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Spring Brings Local Occupy Movement To Life

By Stephen Dravis
Special to iBerkshires

Local Occupy members in Great Barrington last fall. The local movement has spent the winter with educational events but plans a rally on May 1 in Pittsfield.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The local residents who would effect change on a national scale have spent the winter months keeping themselves occupied.

And after a long period without many high-profile events, the Occupy Berkshires movement is poised for a major May Day rally on Tuesday at Pittsfield's Park Square.

"Through the winter, it's definitely a lot harder to organize," Occupy member Ritchie Wilson said. "It's harder to get people to picket in the snow, and [the movement] was dropping off the national news. But I think we did a good job flowing with that and figuring out what we could do in the winter.

"We spent a lot of time having educational events for members. We had a great speaker come to talk about war spending. We talked about currency, about nonviolent communication. We did organizational training and things like that. We've done educational events to keep the momentum going."

And they planned Tuesday's rally, which will run from noon until 7 p.m. in three phases: a large gathering with musical performances and speakers on a range of topics from 12:30 to 4:35, a sidewalk rally at 5 and small-scale discussion groups at 6.

Like all Occupy events, Tuesday's will incorporate a wide range of viewpoints.

"What I liked about the movement was that it kind of drew together all these social and environmental issues and issues of corruption in the government and the dominance of our government by corporate interests," said Great Barrington's Kristen Hewitt, who, like Wilson, joined the movement in its early days last fall. "What the movement did really well was link these issues in a way that energized people working on the different areas individually.

"That's what's good about the May Day event. So many different groups are involved, and Occupy has given an umbrella to show what they have in common. It's important they all work on their issues individually, but Occupy highlights more the structural problems in society and gives people ... a platform to see problems from all different angles."

Bennington, Vt., artist Lodiza LePore is among those who identify with the wide range of constituencies that coalesced last September in Occupy Wall Street, the encampment that engendered a number of smaller groups — like Occupy Berkshires and Occupy Northern Berkshires — across the nation.

"It's hard to pinpoint one thing," LePore said. "So many things are going down and are wrong with our country right now. A lot of it has to do with this horrible decision by the Supreme Court (Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission) giving carte blanche to corporations that own and control everything. If our vote is going to be meaningless, we can't think to change anything. ... If we can't change that, we really are at the mercy of all these corporations."

LePore first became involved in the movement after Williamstown's Images Cinema, where she is a volunteer, held a panel discussion last fall featuring Justin Adkins, the assistant director of Williams College's Multicultural Center, who was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of his involvement with Occupy Wall Street.

LePore is involved with Occupy Northern Berkshires and has put her talent as an artist to work as a chronicler of the movement. Last fall, she did a show featuring photographs she took of encampments in New York and Boston. On Thursday, Images will open an exhibit of LePore photos of local activists at North Adams' Winterfest in February.

It's not a bunch of freaks and weirdoes. It is attracting people from all walks of life, all ages.
"My purpose for doing the show the beginning of November was to show who was part of this movement," LePore said. . It's not a particular group or fringe element.

"Then when we had Winterfest, I was doing the same thing: showing members of the North Adams community and Williamstown community who are also part of this movement."

Occupy Northern Berkshire met twice weekly through the winter, LePore said. Occupy Berkshires draws between 30 and 50 people to its weekly meetings, according to Dr. Michael Kaplan of Lee, a family physician who will speak about single-payer health care at Tuesday's rally.

In addition to planning the rally to help raise consciousness about national issues like health care, Occupy Berkshires also has focused on local issues, Wilson said.

He said Occupy members in four county towns have town meeting initiatives condemning the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, which recognized free speech rights for corporations. Last spring, Great Barrington, Lanesborough and Williamstown were among several towns throughout the commonwealth to pass resolutions calling for constitutional amendments overturning the Citizens United decision.

Movement members pushed for a warrant article in Great Barrington affirming "the right of the people of Great Barrington to produce, process, sell and purchase affordable, nutritious and sustainably grown food."

Other local priorities include keeping pressure on state and federal authorities to require General Electric to adequately clean up the Housatonic River, Wilson said. Occupy Berkshires is working on that project with Housatonic River Initiative.

One thing Occupy Berkshires will not be doing — as a group — is working on behalf of any candidates in the upcoming state and national elections.

"That's one of the more contentious issues, at least in our group, and, I suspect in most Occupy groups," said Wilson, a student at Berkshire Community College who will be transferring to the University of Massachusetts in the fall. "There are people who don't want [Occupy] to have anything to do with politics. They see the system as so corrupted that we have to do our own thing aside from that. And there are some people who are very involved with politics and want you to support certain candidates.

All my life, I've been waiting for something
like this.

"We in Occupy Berkshires have been toeing that line. We're not endorsing anyone, not supporting anyone. But certainly individual members have people they want you to support.”

County musician and Berkshire Community Radio host Barbara Dean is among those who believe the system is broken but also that voters need to continue to support progressive candidates at every level, "especially in local offices."

Dean and her husband have attended Occupy events in New York, Boston and Albany, N.Y., she said. She is a lifelong progressive who protested against the war in Vietnam and has watched with despair as progressive causes like the American labor movement have declined over the last few decades.

She was drawn to the Occupy movement as soon as the original occupation began in lower Manhattan.

"All my life, I've been waiting for something like this: a movement that represents direct action and does not rely on our so-called leaders to make those changes that we know have to happen," Dean said. "We're relying on ourselves."

Occupy Berkshires is on Facebook; for Occupy Northern Berkshire, check the Facebook group.


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