The “99 Percent” movement continues to grow, surfacing not only in New York, Washington and other major cities like Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles – but in smaller cities, even in conservative bastions like Tulsa, Oklahoma, as Richard L. Fricker reports.
Richard L. Fricker
The first question that the perplexed, the bewildered and the surprised ask about the “Occupy” movement is, “What do they want?”
This is the wrong question. To understand the movement you must first ask, “Who are these people and why are they here?”
One answer was aired last weekend by Rachel Dennis, a 28-year-old book artist working at Whole Foods in Tulsa, Oklahoma: “As I’ve educated myself on this movement I started to realize our goals are really simple. Many of us hoped for change, and then we voted for change.
“We wanted our voices heard; we participated in the democratic process. Then we realized the government is no longer focusing on us as individuals, it’s not about us anymore. Our interests are not being put in mind.
“I don’t blame Obama at all, it’s not Obama’s fault. … He didn’t realize how manipulated our government had become. He truly believed change could happen … but change was prevented. He wanted change, he meant well, but it just couldn’t happen. We have to take to the streets to make our country be what it can become.”
Dennis is one of about 50 “Occupy Tulsa” volunteers preparing for the national demonstration slated for Oct. 15. Organizers say groups around the United States will hold demonstrations in their respective cities to show support for the Occupiers who have maintained a vigil on Wall Street for nearly a month.
There is not an exact count as to how many cities across the country have Occupy group supporters but the group is estimating at least 1,000. Nor is it for certain that the larger cities have only one group and may, in fact, host two or three Occupy groups.
But the fact that the movement has reached Tulsa is significant. President Barack Obama failed to carry a single Oklahoma county. Then, the off-year elections in 2010 saw Tea Party and ultra-conservative candidates sweep virtually every elected state office and reduce Democrats to the level of concerned observers in the state Legislature.
“Occupy Wall Street,” now in its third week of demonstration in New York City, remains the movement’s nexus. Yet, also interesting is the number of large and medium cities in which “Occupy” solidarity groups have formed, such as Tulsa.
Dennis was addressing Occupy Tulsa organizers in a public park Saturday. The previous day local unions joined Occupy Tulsa for a downtown rally in front of the new civic events center which was sponsored by the Bank of Oklahoma.
While the turnout was sparse, between 100 and 200 during the Friday lunch hour, compared to the tens of thousands who have demonstrated on Wall Street, the mood was unmistakable, and, for conservative Tulsa, unusual to say the least.
Judging from car horns and passersby the movement’s support was very positive. According to organizers the only opposition to the movement thus far has been a few anonymous phones calls and threats.
The change Occupy is demanding comes in several flavors on several levels.
The overall theme is: Occupiers are generally middle-class workers, housewives, students, seniors and the unemployed. They are, in general terms, responding to what they perceive as the corporate takeover of the political process, inaction by Congress on any number of issues and Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited donations by “corporate citizens” to political campaigns.
In simple terms, Occupiers feel disenfranchised by the political process. They also feel powerless against the flow of jobs out of the United States to Third World countries; they feel unheard on the subject of social issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, education, healthcare and homelessness.
The national president of the Postal Workers Union, Cliff Cuffey, told the group: “We all know that 1 percent of this country has all the wealth; they’re sitting on it. The wealth they don’t sit on they spend overseas, creating jobs overseas.
“We want them to break that money lose and invest in our country. We need people to have jobs in this country, to be able to pay taxes in this country, to support our country. … Tell those one-percenters to bring the money back and not spend it overseas.”
Citing his contact with Congress as the head of a large union of government workers, Cuffey said, “A Republican from Tennessee said, ‘Ya’ll are doing so well, what do I go back and tell my people in my county? In one of my counties we have 23 percent unemployment. What do I tell those people?’
“I said, tell them you lied about the ‘Right to Work,’ it was not a right to work.”
Cuffey also sounded the theme that the labor/occupied movement may not be a flash in the pan. He said, “You have people right now in our government who want America to fail. They want the working people to fail. They will not be satisfied until we are back in the 12th Century when working people say ‘Yes m’lord, yes m’lady. Will you pay me something?’”
Returning to his contact with Congress, he said, “They want to know why we have homeless veterans. Well, there’s not jobs. They want to know why Social Security is failing. There’s not enough working people to pay into Social Security.
“They won’t get down and have investigations as to the true cause of these problems. The true cause is that the 1 percent take all their wealth and they take it overseas to hire cheaper labor. Then they bring their cheap crap back without tariffs, and we buy it. We’ve gotta stop buying it. They’re selling it to ya – we gotta stop buying it.”
He concluded, “We need to hold their feet to the fire.”
Another union officer told the crowd, “We will not stand by while you [corporate America] take our jobs.”
Occupy Tulsa organizer Daniel Lee addressed the crowd, saying, “We are a movement of people, individuals like yourselves, the 99 percent. … We are the people that built this country, this state, this city, NOT the corporations.”
Lee did not hesitate to take on detractors of the Occupy movement, especially Republican leaders who had previously dismissed the group as malcontents and those wishing to live off the system.
“You want to talk about Producers and Parasites? WE are the producers, and the fat cats at the top are the parasites. … Both parties are corrupt, bought up, sold out.”
Echoing a common complaint among Occupiers, Lee said, “We try to change things by voting, but the corporations’ bribe money outweighs our vote! The government is deaf to the voice of the people – so we must take to the streets!
“Enough! We have had enough! We will not be silenced! We will overcome!” He ended his speech with a called for “Solidarity.”
Occupy Tulsa has now turned its attention toward the Oct. 15 demonstration supporting Occupy Wall Street. Organizers are reluctant to estimate how many will turn out to support the Occupy movement.
One thing is clear: this movement has a life-force as yet unseen on the American political-social landscape. Whether in New York, New Orleans or Tulsa the mainstream of communication has been social networking.
One of the prime organizers for Oct. 15 is Stephanie Lewis, local businesswoman and member of Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies. Wobblies were founded at the turn of the last century as an all-inclusive labor movement at one time boasting a membership of 300,000.
Lewis says the Occupy Tulsa group started on Facebook a week ago. Initially there were 200 interested responses; as of Saturday she said there were 3,900 responses and new sign-ins.
At this point the group is working on plans for the downtown march. Asked if she anticipated arrest, Lewis noted it was the group’s intent to be peaceful and law abiding. She added, “We are actually working with the Tulsa Police Department to make sure we don’t get into a situation where we have to get arrested. …
“But many of us have a point of view that if we have to get arrested, to not make bail. If we load the jail down with people that are being arrested that is also part of what we’re going to do as part of this movement.”
Lewis said plans are not complete as to whether or not to actually occupy a bank or other facility. She said if such action were taken the group would like to rely on the element of surprise.
One tactic appearing on various websites around the country is “flash” occupations. A group would use Twitter or iPhones to announce a certain location for a group to descend upon for a brief period of time to draw attention to the movement.
Asked about the possibility of arrest, Rachel Dennis said, “We are a peaceful movement so my hope is that arrest won’t take place. But I guess we’ll find out. “
Another organizer, Kendra Zoellner, is a mother to two young children and teaches Social Work at Northeastern State University. She found out about Occupy Tulsa via Facebook and other Internet sources. She joined the movement because of what she sees as a need for social justice that has gone wanting in the U.S.
Zoellner cites her professional code of ethics, saying as a social worker it requires her to work for social justice. “People,” she said, “don’t think they have any power.”
“Ultimately I’m here,” she says, “because I believe in social and economic justice for all people. And we don’t have that in this country right now.”
While she is quick to point out that the Occupy movement is not affiliated with any political party, Zoellner does say, “To me, when I think about being Democrat or Republican – the Republicans are saying ‘we are the Christian party, we’re the religious party,’ yet the policies they enact are mostly unethical, immoral and inhuman, there’s no sense of justice.
“People are saying I’m a Christian, but I don’t want healthcare reform. If you’re a Christian and ask what would Jesus do, would Jesus really let hundreds of thousands of children starve to death? People are mad at the injustice, people are mad that they don’t count anymore.”
Two things have become clear: if there were a tipping point that ignited the Occupy movement it might well be traced back to two events, the Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate donations and Rep. Eric Cantor’s and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s intransigence on the debt ceiling.
In virtually every conversation the campaign issue is mentioned as limiting the power of the common voter. Additionally, the discussion touches on the lack of responsiveness by Congress to the social needs of the electorate in deference to corporations and the 1 percent whom they believe control the vast amount of wealth in this country.
Just what, if any, impact the Occupy movement will have on the social fabric of this country, or the political landscape in the coming elections remains to be seen.
This much is known: a movement such as Occupy Wall Street is unparalleled, communications among the groups is instantaneous and any misstep by the authorities will be flashed across the country before the spin doctors can get to a microphone.
There is a naiveté about some of these Occupiers, but there is also a dedication that they want to be heard. It may well be that the politicians sneering at this movement have been so drenched in their own ideology that they have, in fact, lost sight of the electorate.
Richard L. Fricker lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is a regular contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, where this article first appeared. His latest book, Martian Llama Racing Explained, is available at http://www.richardfricker.com.