Fifteen people sit in the Saugerties Senior Center on Market Street. Among the leaflets about heart-health and high-fiber diets, there’s a meeting going on. There are two small bags of licorice Twizzlers on the table in the back of the room, and a store-bought lemon meringue pie, along with a family-sized cube of Ritz peanut butter sandwiches. If you walked in on the group, you’d probably think church group or Rotary. They’re all quiet, and they all follow decorum. They raise their hands when they want to talk. But believe it or not, this is Occupy Saugerties.
They’re not a bunch of smelly anarchists. They’re not lampooning the incorrigible badness of Wall Street, big business, and mercenary politicians. And they’re not actually occupying anything, other than the town’s usual common meeting space (and for that they called ahead, got a permission and a key).
This group is on the front of the second wave of the occupy protests. The first wave managed to profoundly change the national conversation. Diehards camped out in parks, and their more numerous sympathizers swarmed in whenever The Man threatened to boot them out. The first wave had no official leaders, no coherent platform. But it reinvigorated nation’s left, which had, for the most part, sat in silent disappointment these past three years as the president turned out to be the pragmatic-compromiser he’d claimed to be, rather than the transformative progressive they’d imagined.
Now that the occupations of city parks are pretty much over and winter is setting in, the second phase is beginning. The second phase will have use the energy from the first and channel it into issues and electoral politics. The revolutionary vanguard in Zucotti Park has no interest in this. But it’s bigger than them now.
The Saugerties group didn’t talk about scrapping the system and starting over. They talked about the commons – places and services we all benefit from, now at risk of being destroyed by a system that assumes all government-run setups are wasteful and inefficient, and thus are fair game to be cut to keep taxes low.
The immediate focus of Occupy Saugerties is the privatization of Golden Hill, the county retirement home. The group claims that County Executive Mike Hein kept the voting public from knowing too much about the sale and that selling Golden Hill is an arbitrary and ultimately harmful decision. Privatizing retirement care will make the care more expensive and could force previous retirees out of Golden Hill, said group members. The home was created because many senior citizens didn’t have the money for a private home. The need still exists.
The leader of the pack is Ralph Childers, a flannel-wearing, hard-working, slightly unkempt mustache-wearing man’s man. He’s got a hard handshake and he’s a far cry from your typical left-wing movement leader. Childers is a former IBM employee. He turned to political activism during the Iraq War. After the bombs over Baghdad, Childers began to see the value in grassroots political movements. Occupy Saugerties is his chance to lead his own mini-rebellion.
“I love that Occupy is apolitical, and that they recognize that there are probably conservatives out there, probably Republicans, whatever, who agree with what we’re trying to do, and it’s important to stay apolitical.”
Though there probably are areas of broad agreement, it would be hard to imagine any nominal Republicans turning up at an Occupy meeting. Maybe Ron Paul Republicans. Still, it’s not like the meeting had a crunchy vibe.
Some issues are discussed after everyone introduces themselves. Nothing too crazy is allowed to bounce around, although the concept – just the concept – of anti-establishment violence is in the air for a second. One idea is to create the option to have the choice of “opposed” in local ballots if candidate is running unopposed in an election. A lot of the meeting is spent discussing the overall goals of the movement and general airing of grievances. Young members offer to work on media projects for the group. Things grow momentarily stale.
And then the magic happens.
Occupy Saugerties begins to discuss its true goal. By the time that this article is published, strange things will happen on the floor of the Ulster County Legislature. A conglomerate of old and young, loud and quiet will take the floor and attempt to mic check their elected officials into submission. The mic check is a tactic used by Occupiers to hammer in a point; the speaker will say a short phrase that is repeated by the Occupy constituency. One Occupy Saugerties supporter claims mic checks work like a charm, and that when he was Occupying Zucotti Park, a mic check convinced a crew of police officers to bring back the crowd barriers that were being forced on Occupiers. Occupy practices as a member delivers his speech:
“There’s a railroad through Ulster County – that wants to take Golden Hill. This is a deal that benefits banksters – and impoverishes Ulster County – do not balance the budget- on the backs of Ulster County elders.”
The rest of Occupy responds in meter.
It’s a weird scene. The group wants to throw a wrench in the inner machinations of local government, cause a small-to-moderate mess, and either retreat after its first attempt at civil disobedience or continue their modest operation.
It may not be much. But it’s a spark. The Washington Post declared Occupy Wall Street dead last week, a victim of its own lack of organization. The kids are supposed to pack up now, and go home in the face of police intervention and encroaching winter. And all of this may be true. Things are winding down, the full boil of outrage is falling to a simmer, the anti-corporate media boon is drawing to a close.
Occupy Saugerties, though, just started. It’s hooking up with other, larger groups – Occupy Poughkeepsie and Occupy Kingston. The members want desperately to keep the conversation alive; to turn the moment into a movement. It took three years of protest for half the country to oppose the Vietnam War. Already, three-quarters of the country agree with the occupiers’ central tenets: that the deck is stacked against them in favor of the rich, that the rich should pay more taxes, and that corporations have too great an influence over government.
Will this pervasive feeling continue to fuel protest? The Occupy movement is winding down, but is this the end, or just a hibernation? Local groups in well-heated buildings (like the senior center) could be the slow heartbeat that sustains it through the winter.
Saugerties Occupier Zach Coons puts it pretty succinctly when introducing himself to the rest of the group. “I’m here to support whatever we do and help things change,” he says, “or else they just won’t.”