Enjoying a lazy Saturday at Plaza de Luna, the fishermen appeared oblivious to the revolution happening mere feet away. It was easy to miss.
The 200 or so people gathering in the park for the Occupy Pensacola meeting weren’t loud. There was no street theater or police barricades. The seagulls barely noticed.
But, just as others are doing across the nation – most notably on Wall Street – the group at Plaza de Luna was laying the foundation for what they hope will become a populist groundswell that will upend the status quo.
“It’s an evolving thing, we’re just getting this going,” Gary Paull Jr. told the crowd.
Paull’s not the group’s leader. He stressed that a few times. He’s just one of the people who has been instrumental in facilitating a hometown-version of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Occupy Wall Street began Sept. 17, and has drawn thousands into the streets of New York City to protest a wide array of grievances they are harnessing under a general umbrella of frustration. The movement has taken cues from the “Arab Spring” events earlier this year, and is shooting for the stars with unflinching demands amounting to an all-out overhaul of the system.
The occupation has at various times seemed a rally, a protest, a rock festival or a campout. Soon after it started in New York, similar gatherings began to spring up around the country.
A woman from Alabama showed up in Pensacola expecting a rally instead of the planning meeting. She had been to another Occupy event in Mobile that morning.
“We had 8-year-olds to 80-year-olds,” she said. “It was pretty cool.”
The full Pensacola version is set for Saturday, Oct. 15 at 2:45 p.m., at Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza in downtown. Paull expects it to eventually attract a thousand, maybe two, maybe more.
“You don’t think it will, now, for a little town like Pensacola,” he said. “But it will.”
The Oct. 8 gathering, which they called a “General Assembly,” was not a rally or a protest, but rather a planning meeting. Ideas were tossed about, concerns were listed off and the assembly took the general form of an anarchists’ committee meeting.
But these weren’t anarchists. Maybe there were some anarchists. But there were also attorneys, students, retirees and families.
As with the broader movement, people spoke of relating to the moniker “99 Percent.” The name has been adopted by the Occupy movement to denote the group’s majority standing. The theoretical 99 Percent represents the many who receive, in various ways and degrees, an unjustifiably raw deal at the hand of the excessively fortunate few, or the theoretical one percent.
The group’s focus was predictably loose. Some people wanted to talk about soaring corporate profits and frightening unemployment figures. Others brought up health care and retirement funds. There was a lone concern about fluoride in the water supply.
“It doesn’t have to be defined,” said Paull, explaining that the movement supersedes political boundaries.
Attendees sported various political stripes. Speakers occasionally identified themselves as Republican or Democrat.
Rebecca Heyer, one of the organizers, told the group that they should not allow themselves to be divided by political barriers. She said such barriers, which she attributed, in part, to the media, only serve to superficially divide the masses while clouding the fact that most people stand to gain by changing the current system.
“If they can’t start a fight between people, they’ve got no show,” Heyer said.
Some people talked about how they were not prone to protest. Others said they had been waiting for such a movement to gain momentum.
“I am so honored to be part of what I think is a real revolution,” said a salty-haired man wearing a golf shirt and pair of New Balance.
A few people carried signs, new classics like ‘Eat the Rich’ and ‘End the Fed.’ Someone said they had decided to come because they were “pissed off,” while another said he was there because he felt “optimistic.”
Darren Costello couldn’t understand any of it. The middle-aged man stood back and digested the gathering for a few minutes before demanding to know to what ends the group was striving.
“What’s the main goal?” he asked. “I haven’t figured it out.”
A scattergun of answers peppered Costello from all directions. By this point, he had waded into the thick of the crowd.
“We probably won’t be able to answer your question today,” said Heyer.
Costello was not satisfied.
“Why?” he said. “It’s been going on a month?”
“It’ll be going on for years,” Heyer replied.
Costello said he couldn’t understand why people were “bashing capitalists,” and called those gathered in the plaza “anti-American.” He clinched a collection of papers he’d been handed by people at the event.
“That sounds like communism to me,” Costello said to the group’s collective argument. “— Karl Marx, and all of it.”
At that point, someone suggested giving Costello a group hug. After several people began embracing the man, he retreated to the outskirts where he proceeded to heatedly debate specifics of the Dodd-Frank Act with a man in a cowboy hat.
While the myriad of issues emanating from the group couldn’t be easily distilled into a snappy sound bite, everyone identifying with this 99 Percent collective seems to agree on a couple of things: the cards are stacked against them, and it’s not getting any better. They are asking that their voices be heard. They’re asking for a seat at the table. They might be asking for all the seats.
“All of these issues do have a common denominator,” Bill Paul addressed the crowd. “We want a democracy that is our democracy.”
Paul said the lack of a pinpoint-specific message didn’t have to be seen as a bad thing. The movement, he said, should be allowed to develop it’s own platform.
“The focus has to be organic,” he said. “It has to come out of its self instead of being hijacked like the Tea Party was hijacked.”
The Tea Party movement has, in many ways, become viewed as being co-opted by the GOP. Candidates hailing from Tea Party-centric ranks have stormed into offices on the party’s ticket and several hopefuls on the Republican presidential bench vie for support from the group.
Already, Republicans and Democrats are lining up in either party-line opposition or support of the Occupy movement. President Barack Obama has hesitantly acknowledged that the movement is “giving voice to a more broad-based frustration.”
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain has told people to stop whining because they’re not rich, while Newt Gingrich has described those involved in the movement as a “natural outcome of a bad education system, teaching them really dumb ideas.”
Paul, a registered Republican, described himself as a “political moderate.” He pulled the city permits for the Occupy planning meeting. A 50-something Baby Boomer, Paul wore a mint green button-up and talked about a “people’s democracy” as opposed to one “bought and sold by the highest bidder.”
The permit for the actual “occupation” is good from 2:45 until 7 p.m. While the Occupy in New York has resulted in multiple arrests and acts of civil disobedience, the Pensacola group decided to leave their ending time undefined.
“We’re gonna let the youth sleep at the park, and we’ll stay at the house,” laughed one man. “But we’ll support the hell out of you.”
As the crowd began signing up for committees such as security, medical, legal, and marketing, Paul said he was encouraged by the number of people that turned out for the planning meeting.
“If it can take hold in Pensacola,” he said, “it can take hold anywhere.”