The Occupy Movement convened at Veterans Memorial Park in Manchester, New Hampshire on the first weekend of 2012 for five days of action leading up to the state’s presidential primary. Their prevailing demand: a direct democracy in which public policy orients itself towards the greatest social and ecological good. Their official code of conduct: remain “peaceful,” “put litter in its place,” and–– supremely–– “treat others as you would like to be treated or better.”
“We’re here to remind everybody,” declared Stephen Squibb, a 28 year old writer from Boston, “that this is a country founded, built, and tended to by the 99%”––women, laborers, students, teachers, poor people, immigrants, slaves and all of those who’ve given life to our land across history.
Activists began by unveiling a life-sized, grey plywood pachyderm, dubbed the “elephant in the room.” The beast symbolized the glaring truth big business continues to ignore: the democratic right of people to govern themselves. Because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, corporations are seen as people in the eyes of the law, and are therefore free to fund elections without limit.
Accordingly, pallbearers carried a casket symbolizing the American Dream outside Saturday’s Republican debate at Saint Anselm’s College. Ambling along to a languid drumbeat, occupiers hummed the famous melody of Chopin’s “Funeral March” before chanting the populist rallying cry: “We are the 99%.” The dream declared dead, signs held by protesters anticipated a democratic awakening: “Dear 1%,” read one sign, “you have awakened the sleeping giant.”
“But…those are the occupiers”
As candidates campaigned across the Granite State in search of votes, a modest group of occupiers at Veterans Park listened to activist Ed Helms read “Politics,” a lecture by Mark Twain advising listeners to follow their conscience rather than follow the leader.
With major national and international media present, occupiers challenged the candidates throughout the days preceding the primary. At different points throughout the week, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and President Obama were all treated to a dose of populist indignation.
One sneaky group arrived early at McKelvie Intermediate School, posing as Mitt Romney supporters. They wore stickers and held signs in support of the former Massachusetts governor while waiting in line outside the school, but, as ushers led the crowd in, one Romney campaign staff member detected the infiltrators.
“Nope, nope. Can’t come in here,” he said, raising his hand in an attempt to impede their progress. But another staffer interjected: “We can’t really tell them to leave if they haven’t done anything. Go ahead, guys.” So the occupiers proceeded on towards the gym. A few of them chuckled about the interaction, and were spotted doing so by a group of teenage girls helping to organize the event. “But…those are the occupiers,” said one.
New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte introduced the candidate. “[Romney] will be a commander in chief who will listen to his military commanders, not his pollster or his political adviser,” she promised.
Romney arrived on stage with his entire family. The candidate’s sincere-looking interaction with his youngest grandson brought forth adulatory applause. The ensuing speech associated religion and family values with nationalism, militarism and big business. “There has been nothing in the history of the earth that has freed people from poverty like free enterprise American style” he said.
Having smuggled in plastic Romney signs which, when torn on a dotted line, could be turned around to read “Occupy” and “Money out of politics,” the occupiers cued each other and chanted “Live free or die, occupy” (echoing NH’s state slogan).
Romney decided to engage with the crowd. Turning to a woman holding a “money out of politics” sign, he asked, “Who’s the president who’s spending more money to campaign than any in the history of America?” The woman replied, “I don’t support President Obama,” but boisterous chants of “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt” overshadowed her voice. Most Occupy supporters were escorted out of the school.
Elsewhere on the campaign trail, one satirical candidate sympathetic to Occupy routinely roused laughter, even behind enemy lines. “All politicians are vermin,” said candidate Vermin “Love” Supreme, and “I am the most supreme vermin of them all.” While fully supportive of the movement, the Rockport, MA performance artist made clear that “it would not necessarily be a good thing for Occupy” to officially endorse him, and thus “associate themselves with a full-on loon.”
A self-proclaimed candidate of “no hope, no change, and bitter disappointment,” Supreme managed to finish third on the Democratic ticket. But he wasn’t concerned with official results. “I win every time,” he explained. “It’s a moral victory.” Wearing a green zebra-striped jacket, several clip-on ties, a boot (worn as a hat) and furry animal pants, Supreme outlined the extent of his healthcare plan: a mandatory tooth-brushing law.
Supreme could be found speaking into a bullhorn at many of the major protests. “I want to marry you, Rick Santorum,” he proclaimed in a comic, robot-like voice as the Republican candidate exited a debate.
Days earlier a seventeen year old girl had asked Santorum why, given his professed “high moral position that all men have equal rights,” two men shouldn’t be allowed to marry. “If we’re gonna have a discussion based on rational, reasoned thought, then it’s important that we employ reason,” Santorum responded, before equating same-sex marriage with polygamy. Equal rights supporters pestered Santorum throughout the weekend, calling him a “bigot,” and chanting, “shame, shame, shame.”
Newt Gingrich also fended off allegations of bigotry. The candidate drew controversy during the week after saying he would talk to the NAACP about why “African Americans should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” At a campaign stop, an African-American man, Yvan Lamothe said to Gingrich: “you imply that blacks in general are on welfare.” The man explained how he had worked his way through school, got his masters, and raised four children.
The comment “really demeans my accomplishments and hard work,” Lamothe said. “I have worked all my life and never been on welfare.” After referencing Hitler’s stance on the Jewish problem in the 1930s, the man asked Gingrich whether he thought blacks constituted an American problem. “I didn’t say that,” said Gingrich.
Facing protests, Gingrich cancelled a campaign event at his Elm St. headquarters Monday evening. “It wasn’t worth risking some kind of big confrontation,” with Occupy, he later said.
Livin’ The Dream
On primary night, Occupy New Hampshire held a victory celebration at Mac Neil’s Banquet Facility in Manchester. About 50 people from Boston, Missouri, New Mexico and Oregon gathered in a rustic, cabin-like room. Two musicians sang civil-rights era folk songs while two toddlers––their mom busy chatting and their father deployed overseas––boogied on the dance-floor. They were joined briefly by a 20-something man well versed in the art of break dancing.
“Mic-check,” yelled one man on his way out the door. “I really, really love every single one of you.” Those nearby laughed as they repeated his words.
Off at one of the banquet room’s corners a young woman’s rich voice sang “Over the Rainbow” as she strummed an acoustic guitar. She had a number of tattoos, piercings, and a pin on her jacket with the face of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As the United States honors this week the memory of that man––who perished working on the Poor People’s Campaign with sanitation workers in Memphis Tennessee and who controversially spoke out against Vietnam War––let’s recall words he delivered at Washington D.C.’s National Mall on August 28, 1963:
“Let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.”
He had a dream. And as a new populist movement comes of age in America, we shall see if, “over the rainbow,” as the song goes, “those dreams that we dare to dream really do come true.”