Checking in With Gainesville Occupy

The plaza is cold tonight. Beneath the street lights and Spanish moss, the homeless are laying out their blankets. Some are already asleep; others sit on benches, pulling on half-smoked cigarettes. The circle of protesters is all coats and hats as it gathers behind the big canopy tent. Strung between two of its posts is a tattered sheet. “OCCUPY GVILLE,” it reads. Someone yells, “Mic check!” The others answer, “MIC CHECK!” and the meeting is called to order.

Another General Assembly in Bo Diddley Plaza – another night practicing the radical direct democracy occupiers hope will change the country and, just maybe, the world. It’s been four months since the occupation began. Tonight, the group is small – 11 in all – but each one will tell you that despite what the media says, despite the cold and the cops and the city’s ambivalence, they’re not going anywhere.

“There are so many things to do, it’s kind of like ‘Where do we start?’” That’s Karin Lightstone, grinning as we talk about the future of the movement. “I have a vision in my head of this just, sustainable world.”

It became clear early on that the Occupy movement wasn’t going to be about just one thing. What began on Wall Street as a demonstration against corporate greed and favoritism quickly became a national movement against everything you ever hated about the government: The Patriot Act, privatized health care, nuclear power, campaign finance laws, the War on Drugs, censorship, and the list goes on.

The anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters – based out of Vancouver, BC – is widely credited for starting the whole thing with their now-famous ballerina poster. The text, if you haven’t seen it, reads:


There’s a certain irony to a Canadian organization starting one of the largest protests the United States has ever seen, but the movement quickly proved that it would not be stopped by any border. In a matter of weeks, and with the help of a ferocious social media campaign, Occupy camps started popping up in cities across the U.S., in the Caribbean, South and Central America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Australia and even Africa. And suddenly, as one blogger put it on Adbusters’ website, “the tent has become a symbol of resistance.”

“I always knew this day would come,” says Ed Speanburgh. “I’m glad it happened now.”

Ed is a Gainesville resident of 12 years and a former painting contractor who’s been hit hard by the limping economy. He’s a professed anarchist who puts little stock in the government’s promises of change.

Karin agrees with him. “I’d rather create examples of solutions than try to reform a system that’s broken,” she says.

Occupy’s reassessment of the status quo has brought on a lot of bad sentiment, and a lot of bad press. Occupiers have been called anti-American, traitors, even terrorists. The corporate media has been happy to report these slights. They have been somewhat less happy to report the heap of nasty police action – mass arrests, barricades, rally smashing – that has come down on the protesters’ heads, including the infamous episode at UC Davis, where Lt. John Pike casually emptied a canister of police-grade pepper spray on a line of seated demonstrators.

This is not to say that every encounter with law enforcement has been so odious and brutal. The cops, for their part, have a huge disadvantage in facing a movement full of smart phones. Any time they have to crack a few skulls or drag a woman out by her hair, it’s there, in an instant, on countless blogs and threads, for the world to see.

The Gainesville camp has not been without incident. The physical occupation of Bo Diddley Plaza has dwindled as GPD has stepped up enforcement of the plaza’s 11:30 p.m. closing time. What occupiers call peaceably assembling, police call trespassing, and the past four months have been peppered with late-night arrests.

Still, occupiers insist the plaza belongs to them, as it belongs to everyone. The tent may come down every night, but the occupation is never really over.

“The Occupy movement doesn’t exist, in a way. It’s only within people.” That’s Tommy Baker, contributing writer for The Fine Print and, more recently, die-hard occupier. Working in solidarity with Move to Amend (a national initiative to deny corporate personhood), Tommy and his friends helped organize the Occupy the Courts demonstration in Bo Diddley Plaza on Jan. 20. Dr. Cornell West gave the keynote speech and a led a march to the Federal court house, a couple blocks away. A single suit guarded the front door while demonstrators chanted and waved signs and eventually broke up. I walked over to him as the crowd was thinning.

“So, did you draw the short straw?” I asked.

He barely laughed. “Unfortunately,” he said.

I can imagine that conversation, in some musty, windowless room smelling of burnt coffee, not an hour earlier: Now, Steve, stop complaining. The fact is you pulled the short straw, so you’re going to have to be our front man on this one…No, we don’t know how many there are, but intel says they seem reasonable…No, nothing like Oakland…Listen, you don’t even have to talk to anyone. Just stand out there and look tough…Not like that, Steve. Try crossing your arms…That’s good. And for God’s sake stop smiling. Look mean, damn it…Right. Here’s your roll of U.S. Marshals official yellow tape. Make sure to tape up that front door good. Now get out there and show those freeloaders exactly what we think of them.

Which I guess he did, standing there impassively as demonstrators took over the sidewalk, lips tight under his shiny mustache. What he was thinking behind that official scowl I can’t say; nor can I say whether or not his name was actually Steve. The point is, while Steve was busy pulling down his carefully strung yellow tape, the front door opened and reinforcements finally arrived.

Few people were left to see the Marshals come out and shake hands with the demonstrators still hanging around the courthouse. More than one snapped a photo – their blue windbreakers clashing with the occupier’s black T-shirts as they squeezed into frame. For a moment there, the uniforms didn’t matter. They were all the 99 percent.