On a recent Friday afternoon hundreds of protesters marched from Peavey Plaza to the regional headquarters of Wells Fargo in downtown Minneapolis. The marchers carried a wide array of placards: “No factory farms,” “Justice for retail cleaning workers,” “Yes we cannabis.” But by far the most common sentiment was scrawled on numerous large slabs of cardboard: “We are the 99 percent.” A frequent chant struck a similar theme: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
The initial plan was for OccupyMN protesters to proceed to the Wells Fargo Center, but the building was locked down in anticipation of their arrival. Attempts to meet with Wells Fargo officials to discuss specific grievances — most notably the bank’s foreclosure policies — were also rebuffed.
So roughly 40 protesters — many of whom had indicated beforehand that they were willing to be arrested — sat down in the middle of the intersection at Sixth Street and Marquette Avenue. Hundreds of additional protesters circled about. Rather than confront the group, the police directed rush hour traffic around the demonstration. The sit-in lasted for roughly 20 minutes.
Among those seated in the intersection was Patrick Farwig, a special education assistant with the Minneapolis Public Schools. “I was prepared to be arrested today,” Farwig said afterward. “I think that’s one way that a message can get sent to the people that are the 1 percent. The people who do have the money need to see that more and more of us are willing to escalate our tactics, to escalate our actions, and we mean what we say.”
Farwig cites his experience working with children as a prime motivator for taking part in the protests. “I see the effects that poverty has on kids in our country, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “I see the ways that it affects their ability to learn. I see the effects when families lose their houses, the effects that that has on kids. The effect that lack of jobs has on kids and the way that poverty is growing. I see the way that that gets played out in kids.”
Seated next to Farwig on Sixth Street was Sunday Alabi, a veteran activist from the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. “The things that they used to do to the poor people, now they’re doing it to everybody,” Alabi said, of the impetus for the OccupyMN movement. “The people in the inner city are used to this kind of treatment. But now they’re doing it to everybody, so everybody wakes up. … The people are coming together, and I think this is a good thing.”
A young movement
Such scenes and sentiments have become common in downtown Minneapolis over the last two weeks as the Occupy Wall Street movement that started in mid-September has spread across the globe. The epicenter of the movement in the Twin Cities is the grounds of the Hennepin County Government Center (aka “The People’s Plaza” in Occupy parlance).
Depending on when you visit, the plaza can suggest very different perceptions about the scope and momentum of the movement. On most weekdays it resembles not much more than a homeless encampment with sleeping bags scattered around the grounds and a few dozen people milling about. But on evenings and weekends there are often hundreds of protesters in the plaza waving signs and chanting.
As has been the case with Occupy gatherings elsewhere, the defining goals of the protesters can be difficult to pin down. Some participants are aging anti-war activists who have been hoisting placards for decades; many are college students angry about the staggering burden of student debt; some are victims of the sputtering economy, facing chronic unemployment or foreclosure; a few are homeless people taking advantage of the free food.
“It’s a very young movement,” Farwig said. “So it gets criticized a lot for not having a coherent message. I think at this point that’s a fine place for the movement to be at because it opens it up to a lot of people. When you start looking at economics, you start looking at corporate power — that affects a lot of different issues that people have.”
While most protesters come from a leftist ideological perspective, there’s also a strong libertarian presence. Among the more common placards: “End the Fed,” a sentiment most closely associated with Republican presidential contender Ron Paul. Partisan sentiments of any stripe are noticeably rare. Very few elected officials have taken part. The most common complaint from protesters is not about Republicans or Democrats, but rather the pervasive influence of money on politics.
“It’s all over the spectrum,” said Dan Birkholz, who lost his job with an investment banking firm a year ago and has been a regular at the protests since the beginning. “There’s free-market libertarians to Marxists to socialists to anarchists — all over the place.”
The leadership of the movement is also diffuse. Some unions, most notably the Service Employees International Union, have helped organize events, as have liberal advocacy groups such as TakeAction Minnesota and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy. But for the most part the agenda is shaped by whoever gets up to speak at the daily “General Assembly” gatherings.
Skirmishes with police have been rare. A week into the gathering, protesters defied the orders of the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office by setting up tents on the plaza. But sheriff’s deputies didn’t intervene until the early morning hours when most protesters had dispersed. They then removed the structures largely without incident. On Thursday seven protesters were arrested after refusing to leave tents set up in the middle of the street, the largest such detainment so far.
Targeting the banks
Shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, hip hop artist Guante took the bullhorn at the plaza outside the government center. Perhaps 100 people were gathered in the immediate area. Guante quoted Frederick Douglass: “There’s no progress without struggle.”
Most of his songs delivered a sharp political edge. At one point Guante turned Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential catchphrase on its head. “If we are the one we are waiting for,” he wondered, “what the hell are we waiting for?”
The crowd then set off for a return trip to the Wells Fargo offices. “Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation,” they chanted.
Camille Roberts was among the crowd. The union organizer has spent roughly half her nights sleeping at the People’s Plaza since the occupation began. She argued that the purpose of the gathering is straightforward. “People are angry, and it’s pretty clear why people are angry,” Roberts said. “There’s economic injustice that’s just flooding the nation in terms of health care, education, jobs, housing, you name it. It’s about economic injustice and about the 1 percent controlling 40 percent of the resources, which is just not how democracy can function.”
After several speeches outside the Wells Fargo offices, the protesters headed down Nicollet Mall. They stretched about the length of a block and were flanked by police officers on bicycles. “Everybody should chant extra loud,” noted a woman with a bullhorn, “to the people who are having happy hour right now.”
Later that night the temperature was expected to approach freezing for the first time since the gathering began. So are protesters committed to keeping up the vigil? “Absolutely,” Birkholz said. “I don’t know if that’s going to last forever. Frankly if it’s 20 below it’s dangerous to stay out. But when it’s 30 degrees, if you’re bundled up then that can be endured.”
He believes the movement is maturing as time goes on, weeding out individuals simply looking for entertainment. “It started as a party,” Birkholz said, “and now that the party is winding down, we’re finding out who’s ready to work.”