A year later, Duluth is still occupiedREYNA CROW: The group, which first “occupied” the Civic Center Plaza on Oct. 17 last year by camping in it, later moved to the Paul Robeson Ballroom behind the Kozy building owned by Duluth physician Dr. Eric Ringsred, where it maintained a camp site until last month.
By: Reyna Crow, for the Budgeteer
Occupy Duluth, the local manifestation of the Occupy Wall Street movement, recently observed its first anniversary. The group, which first “occupied” the Civic Center Plaza on Oct. 17 last year by camping in it, later moved to the Paul Robeson Ballroom behind the Kozy building owned by Duluth physician Dr. Eric Ringsred, where it maintained a camp site until last month.
What exactly is Occupy Duluth?
“I don’t think anyone can really say a specific thing regarding what single thing Occupy is about,” said Jennifer Cummings, who describes herself as “really involved” in Occupy Duluth. What those drawn to the movement have in common was that they are all “active and passionate about many specific issues,” she said, but that Occupy drew them together over concern for the “overarching, nonspecific issues.”
The first “communique” from Occupy Duluth, dated Oct. 27, 2011, reads: “We are participating in a great social experiment” and “Our one demand is that we participate in our own democracy.”
For Duluth occupiers, participating in democracy by spending most of the last year camping resulted in a good deal of interaction with some of our most vulnerable citizens, those without homes. Occupier Jay
Benson said that while “Occupy Duluth was intended to be inclusive … from the get-go, it was a drug (and alcohol-)-free zone” — a policy that sometimes conflicted with the needs of those who were “tossed out by the safety net.”
Ringsred called his association with Occupy overall “a positive experience,” calling them all good people.
“They did some nice gardening and were very peaceable, by and large. The Bowery neighborhood has some trouble, but that’s the neighborhood, it’s not the Occupy people,” he said.
With winter setting in, and without a place to set up camp, the group is not occupying any space currently, but does meet on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 6 p.m. at the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial on First Street. Richard Harbaugh, an occupier, described having frequent contact with the Duluth Police Department since Occupy Duluth began meeting in that location. The meeting minutes on the group’s website describe discussion with the police regarding the warming fire the group often makes at the memorial and whether or not the group is obstructing sidewalks.
“We aren’t trying to break the law, we’re trying to find out what the law is,” Harbaugh says. “We feel that homeless people have a right to do what they can to keep themselves warm and safe from the elements, and a safe, careful and responsible fire is sometimes necessary to their survival.”
Duluth Police Lt. Eric Rish says the department is responsible for making sure the memorial site is open to everyone.
“We have become the law enforcement arm of the Parks and Recreation Department,” he said. “The Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial is a park and we want to be sure everyone has access to it. We realize they are there only two days a week, Tuesdays and Saturdays. We intend to enforce ordinances fairly and equitably.”
While the Duluth occupiers don’t presume to have the answers to the problem of homelessness, much less those overarching concerns that brought occupiers together across the country, they have spent the last year building trust and networks among groups of people in our community who otherwise would not have been likely to cross paths.
“Through Occupy, I have really had the opportunity to communicate with people I otherwise would not likely be associated with because of my white privilege,” said Cummings.
One of the overarching concerns of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been the disparities in access to resources necessary for life: disparities that appear to be growing. If we are going to create a more accessible, fair and humane community, it will be necessary to engage in just the kind of dialogue that Occupy Duluth has been conducting in their camps this last year.
Whether fans of Occupy Duluth or not, members of the Duluth community should join their discussion. Winter is almost upon us and too many in our community have no place warm to sleep. As Harbaugh puts it, “We need to talk. Some of us have ideas that are contrary but we need to talk. There’d be a lot less hate speech.”
Duluthian Reyna Crow has a degree in economics from the University of Wisconsin.