Friday the Hennepin County Government Plaza was rechristened by hundreds of protesters, the “People’s Plaza” as the OccupyMN movement was launched—one of several nationwide protests that have cropped up in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. While New York enters its third week of occupation, the Minneapolis contingent enters its fourth day.
The movement’s concerns are numerous, falling under the general umbrella issue of corporate America’s power in the United States and abroad. On Thursday the New York contingent released its “Declaration of Occupation” within its inaugural edition of The Occupied Wall Street Journal. The Declaration, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, listed the protesters grievances with corporations including environmental degradation, political manipulation, humanitarian violations and media control. Both the New York and the Minneapolis contingent are still working, through organized general assemblies, to boil these grievances down to a concise list of demands.
Yet the scope of the protest remains vast, with lack of direction being its main criticism. Speakers at the plaza spoke on subjects as diverse as indigenous rights, immigrant rights, public education funding, the LGBTQ community, police brutality and the need for health care reform. One woman representing the immigrant community spoke of the US corporate influence in Latin America saying, “They came with their free trade treaties exploiting our lands, our natural resources, and our people . . . forcing us to come like lost souls to this country. . . They call us illegals, but it is the corporations that are illegals.”
The Minneapolis movement, modeled closely after the New York prototype is still grappling with logistics, including amplification of speakers and persuading the county commissioner to allow the occupiers to set up tents. The “People’s” Plaza is nested in between the high rises of downtown Minneapolis, including the buildings of the Hennepin Government Center, the Wells Fargo Center, the Qwest building and Capella Tower, housing US Bancorp. Across the street from the plaza an array of flags flew over the procession. The stars and stripes of the United States streamed next to the US Citibank banner while on the plaza people held picket signs reading “Where’s my bailout?” and “End Wall Street Welfare.”
What protesters see as the disparity between government support of the corporate infrastructure and support of the people has led to the prevailing motto of the movement: “We are the 99%”—a critique of the statistic that reports that the top 1% of the US population owns 42% of the nation’s financial wealth. This was the central battle cry of the protesters’ march down Nicollet on Saturday.
Another march on Sunday led protesters down to the Metrodome Stadium as purple-clad crowds exited after the Vikings’ Game. The marches serve as the movement’s principal PR strategy, to raise awareness in the community and to attempt to form a demonstration large enough to elicit further media attention, which may prove crucial to the success of the occupation.
A man named Michael, dubbing himself “Mr. America” spoke at the General Assembly. A businessman involved in foreclosures, Michael confessed that his family was doing well in the economy, but felt compelled to join the movement because he was aware that his success was an anomaly. His largest concern was the lack of media attention: “The media was here yesterday. The media’s not here today. . . Unfortunately, for this movement to grow . . . we need the media to come back.” On the first day of the protest news helicopters hovered over the plaza as picketers milled about commiserating with fellow protesters over their “End the Fed” and “God hates Goldman Sachs” signs. Fewer media outlets were present in the following days, though one woman named Sarah, at the General Assembly did attest to being interviewed by a reporter from the Star Tribune who was concerned mostly with when the occupation would “fizzle out.”
Michael also commented on another central hurdle of the movement—it’s public image, saying that if the media saw that more people like him, “like Mr. America,” were protesting that there would be greater media interest.
Yet the most daunting task remains the group’s ability to crystallize an ultimatum, a cohesive agenda that can be put before the government. But participants in the General Assembly are sensitive, not only to which issue becomes the lynchpin of the movement, but also particular about the method by which the decision is reached. The movement, touting itself as an experiment in grassroots democracy, seeks to craft a decision-making body that is horizontal in structure and true to the democratic form. Before debate about the movement’s message can be decided, the committee structure and voting method must first be agreed upon by the group. The search for consensus on the method and the message is important to the group. The New York contingent claimed in its Journal that the “Declaration of the Occupation” was a document ratified by consensus of the people.
Protesters have taken pride in their grassroots approach. On the first day of the occupation a percussion group played in front of the light rail as a crowd chanted, “This is what democracy looks like!” to the drumbeats. Affirmation from the community is a great morale-booster for protesters. A line of protesters stand sentinel along 3rd Avenue, a road adjacent to the plaza displaying their picket signs to commuters. Each honk elicits cheers, perhaps the greatest cheers being reserved for the Fire Truck which laid on its horn as it drove by.
While New York’s movement remains robust, the Occupy San Francisco movement was shut down by police on Thursday, the day before Occupy MN began. A handful of committed occupiers remained camped out in front of the Federal Reserve building and called on “all of the 99% to mobilize ASAP. This occupation must continue to grow.” Whether or not Minneapolis will answer that call remains to be seen.