matter of people thinking they could play with the big boys. The vast majority of people who lost money as results of the crash were NOT individual investors.

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