Saturday, January 21, 2012
The walk into Burnside Park was not a casual stroll. I was very unsure of what to expect from those I would encounter. On Monday, January 19th, Martin Luther King Jr. day, the temperature was just below freezing. In contrast to the village of rigged tents the camp appeared completely vaccant. The only people I could see in the park appeared to be homeless and not affiliated with the camp. This was a very odd scene, only applified by the loud music and large, active group of people enjoying the ice rink just neighboring the park. It was only after finding the information booth at the center of the camp that I could identify roughly five to seven occupiers still active in their push to protest.
I had listened in on a tight group of conversations between the few people out and visible. They were attempting a loud call for assembly, though there was almost no noticable reaction or arrival of other faces to the small group in response. The camp seemed more or less fizzled out. I bumped into Ariel right around this point, and we both took advantage of an occupier by the name of Mike who was more than willing to speak with us while the few others attempted to rally up some energy and more residents as well. Mike is passionate about the movement and the importance of mobilizing to give a voice to anyone looking for changes in America's capitalist structure. He does not come off as an extremist or as confused or misguided. He has traveled the country, visiting and working with a number of occupy sites including Boston, North Carolina, and Oklahoma. Mike is from Charlotte, NC, which is where his motivation for involvement began. It is common knowledge at this point that the message from occupiers at large regarded the serious disproportion of wealth that continues to grow year by year, and the perception of the government's failure to address the problem. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer is a common sentiment for many among the lower, working, and middle-classes. As Johnson says in Privilege, Power, and Difference;
"The trouble we're in privileges some groups at the expense of others. It creates a yawning divide in levels of income, wealth, dignity, safety, health, and quality of life. It promotes fear, suspicion, discrimination, harassment, and violence. It sets people against one another."
I was a little surprised to hear that Mike's personal reason for joining the occupy movement focused on the government's influence and control on agriculture. Mike's area of study in college revolved around horticulture, and he's a member of Future Farmers of America. He has a strong interest in the production of healthy food sources, and fears for the future of Americans based on common popular consumption. He mentioned the fact that his home town has no healthy option grocery stores, but multiple fast food chains. He says this situation leaves residents little choice with regards to healty eating. He takes issue with the priority of corporation profits over a healthy community. Mike has witnessed the struggle for small privately owned "Mom and Pop" businesses to survive as bigger corporations and government restrictions choke their livelihood. He believes in the importance of small business prosperity, as well as the necessity in healthier food alternatives. He doesn't have optimism for Americans without the realization of how significant these things are for the future. The days of subsistence based living are history. Mike feels that the overpowering system of capitalism and commercialism have made this so. He believes that the government has far too much power and control regarding food production, while showing little care for the preservation of small businesses and true health standards.
I asked Mike how he felt about the current state of the movement, and of the Providence branch in particular. He said that he still feels optimistic, though he's beginning to question the plan of action. He believes that the significance of the movement and various encampments has been in the visualization of the conflict with government. The media coverage resulting from making such a visible statement has been vitally important in gaining support and continuing for as long as it has. This relates to another quote from Johnson in which he says; "the purpose is to change how we think so that we can change how we act, and by changing how we participate in the world, become part of the complex dynamic through which the world itself will change." In large part, the power of such a movement was in the attempt to open the eyes of other citizens and motivate them to join the fight. The question Mike finds himself asking now is whether this is enough anymore. He feels the encampments were a great force of collective energy and positive enforcement for the cause, but it is likely that the effectiveness of the camps has since passed. The energy that was so powerful in the initial movement has faded. Mike says that many have left with the cold, and the media seems to have lost interest in some respects. He feels that it is passed time to collectively re-enforce the movement's cause, but is unsure exactly how. He mentioned that other cities such as Boston were more lively and exuded a more substantial presence than what he has experienced in Providence. He feels that those still involved seem to show determination, but the effectiveness of the message is not what it was. Mike spoke of his belief that the movement will see a new surge in participation towards the beginning of Spring. There is even a worker strike loosely scheduled for May 2012 over exploitative practices. He believes that with the warmer temperatures there will also be a renewed energy that will hopefully resemble that of the movement's early weeks.
The level of disorganization in this small group could be seen in the meeting just before the scheduled "Stop Achievement First" rally to the capitol building. Though Mike represented the camp in the information booth centering the group, he had no clear idea of the purpose of the gathering meeting or whether there was indeed a rally in the works. As it turned out, it was decided that the rally, though only about six members strong, would proceed to the stairs of the capitol to join other individuals in protest.
Once joining the group at the capitol building it was obvious that there were others involved in the event. The purpose was in the effort to gain support and ultimately halt the Achievement First program in Providence. The program states that it's intent is focused on the improvement in education afforded to public school students. The arguments posed by protesters spoke of the misguided significance being placed on standardized testing, and the deterioration of quality education for all as a result. Many voices supported the calling out of Mayor Taveras on the closing of multiple public schools within Providence, and the overcrowding of classrooms and resulting unemployment of teachers. Among those in attendance came a collective chant; "Providence schools, not corporate schools!" There were multiple speakers, both scheduled and inspired to speak. One such speaker stated; "When our children have all graduated from 'Walmart Academy', at least we can say they all scored well on their standardized tests." Another speaker called Mayor Taveras a "liar", and accused him of "selling out the community." The involvement of city councilman Bryan Principe in the rally is in my opinion a perfect example of Andrea Ayvazian's explanation of the position of an ally. Ayvazian defines an ally as; "a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit." She speaks of the importance of such individuals in saying; "These change agents or allies have such a powerful impact because their actions embody the values they profess: their behavior and beliefs are conguent." Though a visible member of local government, councilman Principe chose to speak against Mayor Taveras and the closing of public schools in the city stating; "Providence public schools have been neglected financially for years." He believes that the mayor has only made a serious problem worse. A final scheduled speaker who works within the public school system spoke on the fact that "school attendence has become compulsory", and in such a situation it is the responsibility of the school board and local government to make sure that quality education is afforded to all children. I found the involvement in such a rally on the part of occupy protesters to be another example of how wide the range of issues are that the movement attempts to support.
While I see clearly some of the issues which drive the occupy movement, I feel that the past couple of months have seen little in the way of progression. It's important that people speak on behalf of those getting the short end of the stick, but I'm uncertain that this particular endeavor has ever had the steam necessary to seriously challenge the powers that be. It would be amazing to see more prosperity for the majority within the un-wealthy classes. Unfortunately I don't expect anything close to a balance between classes within an economy based on capitalism.