Our Quiet Occupation
A look inside BR’s self-appointed “99 percent”
By Kendra R. ChamberlainPosted Dec 14, 2011
Early this fall, the Occupy movement jumped from city to city, country to country, like a dangerous and wild fire. In three weeks, the manifestations of the movement had surfaced from New York to San Francisco to London to Tokyo. By early November, “occupy where ever” quickly become a running joke in the country.
Here in Baton Rouge, the running joke seems to be that Occupy Baton Rouge hadn’t occupied anything, not even headline space.
Last weekend, Occupy BR took over a grassy square in the Capitol park, beneath the bronzed gaze of the Huey P. Long. With large signs, drums, and a motley crew of participants, Occupy BR once again made their presence known.
“Today we are at Huey Long’s gravesite,” said Brian Marks, 30, an educator and participant of Occupy BR. “A man who dreamed of a more just distribution of wealth.”
Marks brings up an interesting point. The demands of the “99 percent” are not that far from the demands of Huey P. Long’s “Share the Wealth” campaign of the 1930s. What is different, though, is the reception those ideas have received Baton Rouge.
Though the crowds that had turned out for the annual battle of the marching bands and the Christmas parades took note of the demonstration, the media largely did not. Indeed, though the national Occupy movements have dominated headlines for the past few months, the Baton Rouge version has remained virtually invisible by the public at large.
But make no mistake. Baton Rouge is participating in a movement that has taken the world by storm, whether anyone knows it or not.
Occupying the public sphere
Occupy Baton Rouge has garnered little media attention compared to other occupy movements even in the state. Occupy New Orleans, for example, reached headlines here in Baton Rouge as recently as earlier this week when occupiers set up camp in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s front yard in protest of their eviction from Duncan Plaza last week.
Occupy BR has enjoyed some attention recently, though mostly through venues that don’t speak to large crowds.
Jim Engster hosted two representatives on his morning radio spot The Jim Engster Show – though it’s unclear how much of Baton Rouge were tuned in on the morning of Thanksgiving, the day the show aired. In fact, Engster mentioned on-air that the lines were free, a rarity on his show.
About a week later, two more representatives gave a presentation at the Baton Rouge Press Club – Engster serves as president of that board – another event that garnered few attendees. (Observers estimated around 25 people were present, though, to be honest, I’ve attended press club luncheons with far less).
During both events, the movement enjoyed support from the public. During the radio show, one woman called to share her support for the cause. “Thank you for being brave enough to get out there,” the caller said. “It’s a very conservative town.”
In fact, all of the callers during that show were supportive of the cause. The press club event wasn’t much different.
“After the presentation on Monday [at the Press Club], a “guilty one percenter” came up to me and handed me one hundred dollars,” said Sophie Kunen, one of the presenters at the luncheon.
That type of popular support has been limited.
Not quite agenda-less
As with all the Occupy movements, the demands of Occupy BR aren’t exactly clear. At first glance, occupiers seem more interested in showing solidarity with what is being called “the national movement.” If anything, Occupy BR has demonstrated an irreverence to local idiosyncrasies.
“Why did you chose one and a half hours before kick-off to start?” Engster asked on his show, referring to a demonstration the group had planned before the game against the Razorbacks on Black Friday.
“This is done in solidarity with the rest of the movement in the country and across the world,” responded Chris Chemel, one of the occupy participants. “They don’t follow the LSU football schedule.”
That very well could explain why most people in Baton Rouge don’t even know the movement exists here, and it brings up an even more pertinent question:
Should they follow the football schedule?
The question is not moot. Occupy BR is juggling support of a national movement with tailoring the message to the local audience.
“It seems like there’s a recognition that there needs to be a local agenda, but it’s not what has brought people to the organization thus far,” said David Kirshner, a professor and participant of Occupy BR. “So people are always struggling to say, “Well how does translate locally, and what should we do?” But that’s not where they’re starting from.”
So far, the group has declared 15 “points of unity,” a manifesto of sorts outlining the issues Occupy BR is interested in, which range from demanding a transparent government to reforming the education system to ensuring public transportation – three issues that have very pointed significance here in Baton Rouge.
“They still need a lot of work, and I think we should make it more local,” said Sophie Kunen, 24, who teaches an after school art program.
The points of unity were adopted from the Washington D.C. occupation movement, and are not coded in terms – like CATS, for example – that would be recognized by the public.
Another salient issue in Occupy BR has been the collusion of money and politics.
“This is not primarily an issue of conservatives vs. radicals or liberals or whatever. It’s about the political process itself,” Kirshner explained on The Jim Engster Show. “At the beginning of the political process, when somebody chooses to become a candidate, they have a money wall that they have to surmount.”
Just over a month after a remarkably unremarkable election season, the consanguinity money and politics has never been more clear for Louisiana residents. Take the gubernatorial race. It is widely held that Gov. Bobby Jindal essentially frightened off any potentially viable candidates (and their donors) with his $10 million war chest. If numbers are an indication of anything, it doesn’t seem like the issues of Occupy BR have hit a chord with the greater public of Baton Rouge...then again, it doesn’t seem like the elections did either.
The national movement spurred a media frenzy when the country suddenly found itself flanked by occupations in New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. and then Portland, Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But the movement seemed to truly hit peak when occupations popped in the urban areas in between the coasts.
One of the most interesting aspects of these “between coasts” occupations is their numbers. It’s difficult to determine how many supporters are in each city. The encampments, themselves are often smaller, and the community shows its support by donating supplies, food, and even money.
In that respect, Occupy BR is no different.
At the first demonstration, held Oct. 22 at the state capitol, an estimated 70 supporters turned out. During the first few general assemblies, those numbers seemed to hold steady. Now, the meetings, which are held on Wednesday evenings and Saturday afternoons, seem to hold around 25 people.
“I don’t think that’s a very accurate number, because we get different people at every general assembly,” said Nathan Anderson, a student at LSU and “facilitator” at the general assemblies. “So it’s just a snapshot of who was able to make it at that time.”
The biggest numbers of the movement can be found online.
“A lot of people participate on the Internet and Facebook, said Connor Whestel, 30, a student and occupy participant.
At last count, the Occupy BR Facebook page had around 1,100 “likes.”
Compared to Atlanta, Ga., or Jackson, Miss., 70 is small potatoes; but even the New Orleans camp only holds a few dozen occupiers; and two other big football towns, Tuscaloosa and Auburn, Ala., both have comparably-sized movements.
The occupy participants seem to think their small numbers are a product of opportunity, not interest.
“The rest of us do have jobs, and we do go to school, so it’s hard to make all those general assemblies,” said Whestel. “Even I have trouble doing it. I don’t make every single one of them.”
But without larger numbers, it’s hard to see how effective the organization can be, or what it is, exactly, they are trying to effect.
To camp or not to camp
For cities across the country, December has been the month of evictions for the occupations. First, there were the larger camps along the coasts, then Philadelphia, Detroit, followed by tired Mayors across the country voicing ultimatums in even the smallest Midwest towns. Though the national media was quick to voice predictions of the end of the movement, evictions thus far seem to have served only to bring renewed attention to the groups.
Without a camp, that’s a narrative that Occupy BR has largely missed out on. In November, it seemed the group was ready to commence a true occupation by pitching tents in the nearest empty public lot.
“We still think it is important nonetheless to make the symbolic gesture of occupying our city and occupying our country, and occupying our democracy,” Kirshner said on The Jim Engster Show.
That was the day before Occupy BR had planned to occupy an empty lot beside the state capitol. That plan didn’t go over so well. The permit request that was submitted to the City-parish was denied. The occupiers decided to go for it without the permit. When they arrived at Arsenal park, an estimated dozen or so police officers were “hanging around,” waiting for them – or so the occupiers thought. The group responded by going home.
The permit was denied for two reasons. The first was that the grounds were “not equipped for overnight camping of any sort,” according to an email sent by Ronnie Gilbert, operations division manager of the Office of State Buildings. The second reason was that an encampment would “require a security presence that our Department of Public Safety is not staffed or equipped to provide the necessary manpower [sic].”
Bryan Perkins, 25, a participant of Occupy BR, found that last reason laughable.
“They had 12 cops out there making sure we didn’t camp,” Perkins said in an interview a few weeks ago. “After our general assembly yesterday, we went out there and there were tons of movie crew cars and RVs and they had plenty of cops there to guard that.”
The group appears splintered on how to proceed forward, which may be an indication of troubled waters ahead.
Some, like Kunen, say that they should set up camp the first place they can find, especially if someone offers up an empty, private lot.
Perkins, on the other hand disagrees.
“It’s got to be in a central location,” he said. “You can’t just be anywhere camping, or it’s not going to be worth it anyway.”
Others, like Ward Reilley, a veteran of the Vietnam war and an activist, doesn’t believe a camp is all that important to the movement.
“A camp is symbolic but it’s not necessary,” Reilley said in a phone interview.
Participants of the movement indicated that the group would try to setup a camp again soon, perhaps after the holidays. Of course, it remains to be seen if any of the occupy movements survive beyond the New Year.
“We’re here trying to fumble through this and figure it out ourselves one step at a time,” Anderson said.
Ultimately, participants agree that whether the city wants it or not, they will continue their occupation.
“We’re with the city, we want to be part of the city,” Kirshner said. “We would like the public to join us.”
The other occupation
Occupy BR does have its detractors. On Facebook there is another Occupy Baton Rouge page, with a slightly different agenda.
“We have more important things to do like GO TO WORK!” The page states. “We are going to go a different route and actually contribute to society by going to work and paying taxes. We can’t camp out in the street living on our parents credit cards (like some of the current protesters) and blaming those who they probably support (by purchasing their products).”
This Occupy Baton Rouge page as 22 “likes.”