15 October 2011

The Occupy Phoenix Protests

So by now, most people with an inkling of what's going on in the country will have at least heard of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement in New York. Some of them may even know that the protests have spread into several other major cities, including Boston, Chicago, Atlanta, Portland, Seattle, and now Phoenix. Yesterday, Occupy Phoenix protesters marched through the heart of downtown Phoenix, stopping at the different bank buildings there (Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America) and the 12 News/Arizona Republic building. There were, according to local news reports, about 200 people at the march.

Today, a larger protest is currently being held at the Cesar Chavez Plaza in Phoenix. I stopped by there for about two hours this afternoon to see for myself what all the talk is about. First off, the protests attracted a good couple thousand people, and the demographics were mildly surprising. I noticed moms bringing their children (even babies, despite the heat of the day), old former hippies wearing tie-dye shirts (and before you question my use of the term hippies, he had written it himself on his sign), plenty of twenty-something college students with ASU hats, militia members dressed in camouflage fatigues, new agers with "legalize hemp" signs, men in business suits, guys in Guy Fawkes masks (the "V for Vendetta" mask) with anarchist symbols all over, a couple Uncle Sams, a handful of Tea Party protesters wearing three-pointed hats and beating drums, a group of people dressed as cows ("Join our moooovement"), a man playing the bagpipes, and then of course a few regular normal people. Plenty of the people out there were white, but a sizable chunk were also Hispanic, many of whom wore buttons or clothing or carried signs against Joe Arpaio and in favor of legalizing illegal immigration.

As for signage itself, the sky was basically the limit. I saw signs against "corporate welfare," against banks, against Bush, for marijuana, against the Federal Reserve, for legalizing illegal immigrants, against Obama, for peace, against war, for giving money back to the people, and against bailouts. Plenty of them used the "I am the 99%" phraseology. Plenty more had dollar signs ("Stop Worshipping $" comes to mind). Most of the signs were handheld, but there were two (just two) larger banners. One was for the legalization of marijuana (and it was poorly done... black on dark green doesn't show up well) and the other said "Bush and Obama are War Criminals." I never thought I'd see both of them on one sign like that, that's for sure.

The one thing I didn't see was a significant use of the "Occupy" or "Occupy Phoenix" term. In fact, only one sign that I noticed had the word "Occupy" actually on it. That kind of an important distinction because unlike the Tea Party, who all come together under the name, this movement does not seem to be either as organized or as capable of long-term stability as a political force. When I looked at the crowd, I got the sense that I was seeing the ASU Mall during Rush Week. Lots of different groups all in the same place, united for the moment by virtue of being part of the Rush Week festivities, but ultimately with different goals and leadership.

For the hour and a half I immersed myself in trying to figure out the crowd and make mental notes to share here, the crowd was relatively peaceful. There were a large number of Phoenix Police officers there to make sure the crowd didn't get out of control or spill out into the streets (like a few, um, misguided people tried to do). There were cop vehicles everywhere I must have counted at least twenty within a one-block radius, and several more driving around. I also saw at least two plainclothes officers inside the crowd itself, looking for trouble. In one section of the plaza, a large crowd was gathered in a semi-circle, and people kept taking turns chanting and railing against this or that, and the crowd kept repeating catchphrases back to them. In other parts of the plaza, people tried getting cars to honk at their signs, or just basically treated this like a party. There was music (drums and guitars and bagpipes), dancing (the cows were having a blast), and plenty of people brought food and drink. I envisioned a bit of a mini, politically-charged Woodstock, though that might just be my imagination running rampant.

All told, it will be interesting to see how far this goes in Phoenix over the next few days. Someone mentioned and I overheard that some of the protesters had slept in the plaza Friday night, and due to the number of bedrolls I saw people carrying, I would assume that at least some will try to do it again tonight. The movement should be an interesting one to watch. They've put together a "General Assembly" in New York to come up with a platform for their movement, though I anticipate their ability to put together a coherent list of goals for the group to appease all those competing demographics to be slow if not impossible to manage. Ultimately, I see this group being a hot topic for a little while, then blowing over.

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