November 2, 2011

Optimistic on ‘Occupy’

“This thing has got more heart and energy than anything I’ve witnessed in my life,” said Stephen Shepard, the Occupy Lexington spitfire who accompanied me to its Louisville counterpart on two sunny, breezy afternoons last weekend.

“It came out of nowhere, and it’s caught on like wildfire. It’s gonna force change — it’s got to — it already has,” he added, citing President Barack Obama’s plan to relieve federal student loan debt, which is fast approaching $1 trillion.

After a month downtown, Occupy Louisville, the local collective of an unprecedented global, grassroots, nonviolent revolution, is thriving. Despite a recent cold snap, the close-knit group of citizens remains committed to its around-the-clock vigil in Jefferson Square Park, a small venue at Sixth and Jefferson between the PNC Bank skyscraper and the Hall of Justice.

The serenity belies a mighty sense of excitement among folks from all walks of life — college students, single mothers, middle-aged men — mostly unemployed or underemployed — struggling and raging against the machine of corporate greed that has dismantled the American Dream.

Their passion was palpable as we strolled past jack-o-lanterns bearing 999 — shorthand for the discredited tax reform policy of GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, no favorite of the occupiers after his infamous quote: “Don’t blame Wall Street. Don’t blame the big banks. If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

Beyond the pumpkins and signs, indignation rang: “If you went into medicine to make money, you should not be allowed to fucking touch human beings” … “Access to health care is an issue of human dignity” … “Education is a basic human right.”

The movement is a smorgasbord of issues devoured, like sliders, among a citizenry as diverse as a White Castle. The magic is that there’s no hierarchy — everyone is equal, regardless of socioeconomic status — all opinions are welcome, and consensus is built through painstaking, daily meetings among all who wish to participate.

Karl Zollner, 42, a Bellarmine University graduate who describes himself as unemployable, wants “people to experience what it means to really participate in the decision-making that affects them and to get horribly pissed off when they go back into the real world where they don’t have that voice.”

Absent the tech revolution, it wouldn’t be possible. “What’s happening here is face-to-face — and that’s where it counts,” he said. “But without the Internet — Twitter and Facebook — none of this would have ever happened.”

The web interconnects movements, allowing occupiers nationwide to cooperate, share ideas, resources and collectively experience the history they’re making. Crises such as overzealous police actions in Oakland, Denver or Nashville — where former LEO staff writer Jonathan Meador was arrested while reporting for the Nashville Scene — invigorate and unify occupiers.

Local demonstrators feel solidarity with law enforcers, to whom they report suspicious activity. “The police out here have been great; they’ve been awesome,” said John Crabtree, 24, who works with an outreach sub-group.

A strict policy against violence and illicit substances reflects a top priority: a safe, sober space. “This a public place, and the courthouse is right there,” said 23-year-old Jax Rhapsody, who works on security. “You don’t wanna see somebody walkin’ around with a 40-ounce in a bag.”

The melting pot continues to provide a roiling course in social work for everyone immersed. Prominent among the lessons: foreclosures and layoffs have given homelessness a more middle-class complexion — and earned its veterans a holy reverence among newcomers.

Occupy is focusing unprecedented national attention on the plight of the homeless and, according to Zollner, “exposing the insane and inane ordinances that have been passed … that criminalize every aspect of being homeless.”

It’s one of the collateral benefits of a movement that originally sought merely to start a conversation.

History has taught us not to underestimate the power of the smart, hopeful, engaged and enraged. History will prove this movement ironically similar to the banks that inspired it: too big to fail.

Meanwhile, Crabtree, a U of L junior who works full time and sleeps too seldom, is energized: “I’m so much more passionate about living — to be a part of something that has such meaning and purpose.”