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