It’s raining on my third visit to Occupy Milwaukee, and no one seems to be there. Tents are still up in Garden Park, but sagging and bowed with rainwater. Faint murmurs come from a large, white teepee that occupiers recently erected. Inside, nine men huddle around a small fire, toasting peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Joe Carriveau, a bearded, amicable man from Hartland, Wisconsin, tells me that the group had to sleep under the Locust Street Bridge last night. “The police come around a few times a week, remind us that we’re not allowed to have tents up after 10pm, and take them down. So we leave, find somewhere to sleep, and set them up again the next day.”
He adds, “They’ve been coming around a lot more often lately.”
Looking at the Occupy Milwaukee’s physical encampment, one has to wonder what its use is. It has a few things that Boston’s own occupation can’t claim to have – propane tanks, for one, and the aforementioned teepee – but the camp is far removed from the city center, with only a few tents and a handful of full-time occupiers. Not to mention it’s torn down almost daily.
However, Milwaukee’s “Occupy” has a meaning and utility distinct from Dewey Square’s, and perhaps from all other cities’.
Over the phone, I have the story of Occupy Milwaukee’s tumultuous start recounted to me by Jan Christenson, the Editor-In-Chief of Riverwest Currents, a local volunteer-run tabloid from the neighborhood where Occupy Milwaukee resides. Following an inaugural march on October 15th, Jan said that the group “tried to stay in Zeidler Park, downtown near the shopping center and financial buildings. The sheriff came and said in no certain terms that they couldn’t stay there, so they moved to another park in the Third Ward, on the [Milwaukee] river.”
While the displaced occupiers were attempting to settle in by the river, another group under the moniker “Occupy Riverwest,” had been showing up to Garden Park each day to hold up protest signs for an hour or two. Occupy Riverwest decided to offer the wandering occupiers the use of Garden Park, a safer and less exposed location than their stretch of land by the river.
Garden Park itself has a storied history. Several years ago, this “park” was merely a vacant lot owned by the city for potential commercial development. The surrounding community decided to start using it for their own purposes – including “an illegal farmer’s market, when it’s warmer,” Christenson tells me with a chuckle.
That sense of community has held strong at Occupy Milwaukee. The encampment receives many of its donations from homes in the surrounding neighborhood. “We like it because the neighbors are really friendly,” Joe Carriveau tells me. Right on cue, two cars drive by the park, honking their support.
There have been two major demonstrations under the banner of “Occupy Milwaukee” in its brief history. The first was the initial rally and march on October 15th, part of a day of protests across the globe that drew millions into the streets. The second was on November 17th, in conjunction with national “bridge actions” in solidarity with labor.
The November 17th march drew a crowd of a few hundred Milwaukeeans from many different walks of life: Occupiers, union members, students, and activists from a number of organizations, such as Peace Action-Milwaukee and local immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera. The protest ended in a massive sit-down on the North Avenue Bridge, blocking traffic for over 3 hours. Five people were arrested during the march, but Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn ultimately decided not to move in on the entire group. He told reporters that he wouldn’t aid the protestors in fulfilling “martyrdom fantasies,” and that they could “freeze their butts off” if they wanted to.
Despite the decently-sized turnout for these two major actions and the development of two other related groups – Occupy the Hood and Decolonizar el Barrio – Milwaukee’s occupation remains small on a day-to-day basis. But that doesn’t mean other groups haven’t been rallying around the cause.
Eddie Chapman, a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a member of the school’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), participated in the November 17th action and has closely followed the Occupy movement at large. He explains to me that SDS and similar groups in the city have stood in solidarity with Occupy Milwaukee and organized events under that name, yet these groups remain separate. “We have a few members involved who participate in [Occupy] events, but Occupy Milwaukee runs differently and is made up of different kinds of people.”
Occupy Milwaukee has received its share of complaints of a lack of ideological focus, although the group does have some particular, locally specific grievances. For instance, those connected to Occupy Milwaukee are generally supportive of current efforts to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker, whose affront to collective bargaining rights brought hundreds of thousands of protesters to the state capital last winter. However, the group has yet to take on a direct initiative of its own relating to the recall, and a statement of demands yet to be released.
Joe Shansky, communications director of Milwaukee immigrant-rights group Voces de la Frontera, has his own views on what the group should focus on. He would like to see the movement address the immediate effects of nationwide poverty, particularly as it affects the immigrant community that he works for. He suggested that “as a movement for economic justice, we need to focus on building unity among those who are most affected right now.”
“There’s an opportunity to branch out,” Joe said, “because the [movement’s] message is so universal.”
In many occupiers’ minds, universality is a large justification for a physical occupation. As the group rolls cigarettes in the teepee on a November afternoon, Joe Carriveau attempts to explain the difference between a protest and an Occupation. “Occupation is activism, not a protest,” he says.
“A protest is saying you don’t like something and going home. An occupation is about property, power and control. We’re showing people that they can empower themselves, that this space is ours. All of ours.”