Oct. 12 2011 12:00 AM

Setting the stage for an occupation at the Capitol this weekend


On an unseasonably warm Monday afternoon, three men
gathered in a downtown Lansing park this week to declare themselves 99
percent of the American population.

“We are the 99%,” reads a roughly
10-foot tall banner, hanging from a lamppost and a tree facing the
downtown Capital Area District Library in Reutter Park.

What started out as advertisements by the instigative,
Canadian-based magazine Ad Busters has grown into a global social
movement protesting the distribution of wealth and the grip on
democratic politics held by the few (1 percent) with economic strength.
Is it anger over President Obama’s perceived caving to Republicans? Is
it anger over major banks walking away from a financial crisis
scot-free? The growing disparity between CEO and average worker
compensation? Campaign finance laws? The biased and corporate-driven
mainstream media?

It’s all of these things and more.

By 12:45 Monday afternoon, three men — Mathew Lehmann,
Josh La Vigne and Rob Powell — had set up a makeshift kitchen, library,
sanitation station and beds in Reutter Park. The area will serve as a
base for the next three days. Protesters hope thousands show up
Saturday morning at 10, two blocks north at the Capitol. The three have
constructed a physical presence — as has been done in dozens of other
cities around the world. The movement has only grown since Sept. 17
when protesters started Occupy Wall Street in Manhattan.

So with less than the amount of people it takes to play a
game of euchre, Occupy Lansing has begun. And who knows how long
they’ll stay?

Lehmann, who is 33 and from Alpena, arrived in Lansing
Friday night after following “several” Occupy Lansing Facebook pages
calling for a large-scale protest at the Capitol.

“I don’t plan on going anywhere,” Lehmann said, who
shrugged his shoulders when asked how long he’d protest in Lansing.
Lehmann has been unemployed for about a year.

Powell is 26 and grew up in Lansing. He first came to
Reutter Park Friday, but was yet to camp overnight. He said while only
a few protesters have a physical presence downtown, much more activity
is happening online. “It’s amazing to see the amount of growth in the
past couple of days,” he said. Powell is employed as a residential
technician for Community Mental Health.

Forbes magazine, in mid-July, was one of the first media
outlets to report on what was to grow into thousands descending on the
southern tip of Manhattan. A July 15 story on its website interviewed
Ad Busters editor Kalle Lasn two days after Occupy Wall Street was
announced for Sept. 17.

Occupy gatherings are leaderless. Decisions are made by
general assemblies. The goal is achieving “direct democracy.” The
website occupytogether.org shows “actions” in Central Asia, Sri Lanka,
South Africa, Australia, Iceland and more. In Michigan, actions have
started or plan to form in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Traverse
City and Marquette, to name a few.

“It’s all races, sexes, sexual orientation, age — that’s
what truly constitutes 99 percent of the people,” Powell, at Reutter
Park, said.

Both critics and proponents of the movement often characterize it as being unfocused, without a clear or defined message. 

“What do you care about? That’s the
message,” Lehmann said. “Essentially, it’s the economy. To me, it’s
about the distribution of wealth.”

To Powell, “It’s about greed,” he said. “The first step
in any social movement is that people hit the streets. People stand up
in solidarity. We’ll decide (the message) together.”

Erik Hanson was on his lunch break Monday afternoon when
he passed the small demonstration at Reutter Park. Hanson is 21, a
Waverly High School grad and a political science student at Lansing
Community College. He, Lehmann and Powell discussed the Occupy movement
for about 10 minutes.

“It’s been very interesting,” Hanson said. Hanson spoke
of concerns about campaign finance laws and unlimited campaign
fundraising by corporations. “It’s the money that decides what happens
(in elections). The wealthier you are, the bigger impact you can have
on politicians.”

Kevin Lynch, a 21-year-old Michigan State University
senior who works at the NorthStar Center on Lathrop Street, where 60
people showed up for a planning meeting last week, agrees.

“This is an opportunity that doesn’t come around very
often. It’s a tiny social movement on the left providing alternatives
to the current state of politics — the political imagination on the
left is basically null,” he said.

Lynch said he “pretty much agrees” with the assessment
that the message is unfocused. “For God’s sake, it’s four weeks old. It
hasn’t had time to breathe and get on its feet. It’s really healthy for
the movement to be broad and all encompassing,” he said. “You get a
vibrant spectrum of ideas. We’re trying to have a big tent so everyone
can talk and hash out what we think of the world.”

But Lynch has one concern: politicians, specifically
Democrats, hopping on board with Occupy protesters. “Social movements
are rarely successful and often fall flat on their ass and often people
come in who really try to co-opt them for their own causes,” he said.
“I for one am really concerned about politicians, Democrats. Certainly
Democrats love to have this rhetoric that they’re the party of people,
labor and to look out for the little guy. They could come in there and
tell us to consider supporting their campaign. It’s about citizens
educating each other and us educating politicians how democracy

LPD prepares; Bernero supports the cause

Reutter Park is more or less a base for the Occupy
Lansing protesters. Between three and five people have been camping out
there since Saturday night and plan to do so until Saturday — perhaps
longer. The Lansing Police Department, at this particular park, is not
enforcing a city ordinance that bans overnight camping in city parks,
LPD spokesman Lt. Noel Garcia said.

“At this time, yes, we are allowing them to do that if
that’s what they choose. We continue to evaluate that to make sure it’s
safe for all occupants. It’s all about public safety,” he said. “We
want the positive dialogue to continue.”

Garcia said LPD officials have been meeting with protesters at Reutter Park for “a few days” and will continue to do so.

It’s uncertain how many people will show up on Saturday.
Protesters at Reutter Park couldn’t say — a few asked me how many I
thought would come. Garcia wouldn’t discuss how many people LPD is
preparing for because it would divulge too much of the department’s
“operational plans.”

“We don’t anticipate any problems this Saturday,” Garcia
said, adding that the Michigan State Police will be the lead law
enforcement agency at the Capitol. LPD will assist the state police, he

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero was unavailable to comment for
this story, but his deputy chief of staff Randy Hannan referred City
Pulse to Bernero’s Facebook page for Bernero’s thoughts. If his
Facebook “wall” is any indication, Bernero is in stride with the
movement. This was posted on Bernero’s page late Sunday night in
response to an Oct. 1 New York Times op-ed about Occupy Wall Street:

“In nature, animals and humans can and do live with
parasites of all kinds. But when the parasite becomes too greedy, grows
too large and steals too many nutrients, a once-tolerable burden can
become life threatening to the host.

“Such is the case with the American economy and the Wall
Street Banksters. Until they are put in check, no real and lasting
economic recovery is possible. Lets hope this is the beginning of an
awaking that will lead to true reform and real hope for the 99 percent
of folks being left behind.”

And this on Friday:

“Something big is brewing, and it wasnt orchestrated by
cynics from Wall Street and Washington, ala the Tea Party. No, this is
the real deal. Sit up and pay attention, folks. This just might be our
chance to get our country back. It wont be easy and it wont be quick,
but I ask you, Is the American of your dreams worth fighting for?”

A view from D.C. and ‘Singing in their own key’

As of Monday afternoon, the Michigan Peace Team was in
the “discussion phase” of how it’d participate Saturday — that’s
because five members had just recently returned from Washington after
giving nonviolence training at Occupy DC, Peace Team operations manager
Mary Hanna said.

“Thousands of people were there from all over the United
States,” Hanna said, adding that the peace team arrived on day two of
Occupy DC. “It was just a really wide-range feeling of community.
People are really committed to, first of all, having all these concerns
raised and, second of all, making it nonviolent. Everybody’s niche is
respected and seen as part of a whole. I’ve never seen such diversity
in political action like this before.”

Kenneth David, an anthropology professor at Michigan
State University, teaches an undergraduate course on social movements.
Determining how effective a movement is depends on how concisely you
can answer five questions: “Who are we?” “Who are they?” “What is
wrong?” “What are we going to do about it?” “How are we going to

“It seems to have lasted without any sign of
organization, though the spread of anything is nothing surprising these
days,” he said. “It’s a lasting happening.”

David said the “we” is the 99 percent, though that is not a clear identity; “they” would be those who are “greedy in every way,
shape or form; the problem is that various organizations and
institutions are “profiting quite well” and the issue of “distribution
of wealth”; assembling a diverse crowd is what they’re doing about the
problem; and how they’re responding is to do so in a “very spotlit
zone, easily viewable near a very large institution identified by the
opponent (Wall Street).”

He also notes that the problems those in the movement are
protesting have taken 30-some years to develop, dating back to the
Reagan presidency. “My question is: Why has it taken this long to
react?” David asked.

Like the Tea Party, David said, this Occupy movement is
“rather inexplicit about what they want,” which could have political
effects long-term. “Non-explicit does not mean it’s not politically
relevant,” he said.

The Occupy Wall Street event — and subsequent protests —
have resulted in an “unexpected continuity,” David said, and it’s
uncertain how long it will go on, outlasting “overexposure in major
media. This one does not seem to be dying of overexposure. That’s

Though it’s early in the movement, David said one
tangible effect Occupy Wall Street has had is that “it didn’t stay at
the point of origin — it spread to other cities.” And if it has been
successful at all so far, it’s been to assemble a wide variety of
voices that don’t particularly align with Democrats, Republicans or the
Tea Party. And that could have potential impacts in 2012 elections.

“It’s providing a voice for another sector who is not
content with either political party or the Tea Party. Is that success
at this point? Yes,” David said. “Maybe we need to hear everybody
singing their own key for a while. We should applaud that — it’s long

Planning meeting

When: Wednesday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.

Where: NorthStar Center, 106 Lathrop St., Lansing

Open to the public

Occupy Lansing

When: Saturday, 10 a.m.

Where: Capitol building, downtown Lansing