Augusta: Occupied

Posted Wednesday, November 30, 2011 in News

Augusta: Occupied

by David Kaler

AUGUSTA — My first look at Occupy Augusta, on a brilliant but frigid late-fall day, put me in mind of Washington's Valley Forge or Gen. Grant's winter headquarters during the Civil War. The fresh snow gave an eerie historical look to the tents and tarps. It was Thanksgiving Day, and I joined  seven hardy occupiers on the Capitol grounds, which has witnessed many protests in its almost 200 years. Standing around an open fire on a 17-degree day reminded me of soldiers past who, too, waited out the weather.

"Happy Thanksgiving," I greeted the first occupier. He was a 19-year-old doing his first stint as a protester. "What brought you here to Occupy Augusta?" I asked.

The teen, who gave his name as Paul Revere, said that the landfill around Old Town was one of his concerns. "We don't want Maine to be someone else's dump," he said, referring to the plan to bring trash from out of state to Maine's already overcrowded landfills. 

The oldest of the occupiers, Tim Jennings, 33, of Augusta, has a job, but said he came "to give support to the 99 percenters who don't make enough money to survive."

I didn't get a sense of the fervor that historical protests have caused. I saw no Abbie Hoffman, no Angela Davis among the occupiers. That's not to say that these folks are not as dedicated to change as their illustrious forebears. "There is a total of about 20 occupiers now; they're in their tents trying to keep warm," Revere said. "When we started about a month ago there were more participants, but the weather and the holidays, plus jobs, made some people move on."

So what is it that most would like to see changed? 

"This has gone not only nationwide, it is now worldwide," a New Yorker replied. "The world economies are faltering because of greed ... the middle class has shrunk and the rich don't pay their share. We hope to occupy every state capital in America, even Montpelier, Vermont." Vermonters have the reputation for doing it their way.

Jennings added, "The environment, water, land, pollutants all have got to be addressed, too."

All talked in generalities. There is no flyer explaining their position.

"Have the police been a visible sight?" I asked, looking around and seeing none.

"They've been very good, they check on us every day, but they don't hang around ... only to get warm by the fire," Revere said. "The Capitol Police have authority here in the park, but they are looking for 'outside agitators' and we don't have any."

Revere gave me a tour of the site. I visited the kitchen, which has three sides with an open front for preparing food, an area for making signs, and a third area used to serve food. It was all clean and neat. Revere said that three local churches were bringing turkeys, and a local farmer, Lou Kingsbury from Pittston, is donating vegetables. "We all peel and cook," he said.

Next he showed me an authentic Penobscot teepee that sleeps about 20 people. Throwing back the flap, he said, "If you go in, go clockwise around so you don't upset the balance." I didn't upset the balance.

Next we looked at a community tent from Cabela's. The tent, about 30 feet by 20 feet, sleeps over 50 people. By winter, the occupiers will add propane heaters.

There are maybe 25 to 30 tents of varying sizes and colors.

The weather is taking its toll. Will the Occupy movement last throught the harsh Maine winter? Or will it die of apathy and a new movement takes its place in the spring?  Over the 200-plus years of the Republic, there have been people who stood up, when needed, to detail grievances against the government. They will likely continue to gather to be heard.

Escorting me to my car, Revere told of support from those working in the State House. He looked up the hill to the imposing dome where government is conducted. "We stand in front with our signs, and cars toot and give us thumbs-up showing their support, even if they can't be here with us," he smiled. "We're all in this together."

Editor's note: The day after Kaler visited the encampment, Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin told Occupy Augusta participants they had to apply by Monday, Nov. 28, for a permit to continue protesting in the park. If they didn't, police would remove them and their tents, he said. However, the group filed an emergency motion in federal District Court in Bangor on Monday, seeking a temporary restraining order from Capitol Police shutting down the encampment. The judge, Nancy Torreson, ordered a temporary stay. A hearing is scheduled for next Monday in Bangor, and the state agreed to take no action until then. Attorney Lynne Williams noted in her filing that the constant occupation is a core component of the group's message. "It expresses the Occupy protesters' statement of the 99 percent taking back the city or town and of hope for a more just and equal society in a way that other forms of protest could not express."

She also filed suit against the state Department of Public Safety, saying the requirement that protesters get a permit is unconstitutional.

Sunday, nine protesters were arrested on the grounds of the governor's residence, the Blaine House, across State Street from the park.

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