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Published: Sunday, 10/23/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

COMMENTARY

Toledo occupiers not just sunshine patriots

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

The weather was miserable, but the dozen or so stalwarts in Levis Square weren't about to be deterred by pelting rain and bone-chilling wind. They've got a country to save.

The Occupy Toledo demonstration, in its third week, hasn't attracted the attention or participation of its larger counterparts in New York and other cities. But on the dreary day I visited the downtown park last week, the protesters were no less adamant about stating their grievances, demanding change, and urging dialogue and solidarity among the "99 percent."

A large sign at the front of the encampment summarized the prevailing sentiment: "Boehner and House Republicans are more concerned for millionaires and their campaign contributions than the unemployed, the homeless, and the hungry people in America."

As befits a movement that by design lacks leaders or a uniform agenda, the Occupy protesters I talked to offered different reasons for their activism. But they agreed that America has gone off the rails and they want to help right it, even if they're not sure exactly how.

"We don't know who we can trust anymore," said Katrina Bacome, 23, who runs an online sales business out of her West Toledo home. "Since I've been [with Occupy Toledo], 90 percent of what we do all day is talk to each other. I've learned a lot of things I didn't know before, like about the Federal Reserve."

Ms. Bacome wore two buttons on her jacket that reflect themes of the movement. One read "99 to One: Occupy Toledo/Stand Together," making a distinction between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everyone else.

The other said "Abolish corporate personhood," a reference to last year's notorious U.S. Supreme Court decision that equated corporations with individuals in making contributions to some political campaigns.

I suggested that quite a few folks among the 99 percent had voted for politicians who, the protesters complained, defended the interests of wealthy Americans and corporations. Another demonstrator, Margaret Tomasky, couldn't contain herself.

"What about the people who don't vote at all because both sides are corrupt?" said Ms. Tomasky, 55, a dialysis technician from West Toledo. "The big banks got bailed out by a president we voted for.

"We've got to reform the campaign finance laws so we can hold politicians accountable," she said. "The people who have all the money have all the power."

Ms. Tomasky held an umbrella over me while I chatted with Marilyn Bernstein, a retired Toledo Public Schools teacher from Point Place. She warned that "business is taking over education."

Other protesters were eager to share their views on the economy and politics, but declined to give their names. One earnest facilitator who said he had attended the University of Toledo explained: "This movement isn't about individuals. It really doesn't matter who says what. The moment you attach a name, you're making it about me."

A man who identified himself only as Wesley said he worked as a "part-time security consultant." He added he was a combat veteran and political and social conservative who voted for George W. Bush in 2000.

"I'm going to be 35 in two weeks and I don't see any evidence that the things I was promised are anywhere near the horizon," he said, puffing furiously on a cigarette. "I've had a hand injury for four years because I don't have health insurance. Everything I was told I would get was a lie. Where's my American dream?"

Along with Wall Street, banks, and corporations, the Federal Reserve was one of the villains most often cited by demonstrators. On the day I visited, several of the protesters left the park to picket a speech at the Crowne Plaza by Sandra Pianalto, the president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

When Ms. Pianalto met later that day with The Blade's editorial board, she expressed "frustration that some people don't have a good understanding of who we are."

"We try to dispel the notion that we're owned and run by Wall Street," she told me. "The so-called bailout was an act of Congress, not a Federal Reserve program. Our dual mandate is price stability and maximum employment. That's what we've focused on."

She added: "During the height of the financial crisis, we aggressively provided liquidity to the banking system. And every loan we made was paid back."

In Levis Square, Achilles Freeman, 20, hefted a large American flag on which the stars of the 50 states were replaced with logos of the biggest U.S. corporations.

"The country is not being run by the people," he said. "It's run by the corporations."

Mr. Freeman said he's unemployed, adding: "It's not my fault whatsoever."

I asked him how long he's prepared to continue his vigil in Levis Square. "As long as it takes," he said. "I'll be here forever. Weather's not going to stop us."

Other protesters sat in hammocks or huddled on chairs. The site includes a small kitchen, along with tables and bookshelves covered by tarps this day to keep out the rain. The city isn't allowing the protesters to set up tents or canopies. They're getting by without electricity.

Christopher Metchis, 19, of Point Place, warmed his boots near a heating pole. He said he yearns for a "proper community -- a place for people all over the city to get free medical [care] and a place to live." Like other protesters, he announced: "I'm staying here all winter -- period."

After that, he said, he plans to study music. He pulled out his guitar and performed a song whose lyrics included the line: "Oh, baby, where'd you stay last night?"

For many in the Occupy Toledo community, for the foreseeable future, the answer to that question would be: Levis Square.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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