Angry Masses or Hungry Masses? Occupy Vermont Reaches the 99 Percent By Feeding Them
Kevin J. Kelley
Protesters outside the Berlin Walmart on Black Friday
One year after a shooting suicide put a sudden, unsettling end to the Occupy Burlington encampment, activists say the movement that arose on Wall Street is morphing, not dying.
Some activists spent part of Black Friday picketing the Walmart store in Berlin, while others converged on Barre’s Old Labor Hall to dish out food to the needy. A few did both.
“This is an evolving process,” videographer Crystal Zevon declared during last Friday’s food giveaway, which was organized in part by the remnants of Occupy Central Vermont.
A similar scene unfolded on the Church Street Marketplace two days later. Activists ladled out turkey soup and hot vegetarian dishes to anyone who asked, and passersby could take what they wanted from cardboard boxes filled with fresh scallions, lettuce, bananas, papayas and squash.
More food sat in covered pots atop a table draped with a Food Not Bombs banner. Flyers decrying the disparity in government spending on weapons and hunger relief were stacked alongside the steaming vats.
“Free food! Free food!” the activists shouted as shoppers scurried into and out of the Burlington Town Center mall. Several people did pause on a blustery afternoon for a handout of flyers, food or both.
“Giving out food is one of the best things we can do,” said Zach York, a junior at Burlington College from Colchester. “The right to eat when you’re hungry is about as basic as it gets.”
Those at the hot-meal event in the Old Labor Hall expressed similar sentiments. “This is a good way of reaching the 99 percent,” said Matthew Andrews, 32, a former organizer with the American Federation of Teachers. Jaquelyn Rieke said that giving away pumpkin pie and other surplus goods supplied mainly by the Plainfield Co-op should be seen as a form of defiance of corporate food outlets.
“We provide a real challenge to McDonald’s,” said Rieke, a member of the “Doo-Occupy” a cappella group that entertained the small gathering in the historic labor hall.
She and Zevon rejected the suggestion that Occupy Wall Street is turning into a left-wing relief agency, a boho version of the Red Cross. Handing out food in Barre and Burlington and shoveling out sand in Rockaway and Red Hook, New York — one of the post-hurricane activities undertaken in Queens and Brooklyn by Occupy Sandy volunteers — can be seen as revolutionary deeds, Zevon said.
“Occupy couldn’t say we stand for social justice unless we help build and restore community,” remarked Zevon, the widow of rock legend Warren Zevon, who dished up food with her daughter, Ariel. “This is still about bringing down the pillars of government. It’s not about being a social service agency.”
On Church Street, York explained that he identifies with Food Not Bombs, a 30-year-old organization with a global reach, because it sees food as a human right rather than a monetized commodity. But even though Food Not Bombs articulates a political philosophy much like Occupy’s, York said he doesn’t consider himself an Occupier.
“I don’t like camping out in the cold,” he replied.
Several of the other local activists who took part in the food giveaway on the marketplace did spend frosty nights in Burlington’s City Hall Park during the two-week-long occupation last year. Even though there were few references on Church Street last Sunday to the 99 percent, University of Vermont senior and City Hall Park camper Emily Reynolds gestured toward the feeding station and offered assurance that “this is still Occupy.”
Many of those who were marching through Burlington on a weekly basis in 2011 have remained involved in a variety of causes. But there are no more Sunday afternoon general assemblies, and the movement can no longer muster a hundred or more demonstrators to rail at the local branch of a bailed-out bank or to chant in solidarity with postal workers or migrant farm laborers. Only about 20 protesters picketed the Walmart outlets in Williston and Berlin on Black Friday as part of a nationwide push for better pay and working conditions for employees of the retail giant.
John Halasz, a 51-year-old Montpelier resident, said at the Old Labor Hall that Occupy Central Vermont had a core group of about 25 members a year ago that has dwindled to around 10 today. Several of those who turned out for general assemblies in October 2011 had dropped away due to frustration with the “cumbersome” deliberations, Halasz suggested.
Leaning into the wind on Church Street, Reynolds flatly proclaimed, “The general assemblies were dysfunctional.” They were originally intended as “speaking platforms giving everyone a voice,” she recalled, but as decision-making sessions, they failed. It could take hours to arrive at consensus on basic points.
“Occupy was a nice idea,” added FaRied Munarsyah, who took part in many of the Burlington assemblies and was socializing with comrades on Church Street last Sunday. “But I didn’t see it as this whole world-changing thing that many people expected it to be.”
Others still view the assemblies as offering a valuable and innovative approach to political organizing. “It helped create a much broader sense of an activist community,” said Matthew Cropp, an early member of Occupy Burlington who was dishing out lentils and corn chips on Church Street. “People who didn’t know one another but shared similar interests were able to join together. That’s a lasting plus.”
In Barre, Andrews offered the view that “Occupy wouldn’t have grown to the extent that it did without that kind of structure.” And there was nothing inherently flawed about its rejection of an organizational hierarchy, he argued. “It wasn’t entirely leaderless. People stepped forward and they stepped back. A lot of positives came from that.”
Occupy has actually followed a familiar pattern, observed Brian Tokar, 57, an adjunct instructor at UVM and a longtime environmental activist in central Vermont. “I’ve seen many movements come and go,” Tokar said. “I’m a strong believer in horizontal organizing and direct democracy. It’s empowering.” A recent protest at a UVM trustees meeting calling on the university to divest from fossil-fuel companies was “much larger than it would have been pre-Occupy,” Tokar suggested.
Andrews added that it’s unrealistic to expect Occupy to maintain the turbo-charged momentum it achieved in the fall of 2011. “Enthusiasm is an emotional response that has a time limit. Movements aren’t linear,” he said. “They have surges and setbacks.”
Occupy Burlington, like its counterparts in other cities, is experimenting now with another form of participatory organizing referred to as spokescouncils. Representatives of various local leftist groups meet once a month at the Fletcher Free Library — the next gathering is set for December 1 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. — to report on their activities and to discuss common efforts.
President Obama’s reelection won’t have a dampening effect on Occupy, insisted UVM senior Reynolds, who described herself as “an anticapitalist since I was 14.” Four more years of a Democrat in the White House will serve to show “there’s lots of things that aren’t going to be changed.” Occupy will definitely experience a resurgence, Reynolds predicts. “People are still really angry.”