An Oberlin Student’s Perspective on Occupy Cleveland

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“People are coming here to protest what makes them sad,” said Neil Brooks, a farmer from Medina who was organizing the arts workshop at the Occupy Cleveland protest. Unemployment and the ensuing issues of crime and alcoholism are endemic to Cleveland, whose economic debilitation represents a microcosm of the recession-era issues facing the country as a whole. Along with supporting the grander ideals of the entire Occupy Together movement, the protesters at Cleveland this past Saturday used the protest as a platform to voice local grievances, such as the buddy system employed by wealthy city officials that prevents real people from getting civic jobs. Overall, however, the injustices inflaming the protesters in Cleveland were much the same as those invigorating protesters in Wall Street and across the country—corporate greed and rampant unemployment, unregulated banks and unfair tax rates, enormous student loan debt and harrowing financial inequality.

When I arrived at the occupation, the protest was heartwarmingly peaceful—for the most part, the police were in solidarity with the protesters and were willing to support them as long as they followed the rules of peaceful assembly. We walked through the center of Cleveland echoing many of the same chants I heard at Wall Street—“We are the 99 percent,” “This is what Democracy looks like,” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” Although the energy flagged a bit initially, by the end of the march I felt like the Cleveland protesters were intimately connected with the occupiers in New York City in their opposition to these powerful, if geographically distant, financial institutions. In the end, the corruption on Wall Street is not a local problem, but is in fact emblematic of the economic injustice affecting all areas of the country, devastatingly impoverished areas like Cleveland in particular.

Beyond adding their voices to a chorus of national complaint, the Cleveland protesters are providing a very concrete function to the city of Cleveland. The unemployed, who might otherwise be “sitting at home drinking,” as Neil Brooks said, are instead coming together to share knowledge and voice their collective grievances. Additionally, the organizers of the protest are cleaning up local parks and providing food to the homeless. At the general assembly, one person even suggested that Cleveland make an arrangement with city officials to do community service work in exchange for the city supporting the protest. Across the country, Occupy Together protests are galvanizing people not only to speak out against national injustice, but also to come together to support their own communities.

Although the general assembly itself was a bit disorganized and got bogged down in the minutiae/logistics of the occupation, I was happy to witness the general spirit of community solidarity and concrete organizing. It takes awhile for protests as broad as these to unite around concrete goals—the process of democracy is slow, and only by painstakingly listening to everyone’s demands will these protests remain truly non-hierarchical and consensual. This issue was brought up over and over again during the discussion, since some of the facilitators may have been unintentionally controlling the conversation more than they should have in the context of modified consensus. I think that once these discussion issues get hammered out, however, Occupy Cleveland will have a good chance of positively impacting the city and the wider Ohio community.

Issues discussed included the desire to get members of the community from poorer neighborhoods involved with the protest, trying to get even more solidarity with unions, and using the message of Occupy Cleveland to support Obama’s jobs bill. Additionally, the protesters put a lot of emphasis on the formation and maintenance of a peacekeeper group, which would help to keep Occupy Cleveland one of the most non-violent demonstrations in the Occupy Movement. “The police are the 99 percent,” everyone repeated, a truth that is becoming ever more difficult to believe, in light of the recent police brutality at Occupy Boston and in other cities. There was a lot of conversation about how we can educate people on how the media will perceive us—i.e., by making a documentary that would allow individual protesters to “tell their stories” and voice why they joined the occupation. However, media and education require money, which is exactly what most of the protesters don’t have. Hopefully, local businesses and college students (ahem…Oberlin…) will continue to support and donate supplies to the protesters.

Several progressive organizations also sent representatives to the protest, such as the Center for Economic and Social Justice and The Phoenix Project, a progressive Christian organization that strives to create peaceful interfaith dialogues and advocates against economic and social oppression. I also got a chance to talk to Gary Hunter, a member of the International Socialist Organization in Cleveland. According to him, we are living through “the worst crisis of capitalism since the great depression and the greatest financial crisis ever…it makes us question whether this is really a democracy we’re living in.” He hopes that this movement will make more people believe in the validity of socialism and the necessity of questioning the frameworks of the capitalist system itself if we are truly going to make change in our society.

Although it is easy to get frustrated with the difficulty these protesters have in consenting to firm goals or ideals, it is wise to remember that the logistics of this occupation must be democratic if we are to institute a democratic system of government. Only a government cognizant of the needs of all its members could replace the wild inequalities of capitalism as it exists in our country today. Democracy takes a willingness to give up one’s time and convenient routine in order to take part in a larger collective struggle, and right now it is impossible to tell whether a significant number of people in this country are open to making that sacrifice. But, as one senior citizen at the general assembly said, “remember you are here today because nothing else was working.” Indirect action is no longer the only mechanism through which we can hope to shift the power paradigms in our country. Change may take place on the streets as much as it does in the White House.