From Cincinnati to Las Cruces: an Occupy journal

BY: MARTHA STEPHENS

I’m seventy four-years-old, but a lot younger in spirit than I was when the Occupations burst into being this summer, inspired mostly by vigorous young people less than half my age.  Like other old lefties, I felt I had waited a long time for such a movement to arrive.

In September, I rallied with Occupy Cincinnati at the huge extravaganza in Lytle Park, and I made it to a couple of GA’s before I went off to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where I spend a part of each year, and fell in with Occupy Las Cruces!   Thereby hangs my tale today — a look-back at an Occupation in a smaller place.

I remember my first visit to the Occupy site in Las Cruces.  Two young women saw me approaching across the lawn with a friend, and one of them said with some surprise, “Are you coming to Occupy?”  –”Why yes-s,” we replied, rather shyly.  “Okay!” she said.  “You’ll give us credibility! “

A pizza box, a sharpie, a phone cord, and a whole lot of spirit are Martha Stephens tools for Democracy. Photo: Joe Wilson.

Things went from good to better after that, and on October 29, I wrote this in my journal:

“We set up camp last night on the wide lawns across from Branigan Library, lawns sheltered by large trees and crisscrossed by pleasant walks.  A small round patio in the center affords a table and benches.  Homey sort of place.”

“Our camp will occupy just one corner, off on its own beyond a winding path but very close to a busy intersection.  We want to be visible after all and show off our tents and banners to all who pass.

“Tonight, as dusk was falling, we lined up on the sidewalks facing the whizzing cars.  We’re the 99 Percent, said one of our placards in great big letters.  Justice and Liberty for All, said another.  It was a cheerful event, and we received a fair number of appreciative honks; only once an angry gibe.  Go home!  a driver called out, and one of our women cried back, “I am home!”  At times we huddled in little pods and more or less congratulated ourselves on our togetherness in this cause.

“As dusk fell, a General Assembly followed on the lawn.  We sat in a circle on the grass and talked camp rules and etiquettes.  How many of us will it take, at any given time, to patrol our site and watch over the tents and possessions?  Where do the smokers light up, who cleans up, and so on and so forth.  This is a whole village way of life and requires its own little governance.  We passed a kitchen rule: all perishable foods brought to camp must be marked as to date.

“As to human digestive issues, the restrooms at the library are available until nine o’clock, and after nine, we learned, we’re welcome in the restrooms of a small eatery open until three a.m., The Lunch Box.  Still, it’s across two streets and down three blocks!  The young owner of The Lunch Box has been made happy, it seems, by our Occupation and may even camp with at times.

“After the Assembly, my friend and I stopped in at The Lunch Box to meet this fellow-traveling individual and stayed to sup.  I ordered a Black Sammy, a kind of a black-eyed-pea sandwich with sunflower sprouts, and my companion had a bowl of Green Chile Mac and Cheese.  She downed a free cup of Occupiers’ coffee.

“On Saturday many of us will close accounts at Wells Fargo or Bank of America.  I don’t have an account in Cruces to close, and I rather wish I did, but I can turn up with a sign and offer comradely support.

On November 5, I wrote in my journal again:

“HAPPY TODAY out on the pavements with Move Your Money day. “High winds, though, in the desert.  By 10:30 a.m. we suffered gusts of thirty and forty miles.  Our signs were blown back and forth and almost out of our hands by the mountain winds.

“I had waited for a ride out on the drive with Joe, who owns the motel where I rent a kitchenette apartment.  The sign hanging across my chest was made from a pizza box Joe found for me and an old phone cord.  Joe will always find what you need if you give him enough time to root around in the piles of materiel around his desk.

“Downtown we parked at Pied Piper Pizza across the street from Wells Fargo.  Two fellas from our group whipped across the road to welcome us old biddies and see us through the traffic, and on the walks we were handed a large coffee to share.  One of the younger women took my hand, said, “You’re cold!” and took off her finger gloves and put them on me.

“Hey this is not bad, thought I.  The left has never been organized in the U. S., and now here we are, organized at last around this felicitous movement of our children and grandchildren.

“We spread out on the walks with our great big signs. Who’s got an account with this bank?  We shouted to each other over the wind — and lo, four of us did have money there and were ready to go inside and take it out.

“Thirty minutes later, the Las Cruces Four came back to our lines happy and victorious, to loud huzzahs from the group.  They said that when they entered the bank, all the suits got on their phones at once — no one knew why.  Perhaps to their security, for guards did show up before long in the parking lot.

“After Wells Fargo, we marched a mile over to Bank of America chanting, They got bailed out, we got sold out and so on.  My favorite sign said in large beautiful letters of red and gold, UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE’RE BROKE.

“My own trusty placard, which I carry almost everywhere I go, says This is What We Want: Full Human Rights for All Citizens, and in finer print:  Right to a Place to Live, Right to a Job, Right to Healthcare, Right to Culture and Education.  At the bottom of all this, in even smaller letters: We say NO to the Corporate State, NO to Brutal and Needless wars, YES to Taxes on the Wealth of the Country.

“It’s way too much for one placard, made from a used pizza box, but people do come up to read it and seem to be comforted by what it says.

“When two of our group tried to enter Bank of America at 11:20 a.m., the doors were suddenly closed and did not open again.  We can’t prove it was us that brought this about, but if it was and they’re afraid of us — good!

“We then went around to the bank’s drive-through where cars were lined up at the windows and staged a showing of placards on the nearby walks, asking customers of B. of A. to take out their money.  Trade with Local Banks, our signs advised.  As cars moved down the drives between our clusters of placards, those inside them usually did not seem discomfited by what they saw.  Maybe some little brain cells start to churn when we appear.

“BACK AT CAMP, under handsome trees whose leaves are just beginning to turn, we shared some fruit and sweets and planned our Assembly for the next day.  A vibrant girl, who sometimes moderates our meetings and had taken out her small parcel of cash from Wells Fargo, said she’d have to bow out.  “Sorry, I won’t be here.  I’ve got to hit the books.”  She’s graduating from the university here in May.  I visited with a knowledgeable young Navajo woman with many ring piercings who runs smartly our email list and takes notes at meetings.  She works the overnight shift at a group home for delinquents.  Her pay?  $8.50 an hour.

“Some of the most faithful of our Occupiers are vets.  One of our tent campers is a strong-minded young fellow who was once in the Navy; he says he works “two retail jobs” these days.  We have a former Marine who knows how to keeps us on YouTube.  One of our seniors is a retired minister who was in Naval Reserve.  A super-efficient camper with a large tent named The Ritz is a former Navy firefighter, unemployed now, by his own design, he says.  He’s mostly a self-educated man, it seems, but a very able speaker and writer.

“Another camper is on the staff of a local environmental center and is a hardened hiker and wilderness man.

“AFTERWARDS, back in my own place, it was good to be warm and comfy — and satisfied in the thought that not all of us in the country are suffering silently and alone today.  My lunch tasted good — leftover fish on a bed of leftover rice, zapped in the microwave, with salady raw stuff on top.  Hunger, after all, is not likely to afflict me, as it does so many of my fellow citizens in this poor New Mexico county where I find myself, not far from the city of Juarez.  I work at times at a soup kitchen with friends from church here, and we’ll soon be out on a walk for world hunger.  We know that one in seven people on our old sighing earth are hungry.

“I sat down on my sofa and took up my magnifying glass and my book, Blood Brothers, a story of life in Palestine before and after the founding of Israel.  I like reading about the olive trees and the fig orchards and the sturdy rural routines people enjoyed before the British Mandate — and then the arrival of more and more Jews into Palestine.  Many Jewish people of the time did not want to displace Palestinian families but to live beside them, as some had been doing for many years.

“The grouches and grumps will certainly say to us workers for change today, Why would you believe, when you see what happened to the Palestinians and all such suffering people, that things can be different from what they are — violent and conflicted.  Why would you go out on a road and hold up a sign for peace and democracy?  In the U.S. of all places?  Please!

“I don’t know why hope does not die; but somehow it does not.  In some epochs and places of the world people have lived in peace and in a sharing way.  What can we do but try to win such a peace again?

Young and old join Occupy Las Cruces to spread the message of the 99%. Photo: Norm Dettlaff.

ON BLACK FRIDAY our signs said NO to the Corporate State, NO to the Corporacracy.  They said Our Best Buy Is at Local Stores — and Walmart Destroys Local Economies.  I brought along my trusty pizza-box sign — We Want Full Human Rights for All Citizens.

We were standing out at a major intersection at the mall, trying to help people understand through our signs and fliers why jobs are so scarce, why wages are so low, why so many have been rendered virtually homeless by foreclosures, or by medical debt, or by college loans built-up in our half-privatized, high-tuition universities.

Occupy speaks with many voices, but all the voices seem to me to say We Must Change the Country.  Occupiers believe, I think, that we must disown much of our present economic system and develop one that is right and good for all humanity.  We know that the wealth of the country has been commandeered by powerful banks and corporations, companies less and less willing to pay their fair share of taxes, interested only in brutal profiteering and the impoverishment of the rest of us.  I like the sign I first saw at a union rally in Cincinnati: I Paid More Taxes Last Year Than GE.

On our wet, wind-swept Black Friday — black weather yet again — I ducked once into a fast-food place near our protest to talk to people about the Occupation.  I met a rosy-cheeked woman who was up on a ladder wiping down the walls of a corridor, and I stopped to ask her what the starting wage was in that place.  She said, “It’s $7.50.”  She had been there for four years, she said, but still makes $7.50. “We don’t get raises,” she said.  What about benefits, I asked, and she said, “No-o.  No benefits unless you’re a manager.”  She said her husband was ill and they had moved in with one of their children.

Yes, I gave her a flier, and she said, “I like this.”

The next week a whole fifth-grade class came over to see us and our camp with their teachers and a even a few parents!  A jolly time was had by all.

I KEEP UP with Occupy Las Cruces  by email these days and can report that park life goes on.  No eviction!  Early in the fall, there had been a police bust of a kind at one a.m., but then a progressive City Council said No, they can remain, and began to work things out.  Friends of Occupy have donated generously for the overnight permits.  The park is a good home, not just for tent campers but also for those who like to stop in every day or so and talk about the needs of the country with friends or just people passing by.

A few weeks ago the group were invited to Sunday breakfast at the First Christian Church and to speak at the service, and had a warm reception.  Saturday events are planned for the Farmer’s Market and for teach-ins on Walmart.  On January 1, some will join Occupy El Paso in a demonstration at a borderlands bridge about the first nineteen years of NAFTA — and the impoverishment it has brought to both sides of the border.  This joint action is wonderful news indeed!

Tensions among the group, though, are more in evidence these days.  Certain women are not happy with men who speak too long and too much at GA’s — that’s almost old news; but in recent weeks, trouble has centered on two individuals in camp who are drinking and causing disturbances.  Most people feel that the group must not harbor alcohol or aggressive behavior, but a camp marshal everyone depends on does not want to evict these two.  A tough knot of an issue that many Occupy groups have been facing.

BACK IN CINCINNATI, I was present at a court hearing on the fate of the Anna Louise Inn, and it was fine to see Occupiers there befriending this home for low-income women, and women from “the streets” trying to rebuild their lives.  I learned that there had been a good turnout for Occupy Cincinnati’s Winter Recharge.

All over the country, even in Las Cruces, winter weather is taking its toll.  Yet Occupiers are holding on — mystically, magically, it sometimes seems; and in springtime — look for us in full bloom again!

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