Since late October, Occupy Rochester has drawn in area residents of varying backgrounds for the local response to the now-worldwide movement that started with Occupy Wall Street in New York.
Here’s what Occupy Rochester looks like: protest signs and blankets, citizens of all ages and races, tents pitched and leaves on the ground. Sometimes there are 10 people, sometimes there are 300. There’s a tent full of donated clothing, and a library with books on philosophy and poetry. There’s a food shelf with nuts and oranges and packaged goods.
There’s a decent amount of cigarettes, as well as yoga mats. There’s a spirit of activism beside the wrought-iron benches of Washington Square Park.
Since late October, area residents of varying backgrounds have come to the public square in downtown Rochester, the central ground for the local response to the now-worldwide movement that started with Occupy Wall Street in New York.
Much of the public and mainstream media say they do not understand why people are “occupying.” But national focus has turned to wealth equity and the power of corporate institutions, and that, say occupiers, is the beginning.
A recent Siena College poll shows 45 percent of voters have a favorable view of the movement. Less scientifically, the “99 percent” concept portrayed by occupiers is already prone to parody.
Alex Comardo, 32, was one protester who was ticketed for being in the park after hours earlier this fall. He grew up in Hilton, and says he was apolitical all his life. Growing up middle class, his parents raised four kids, have a home and two cars in the driveway. He doesn’t see that happening for him or his friends.
That is why he occupies.
“That opportunity is gone for people my age,” he says. “And it’s not coming back.”
Setting up camp
It took some time for the demonstration to secure its encampment. In late October, when demonstrators stayed past public park hours, set at 11 p.m., they were ticketed by the Rochester Police Department. A total of 48 charges were issued in several instances, and cameras caught the demonstrators in cuffs.
On Nov. 10, the city reached an agreement with the occupiers. Half the park, the south end, has been converted into campgrounds. It can stay that way until mid-January, providing a 12-point agreement is followed that includes restrictions on alcoholic beverages, guns, and other safety requirements.
A victory, say the Occupy protesters. But now the group is figuring out how to further their cause. Similarly, how to stay warm this winter.
“The mood is sill jovial, but now it’s time to figure out what’s next,” says Danny Cashman, a Rochester resident who grew up in Fairport.
Gary Walker, director of communications for the city of Rochester, says it was the intent of Mayor Tom Richards from the start to compromise with the demonstrators. But the top priority was to ensure the public safety and public health needs of citizens — including those at the park.
Page 2 of 3 - The non-violent nature of the demonstration was noted, Walker said.
Around the country, other demonstrators are facing arrests, eviction, and there have been reports of police brutality, like in Portland, Ore. and Oakland, Calif. Some cities, like Philadelphia, saw Occupy movements that spurred sanitation issues.
Walker says the difference in Rochester is the existence of rules. The compromise was reached after a small number of delegates were named from the protest — he says the city had “a great deal of difficulty” to determine who that would be.
“We are unique compared to other cities, we do have a signed agreement,” he said. “If everyone lives up to that agreement, we’re not going to have any issues.”
Walker says the city has fielded calls from other municipalities on asking how it arrived at the present arrangement.
A day at Occupy
What happens at Occupy changes every day — different groups like We Are One Rochester or local labor groups may come join a set time for a protest, and daily events include teach-ins on other revolutions, public history, workshops on demonstrations and guest speakers.
One day, Brian Willson, who lost his legs in a train accident during a demonstration decades ago, was speaking to the occupiers. Willson was part of the Veterans Peace Action Team that blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, Calif. Naval Weapons Station in 1987, and the train kept going.
His discussion in Rochester was live streamed, as about a dozen Occupy Rochester demonstrators gathered to listen. His words encouraged their mission.
“This is the beginning,” he said. “We’re recovering human beings. Recovering from this pattern of obeying the authority. We are the authority.”
There are those who drop in occasionally for support. Rochester resident Andrea Miller came down one afternoon and gave three dollars, and asked if the group needed coffee deliveries or could use a yoga teacher.
Miller says she worries about the future for her nieces and nephews, but is encouraged by what she sees at Occupy.
“It’s an alternative way to try to express concern about where we’re going,” Miller said.
Shannon Eustice, 23, says around 20 to 30 people have camped out each night since the city’s agreement, but that number is ever-growing.
Eustice, who grew up in Penfield and now lives in Rochester, says when she heard about Occupy Rochester, she knew it was a way to express her beliefs about society.
Though the “how” may not be clear, those who occupy know they want to live in a different society.
They’ve become a close group, with communal needs like food and shelter sorted out by work groups. One working group is trying to figure out how to have warm shelter when temperatures inevitably drop.
Page 3 of 3 - “That’s the ultimate goal, to build a society based on compassion and not money,” she said.
‘A historical moment’
Tim Adams, 26, is a Hilton native who has a teaching degree. He currently works as an auto mechanic, and is an activist for education reform.
It’s not his first protest, and Adams is aware of the criticism thrown its way, like the oft-heard line that the movement is without a message.
“It’s really easy to criticize from the sidelines and find fault with everything,” Adams said. “We’re in a historical moment right now and things can either get better or they can get worse.”
While the movement seeks change at the national, even global, levels, Occupy Rochester is starting small with local issues.
Brian Lenzo, who is part of Occupy Rochester’s media work group, said protests from Occupy Rochester members regarding the home of Harold and Maria Sceidel led to a moratorium on the family’s eviction. He says they’ve also delivered messages to City Council about sustainable farming and foreclosure laws, and that they’ve been getting a good response engaging with city officials.
Nationally, he adds, media attention to issues like wealth equality, and the debit fee cards from Bank of America, help further the overall message.
“It’s the beginning of this movement, and we’re going to continue,” Lenzo said.