The People Behind the Protest

By Blair Jackson

Occupy Wall Street began almost a month ago, when a few hundred protesters declared an occupation of Zuccotti Park in New York City. Critics scoffed at the group’s disorganization, its lack of demands, and the illegitimacy of the disenfranchised youth who stood at its foundation.

The root of the protesters’ concern is the influence that corporations and financial institutions exert upon the government. Those participating in the movement believe that the voices of 99 percent of the American population are being drowned out by the spending power of the financially elite, who are often referred to as the top 1 percent.

Occupy Wall Street used the Arab Spring revolution as a model, relying on Twitter and other social networking sites as a call-to-arms.  After two relatively uneventful weeks, the spread of Occupy Wall Street was catalyzed by YouTube videos that captured the NYPD using controversial methods of force against the protesters. The movement has swept the nation, inspiring 488 cities (and counting) in the U.S. alone to protest against the corporate presence in the government.

Like Occupy Wall Street, social media is the cornerstone of the local movement, Occupy NWA. Andi K-Heart started the Occupy Arkansas Facebook page three days after the event was launched in NYC. (The group took on the more localized name at a later time.) At a preliminary protest on the steps leading up to Old Main lawn, Heart says the goal of Occupy NWA is “to get the government back in the hands of the people.”

Rebekah Kennedy, who is on the Occupy NWA’s legal counsel, echoes Heart’s statement, saying, “The economic system we have has put financial institutions in charge of our government instead of people.” Kennedy says that as long as multinational corporations line the pockets of those who are campaigning, political leaders will not put the people’s needs before those of their financial benefactors.

The official mission statement of Occupy NWA is as follows: “to peacefully remove the corrupting influence of the corporations, to break their grip on government and be the solution.” What exactly the solution will be is a different story. Though united by outrage against the corporate stronghold on political affairs, protesters across the United States express varied and often conflicting opinions about how to solve the problem.

In Northwest Arkansas, protesters are brainstorming ways to support change on a local and national level.  Heart says the most immediate way to promote change is to keep money in the community by buying local food products and supporting local banks. She says she would like to see people “shift away from supporting multinational businesses by shopping at the Farmer’s Market and thrift stores.”

Fellow activist, Abel Tomlinson, considers Occupy Wall Street movement on a national level, proposing that the government impose more corporate regulations and also a repeal of corporate personhood, which currently allows companies to “use free speech to donate millions of dollars to campaigns, using donations to essentially buy candidates and the laws.”

Tomlinson sums up the viewpoint of the movement, saying, “(America is) being ruled by corporations, and it’s undermining our democracy.”

Occupy NWA views corporate influence as a blockage in the artery of democracy, and the organizers of the movement are very concerned about the health and future of the body of the American public. There are myriad topics interwoven through the conversation of the protesters: pollution, agriculture, climate change, fossil fuel dependency, weapons production — pretty much anything that fails to support a sustainable economy and environment.

“The way our civilization uses goods, services and energy is not sustainable,” says Kennedy. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s do something before the situation destroys our civilization,’” she continues, referring to the effects of shortsighted corporate-influenced government policies.

“Those who are lobbying and have the ear of the government say, ‘No, let’s keep making profits for as many quarters as we can and pretend that this cliff is not here. We’ll worry about that when we fall off of it.’”

Bobby Melton, who created the Occupy NWA Facebook group with Heart, says that once the voice of the people becomes louder than those of corporations, everything else will fall in line. “Instead of focusing on the individual problems, we’re focusing on the main one,” he says. “We as people can take care of these problems. We have empathy. We show compassion for one another, while these corporations only care about the bottom line.”

Occupy NWA is not identical to its NYC counterpart in method or attitude, but is instead part of a local conversation about a larger issue.  As Occupy Wall Street  continues to grow, it continues to inspire those who believe that the way in which the government operates can and must change.

“I’m really inspired by it,” says Tomlinson of the movement. “It’s the first serious movement for serious change in the financial institutions since the Great Depression.”

Melton says the power of the 99 percent lies in numbers. “We need to stand together in our communities to show the corrupting power that we’re not going to stand for this, and we’re not going to continue down this path of destruction,” he says.

As for the local support and interest, Melton says, “It’s been absolutely amazing. When we first started this, it was a small group of people. I didn’t think people would want to do much about it.  Then we got a flood of people who were willing to stand up and do something bout it, and that was quite moving honestly.”

Occupy NWA will meet at 10 a.m. on Oct. 15 at the Town Square to support local farmers by buying goods. According to Facebook, more than 200 people are planning to attend the march, which will proceed from Arvest Bank to College Avenue before ending at the Bank of America on Dickson Street. For more information check out their Facebook group — #OccupyNWA.

Categories: Family Friendly