Pensacola, Florida
Thursday October 30th 2014

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The Great American Campout

Unraveling the Meaning of Occupy Pensacola
by Jeremy Morrison

The plaza is eerily quite. The bright colors and noises are gone. No one is shouting at passerby about the Federal Reserve anymore.

At the far end of Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza, a group of downtown bums relax on park benches and soak up a Friday afternoon. They collectively mumble something about permits and Occupy Pensacola being relocated to City Hall, before turning their gaze back into the sun.

Alister McKenzie checks the time. The parade is late.

After nearly two weeks of camping out in the middle of Palafox Street, the Occupy Pensacola movement has struck a deal to move their protest to City Hall. The tents and PA system were moved earlier, but the group is set to return to the plaza for a formal march across downtown.

“I just saw City Hall’s lawn,” said McKenzie, an attorney who is volunteering as the group’s legal counsel. “It’s a hell of a lot nicer than this park.”

Up and down Palafox, parents lead their children into Halloween weekend. Superman, Luke Skywalker and a baby monkey walk store to store, collecting treats. It’s hard not to smile with a bag full of candy.

The scene’s a pleasant one. Perfection without a second thought. Perhaps the contrast is what makes the Occupiers seem so jarringly shrill as they arrive for their scheduled march.

The group is intent on pointing out all the world’s bummers. They insist on debating the tax code or discussing the effects of money in the political process–even on a perfect autumn day.

“Without sounding too much like a revolutionary, Jefferson would be rolling around in his grave,” says Gary Paull Jr., one of the organizers of the local Occupy, as he waits for the march to begin.

Gathering in the middle of the plaza, the Occupiers map out their route. Someone suggests marching in the street, while others lobby for sticking to the sidewalk.

“The vote was just made that we’re marching down the street,” Paull says. “We’ll see where this chaos leads.”

As Occupy Pensacola begins its charge toward City Hall, the bulk of the group is held up by a ‘don’t-walk’ sign. The protest pauses. After a hesitant moment, the Occupiers leap onto the crosswalk and the revolution proceeds.

BONGOS AND BULLHORNS

In mid-September, people began to gather in New York City’s financial district. They brought signs, slogans and songs. And they didn’t leave.

Hunkering down in Zuccotti Park, the growing encampment identified itself as “Occupy Wall Street” and adopted the term “99 Percent” as the members railed against the theoretical wealthiest one percent.

The exact message was unclear. But one thing was for sure: the castle walls were being stormed, if not with pitchforks and torches then with bongos and bullhorns.

From the group’s myriad of grievances emerged a recurring theme. The people had lost faith in their democracy to correct a system they deemed institutionally broke.

The Occupy protesters derided climbing unemployment in the face of record corporate profits. They took issue with the widening wealth-gap and the effects of money in politics. The group tethered itself to this year’s Arab Spring and the unrest sweeping Europe.

As the days rolled into weeks, localized Occupy movements took root in cities across the country–Occupy Boston, Occupy Austin, Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Mobile. By early October, Pensacola’s own Occupy began to take shape.

“Their presence is their remark to the government that the system is broke,” Paull had told a group gathered at Plaza DeLuna on Oct. 8 for a local planning session. “I think eventually this is gonna get too big for anyone to ignore.”

Like most of the Occupy gatherings, the Pensacola contingent appeared to span the spectrum. There were young and old, conservative and liberal, the unemployed and the well-to-do. The group made a plan to begin its occupation on Oct. 15.

“We want a democracy that is our democracy,” Bill Paul, another local organizer, said as the planning session wrapped up.

The next Saturday, Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza bustled with hundreds of Occupy supporters. They used a cooler as a soapbox and squawked through a bullhorn. Lots of Guy Fawkes-masks waded through the crowd of poster-board placards. On the fringe, a kid beat lazily on a snare drum plagued with a bad rattle.

Sitting off the sidewalk under the shade of a canopy, Katie Krasinski said the status quo had failed due to “greedy corporations buying politicians to get what they want.”

Krasinski has opened up her business, Dolce Vita Art Bar, to the movement. Local Occupiers have been using the digs to plan and strategize.

“There are smart people out there and they need to get together and figure it out,” she said.

The city permit for the local Occupy event expired that first Saturday night. But on Sunday morning, doughnuts and milk were being served as protesters awoke in the plaza.

WAR-CRIES AND HOPSCOTCH

Downtown Pensacola is not virgin territory for overnight, outdoor enthusiasts. The homeless have wandered downtown streets for decades, surviving on kindness and other people’s pocket change.

The new people on Palafox were different. They had set up a library and medical station. They were making lofty demands.

On Wall Street—as in much of the country—the Occupy protesters were allowed to stay put. With the exception of a few stray scuffles, officials were taking a contain-and-observe approach to the demonstrations.

“People have a right to protest,” said New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, shortly after the Occupies began, “and if they want to protest, we’ll be happy to make sure they have locations to do it.”

The City of Pensacola’s response to the Oct. 15 rally was minimum. As Occupiers filled the plaza, a lone policeman could be seen casually sweating out the late-season sun.

“I think it’s a positive cause,” said Officer Jamon Johnson. “As far as I can see.”

On the other side of the plaza, Paull stepped away from that first-day hoopla to have a smoke. He was curious what the city’s response would be when the Occupy inevitably continued beyond the permit.

“I’m interested to see what Mayor Hayward has to say,” Paull wondered aloud. “Because I was a big supporter of his, because Pensacola needs to change.”

By the second morning of Occupy Pensacola, the plaza’s power supply had been shut off. There were also reports that the city was threatening to issue various code enforcement tickets for offenses such as feeding the homeless.

“So, they’re trying,” Paull said on day-two. “They’re trying to wait us out, push us out.”

That night, Occupiers confronted Mayor Ashton Hayward during a public neighborhood meeting. Power was restored to the plaza the next morning, with trash service and portable toilets following in quick order.

“They were polite, they were respectful, they made their case,” said Travis Peterson, the mayor’s spokesman, adding that Mayor Hayward understood the group’s frustrations and supported their right to protest. “That’s what democracy is all about.”

With the city extending Occupy Pensacola’s permit an additional two weeks, people began pitching tents along the plaza’s sidewalks. Neon chalk drawings electrified the pavement with war cries and hopscotch. Soon, a PA system settled in beside a bust of Dr. King.

“Welcome to my office,” said ReBecca Heyer, as she manned an information booth heading into the second week at the plaza. “It is going great.”

After getting comfortable for a week, the folks on the plaza seemed to feel at home. A woman breastfed her baby in the shade. Down the way, a man wailed a wicked air guitar on a broom stick.

“Aw, man, are you gonna dread your hair?” a shirtless teenage boy asked a girl as the two passed on the sidewalk. “You should.”

Medusa’s Head Inside Pandora’s Box

The Occupy movement is a tricky thing to figure out. It is a riddle wrapped in an enigma, folded inside a free-range veggie burrito to be eaten while viewing the inevitable Ken Burns-retrospective on the unraveling of human civilization.

“I think as the movement continues it will continue to evolve,” Paull said.

At first glance, the Occupy phenomenon appears to lean politically to the left. Conservatives, after all, tend to shy away from crowds carrying signs espousing ‘Eat the Rich.’

But beyond the anarchists’ worn leathers and samba of the drum circles, a more representative cross-section of Americana has emerged: heavily indebted college grads with no job prospects, mothers who can’t afford health care, retirees who had their pensions gambled away by faceless corporations.

In the simplest terms, the Occupy movement is a collective cry of frustration by the masses. It is a populist urban campout at the doorstep of The System.

One of the main criticisms of the movement is that it lacks focus, that it has no clearly defined objective. Locally, this issue was thrown onto the table during the group’s initial planning session.

“What’s the main goal?” Darren Costello had asked. “I haven’t figured it out.”

Nearly everyone at the gathering had an answer for the man. A different answer.

“We probably won’t be able to answer your question today,” Heyer told him.

“Why?” he said. “It’s been going on a month?”

“It’ll be going on for years,” Heyer replied.

Krasinski defines the movement’s purpose as standing in opposition to entrenched corruption. The local business owner only recently began to ponder such matters.

“What got me into politics, of course, was the oil spill,” she said.

Following the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Krasinski and her husband, a commercial fisherman, began the uphill task of recouping financial losses from BP. Through that process, during which she lost her house, her eyes opened to a frustrating reality.

“That got me looking into the corruption and it’s just shocking,” Krasinski said.

Like many embracing the Occupy movement, the mother-turned-protester has been overwhelmed by a barrage of seemingly insurmountable issues: the economy, the environment, the feeling of being a voiceless pawn in a sham democracy.

“It’s a burden,” Krasinski admitted. “It’s like Pandora’s box, once it’s open there’s no turning back.”

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers said she was encouraged by the nation’s widespread show of discontent.

“I have read the Occupation Declaration,” she said. “I feel many people in this country share their concerns.”

Myers expressed empathy for the movement’s concern about corporate influence over government. She said it took her back to her youth.

“It reminds me of me when I was young and in the 60s,” the Councilwoman said. “In my hippie-days.”

During Occupy Pensacola’s hike from Palafox to City Hall, some protesters took a moment to reflect on the meaning of the movement. In addition to connecting Occupy to worldwide uprisings, marchers also drew parallels with other times of civil unrest in this country’s recent history.

“There are so many weird things going on,” said Ann Hill, as she finished up the trek to City Hall. “So many unconscionable things.”

Hill made the walk with her friend Dixie Meise. She led a mixed-breed poodle down the sidewalk and talked about other marches she’s made. During her lifetime, the nation took to the streets over both civil-rights issues and the Vietnam War. But those battles were focused, the objective clear. This seems different.

“This one is more, like, multi-headed,” Hill said. “Like Medusa.”

The two aging Boomers said they were encouraged that people were plugging themselves back into the process. Hill said she was sure the group would eventually rally around a tangible platform as it figured itself out.

“First,” she reasoned, “We had to realize we exist.”

Over on the lawn at City Hall, Paul worked on setting up his tent. He thinks the movement’s already figured it out: get the money out of politics, everything else is just details.

“Some people think it’s a pipe dream,” Paul said. “But weirder things have happened.”

And while the overall movement appears to be honing in on financial issues, Occupy also attracts an element that’s been itching to take up pitchforks for quite some time. Edwina Watson stepped off the bus to discover the tent city sprouting up on City Hall’s lawn and felt immediately comfortable.

“I’m from Detroit, baby,” Watson said. “I do unions. I do causes.”

Responses from the political establishment have been predictable. The movement is still too undefined to have rallied much solid support, with responses ranging from lukewarm flirtiness to cold disdain.

Candidates vying for the Republican presidential ticket have blasted Occupy as class-warfare. Conservative brain-trust Newt Gingrich said the protesters were the product of a poor education system.

“If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself,” bristled GOP candidate Herman Cain.

Democrats, meanwhile, have tiptoed cautiously around the edges of the movement. They seem unsure how to harness a populist uprising that rails against the system their party actively and eagerly participates in.

“Let’s be honest with one another,” Vice President Joe Biden conceded in early October. “The bargain has been breached. The core is the American people do not think the system is fair, or on the level.”

There are also similarities being drawn between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party. On its surface, Occupy appears to be the left’s natural reply to the right-leaning Tea Party.

“The difference is, we don’t see them as un-American,” said Paul, making a case for Occupy’s inclusiveness. “We respect them as Americans.”

The Occupy movement does, however, look to the Tea Party as an example of the wrong way to run a revolution. Everyone seems hyper-paranoid about being co-opted, citing the GOP establishment’s successful infiltration of the Tea Party.

“The focus has to be organic,” Paul said of the group’s search for a defining purpose. “It has to come out of its self, instead of being hijacked like the Tea Party was hijacked.”

Brunch With The Man

A few days into Occupy Pensacola’s stint on Palafox Street, people got bored. They were no longer content to read used books and scribble cries for help in chalk on the sidewalk.

Soon, protesters were marching up and down the street. They ventured into crosswalks and shouted at motorists about banking regulations and the disappearing middle class. Brunch crowds at The Leisure Club began getting heckled as “The Man.”

Across the country, various cities have handled the Occupy encampments in different ways. As time goes on, officials appear to be losing their patience.

In Oakland, riot police unleashed bright lights and loud noises on Occupiers in the form of tear gas and projectiles. During the incident, police sent Iraq War-veteran Scott Olsen to the hospital with a fractured skull.

Occupiers in cities such as Atlanta and Portland have faced mostly uneventful arrests. In Denver, protesters clashed with authorities, allegedly spray painting ’99 Percent’ on a patrol vehicle.

Pensacola, meanwhile, has been absent of such confrontation. A passing driver threw a handful of change at Krasinski and told the business owner to “get a job,” but no one appears to be looking for a billy-club beat down.

“That’s not going to happen,” said Peterson in mid-October, as the city sought to establish a comfortable existence with the protesters.

Occupy’s relocation to City Hall appeared amicable enough for everyone involved. The protesters were pleased to officially secure their footing farther out on the calendar. The Mayor was happy to get the group off the main street and out of the business district.

But, then, this is a fluid script and the landscape can change quickly.

“You shouldn’t expect anything to be like you expect it to be,” said Paul. “That’s the thing about revolution—you just ride it.”

A day before Occupy Pensacola’s scheduled move to City Hall, Mayor Hayward issued a statement that tents would no longer be tolerated. He cited city ordinances, but protesters painted it as a strategic move to freeze the occupation out in the face of winter temperatures.

The group took their case before the Pensacola City Council. They claimed the Mayor had “blind-sided” them. In the end, the Council voted 5-4 to allow Hayward to waive the ordinance if he so chose.

“It made the people all excited, but it didn’t really do anything,” explained P.C. Wu, who voted against the motion. “The Mayor’s already said ‘no.’ We’ve said ‘yes.’ But all we’ve done is create a standoff.”

Following the decision, Hayward replied by effectively lobbing the public-relations hot potato back into the Council’s chambers.

“Since the Council is the elected, policy-making body of Pensacola, and responsible for the actual adoption and passage of our City Code of Ordinances, I will accept their decision,” the Mayor said in a statement.

In reality, that plays out into a two-week extension of the status quo. Tents will be allowed on the lawn at City Hall until the Council takes up the issue again at its next meeting.

Hayward also let it be known in his statement that he did not support Occupy’s intentions.

“As I have said before,” the Mayor reiterated, “I do not support the political sentiments.”

This revelation probably didn’t win him any votes out on the lawn.

“That’s really a dumb thing to say when the movement’s about getting corruption out of politics,” said Krasinski. “He’s going to have to educate himself and answer some questions, because we’re not going away.”

At the end of their march from Palafox, Occupiers pitched a tent-city across the north lawn at City Hall. Winds whipping in from the bay hinted at colder months that will soon befall the campers.

Chess and Chaos

A couple of days into their stay at City Hall, Occupy Pensacola movement is still busy figuring itself out on the lawn. A pair of blissed-out kids has commandeered the PA system and bob around in a hypnotic trance. A team of Coffee Party disciples do their best to dig an anchor into the movement’s ground floor. Two men settle into a chess game, and across the yard seeds are sprouted in an effort to start a community garden.

Councilwoman Myers is sure the group will eventually find its voice. She’s inspired by their interest.

“People probably didn’t take me seriously,” Myers said, reflecting on her own protest experiences. “But let me tell you what, we were very serious.”

City Councilman Sam Hall, who opposed council resolution authorizing the tents, has no doubt of the movement’s seriousness. He connects the protesters dissatisfaction with the similar sentiments from the Tea Party and says he buys into a bit of each of the groups’ arguments.

“Quite frankly,” Hall said. “I think it’s got the potential to become a mess everywhere.”

Finishing up the walk to City Hall, Meise and Hill surveyed the tents across the lawn. Their poodle took a breather.

“I think we’re the best alternative to chaos,” Hill suggested.