Along the rutted roads in Youngstown, Ohio’s factory district, cavernous brick and concrete shells crumble, a decaying testament to this city’s industrial past. Among the few signs of activity are billows of diesel exhaust pouring from a demolition yard where concrete slabs are being pounded into rubble. In some neighborhoods, empty lots outnumber inhabited homes.
Occupy Youngstown planted its roots in this ravaged soil. On October 15, in the shadow of three different banks, historian and peace activist Staughton Lynd spoke at Occupy Youngstown’s inaugural rally, which drew more than 400 people. One of those people was Chuck Kettering Jr., an aspiring actor who was unemployed for a year before recently snagging a position as a bartender at a local Mexican restaurant.
“We were once a huge steel city for America,” says the twenty-seven-year-old Kettering. “In the 1970s, they started closing up all our steel mills, taking all the jobs and shipping them down south and overseas where labor is cheaper. Youngstown’s been a city that has been going through this economic struggle for almost forty years now.”
His family is living proof of the toll of deindustrialization. His father, Chuck Kettering Sr., fifty-six, calls himself “the poster boy for the Rust Belt.” In 1973, he landed a job in the blast furnace division at U.S. Steel’s Mahoning Valley Ohio Works. After that closed shop in 1979, he transferred to another U.S. Steel facility near Cleveland, which shuttered in the early 1980s. In 1985, he was hired by Packard Electric, a parts manufacturer for General Motors that was later acquired by Delphi Automotive Systems. His wife also worked at Packard but was forced into retirement by Delphi after thirty years and saw her pension sliced in half.
A few years after Delphi sank into bankruptcy in 2005, Kettering and some co-workers were given a one-time option: Stay on board Delphi with half rations—their pay would be squeezed from $28 to $16 an hour, with similar cuts in other benefits—or jump ship to GM and keep their wages, benefits, and pensions intact.
“It was a no-brainer,” he says. But when he arrived at GM’s Lordstown plant, he was stunned to find himself “starting at the bottom, working alongside twenty-one-year-olds and trying to keep up on the line.” Soon he was in “excruciating pain” from repetitive stress injuries.
“They tell me I should be happy I have a job and that I should grin and bear it,” he says. “But with these companies it’s never enough. Bitterness can set in when you’ve given your all to these companies and they slap you down. It’s all about the dollars. That’s why I’ve encouraged my son to join the Occupy movement. And that’s why my wife and I joined.”
Through the Occupy movement, the Kettering family has found hope amid despair. It is a remarkable story but hardly unique.
Over two months this fall, we visited nearly thirty occupations in twenty states and discovered a movement of profound passion, diversity, and determination. We interviewed unemployed youth and retired professors, communists and conservatives, children of ranchers and farmworkers, small-business owners and homeless people, veterans and anarchists, and factory workers, doctors, teachers, and nurses.
Their stories and viewpoints are wildly divergent, but they are drawn to the protests for similar reasons: The Occupy movement is, at heart, about democracy, empowerment, and fairness.
“This occupation is taking a lot of small voices and creating a larger unified voice,” says Ashley Hanisko, an employee with JPMorgan Chase who flew from Texas to join Occupy Wall Street. “We are fighting this idea that you are expendable if you are not wealthy. And if you are not wealthy, it’s through some fault of your own.”
Standing on the Legislative Plaza in Nashville, Michael Anger, who left his job as a salesman for ADT Security to join the Occupy movement, echoed this sentiment. “Everyone standing out here,” he says, “gives voice back to the people.”
The desire for a unified voice, combined with the novel political form of occupying public spaces, sparked movements in more than 1,000 U.S. towns and cities in mere weeks. For the public camps to function, they had to provide for the needs of daily life, such as food, bedding, shelter, medical care, and education. This meant developing into mini-societies, but with two essential differences from the broader society.
First, the societies re-created themselves on a daily basis without the need, at least internally, to exchange money for goods or services. And for many, this experience of genuine community was an awe-inspiring inversion of their normal existence.
“The main thing we hope to accomplish here is building community,” said Leo Zimmerman, a twenty-three-year-old web copywriter working in the open-air kitchen at Occupy Baltimore. “You’re talking to people you wouldn’t normally talk to, sharing resources, and trying to form a new society.”
Second, consensus decision-making has allowed tens of thousands to participate in running these societies as equal citizens, not just as one-dimensional consumers.
“Everyone has a fair and equal say,” observes Phillip Schlicher, a thirty-one-year-old “military brat” who is about to enter college, as he speaks to us at the social media tent at Occupy Nashville, one of the best organized sites in the country.
Michael Custer, a forty-six-year-old line cook in Nashville, is a musician and father of four children. “This movement is providing an alternative to every form of government that is out there,” he says. “It’s called consensus. All of these people are practicing legislating.”
In Philadelphia, Daniel, who works at a children’s hospital researching the use of stem cells in treating leukemia, was volunteering with the occupation to see how “direct democracy, while slow, can work on a local scale.”
By practicing democracy in public at the local level, the occupations reclaimed the commons, which, over time, had been usurped by shopping, entertainment, spectacle, and all manner of consumption. As shared, non-commodified, public enterprises, the occupations represent a rejection of the private, of individualism, and of capitalism.
“Let’s face it, public space is controlled by the state and business and their nexus together,” says Sarah Wild, a forty-four-year-old arts educator, at the site of regular protests near the Chicago Board of Trade. “By physically being here and being with each other, we’re saying that we do not agree to that.”
Anyone who thinks this movement doesn’t have a clear agenda has not been paying attention: It is foremost against the concentration of power and wealth. The 1 percent is interchangeable with Wall Street. Both precipitated the economic crisis and then profited from the bailouts, while the rest of the country plunged into Depression-like conditions. Along with the poor and homeless, who are in evidence at many occupations, are members of the former middle class who are on the abyss of poverty. And they know who is to blame.
We’ve heard hundreds of heartbreaking variations of the same story: people who worked hard and played by the rules but are now barely scraping by.
Joan Starr, a retired educator from New York City whom I encountered in Zuccotti Park, told me her son who is a union electrician “cannot get work because companies are using low-paid, nonunion labor.” She says his house has been foreclosed upon, and “my grandchildren are on food stamps, growing up in poverty.” Starr directs her fury at Wall Street: “Corporations have never had more money in their coffers. Banks got all this bailout money, my tax money, and I never had a say. My husband and I are just hanging on by a thread. We have a small pension and Social Security that we paid into for forty years and now they act like we are on the dole. We bought into the American Dream and got fucked over.”
Cyndi Tiferet, a fifty-three-year-old mother of four adult children who has been part of Occupy Boise from day one, says she and her husband are doubled up with relatives. They lost their home after she was laid off and her husband’s law practice went on the skids because of the downturn.
“I have done manual labor and tried getting office work with no success,” says Steven Soto, a twenty-five-year-old unemployed college graduate who joined a protest organized by Occupy Houston on November 17. “I have thousands in student debt that I can’t pay and am living with my parents.”
The Occupy movement has also distinguished itself by embracing the lower class. “By its language and actions, it has reached out to the poor,” says sociologist Frances Fox Piven, co-author of the groundbreaking Poor People’s Movements. “To live out of doors, to link arms with the poor, and to share food with the poor is a major advance. And to make extreme inequality the central focus is really significant.”
At Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit, where the occupation took up residence before moving indoors in December, most people on a Saturday afternoon in the fall appeared to be without a home. “It seems like 90 percent of the people who eat at the kitchen are homeless,” Jim Rehberg, a sixty-three-year-old worker at an automotive chemical factory and a Wobbly, told me while stirring a steaming cauldron of vegetable soup. “The homeless are part of the movement; they are fitting in.”
But they don’t always fit in seamlessly.
“There were definitely tensions with the homeless community and the occupiers at first,” says Jane, an unemployed holistic therapist who is active with Occupy Detroit. “They didn’t really want us here. They thought we were being pompous, and we were just a bunch of white kids from the suburbs when most of us are from Detroit. But we let them know we’re here in solidarity.”
At Occupy Pittsburgh, John Paylor, a fifty-eight-year-old homeless Marine Corps veteran who helps manage the supply tents, says the homeless regularly come in and get free food. “This is a drug- and alcohol-free zone,” he says. “There are no altercations. Once in a while tempers flare, but everyone’s getting along.”
At the other extreme is New Orleans, a city physically, socially, and psychologically devastated. The occupation in Duncan Plaza, in front of City Hall, put a spotlight on the Big Easy’s human toll. But the poverty, homelessness, and mental illness almost overwhelmed the occupation. At one point, campers formed small villages for protection. Taylor, a traveling musician who hitched his way from Texas to the camp, says it was normal to hear people yelling, “I will kill you, muthafucka!” Thomas Allen, who helped organize the camp while it existed, describes New Orleans as post-apocalyptic and admitted violence remains an issue, but said it was improving. “There is only one fistfight a night,” he says, “whereas earlier four or five had been the norm.”
The Occupy movement is constantly evolving. In Portland on the morning of December 6, members of Occupy Portland joined with We Are Oregon and Unsettle Portland to defend two homeowners on the brink of eviction. One activist called it “the natural evolution of Occupy Wall Street.” On the same day occupation activists in thirty other cities rallied to the defense of the foreclosed upon or moved families into empty houses, according to Michael Premo, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street.
Then on December 12, up and down the West Coast from Southern California to Alaska, members of the Occupy movement tried to shut down ports, showing significant success in Oakland and shutting down terminals in Oregon and Washington.
The hunger for a different world is what keeps the occupations going. In Denver, a few dozen occupiers were hanging on after Thanksgiving despite enduring five separate police assaults. The aggression had taken its toll; Saturday marches had dwindled from thousands to a few hundred. But the passion remained.
On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Dwayne Hudson, a fifty-one-year-old Denver native, was spending his fiftieth straight day at the occupation. He had been living on the streets for more than six months after serving a seven-year sentence for dealing crack. An autodidact who quotes Erich Fromm and Nietzsche, Hudson says the movement has “given me courage and boosted my self-esteem. The fear for a person like me with felonies is that you could have something to offer but nobody will accept it. You’ve got this stigma. You’re this modern-day leper. Here’s a place where I can serve and know that I’m connected to a movement of conscious awareness.”
The Occupy movement has given courage to millions of people. The challenge now is how to sustain itself after the police uprooted the encampments around the country. Those encampments not only created the compelling theater of new societies in the making. They also offered a festival of true democracy that attracted so many people who hadn’t previously been engaged in politics.
As long as the movement, wherever it reasserts itself, retains this sense of festival and this dedication to a new form of direct democracy, it will continue to grow and inspire.
Arun Gupta is a founder of The Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal and is writing a book on the decline of the American empire for Haymarket Books. Michelle Fawcett is adjunct professor of Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University. They are covering the Occupy movement nationwide for Salon.com.