Occupying the rift
By JIM LUKEN
Faithful Streetvibes readers know that the Meetup page offers up a bi-weekly account of an individual’s life story. As you can see, this time, there are two stories, and the focus is on a serious conflict, not so much between the two individuals featured here, but between two sides of an issue that, in a sense, affects the ongoing life of downtown Cincinnati.
Now that the city has granted Occupy Cincinnati (OC) members (as well as anyone else) permission to express their first amendment rights at a small area of Piatt (Garfield Park) 24/7, a number of individuals from the movement have chosen to do just that, to re-Occupy the park.
For the past three weeks (as of April 7), individuals from the movement have been at Piatt Park all day long, leafleting, and all night, holding vigil. They are proud to re-Occupy the park again. Others in the local Occupy group feel that what these folks are doing is a waste of time and energy.
Streetvibes Readers: read the two stories and decide for yourselves. Send Streetvibes letters stating your point of view. Should the demonstrators remain there at the statue of Garfield… or not?
Meet Reginald Hill. 46. Navy veteran. Native of OTR. 4th of seven children. Father of one, grandfather of three. Long-time independent taxi driver. Grass-roots activist.
“In the middle of the night (at Piatt Park), it is usually pretty calm and dark, of course,” he says. “I often feel lonely and despairing, not knowing if the group as a whole (OC) understands the significance of having a 24 hour space for free speech.”
The protestors are not permitted to lie down, although they often do, catching sleep in snatches as best they can. Hill says that some nights have been very chilly. In the middle of one night, a cold rain fell. The protestors went across the street to stand under the overhang of the library. According to Hill, the police drive by often during the nights. Usually they don’t bother those gathered at the statue, he says. But that night they demanded that the activists return to the park, where they sat for hours in the rain.
Reginald—his friends call him Reggie—has very personal reasons for spending so much time there in the park. “I think it’s important to show that this space is needed, because of all the arrests that happened at this location.” Hill states proudly that he was arrested at both Piatt Park and—two days later—at a middle-of-the night demonstration at Fountain Square [All charges were recently dropped against all the arrestees].
Hill believes that the return of the 24/7 occupation is having a positive effect. He points out that he and his friends have already handed out over 1700 flyers. “It gives us the opportunity to engage by standers, to find out what they think of the Occupation. And it also gives us the ability to have youth become active in the movement.”
Hill expresses no overt anger at the other members of Occupy, who prefer to do committee work and to develop direct actions. But he often feels abandoned by the larger part of the group. He points out that some of those who stand there at the statue leafleting are themselves homeless. They might be described as “ragtag.” Whereas the others, who do their activist work at the OC warehouse facility, or from their computers at home tend to be more middle-class.
“The informational and the technological work to keep our movement alive must be done,” Hill affirms, “But supporting those of us (i.e., those on the street) who support your ideas is also important.”
“All of us,” Reggie avows, “need to be aware of all the people and to be inclusive, and not to exclude anyone because of status or class.” At several OC General Assembly meetings he has begged other members to come to the park late at night, “just to get a feel of what it is like and what we are doing down there.”
Hill has been active in both Occupy Cincinnati and Occupy the Hood, which focuses more on issues relating to foreclosures and the urban poor. Politics and political action is in his blood now. At some point, maybe for the 2014 elections, he hopes to run for city council. In the meantime, he is emphatic. “Occupy has become a family to me, and I would do anything for my family. I’m occupied with the thoughts of Occupy all the time, always ready to create more pressure in order to affect change. Nothing counts,” he concludes, “but more pressure.”
Meet Ben Stockwell. 22. Socialist. Computer programmer for the University of Cincinnati. Second of three boys from a Kings Mills family.
Young Ben Stockwell has been a committed activist for some time now. Already his activist work has had a significant effect on a shadowy, ultra-conservative organization that is only now coming into public view. A year ago, he and a small group of local friends “outed” this secretive lobbying group known as ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC was holding its national meeting here in Cincinnati. “We felt we had to do something,” Ben said. That “something” brought Ben’s group national recognition, and brought ALEC under media scrutiny at last.
On the day of this interview, Ben and I celebrated the announcement that Coca Cola and Pepsi—under activist pressure—had just then abandoned their connections to ALEC.
Stockwell has been a hard-core member of Occupy Cincinnati from early on. But he is not in favor of the re-occupation of Piatt Park. “I don’t hold any grudge against them or anything,” He says, “But I would like to have conversation about why they think it is so important.”
As Stockwell sees it, the encampments that characterized Occupy Wall Street and its imitators all over the country (and world) were a striking visual symbol of the emerging fight against the ruling class. “Early on I think it was great. It got people excited about what we were doing,” he argues, “but I’m not sure a reoccupation can have the same effect. Before (last fall), people were flocking down to see and support the occupation. Now people are only coming across the occupyers accidentally.”
Ben seems fully appreciative of the value of confrontational, in-your-face, tactics when it comes to activism and movement building. “One of the nice things about the (physical) Occupation is that it did kind-of prefigure the collective spirit, and it drew a core of committed activists.”
Stockwell understands that he was one of those drawn into the Occupy movement by the power of those multi-colored tents and the energy that surrounded them in so many places. He became one of the committed core. He still follows the goings-on of Occupyers in various places.
“Greensboro, North Carolina,” he explains, “voluntarily left their physical occupation, and now they work on issues, like foreclosures and the environment. I don’t think we should be occupying for occupying’s sake.”
There are things Ben Stockwell does believe we should be doing. ‘I’d like to see us turn toward more traditional organizing, like canvassing, holding community meetings, essentially going to the people, instead of requiring the people to come to us.”
Stockwell is readying himself for the long struggle to bring true democracy and a level playing field to our common life. In the fall, he will be matriculating at UC, and seeking a second bachelor’s degree (his first was in computer science), this time in sociology.
In terms of his disagreement with Occupyers like Reginald Hill, he concludes, “We don’t have to resolve this thing tomorrow. I hope everyone who is involved realizes they have to put as much energy as they can into a variety of tactics. Some of these tactics, we haven’t even thought of yet.”