Occupy Fort Myers
Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, November 1, 2011 21:11
Since I began writing about the Occupy Wall Street and solidarity movements, I've encountered a lot of negative, stereotypical language.
I've heard politicians accuse protesters of simply wanting handouts.
I've seen articles referring to protesters as unemployed, as victims of a bad educational system, as clueless liberals, as mobs, as dirty hippies and as socialists.
In fact, the word "socialist" has become a mainstay in the vocabulary of critics of both my articles and those taking part in the protests.
Initially, I was confused by this. Why would so many people cry "socialism" over the concept of removing corporate corruption from our government?
I embarked on a quest of sorts to find out if the accusations had any merit.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, socialism is "any of various economic and political theories advocating collective of governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods."
A second definition on the website describes a state existence where there is no private property.
Based on these definitions alone, it seems a stretch to call the Occupy movement a socialist one.
But I never want to offend the sensibilities of you, the readers, by arming myself with only one perspective of an argument.
So I went to www.nycga.net where, under the resources tab, the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City can be found.
The purpose of the Occupy movement along with a non-comprehensive list of grievances is listed.
I had read through the document a few weeks ago, but I re-familiarized myself with it to see if there was some socialist intent that I had previously missed.
Still, I failed to find a clear connection.
I took my research one step further. I drove to Centennial Park armed with my camera, an empty notebook and a few stock questions.
I wanted to see how many people are taking part in the protest, what the approximate age range is, what their political preferences are and why they felt the Occupy movement was important enough to support.
So off I went in search of what, had the critics been correct, would be a dirty drum gathering filled with unemployed liberal socialists who wouldn't be able to articulate what they were protesting for due to the poor education they had received.
What I found during my three hours at the park couldn't have been more different.
For my part, I could not have picked a more beautiful day to visit the Occupy site. The weekly farmer's market was just wrapping up. It was a comfortable 85 degrees with a light breeze blowing off the Caloosahatchee River.
The crowd was small. There were only 13 to 15 people in the general area. The tents were neatly scattered across a grassy area not too far from the public rest rooms.
There was no police presence, no barriers and no trash. What there was, though, was a recycle bin and a handful of clean, well-groomed people who were pleasant and respectful to all who passed by.
The first gentleman I attempted to interview, Luis Ospina, kindly declined my request because he needed to get to work.
Strike one against the Occupy critics. In fact, two of the people I interviewed, Chris Faulkner and Matt McDowell separately estimated 75 percent of the Occupy Fort Myers regulars left camp at some time during the day to go and work at their jobs.
That's a pretty impressive statistic for a group painted as unemployed.
Rich Wilbur was the first to grant me an interview. He's a 65-year-old, semi-retired Vietnam veteran who expressed his frustration at a broken system.
He feels the Occupy movement can be an important tool for change.
"When people make mistakes, we are supposed to take responsibility. What about corporations?" Wilbur said.
He believes the government could help keep jobs in America by taxing all products built overseas as imports — regardless of the country of ownership.
Under this concept, he believes it would no longer make sense for American corporations to take jobs outside of the United States.
As if on cue, a passerby from Peoria, Ill., who had been a member of the United Auto Workers union, lamented the loss of his job to a site in Mexico.
Keeping American jobs in America hardly fits the profile of a socialist movement.
When I sat down with McDowell, who has been a part of Occupy Fort Myers since its beginning, I was curious what his general observations of the experience has been up to this point.
McDowell was quick to point out his feeling of encouragement that younger people are paying attention to the issues plaguing the nation.
When I asked him about the general age range of the people he's seen come out to support the movement, he told me it was from "toddlers to geriatrics" and all ages in between.
He said 98 percent of Fort Myers police officers have been "good" about the protesters occupying Centennial Park.
But recently, citing permitting and insurance issues, the city has been giving citations to those who choose to remain at the park overnight.
When I questioned McDowell about this point, he said, "it enhances the image" of why they are there by providing a visible reminder, which he hopes is driving the conversation.
It's an act of solidarity with those who are occupying Wall Street.
McDowell told me there have been a range of religious, educational and employment backgrounds, and yes, political backgrounds as well.
An average weeknight general assembly, which they hold at 7:30 p.m. to accommodate the most people, draws an estimated 30 to 100 people, some of whom are Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Libertarians and yes, a Socialist or two.