Occupy Wall Street has reached the Coastal Empire.
The New York-based, grassroots movement spreading across the country has captured the interests of some in Savannah and Effingham County, with protesters seizing the opportunity to speak out about societal and economic issues driving their frustrations.
“If it started with anything,” said Claudia Collier, a south Effingham resident, “and the momentum that is keeping it going is Americans feel like things are out of their control — whether it’s our government, whether it is our votes, a feeling that our votes don’t count, or whether it’s these huge corporations and banks. I think everyone has this overwhelming sense, this crushing sense, that they’re just pushing our individual concerns totally off the grid. I think it’s just the frustration of feeling powerless.”
Occupy Savannah began Oct. 9 in Emmet Park, where demonstrators stay from about 9 a.m.-8 p.m. One organizer, Pheonix Godwin, said they do not sleep over for a number of reasons, one being the desire to stay in the good graces of the city of Savannah, keeping fellow protestors out of jail, and because they thus far lack the numbers for an effective campout.
Despite what Godwin said drivers passing by have yelled at them, he said most of the participants have jobs, are retired or are going to school. And he said they are “getting more thumbs up and honks
from drivers” as the movement wears on.
They aren’t protesting a specific Savannah organization, but organizers say they are bringing awareness to the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Coastal Empire.
The Occupy Movement has been criticized for its kaleidoscope of goals and issues, rather than clear and measurable goals.
But those who spoke with the Herald said that focus will come as the movement matures and that the beauty of including so many issues is that it depoliticizes the movement and it gives everyone a voice.
Occupy supporters admit a misunderstanding by the public that they want to eradicate America of corporations and they say that perception is just not true.
“(Corporations are) probably the best method of gathering capital in order to finance large projects,” said David Plaspohl. “…I’m not criticizing corporations; their business capabilities are good. I’m criticizing them for the amount of sheer power they have stolen for their own behalf.”
Plaspohl, who works in payment processing, said that he observed and participated in Occupy Wall Street in New York City and in San Francisco, but he was born in Savannah and has lived in Effingham County 15 years.
“Nobody in the movement is saying that corporations are all bad,” said Collier. “Nobody is saying that corporations need to go away or disappear or that they’re evil. I think the balance has gotten off, and I think this movement is an attempt to pull back people’s vulnerability and dependence on the corporate machine.”
Collier, a retired Coca-Cola employee, said her main interest in the movement is to reduce reliance on corporations and for people to bring their purchasing power to local, small businesses.
“I think this movement is illuminating how our society has kind of taken all of these people that have been in business for so long, and in Effingham we still have a lot of those small ‘mom and pop’ stores and businesses, and we’ve just kind of thrown them under the bus,” she said. “We don’t have any power to change that other than our individual choices of where we shop.”
She said that young people she’s talked to at Emmet Park have taken the opportunity to highlight health awareness as well.
“That’s the other thing about Occupy Savannah,” Collier said. “It’s tapping into an already burgeoning youth movement of health, of taking responsibility of the choices you make, eating vegetables, eating meats.
“I think it’s going to eventually result in that they are going to support local growers, local meat producers, rather than getting things from China (and overseas in the developing world) where we don’t have any control over ingredients or treatment of the products.”
That other grassroots movement
The Occupy Wall Street Movement has been compared to the Tea Party and to its rallies in 2009-10.
Although the Tea Party has been quick to distance itself, Occupiers say they see the Tea Party and themselves as unlikely allies.
“I think both groups of people think they’re doing the right thing,” said Plaspohl, a Democratic Committee member who is disappointed in President Obama, for whom he voted. “I think that the Tea Party had bad goals. They wanted to get as little government as possible and these are just symptoms of a problem; they’re not getting at the problem. I think they were very badly misled as to what their goals were.”
Collier, who is a member of the Democratic Committee in Effingham, said she is doing everything she can to avoid a left vs. right rhetoric and that she has personally reached out to people across class rather than party affiliation.
“I think some people in our country are really afraid that this movement will connect, it’s going to find a way to connect the left and the right through the grassroots,” she said. “… But we are trying our best to reach across more at an economic level to those people who had the same things on their signs as some of the people in this movement have on their signs. Their frustration in the Tea Party movement last year is somewhat spilling over and it has its roots in exactly the same thing.”
While local Tea Party activist Rose Harvey questions the Occupy Wall Street protests, she supports their constitutional right to demonstrate.
“If you believe in the Constitution, you have to allow that they have the right to do it,” said Harvey. “When the Tea Party was really active in 2009-10, we made our statements, we presented our issues of smaller government and lower taxes, we contacted our representatives. We made our point, and we went home.”
She also said that “their constant ‘in-your-face’ is obnoxious,” alluding to a sentiment that the protests are more spectacle than activism.
“If you want to be taken seriously, you don’t stand in the street and advocate violence,” she said. “But they still have a right to be doing what they’re doing.”
Occupy the future?
The future of Occupy Savannah and the Occupy Movement as a whole is yet to be determined, and could be foiled as the season settles into winter.
“I’m not saying that this Wall Street protest is going to be successful,” said Plaspohl. “It has every chance of being successful and it has every chance of failing. (The opposition has) people they can use that they can say, ‘these people are stupid, they’re hooligans,’ and yeah, the movement could very well die out. But it’ll pop back up because the force is there. There wouldn’t be a die out - there would be a delay.”
Plaspohl would like to see corporations’ and lobbyists’ power in the electoral and regulatory process diluted by reversing legislation and court rulings, such as Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, that give corporations the same rights as citizens.
“This gives unlimited spending to corporations,” he said. “Even foreign corporations can spend unlimited amounts of money to get an American candidate elected.”
Collier hopes the movement results in “individual empowerment” to people as consumers, and that they will choose to support local businesses in their communities.
“They’re on the right track,” said Plaspohl. “They’re not threatening. They’re not a bunch of hoodlums. They have good intentions, and they are simply exercising their democratic rights to contest and protest the things they see as wrong. (People in Effingham) have no reason to be threatened by these people.”