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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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Occupy Movement Shows National, Local Staying Power

By Joe Durwin
Special to iBerkshires
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — On Sept. 17, 2011, several hundred demonstrators descended on New York City's   financial district in what would soon become known worldwide as Occupy Wall Street.

The seeds for the event went back to mid-2011, when the popular magazine Adbusters published a suggestion that citizens set up encampment and "occupy Wall Street for a few months." The call caught the attention of some veteran activists, who began talking about the hybridization of tactics used in the successful Tahir Square protests in Egypt with those developed in Madrid's seminal Puerta del Sol uprising.

Despite drawing thousands of demonstrators to the financial district and the sudden full-scale encampment at Zuccotti Park, local and national media largely ignored the ongoing activist siege, until more than 700 people were arrested while marching on the Brooklyn Bridge on October 1.

On Oct. 14, the ongoing demonstration and emerging mini-society at Zucccotti Park faced its first threatened eviction from the City of New York. iBerkshires reported from on location at Zuccotti Park, where Mayor Bloomberg ordered an 11th-hour stand down after thousands of supporters including numerous local unions arrived in force to resist the removal en masse. Over the course of that day demonstrators celebrated their victory and planned for actions as part of the worldwide solidarity day that followed, some sharing their thoughts with this correspondent at what it all meant at the one-month mark.

Just one month later, NYPD returned, in force and without warning at around 1 a.m. this past Tuesday to evict the demonstrators. Tents and tables were dismantled, and about 70 people were arrested when they refused to leave the premises.

John Garb, former host of Talk Berkshires on WBRK radio and now living in New York City, visited Zuccotti Park on Nov. 14, just hours before the unannounced eviction of the two-month encampment. 

Garb said that while generally an advocate of progressive politics, he had yet to even visit the site, though he works nearby. "I'm in no way an occupier. I have a job where I work about 60 hours a week," he said of his position representing a major Fortune 500 company in unemployment disputes.

"It was surprising. The degree of order, and the degree of civility inside that little 'town' there was amazing. There were tables set up everywhere with brochures, and of course electronics, and various information available," he said. "The 'library' is the first thing you see. Everywhere you looked there were little signs of a community. Every corner you turned around there was a discussion, and people sitting around in a circle. The communication was very sophisticated.

"It was like a bazaar ... a bazaar for knowledge, for the exchange of information. It could have been what like a university would be like, if it had been hit by a hurricane and had to reopen outside."

Garb admitted he was surprised and impressed with the level of organization he saw there. "It looked like it had been there a long time. Everyone was just sort of sharing the space, and you could see where garbage was being picked up, and there were signs everywhere telling you what was going on, and the daily activities and meetings and marches. There was a sort of self-imposed civility. Maybe I imagined it, but that's what I saw there."

Even without the beacon of the original Zuccotti Park encampment, some say the genie of an ongoing movement is already out of the bottle, with a majority of American cities now having experienced some local manifestation of the Occupy tactic.

On Oct. 15, 2011, close to 1,000 cities worldwide hosted Occupy-oriented demonstrations to protest economic injustice in solidarity. In some foreign cities, most notably Rome, protests turned destructive, with extensive property damage and bloody clashes with police and military in the streets.

Since then, occupations, evictions, injuries and arrests now numbering in the thousands have made headlines throughout the world on almost daily basis. Currently, OccupyTogether.org maintains a listing of more than 500 ongoing Occupy locations, though there are said to be many more not included in this listing.

Several other Berkshire County expatriates have been sending me perspectives and updates from occupations in other cities.

Alexia Pritchard, who has done extensive documentary film shooting at Occupy Boston said the movement there, which includes a space maintained by a group of protesting chaplains, has many religious parallels.

"'What is your position? Why are you doing this? What is the point? Aren't you just causing trouble?' These are the same questions that Christ faced during His ministry. And He often frustrated the questioners by confusing them further, with parables or His own questions," she said. "Then He went back to being a teacher and exemplar, just as much in what He did as what He said. We're following Christ in this way, as are many of the Occupation. The point isn't to demand something, get it, and then go home. The point is to show people the Way to live that gives us life, joy, and allows us to flourish as who we all are: the children of God. And that Way is lived, as Jesus shows us over and over again."

Ted Lee shared his experience of being at Occupy Portland early Sunday morning, when an eviction by local police was initially held off, Lee said, by a nonviolent cooperation by thousands of Portland residents.

"We did not hold the park all of the next day — we were evicted. But it wasn't and it isn't entirely about the park. The park made us visible — it created a constituency — it created a 99 percent. The movement grew up in that night, and I with it. I celebrate that long night of holding the park because in that moment of victory we learned a feeling. We learned what we will need to feel in order to prevail… What we witnessed and felt this morning was the very moment of victory that we will feel when the world starts healing."

On an economic level, the economic offshoot "Move Your Money" movement has begun to show a more tangible result from these sweeping trends. In the four weeks leading up to the planned Banked Transfer Day on Nov. 5, 650,000 Americans transferred a total of more than $4.5 billion from national banks to a credit union or other small local bank, according to a survey by the Credit Union National Association. 

The siphoning of funds out of these major financial institutions continues at an estimated rate of about 20,000 accounts per day, those these numbers have been disputed by the American Bankers Association, and definitive statistics will not be available to the public until February.

Berkshire Activists to Occupy Town Hall Around the Clock

In more rural areas, such as the Berkshires, the Occupy movement has taken on new shapes, reflective of their own local demographics and issues.

Occupy Berkshires, which began in early October, has held weekly standouts in downtown Great Barrington, joined forces with longtime Pittsfield demonstrators in the Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice in their Park Square standouts, and rallied in force in Lenox to protest the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed plan for partial cleanup of the southern Housatonic River.

This weekend, participants in the local movement will hold their first 24-hour Occupation, intending to camp in front of the Great Barrington Town Hall from noon Saturday to Sunday afternoon.  Organizers alerted the Board of Selectman of their intention at its Monday meeting, followed by a meeting with the town manager, police and fire officials on Tuesday to agree upon details for the overnight event.

Occupy Berkshires will hold a general assembly meeting, open meetings with its various work groups, and host guest speakers. Organizers invite anyone interested to bring tents, blankets, food, and so forth and join in the effort, or simply drop in to discuss issues and hear the perspectives of other area residents.

With upheavals, evictions, and new branches appearing all the time, the future direction and impact of this movement nationally is difficult to predict. What can be safely said, looking back over just two months, is that the meme that arose when those first protesters took up their encampment at Zuccotti Park became a global event faster than any imagined, and the word Occupy seems likely to remain prominent in the news headlines for some time to come.
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Berkshire Barbers Take Manhattan

Staff Reports

Matthew Ketchum gave his boss Steve Vilot the '99%' treatment. More photos by Rogovoy can be found here.
Journalist and reviewer Seth Rogovoy's posted a great piece on his Zuccotti Park adventures with local tonsorial artists Steve Vilot, BC “Dez” Desautels and Matthew Ketchum on Monday.

Vilot owns Sim's Salon and Barber Shops in Pittsfield and Great Barrington and is a recognized authority in shaving (Rogovoy says Vilot was in New York the week before to give Pink tips on portraying a barber in an upcoming film).

The barbers went to the Occupy Wall Street camp armed with capes sporting the names of banking conglomerates to symbolize the need for financial institutions to "take a haircut" for the other 99 percent. They had plenty of customers and spent three or four hours giving old-fashioned ("non-electric") haircuts and shaves.

The media were all over the barbers – TV, radio, print. Not even two hours into the protest, Kink pulled up an AP report posted on the Wall Street Journal’s website that told about the event and quoted Vilot. “We barbers are happy to help bankers take a haircut on behalf of the 99 percent,” he said “We won’t even charge them for it, and they don’t have to tip us. I hope that inspires them to do likewise.

Kink is Michael Kink of Great Barrington, who is executive director of the Strong Economy for All Coalition. The coalition has offices not far from Zuccotti Park.

"Big banks are all too happy to take a haircut when it involves the one percent, but for working families on the brink of losing their home or students trying to pay off their loans it’s an entirely different story," Kink told Rogovoy.

Check out the MSNBC photo gallery here and scroll down to see Vilot's "99%" coiff.

  • Among the Occupiers
    Wall Street Journal - 13 hours ago
    Associated Press Steve Vilot, left, was among the barbers who came from Massachusetts to give free haircuts to protesters. As luck would have it, ...
    7 related articles

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Gleaning the Meaning of Occupy Wall Street

By Joe Durwin
Special to iBerkshires
Editor's Note: Contributor Joe Durwin spent the weekend in New York City with Occupy Wall Street. Here is his take on what on the OWS movement.

NEW YORK — The questions on the minds of New York City civilians I spoke to Saturday mirrored those of many in the nation following the Occupy Wall Street movement's apparent victory over Zuccotti Park.

They are similar to the questions that much of America has asked since the occupation began last month, but were given a greater gravity as the occupiers demonstrated their staying power and prepared to stand in solidarity with more than 1,000 cities worldwide the following day.

What do they want? What are their demands? When will it end?

These are complicated questions, with many possible answers.

I quickly realized upon settling in at Zuccotti Park — Liberty Square to the occupation movement — that trying to solidify answers to this, or indeed, "cover" or represent my gleanings of what the occupiers were feeling or saying in any traditional journalistic sense was extremely difficult. What follows is a result of many hours of informal chats, innocent questioning, and constant eavesdropping as I spent the day with them at this pivotal turning point in their occupation.

So, what do they want? One possible answer is: A Lot.

The laundry list of things individual participants tout as priorities to them are nearly as diverse as the occupation supporters themselves. Better banking regulation, tax reform, campaign finance reform, wage increases, unemployment, the healthcare system, outsourcing, military spending, environmental concerns ... the list goes on indefinitely. It is difficult to think of any political or economic issue that has been on anyone's radar in the last few years that I didn't hear mentioned at some point in my day spent at Liberty Square.

As people kept reminding me, though, one of the things that distinguishes this from any other mass demonstration movement is that there isn't a true party platform. There isn't a set agenda or list of formal demands.

Some of the occupiers are concerned about this, worried that the effort cannot be taken seriously or produce any concrete changes until it does produce some kind of "99 Theses," to borrow one woman's clever reference to Martin Luther's "95 Theses," the document which sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Others contend that it is precisely the movement's slippery, hard-to-pinpoint structure and purpose that has made it so successful. "All we're saying for sure is that the current situation of injustices, inequalities, and corruption, and really all of that ... in this country is simply not acceptable," a college student named Ann says, "and people are going to start Occupying everywhere in this whole country until it changes. It's going to be a nuisance ... it's going to be an inconvenience. Deal with it."

"We're the real majority," her friend adds, "and we're just going to swarm and stick like sore thumbs everywhere until America's ours and its government is ours and then we need to make sure we never lose control of it again."

Another young man touts the inclusive nature of the "99 percent" strategy in a rant to some curious visitors.

"If you have a problem with Occupy Wall Street, come change it. If you think it's too this or that, show up and add your voice, your perspective. The Occupation isn't an agenda protest, it isn't a platform, it isn't left wing or right wing. It's an attempt to restore participatory government and participatory society. If you think there is something that needs to be addressed, why not step up and address it, now that the whole world really is watching, too ... here or in a city near you. If you think it's too silly, come make it serious. That's the thing - we know we're not representing the whole 99 percent - not yet. We're calling ourselves that so you'll know that you're all invited."

I asked a lot of people if they foresaw an end date for the New York occupation.

"Who says it's going to end?" Said one young man, as we both moved quickly to get our ponchos on as a brief torrential downpour begins. "Eight hundred people have been arrested, we're still here. A month has gone by, we're still here. The mayor of New York tried to evict us, we're still here."

He points up at the heavy shower falling on us. "And when it snows, we'll still be here."
"I think it's one of the obstacles," said Donald, an older gentleman who said he was a veteran of protest actions going back to the '60s, "that people think it will end. That the Powers That Be think it will go away, that they don't realize yet this time it's different. Nothing will change until they realize this time it's not going to blow over."

These sentiments are mimicked in the weekly community newspaper circulated through the park, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. "It will not stop until the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into massive debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops ... ."

While the reaction of many casual passers-by around Liberty Square on Friday was one of vague confusion, and sometimes open resentment, some New Yorkers not directly involved in the movement seem to appreciate the logic of their approach.

Sherry, an attorney in Manhattan, described herself as an "interested spectator" who had been coming down to the park occasionally on her lunch break. While she understood why some in the city were agitated by the demonstrators, and that the behavior of a few had been "over the line," she seemed generally positive about their approach to what she called "a problem we all see, but have no clue what to do with."

"These people never claimed to have all the answers ... they know that it's not necessarily going to be up to them specifically to craft the solutions or rewrite the laws," she said of the perceived lack of agenda. "They don't need to do it all themselves, and they know it. The longer they stay here, the more it inspires and shames the rest of us into doing more about these things."

"They have an appeal right now that no political party has going for it," said Thomas, a "communications expert" in town from Chicago on business who came by to check it out. "They don't have a platform to pick apart, or a recognizable leadership to scrutinize for personal flaws and scandals."

Most of the demonstrators to whom I repeated Thomas' point seemed to agree. They said that while there were certainly people who stood out as having natural leadership skills, just as there were occasional "bad apples," most of the order implicit was arrived at by consensus.   Most felt this made them stronger, and contributed to the sense of solidarity that seems to be spreading like wildfire, as the demonstrators against economic injustice spilled into what amounts to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, worldwide over the course of Saturday for the coordinated Oct. 15 effort.

It all begins to sound less like hyperbole now, as tens of thousands joined the New York movement as it went on the march Sunday, filling Times Square in the evening, defying a small army of NYPD, and expanding the scope of action with an eye toward beginning long-term occupation at Washington Square. Hundreds more have been arrested in more than 100 U.S. cities in recent days, and in states like Massachusetts, governors have taken it upon themselves to go down and see and hear these scenes of discontent. Despite continued downplay from many major media outlets, the scale and tenor of this movement can no longer be ignored, and for some the uncertainty around these core questions about what they want and demand, and when it will end, has become ominous.

The answer, as I was hearing it, is they have no demands, there is no one agenda, no piece of legislation they can be coopted or appeased on. Their grievances are almost as diverse as America. Their platform, as they depict it, is the platform of Everyman. What they're saying now is "Look around. It isn't going to end."
The message that's emerging, with a cautiously growing voice, is that they really do mean it, they haven't come to protest but to Occupy, and it's not just about Wall Street anymore. They mean for what they call the 99 percent to occupy America, and actually decide its future together.

After the events of the past two days, it's all starting to sound a little less crazy.
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Occupy Berkshires Assembles at Colonial Rebellion Site

By Joe Durwin
Special to iBerkshires

Protesters with Occupy Berkshires rally in Great Barrington on Sunday.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — The first "general assembly" for the rapidly emerging Occupy Berkshires movement was held following another sizable rally in downtown Great Barrington on Sunday, Oct. 16.

A Main Street demonstration, held from 1-3 on Sunday, drew around 150-200 supporters over the course of the afternoon.

About 40 people attended the assembly meeting held immediately after next to the iconic gazebo behind Town Hall. The location of this first Occupy Berkshires General Assembly is interesting, as it was at this location that the first open and armed resistance to British rule in America occurred on Aug. 16, 1774.

Basic ideas of how to proceed in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street and other Occupation movements now taking place in more than 100 cities in the U.S., and more than 1,000 worldwide, while adapting the movement to the practical needs of the local area were discussed. A few volunteer working groups were formed, such as one to facilitate communications within the local movement and coordinate with the large Occupy movement, and groups for education and outreach.

The "working group" model is one employed widely throughout the Occupy movement, following the example of Wall Street occupiers at Zuccotti Park, where there are about 15 such loose subcommittee-type groups.

Occupy Berkshires has another rally planned in Pittsfield on Thursday, Oct. 20, in conjunction with the final 3rd Thursday street fair. The group plans to hold weekly general assemblies for the local movement every Sunday hereafter, and are currently seeking an indoor location to relocate these meetings to as the weather becomes colder.

For more information, go to occupyberkshires.com.

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