Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Occupy Manhattan:
Messages and Goals

On Saturday October 22, 2011, Occupy Manhattan staged a protest at Triangle Park, across the street from K-State University in Manhattan, Kansas. Occupy Manhattan is part of a larger movement that is taking place in cities across the country called Occupy Wall Street. I interviewed 7 of the group’s members to better understand their message and goals. Of the seven Occupy Manhattan activists I interviewed, three were at their first protest.

Scott Poister, the event’s organizer, told me how Occupy Manhattan got started.

It was a funny thing. A couple of weeks ago Friday, an associate, I wouldn’t say friend but he became a friend since, but at the time just a guy, started an Occupy group on facebook. The Internet is a wonderful thing. I mentioned something about making yard signs, another person said how about we just have an organization or a protest because that is more effective than making yard signs and I said fine, I’ll do it and I went to city hall and got a permit. So I got you might say double dog dared into it and that was last week; we had a wonderful turnout. Over the weekend we had over 400 members join on the facebook group. This is really nothing like last weekend, and I got stuck as the guy with the name on the permit for the park and that’s what I do.

One of the reoccurring themes of their responses was opposition to the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that allowed corporations to contribute unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns. Natasha, age 20, expressed her support for campaign finance reform.

 I’m most interested in the issue of the corporations being able to use money as a way of making them have freedom of speech and also corporations basically bribing certain politicians in the government to advocate for them. That is my main one that I don’t like that I would like to see change.

Erin, also an Occupy Manhattan activist, highlighted another common concern, the lack of responsibility by Wall Street investment banks that caused the financial collapse of 2007-2008.

I am standing in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The fact that we bailed out all these banks, nobody’s held responsible for what they’ve done to our economy to the world economy. They get bailed out, they get raises, they get bonuses. People continue to get under a living wage. The middle class is disappearing.

Erin also attended an Occupy event in Budapest, Hungary last week. She is also a gay rights activist and supports the President’s jobs act. She also protests Fred Phelps because, “he gives my state a bad name and I love this state.”

Barbara Bascon, who is of Social Security age, criticized how some conservatives have demonized the Occupy Wall Street movement.

I think for one thing it is a demonstration of a majority feeling, opinion, philosophy of what is happening in this country and where people want it to go. I don’t see it as a protest and although I think people are sad, angry, upset about what is happening in our culture as much as in our country, it’s not an angry brawl, it’s not a mob as some people have described it. We don’t see police involvement. We don’t see angry confrontations. We don’t see violence. It’s totally non-violent. I am surprised and happy to see people holding up signs, they’re saying what I think are good things, voicing an opinion that they have a smile on their face. And that’s encouraging to other people. It’s like we’re glad to have this kind of opportunity. This is Occupy Wall Street, so I think it is the economic situation and what corporations and big business and banks have done and are still getting away with. That was the spark, that’s what got people going, but I think it’s a much larger issue that people are beginning to speak up about.

Barbara went on to discuss her dismay at the controversial reactions of some of the audience members at the Republican presidential primary debates. The first reaction was when large numbers of the audience at the NBC Presidential debate cheered the number of executions that occurred in Texas under Perry’s governorship. The second occurred at a CNN debate where a few people cheered on the prospect of a person not being treated in an emergency room because he didn’t buy health insurance. The final reaction occurred when members of the audience at a Fox News presidential debate booed a gay soldier in Iraq who asked the candidates if they would reinstate Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Barbara found these reactions troubling.

Barbara: I don’t think it’s the economy stupid, I think it’s the culture stupid. I think that when we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve lost the human touch. I think we’ve abdicated our responsibility to our fellow citizens and fellow man, however you want to put it. When we stand up and cheer about people dying, when we endorse and encourage capital punishment, openly we get off on it, and what was… there was a third one.

Me: The gay soldier in Iraq

Barbara: That’s right. That’s just incredible to me. As much as I have heard in the past few years, I am still shocked when I see people. It’s more than just indifference. They really are cheering that mentality on and that makes it more than just a political issue, that makes it a really dangerous situation in our country.

 Lowell Bliss, 49, is concerned about poverty and environmental issues. Lowell and his wife are members of an evangelical church in Manhattan and were missionaries in India and Pakistan for 14 years. He believes that the Occupy movement better represents the message of Christ than traditional evangelical political outlets.

I am just convinced that the message of Christ is more likely to get a voice in Occupy Manhattan than it will in say the Values Voter Summit or what have been kind of traditional evangelical political outlets. I tried to make my signs kind of biblically based. “What you do to the least of these,” refers to the poor and the environmentally oppressed and the unemployed and the foreclosed upon. And “love thy corporation” is a question, right? Where is the neighborliness and the love in how we’ve supported and protected our corporations but not people or the poor or the oppressed?

Stephanie Haliman Durban, 28, protested the lack of adequate student aid in higher education.

I’m a veterinary student here at K-State and I’m an out of state student, so I’m very happy to be here of course, but my student loans are quite atrocious. Just for tuition it’s about 45,000 a year and our projected starting salary is much lower than most people would think for a doctor. It’s about 63,000 a year. So in order to pay our school loans we’d be using up more than 50% of our take-home income, which is not what most financial advisors recommend. There is a lot of that. At the same time the government is saying that we need a lot of food animal veterinaries, which is what I want to do. But they’re also cutting the amount of loan forgiveness programs down to something small like 10 or 20,000 a year for the first two years that you work at a government job. So there isn’t a whole lot of support for us. And I know that money is going places where it probably isn’t as needed. That’s one of my big concerns.  

Two of the protestors at the rally were protesting the Federal Reserve. Chris Larson and Danelle Russell were not part of the Occupy movement and protested for the first time at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City a few weeks ago. Chris believes that monetary policy should be set by Congress rather than the Federal Reserve. Chris explained why he opposes the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve System has a very large influence on politics and the economy in this country because they are a private corporation that is not held accountable. They’re not elected representatives, they can’t be held accountable. It’s not like we can through them out of office or something like that and they control our monetary system. So they can control the money supply, they can pretty much create the business cycle because they can create bubbles by increasing the money supply and decreasing it. So they have a huge influence on the financial system.

Occupy Wall Street, like the protest movements that came before it, is exercising the most basic and essential democratic right, the right to speak one’s mind. In the broadest sense, they aim to shape the national political conversation in this country and to promote awareness of the problems our country faces. And while it is uncertain what the ultimate outcome of this movement will be, it is clear that they have already achieved that goal.  

Originally Published October 27, 2011


  1. Thank you Jason for collecting these stories, and for doing such a good job in presenting them. Part of the illegitimate complaint against Occupy Wall Street is that we've had no codified agenda or list of demands. But, in my mind, that's just another manipulation. The reactionaries want legal frameworks that they can undermine and political abstractions which they can deconstruct. The strength of Occupy Wall Street is that humans (and their stories) can be humanized, while corporations can never be.
    Good work,

  2. Thanks for reading my article, I love comments!

    --Jason Beets