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Staying Power

(Please note: Names have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent.)

Few are likely to be familiar with Piatt Park in Cincinnati. No one other than those who live or work nearby would have any reason to seek it out. Piatt is not what I am accustomed to in a “park,” really, but rather an urban space, a paved median separating two one-way streets with plants, benches, some wrought-iron fencing and a line of perfectly-spaced trees. No grass grows there to speak of. It’s certainly not a place one would go to walk a dog, toss a frisbee, or stretch out on the ground and look at the clouds on a crisp fall day. The plot may be simply too narrow to build on, donated  to the city park district by an established Cincinnati family of old, and now designated as a manicured public space. It’s perfect for a brief respite from tired feet before one proceeds to a destination, a pleasant spot to eat lunch and check your email via smartphone.

A cool Friday evening…

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Last Friday night, Piatt Park and its environs weren’t still and quiet as is the norm at 10 p.m. There, on a cool, damp October night in the quieting city, the overnight residents of Occupy Cincy, our local iteration of Occupy Wall Street, milled under the arches, awaiting citations for remaining in the park beyond the posted hour. Occupiers proudly pinned citations to their coats. Many people had three or more already, each of which carries a potential $105 fine none can readily afford.

Uncertainty

Something was happening tonight, the slight anxiety in the faces of the occupiers said. Apparently, no citations had been issued Thursday night, at the order of Cincinnati Police Chief James Craig. But what would happen this Friday night?

No deliveries allowed right now

A somewhat offbeat troupe of protesters circled the block on the sidewalk, singing “We Shall Overcome,” clad in black, with striped scarves, funky hats, boots, and the occasional revolutionary-styled jacket. When I joined them, explaining that I had water, snacks, and a few other supplies that might be helpful, they said it was impossible to get the supplies into the park right then, because the police were issuing citations at the moment. Anyone crossing the perimeter of the park would be cited, but I was welcome to drop the supplies off at the curb on the opposite side of the park. In the meantime, I could join them as they marched. Familiar with loitering laws, I thought perhaps I should walk, despite having a gimpy knee for the time being, rather than risk a different sort of citation.

Armies march on their stomachs. Protests march to good music.

The occupiers were good company. “Do you know any good protest songs?” they asked. They had apparently sung “This Land Is Your Land,” and several others, exhausting their repertoire of suitably resistant songs. Having missed the 1960′s entirely, I suggested, the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” which seemed to fit the occasion, at least for me. Besides, the other songs were too down-tempo for my taste, which tends toward the raucous. We could have rocked the casbah or — had anyone had a hard bucket and a pair of drumsticks — killed on “Radio Clash,” which needs only a good percussionist, really.

Just over thirty of the occupiers — or, alternatively, occupants — had stayed within the park past 10 p.m., the hour at which the park “closes.” At least six uniformed police officers stood in clumps, talking to representatives of the protest, discussing the procedure for issuance of citations as had happened nightly but for Thursday since the occupation/protest began Saturday, October 8th. Occupiers proudly pinned their citations to their coats, and several of them had three or more already. New Police Chief James Craig, on the job less than three months, was at the center of the action, obscured from view often by several taller officers, presumably giving direction and setting the tone.

Observed

The scene was quite busy. As we rounded the corner and crossed the street, I stopped at the Garfield Hotel, where three employees with embroidered, logoed shirts stood on the sidewalk, a manager, a security guard, and, once the front desk was quiet, the clerk. Guests had been steadily arriving at the corner, looking somewhat interestedly and cautiously at the nearby commotion, loading luggage from taxi trunks onto dollies and rushing under the awning into the lobby, peering the glass doors.

Two late-40′s-ish women, midwestern in garb and hairstyle, stood on the curb near the Garfield, bemusedly watching the overall scene.

Dave has reservations, as do Garfield Hotel guests

Let’s call the security guard “Dave.” When I asked, Dave said guests were a bit concerned, naturally a little alarmed. But the overall vibe was peaceful, non-confrontational. Dave seemed slightly irritated and a bit dismissive rather than in any way alarmed, much as he characterized the guests. The young front desk clerk in modern, discreet eyeglasses, whom we’ll call Ethan, was quiet during my discussion with Dave, but chimed in when it become obvious that I was generally supportive of the occupiers, especially in the face of Dave’s furrowed brow & curled lip.

“What are they doing that’s wrong? It’s a peaceful protest. It’s free speech.” Ethan said.

“They’re breaking the law. The park closes at 10,” Dave said.

“But who’s the victim? There’s no victim,” Ethan insisted.

I explained to Dave that the occupiers might each have his or her own primary reason to be there, and that each city’s expression of the movement could have great variation within it, as well as from the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole. That’s the way of it with leaderless, amorphous movements. But from what I had gathered, the common strain was that many people could not get jobs at all, and many others were working several just to make ends meet. Meanwhile, far too little is has been done to stem the increasing power and impunity of powerful interests including Wall Street, the banks, large corporations, and other entities have apparently hijacked the political and economic systems.

“They’re not so scary, are they?” I asked Dave teasingly, gesturing at the passing marchers.

“I don’t like it when they wear masks,” he said. (None of those present was wearing a mask, but several have been seen during the day.)

“What sort of mask? Like surgical masks, or Halloween masks?” I asked.

“Oh, those, those…” Dave gestured to his face, gesturing to indicate a pointy chin, if I’m any good at charades.

“…V for Vendetta masks,” Ethan said.

“Ohhhh, I can explain those,” I said, laughing. I know a few Fawkes-mask-wearing Anons, and while they used to just be in it for the lulz, apparently some of them have decided social justice is worth a few lulz too, of late. “Some of the people wearing masks might be government employees, or be afraid of their faces appearing on camera in connection with the protests. So they’re keeping their faces out of the public eye. But others just like the movie, or the mask. It has panache!”

“But they could be carrying guns. I don’t know what they might do,” Dave said.

Wryly: “Dave, Ohio now allows concealed carry, even in bars. Anyone could be carrying a gun, mask or no. The masks draw more attention than a face, so I think masked people are less likely to be up to no good than someone unmasked.”

“Okay, okay. I’m not talking to you anymore. You argue with everything I say.”

“I do not,” I said, laughing. “We’re just talking here.”

Dave and Ethan went inside, but the scrapbooking ladies had been listening intently.

Friends making memories… (scrapbooker reference)

“Thanks for explaining all this,” the darker-haired one said. “I had no idea what it was all about.” She smiled.

“I kinda like it that someone cares enough to be out here protesting,” I said. “I like it that the invisible people are making it harder to ignore them. There’s something in it that’s inspiring.” Both ladies smiled, nodded slightly, and we had a nice long discussion about Ohio’s Issue 2 (I was wearing a “No on 2, Repeal SB5” button). The dark-haired lady said her daughter is a teacher, and asked for some details about the bill, which I was happy to share. As usual. We stood, discussing the bill for a good ten minutes, arms crossed to hold in body heat, but shoulder to shoulder.

“Thanks! Well, we’d better get back over there,” the dark-haired lady said. “We’re just here for a scrapbooking thing,” gesturing to another hotel down the street. We had a few words about scrapbooking — a years-long postnatal pursuit I delved into to keep myself out of trouble when my own kids were adorable infants through preschoolers, long before the awkward ‘tween phase most of us experience.

And the ladies left.

Our Main(e) guy.

Still watching the action across the street, waiting for the police to finish citing and leave, I walked halfway down the block with Lloyd, a security liaison/lookout for the Occupiers. It was he who pointed out James Craig, explained where the food tent and supply tent were. Lloyd seemed a bit tired, a little frustrated that occupiers were again being cited, and moreso when police went from tent to tent with flashlights, looking inside and calling to ensure they’d cited all who had stayed. Knowing some of Craig’s backstory, which is that he was last chief for Portland, Maine, which I happen to have visited in August, I waited for a chance to hail him. Soon, he and other officers moved our way.

“Chief Craig! Portland, Maine sends its regards and says it misses you!”

Craig threw his head back, laughed, crouched to peer across at me, and crossed the street to talk. (Score!)

“Hi, Chief. Pleasure to meet you. I have friends in Portland, and they gave me grief this summer, said my city was stealing their guy.”

“Well, please be sure to send Portland my regards,” he said, smiling broadly.

We talked a bit. I asked how things were going, generally. He said that the occupiers had been very cooperative, that he was proud of the work of CPD officers. “They’re good guys. The best I’ve worked with,” he said warmly. Craig reiterated his commitment to treat everyone with “respect and dignity,” and said, “I hope we’ll soon come to a peaceful resolution.”

“Chief Craig, what does resolution mean? For them just to go away?”

He might have answered were it not for an interjection — a challenge, of sorts — from Lloyd. (Grr.) What he would have said, I don’t know. In any case, I was left with the impression that he is a good man (handsome, too), in a new job, under pressure from all sides. He referenced with some impatience how much it was costing taxpayers to monitor the situation, no matter how peaceful the intent of the occupiers. He seemed to have a clear sense that while he cannot enforce the law selectively, he will try to enforce it with a firm, but light touch. I like him, given what I know of him from that conversation and news stories.

Whatever tension had been in the air dispersed with the departure of the police. Two cruisers circled the block a few times, and all was quiet. Everyone remaining breathed, relaxed, ready for another long night under the canopy of Piatt Park.

From the end of that narrow strip, on any other night, a row of repeating, evenly spaced wrought iron arches lit with small round bulbs softly illuminate its empty length. In the surrounding darkness, it takes on the air of an abandoned amusement park arcade after all the patrons have gone home, Made in China stuffed animals clutched in fingers that are sticky with melted cotton candy. On any other night, one or two homeless men might sleep on a bench, unseen by passing cars, and eventually be rousted by a passing police patrol. An urban couple might stroll under the arches holding hands on their way back to parking a block or two from where they enjoyed dinner or a show.

Tonight, the park was not as neat, orderly. The alcoves were dotted with domed and canopy tents, some of which would be quite suitable for camping, others quite obviously cast-off flimsy structures, repaired with silver-gray duct tape, shrouded by assorted tarps that fluttered in the brisk air. A few older men, many younger men, and a few young women stood huddled in small groups, talking, laughing, smoking, hugging. Protest signs were on piled near tents, since few spectators were there at that late hour to see them. Perhaps a total of fifty people were scattered through the park.

A new home, a new family, and the heart of it is still the kitchen.

As I meandered among them, talking to people, greeting them, delivering supplies, I saw a great deal of affection, familiarity, even a kinship among the occupiers. I met homeless men who had clearly been drawn to the attention, companionship and ready sharing of supplies the protesters offered. Yet there was little sense of discord or unease. I visited “the kitchen,” which served hot coffee, snacks, fruit, and even featured a somewhat wilted bowl of salad. By this, the seventh night, all seemed to have settled into an easy rhythm, with volunteers working shifts in various roles. Several people had already gone to sleep. Only occasional bursts of laughter broke the hush, and even they were muffled by the falling dew in the night air.

Gifts are bestowed.

One homeless man with a name badge, Mark, offered me a copy of “Street Vibes,” a publication from the Coalition for the Homeless. “One-dollar donation,” he smiled at me. I told him had no money. Not a dime. But I had given $5 for a copy the previous Saturday, hesitant to ask for change from a charitable organization. I share work-related connections with a homeless shelter, so we eagerly started talking about places we both knew.

“Oh, I know that place,” he said, and we each named counselors and social workers we know, exclaiming happily when we found one we both knew.

He handed me the newspaper. “Mark, you don’t have to,” I said.

“Take it,” he said, and gave me the address of the home office so I could send a donation later. He even went to the kitchen and brought me back two cookies, obviously donated and wrapped carefully in plastic wrap with a jaunty piece of ribbon as a closure.

Another man and I worked together to reposition and secure a tarp. It had wafted off the mesh dining shelter which must surely have once been used by some family to keep mosquitoes at bay in a suburban back yard, because it would be good for little more. The man sleeping inside never stirred, but must surely have been cold, sleeping there on the hard pavers. I found a hose clamp on the ground, and used it to secure the tarp to a pole using the grommet at the corner. Camping experience for the win! Only for this man, given his relative lack of other supplies, blankets, or other comforts, I don’t think this was camping so much as a temporary relocation of his makeshift home.

I had worn capri pants and brown leather no-heeled maryjanes, and was chilled from the knee down. I had also begun to draw a bit too much attention. It was time for me to go.

But on my way back to the car, I stepped back for a moment, thinking, Piatt Park had really become a camp. Maybe a refugee camp, for some. A military camp for others. For other still, it’s a rare chance to speak out, be heard, be visible, because others have joined them in homelessness, even if temporary.

What does/will/can it all mean?

Do I support Occupy Wall Street? (grimace) Conditionally. I’m cautiously optimistic.

I want to know more. Will it last? Will it hold true to the sometimes-mixed message coming from other cities? Can the movement as a whole, and especially our city’s contingent, overcome the eventual flares of temper and ego that come as some step forward to speak for others who may not share total agreement? Will Cincinnati, a quiet, conservative city, long tolerate an ongoing display of defiance? Will it produce any legislation, or change in policy that will actually help people, change things? Or is it just an extended, futile urban camping adventure?

I’m not Carnac the Magnificent

So many questions remain yet to be answered as to where the Occupy Wall Street movement is going and what, if anything, it will produce in terms of change. But as long as these people are nonviolent, the idealist in me hopes they can keep it going, pounding home a consistent message and concrete demands until someone pays attention. I hope all of the participants are now registered or will register to vote, and that they vote as if their lives depend on it.

In the end, I think their lives do. Mine too, and my kids’ in the long run. Most of all,  I’d very much like to think that, in every sense, the American people have some staying power.

Comments

  1. Nice report. Thanks for helping me visualize what’s happening. My son Tony is one of the people who got this started so I’ve been trying to follow things as they unfold. I’m trying to imagine what happens next, in NYC, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. On the one hand I think having no end date, no leadership, and no written agenda was a stroke of genius. It’s turned the event(s) into a story that begs to be followed day by day. But eventually a “so what” point will be reached and then what?

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