Fear and occupation in red America (Salon)

In Wyoming and Idaho, the movement confronts a conservative reality

BY ARUN GUPTA

Occupy protesters on the Capitol steps in Boise, Idaho. (Credit: AP/Jessie L. Bonner)

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BOISE, Idaho — One talked, the other snickered. The talker wore a red Harley-Davidson jacket and a salt-and-pepper poof of hair and drooping mustache. ” While the snickerer watched, the talker harangued Jon Howard, a “marginally employed” stagehand, about whether the Boise occupation was legal, and Jon said it was. The talker wanted to know whether they were paying for the electricity they were using on the grounds of the old Ada County Courthouse, and Jon said they were. A moment earlier I had sensed the tension and bounded over, looking for a reason to escape the wild-eyed “home-church” Christian pastor I had made the mistake of engaging.

It didn’t take long for the talker to get a look at me and launch into an “all you left-wing supporters of Obama” monologue. I mentioned I was an out-of-town observer and asked if he was with the Tea Party.

“I’m a conservative. And an American,” he said.

I had put my notepad and pen away, not wanting to spook him. He returned to complaining about the legality of the occupation. I asked him if one should follow the legal mandates of an illegal government.

“Well, you petition them.”

“If that doesn’t work?” I asked.

“Petition them again.”

“So is that why Tea Party members show up to rallies with guns?”

He fell silent, and his friend stopped snickering.

“Well,” he said slowly, “it’s going to come down to that, eventually.”

Perhaps realizing that he was talking about violent overthrow after complaining that  Occupy Boise might not be paying for the $4 of electricity a month it was using, he decided to go for broke.

“He wasn’t even born in America,” he said, referring to the president.  Squinting and pointing upward he added, “Obama needs to be hung from that tree over there.”

Then the man’s phone rang, “Dad?” he answered. The snickerer snickered some more.

After 22 occupations, it seemed fitting that the first time I heard someone suggest killing President Obama was in Boise. Having never been to Idaho, I arrived with visions of majestic forests, paranoid survivalists and violent neo-Nazis. While the two I encountered seemed to be more run-of-the-mill Tea Partyers than armed-to-the-teeth racists, members of Occupy Boise assured me they were an aberration.

Cyndi Tiferet, who has been involved in Occupy Boise “every day from the first general assembly,” said of the two, “We haven’t had a lot of that here in this camp at all. We have been, for the most part, very well-received.”

A mother of four children aged 25 to 32, Tiferet was sporting a neon-green “National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer” hat. She explained that locals “who walk through the camp say, ‘Thank you, I would lose my job if I helped you or if they knew that I was here, but thank you.’”

The comment about the fear of losing their jobs caught our attention. The previous day occupiers in Laramie and Cheyenne, Wyo., made strikingly similar statements to us. Heading into the Northwest we were curious as to whether Occupation movements could survive in the reddest of red states.

What we found are cautious movements that emphasize education as well as nonpartisan and even depoliticized approaches so as to take root in inhospitable soils. But we were also pleasantly surprised to find home-grown radicals. Jon Howard calls himself an anarchist. Lindy Murphy, a resident of Laramie and former business owner, said, “I am a socialist.” In Cheyenne, ex-Air Force Capt. Ed Waddell looks like “The Dude” and sounds like a Marxist in presenting a sophisticated analysis of the global economy.

Nonetheless, occupiers describe a part of the country where they’ve been assaulted for holding a protest sign. Among the comments, we heard;

“Little old ladies … give me the finger.”

“You’re looked upon as an oddity” if you’re a Democrat.

People will not join the Occupy movement because “they do not want to get fired.”

It’s no wonder, I later thought, some conservatives in this part of the country feel comfortable telling strangers they want to see the president lynched.

In Wyoming

Occupy Cheyenne supporters say fierce winds and bitter cold have prevented them from camping outside so we caught up with eight of them on a weekday at the sleek new Laramie County Public Library. Beth Buczynski, a rapid-talking freelance editor and writer, said the Occupy movement made her “hopeful for the first time in a long time” because now “there are millions of people … all speaking together.”

In addition to standing on street corners protesting wealth and power inequalities, the group has twice presented a workshop called “how the 1 percent crashed the economy.” Buczynski said one advantage of the workshop is that “people can hear things and talk about things without having to take a public stand.”

Leah Zegan, a coffee-shop manager who is active in a local Unitarian Universalist Church, said education was important because of the various responses to their demonstrations.

“People would come up and talk to us about it but they knew nothing about it,” she said. “Or if they knew about the Occupy movement they had no idea something like this was happening in Cheyenne.” Or they were unsure if “it would be safe for them to come because of the way that Wyoming is.”

Mike Shay, a father of two college-age children and anti-Vietnam War protester as a youth, takes the hostility in stride. “I’m a veteran of enough protests to realize you’re going to get flipped off. You’re going to get yelled at. We all know how to handle that as nonviolent protesters.”

What did surprise Shay is “how much interest there has been,” plus the fact that the movement is “nonviolent, is thoughtful, and comes from an organic place. When Occupy Cheyenne appeared it was sort of out of the ground. I said … ‘This is great, now who are these people?’”

About 100 people attended the first protest on Oct. 15, which everyone said “was a lot for Cheyenne.” As elsewhere, the economy is a core concern as the country’s economic crisis has arrived on many people’s doorsteps.

Robert Crawford, an unemployed 44-year-old photographer, says healthcare is a big issue because “I’m a diabetic, my 7-year-old son has already had back surgery, and he has multiple health issues.” Erin Madson says she can’t find a job despite having a master’s in biology, and both she and her sister are disabled and unable to receive proper healthcare. Ed Waddell said while people in Cheyenne are “fed up and upset” about the suffering, the problem is “they don’t understand what’s happening. They don’t know what’s being done to them.”

Blame that on the media, say occupiers. Zegan says, “People just don’t know what’s going on or they just hear about it from Fox News.”

Larry Struempf grew up on his parents’ cattle ranch near Laramie, which is infamous as the site of the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard in 1998. The 41-year-old Struempf describes his parents as “extreme GOP members.” Of his six siblings, he says, those “who went to college became liberal. The ones who didn’t remained conservative.” He says “many, many people in the community are extremely against the Occupy Movement.” The press, especially Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, portrays occupiers “as all unemployed, people who want to mooch off society, that are trying to just have the wealthy people give the poor people their money.”

In Laramie, Struempf explains, “It’s so much easier, even if you do support [the Occupy movement], to just be quiet.” He adds, “It’s scary.  Times are hard, even though Wyoming is doing well. If you lose your job, you lose your house, you go live on the streets, and it’s not a forgiving environment.”

A 12-year resident of Laramie, Lindy Murphy was laid off recently from the U.S. Postal Service. She says her co-workers would bad-mouth the union.

“Nobody seemed to understand that the union was what gave them these great jobs,” she said. “They played Rush Limbaugh over the radio at the post office when we were sorting mail. When you got into the mail vehicle the radio was tuned to Rush Limbaugh. It was very much part of the culture.”

Murphy, who owned a bar and restaurant in Texas for 18 years prior to being a mail carrier, says the post office let her go after a three-year stint as a “transitional employee” rather than make her a union member as required.

Despite being unemployed for 10 months at the age of 56, Murphy said, “The Occupy movement is the most amazing thing that has ever happened in my lifetime and I would never believe it would happen. I have some disdain for Americans … We’re the ones who just go plunder other countries so we can have more.  And it’s like, oh, people have been paying attention!  People do know what’s going on!” She adds that she is “disappointed that more people aren’t standing up” in Laramie, but she is excited by the broader movements, including the Arab Spring.

While Laramie’s Facebook page has just 68 members and eight occupiers joined the Christmas parade with signs encouraging people to “buy local, pay cash,” it does provide a sense of community to people who previously felt isolated. Mandi Leigh, who is earning a master’s in natural science education at the University of Wyoming, says, “It’s easier to stand up and get over your fear when you have that support and when you have community.”

The fear is real. Nancy Sindelar, who served 21 years in the Wyoming National Guard and has been conducting a weekly peace vigil in Laramie for more than 10 years, says of the last person who tried to attack her, “I don’t want to brag, but I was still holding my flag and my sign in one hand and he was on the pavement.” A member of Veterans for Peace, Sindelar says that before the first Occupy event, held at the Laramie Peace House, she told a reporter for the Laramie Boomerang, “Absolutely do not put the address of the Peace House in the paper.” She says there have been many “viciouscomments on articles about the Occupy movement.

The occupations in Wyoming benefit from a spillover effect from other occupations. Leigh says after participating in an Occupy Denver march of some 3,000 people, “I was really inspired, so I got involved with these guys,” in Laramie.

Sindelar says the first Occupy event she attended with a few other people was in Casper, Wyo. “The next week it was in Cheyenne and I said, we’re Laramie, we gotta do something, so we called one here, and had it in the plaza.”

Beth Buczynski says she happened to be in Austin, Texas, on the day the occupation began and “just completely felt that something I was waiting for was happening, so when I got back here and found an Occupy Cheyenne page I was thrilled and surprised and decided to meet these folks and do whatever I could to help out.”

On to Idaho 

We knew from a little research that Boise had a physical occupation, but after Wyoming we expected a sad affair cowering in the shadows of police repression and reactionary aggression. Instead we found the best organized occupation out of the two dozen we have visited across the country.

Cyndi Tiferet informed us Boise is part of Idaho’s “banana belt,” so-called because it is sheltered by nearby mountains that ensure mild climate year round. These mountains draw Californians for skiing and water sports along thousands of miles of whitewater. Along with the Californians came a surge in population, which has doubled since 1980, and a housing bubble. In 2010 Boise ranked No. 20 among U.S. metropolitan areas for foreclosure activity.

Tiferet and her husband, who have six children between them, know the story. They walked away from their house in 2009 in part because they were underwater. Their income had gone from $90,000 to $20,000 a year after she lost her job and her husband’s income dropped as a lawyer in private practice. Now they live with relatives, and Tiferet has thrown herself into the movement with gusto. She says this movement “isn’t about Democrat or Republican. It isn’t about black or white. It’s about people.  And we’ve got to build our society. We’ve got to take back our world.”

When we came tramping through the occupation, Jon Howard, stagehand and Boise native, came by to give us a tour. We were examining the kitchen area, which included a two-burner propane stove, a pantry, sink and chopping blocks, and adjoined a dining area with tables and chairs. Close by was a supply tent, and an Army-green canvas tent, which the 36-year-old Howard said they were going to turn into a center for day laborers. But rather than take a large cut, as other centers do, their plan is to pass on all the income to workers.

In front of the courthouse was a “free store” stocked with warm-weather gear neatly arranged by one of Tiferet’s adult children. Across from it were tents for social media, medical care, a “creative space,” library and child care, and an on-site psychologist to provide counseling and mediation, plus the bare-bones “Christian tradition church” run by the self-styled pastor.

Howard said, “If Occupy Wall Street is the inspiration, then Occupy Boise wants to be the model to build a community.”

I asked Tiferet, who works with the legal observer team, if Occupy Boise was legal. She said, “It’s not illegal,” and it’s on state property. I noted that was of little protection to other occupations. Boise had an advantage, she said, in having “a lot of talented, educated people who’ve done all sorts of city planning.” Tiferet said they addressed problems, such as with gray water and sanitation, from the beginning, “So we basically took away all of their gripes upfront.”

Howard sees a lot of similarities between the Occupy movement and anarchism, “Anarchism is small groups making their environment a better place. And that’s what Occupy is because there is no hierarchy above us.”

At the same time, he and Tiferet both see the movement as nonpartisan. Howard says there is a “huge libertarian contingent” in Boise and Tea Party members have stopped by and donated supplies. “While we disagree on some of the finer points, a lot of the broader problems – government ineffectiveness, the corporate nightmare – we agree on,” he said.

Beyond Boise

As we’ve continued on to large-scale occupations in Seattle and Portland, Wyoming and Idaho seem a world away. In Seattle, home to vast numbers of Internet millionaires, the occupation’s biggest obstacle seems to be indifference. In Portland, the movement has genuinely broad support in a city where politics is as common as espresso bars and cold rain. No one has to worry about losing their job over attending a protest, and not being politically conscious is likely to earn more social opprobrium than being an activist.

But the Occupy movement is still a long way from the type of mass movements that have rocked the Middle East. To effect that type of revolutionary change will take millions. For Americans in the vast red heartland it means finding a community that provides the courage to overcome their fear and to provide a sense of hope. The first twinklings are there, but the task is upon the occupiers to make them burn bright.


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2 Comments

Filed under Occupy Movement

2 responses to “Fear and occupation in red America (Salon)

  1. Pingback: Whither the Occupy Movement? | Occupy USA Today

  2. Pingback: Occupy fights the law: Will the law win? (Salon) | Occupy USA Today

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