Occupy Lincoln’s future open for interpretation

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Participation in the Occupy Lincoln protests has fallen along with the temperature over the last few weeks. How long the protests will last into the winter remains to be seen.

Story, video, photos by Bob Al-Greene, NewsNetNebraska

The inscription above the north door of the Nebraska State Capitol reads: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.”

Across the street, tents line snow-covered Centennial Mall for two blocks, as they have since October. The Occupy Lincoln protesters – not an offshoot, not a chapter of the international movement, but a group standing in solidarity – gladly take the Capitol’s epigraph as a motto. But anyone approaching the site would be as likely to see a signs promoting the legalization of marijuana or an overhaul of the entire federal system.

Occupy seems to spur questions rather than deliver answers. While this may frustrate outsiders looking in, the men and women who inhabit Occupy Lincoln say their current goal is to get people talking.

“That’s the beauty of the movement,” Lincoln Occupier Ben Steinke said. “I don’t expect everyone here to share my point of view, or even know what I’m talking about.”

This, in a nutshell, may be Occupy’s undeniable obstacle, and perhaps one of two big questions that are yet to be answered conclusively: 1) The group’s specific goals or ideology and 2) the future of the movement. The answers are not easy to come by. Occupy’s goals can be difficult to catalog – it seems there is one for every sign planted by a tent or held by devoted protesters along K and L streets. But what lies between the message and the future?

The message

The basic tenets have been restated over and over again by this point.

Ending money’s influence in politics. Regulating banks and businesses more scrupulously. Adjusting tax rates to close the income gap. An idealist strain runs through all of it – a vision of a strikingly different America.

As winter draws near and the movement grows older, its defiantly broad progressive message remains a potential reason for public ambivalence on the protests.

“People want to make us say ‘Why are you here? What is your one demand?’ But we don’t have one demand,” said Mama Jo, the de facto mother of Occupy Lincoln, who has been with it since the beginning. “If you give them one, they’ll twist it. The main message is ‘educate yourself.’”

In a city where more people may be more likely to know or care about Memorial Stadium’s famous inscription than the Capitol’s, generating political discourse is an earnest goal. Mama Jo’s husband, Tom, said that is really all a fledgling phenomenon like Occupy Lincoln can hope for right now.

“Moving mountains is unrealistic,” he said. “Maintain our spot, that’s all we have to do.”

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ABOVE: Click to watch video about Occupy Lincoln’s vigil for victims of police brutality, held Nov. 22 in the Nebraska Union.

“It’s a big pile. How do you move it?”

Hendrik Van Den Berg, a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who visits the Occupy Lincoln site regularly, agreed. A young movement fueled by young thinkers must struggle just to begin a serious debate. But that’s the point.

“ Let’s be honest,” Van Den Berg said. “We’re not going to get anything done any time soon. It’s a big pile. How do you move it?”

Beyond legislation, regulation or elections, the most attainable goal for the Occupiers is to break through mainstream apathy, Van Den Berg said. The professor has been surprised at how few professors and students from UNL have been actively involved with Occupy, as he has.

“I think it’s very sad,” Van Den Berg said. “I mean, I don’t know what happens to our country in this case.”

Ari Kohen, an associate professor of political science, said his students are well aware of Occupy but not particularly engaged. Like him, their involvement has mostly been limited to walking through the site. He attributes this disinterest to the  vague message championed by Occupiers.

“The premises of the movement are ones that are very interesting to me,” Kohen said. “It’s a very useful critique. But a critique is only useful for so long if we don’t know what to do with it. So we can be told all day that something is terrible. But what would something good look like? Isn’t that always the next step?”

At some point, someone will have to step in and say what the next step is. Kohen said he considers it best for the people who are actively involved in the protests to choose that next step. But he doesn’t consider it likely.

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Hal Barney of Lincoln has been part of the Occupy Lincoln protests for the last 47 days. “Does it look like we’re going anywhere?” he said.

The future

In the open-air information tent at the south end of Centennial Mall, conversations spark around a hot bowl of soup as the snow falls. Volunteers return from shoveling and warm themselves with food and discussions. Winter is just beginning, and spring is a long way off. What will Occupy – in Lincoln or elsewhere – look like when the snow thaws?

On a local level, Tom said, Occupy Lincoln is looking to move across K Street into the Capitol, and exchange tents for offices. If public figures won’t wholeheartedly endorse the Occupy spirit – in essence, if you can’t make an Occupier out of  a politician – then it’s necessary to make a politician out of an Occupier. Running for office is on the agenda for some of the young members.

“There are damn few real public servants,” Tom said. “We need people with some decency, some real ideas for the country that don’t involve greed.”

But these plans are at least as far off as the spring. The most recent weekly protest, held on the Saturday that saw the first real snowfall in Lincoln, drew about 150 participants. For those keeping score at home, that’s 0.05 percent of Lincoln’s population, not the 99 percent Occupy speaks for.

The real threat to Occupy may not be cold weather or snow. Continued marginalization represents a real risk – supporters and detractors can agree on that. The dialogue is going already. But Kohen and Van Den Berg said they are now waiting to see if and when the message is co-opted – in whole or in part – by public figures. In Kohen’s words, long before an Occupier can reach office, it is likely the officeholders will reach them.

If Occupy doesn’t grow independently, it will be “eaten,” Van Den Berg said. Before long, money will find a way into the movement. Alignment with any political party could be fatal.

“They don’t want to be a party,” Kohen said. “They don’t even want to be a movement. They just want to be an amorphous thing that bubbled up and made noise. Drew attention. And they’ve succeeded in that. But if it goes on for long enough, other people will simply step in and say what they want for them.”

Occupy, Populism and Marxism

The closest historical precedent to the Occupy movement, according to Kohen, was Marxism in the United States in the early 20th century. Marx and Engel’s “Communist Manifesto” made 10 main demands, ranging from limitations on child labor to abolition of the concept of private property.

Over time, the U.S. has adopted many of Marx’s ideas, but hardcore Marxists were not successful in America. Likewise, Kohen said, some principles of the Occupy message will eventually gain traction on a national political stage. But it will not come without compromise, and the most radical Occupiers will be left out in the cold as gradual change takes place.

“In an election season, especially the perpetual election season, people will try to co-opt them [Occupy],” Kohen said. “And if people give some of the movement folks what they want, why stay out in the winter?”

Van Den Berg likened Occupy to the Chautauqua movement of the late 19th century, or the Granger movement of the same period. While both had their roots in agricultural classes, the Grange movement aimed at political and economic reform, while Chautauqua assemblies focused on rural education through touring speakers, teachers and preachers. Chautauqua saw its decline during the rise of mass entertainment – movies, radio, television, etc. – but the Granger movement led to reforms as its platform was adopted by the Populist Party. After that, the Grangers faded as a political force.

This is a possible future for the Occupy movement: recognition and marginal impact on a national stage, followed by dissolution. But that shouldn’t be viewed as failure, Kohen said.
“I see that as a great good, if it accomplished something,” he said. “Because all the things the government might give them – smarter regulations, whatever – those are actually great steps forward.”

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Travis Hepburn of Lincoln shovels at Occupy Lincoln on December 3, the first heavy snowfall of the season.

What’s next?

Moving forward, there are more barriers the movement must face. As Occupiers are evicted or confronted in cities nationwide, sometimes with surprising force, public attention may be drawn away from the movement’s principles to the issue of its survival.

On Nov. 22, Occupy Lincoln held a vigil in the lobby of the Nebraska Union to honor victims of police brutality at the University of California, Berkley and the University of California, Davis. Attention necessarily shifts away from the goals of reform as Occupy fights for its very right to survive. Senior political science major and Occupy supporter Justin Tolston said police brutality is a “hallmark” issue of the protests. Others see problems with that aspect.

“The real danger for the protesters now is that they’re on the verge of becoming protesters who are protesting about protests,” Kohen said. “And then the message is gone completely.”

But members of Occupy Lincoln see themselves as facilitators, keeping people on message, even as that message continues to shift.

“Our intent now is just to keep people talking,” Tom said. “Writing representatives. Whatever we can do to get people involved. If you read the founding documents of this country, it’s our duty.”

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