Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupy MN struggles to remain in Government Plaza

Originally published in The Mac Weekly.

***

A spasm of indignity and concern spread through the protesters. As they marched through a downtown Minneapolis last Tuesday, somebody yelled that security guards were preventing several protesters from catching up to the rest of the group. The threat was imagined, but a pair of occupiers quickly rushed to the rescue nonetheless.

“We want an end to the corruption,” a young protester explained to a bewildered security guard. “People’s basic needs must be met.”

The security guard stared blankly at the young man before the marchers moved on.

Protesters have occupied Government Plaza since Oct. 7. A month later, the future of Occupy Minnesota remains in question.

Hennepin County authorities have not yet forced the protesters to leave the plaza, but recent events in faraway Zuccotti Park loom over the occupation. In New York City, conflict flared between protesters and the NYPD. At 2:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, police descended upon Zuccotti Park, the birthplace of Occupy Wall Street. They forced protesters to leave while sanitation workers broke down tents, scrubbed the area clean and removed any possessions left behind. Police arrested about 200 occupiers.

Three weeks ago, this corner of Government Plaza served as a storage area for the Occupy Minnesota's open kitchen. Taken by Danny Surman.
The situation is less intense in Minnesota, where an uneasy peace reigns in the plaza. Two weeks ago Hennepin County government announced a ‘Winterization Policy.’ Every year the sprinkler system requires basic maintenance; the plaza is emptied of its water before the cold weather freezes the pipes. The water spewing from the sprinklers meant many of the protesters had to move their belongings, and authorities required the protesters to consolidate the protest to half of the plaza. The occupiers complied, leaving the rest of the plaza empty.
The same spot last night. Authorities required the protesters to vacate this portion of the plaza at the beginning of last week. Taken by Danny Surman.
 Then on Nov. 8 the Hennepin County Board passed new restrictions on the encampment. The county banned the taping of signs to county property in the plaza. Possessions left unattended would be seized. Most significantly, nobody is allowed to sleep in the plaza overnight. The restrictions went into effect last Monday, but the protesters continue to occupy Government Plaza and sleep there unimpeded. While authorities maintain their right to remove the occupiers, no action has yet been taken.

Protesters are currently looking at several alternatives. The local movement has begun to occupy the foreclosed home of Monique White in North Minneapolis. The occupation may become more limited, with only a few protesters staying every night (if any at all) while maintaining daytime protests and marches. There is also talk of occupying the American Indian Center in Minneapolis and the offices of the Hennepin County Commissioners.

The scattered belongings of Occupy Minnesota protesters. The protesters are isolated to the southwest corner of Government Plaza in the wake of the implementation of the Winterization policy. Taken by Daniel Surman.


But now, action has focused on the skyways. On Tuesday 20 protesters chanted and marched above the streets of Minneapolis, passing local hair salons, Starbucks, and banks. They announced their solidarity with the various Occupy movements, particularly in Zuccotti Park.

A security guard sighed as the protesters passed.

“I live in America. I got a college education. I worked hard,” he said.

By his account, it was the third or fourth time the protesters had taken to the skyway that day. He walked off with the other guards, explaining to them how the protesters were ‘lazy.’

The protesters made their way to Nicollet Mall, marching up and down the street before returning to the plaza.

Nobody is certain what will happen next. Most feel that the police will enforce the latest directive at some point.

Nevertheless, the protesters remain steady in their resolve.

“We’ll be back,” said Brandon, 25, who refused to give a last name. He goes by Siggy at the encampment. “It’s going to take a lot to stop us.”

Not even the frigid Minnesota cold will stop them.

“You just get blankets and hand warmers,” said one 23-year-old occupier who goes by Maddox at the plaza.

No protesters wanted to give their full name to the press, fearing they will be targeted by authorities.

While the protesters are at Occupy to show solidarity with the rest of the movement, they sense that the encampment is living on borrowed time. About 70 occupiers slept in the plaza Tuesday night, an uptick from past weeks but a small crowd nonetheless. Maddox has been at Occupy Minnesota since the beginning; Brandon, only one week.

Both said they are willing to be arrested. Others were not so sure.

“If [Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek] comes down in the next five minutes, we’ll be here,” said Dick, an older man who comes to the protests a few times a week.

He stopped by one of the skyway marches, but the group had already left before he made it to the plaza.

A group of protesters marched down Nicollet Avenue Tuesday night after passing through the skyway above. Only about 20 protesters took part in this particular march. Taken by Daniel Surman.
Dave Bicking, 61, is not as worried. A jovial man with a thick beard, rosy-red cheeks and a large frame, he gives off a Santa Claus vibe. A veteran of Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent presidential campaign in 1968, Bicking is no stranger to progressive protests. He took part in both the infamous protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008 and massive demonstrations against the Vietnam War during his college years.

He thinks that the movement will carry on, even if police force the protesters out.

“We [will] come back,” he said. “We’ll probably circle around the block and come back. I don’t think any of [the other Occupy protests] have permanently given up, and that’s powerful.”

Bicking has run for Minneapolis City Council as a Green Party candidate twice, but he sees the movement as more effective than those campaigns.

“Just being with each other, talking with each other, that’s important,” Bicking said. “There’s tremendous popular support that goes way beyond the numbers that can get out here.”

“Of course, if you protest and go home they criticize you,” Bicking noted. “But if you protest and stay the night, they still criticize you. It doesn’t matter what you do!”

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