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Occupying Time: Occupy Buffalo at One Year

Last Saturday afternoon a crowd of about 15 people gathered on the east side of Niagara Square’s traffic circle and did the same thing they’ve been doing in that space for a year now: holding a General Assembly for Occupy Buffalo. Once the meeting was called and the chatter of the various conversations subsided, a paper bag stuffed full of ginger-molasses cookies was passed around the circle and the members began planning their one-year anniversary, coming this weekend.

When Occupy Buffalo was evicted from Niagara Square in an early morning roundup on February 2, the Buffalo Police followed the “shock and awe” mold of action made popular by the same war the occupiers were motivated to protest, storming the square with dozens of squad cars and SWAT vehicles. By morning all that was left was a geodesic dome on loan from a supporter, which Occupy Buffalo successfully lobbied police to save from the payloaders and dumptrucks that followed the police cars.

(photo by Sarah Bishop)
(photo by Sarah Bishop)

Though they no longer occupy the square, Occupy Buffalo members continue to attend to their core issues of economic justice and political corruption in a variety of venues: They’ve been escorted out of NFTA board meetings for speaking out of turn (which is easy to do because the NFTA does not allow public comment in board meetings); they’ve pushed for IDA reform at Buffalo’s Central Library (and drew a phalanx of interested parties from the Erie County Sheriff’s office); they’ve protested the military’s use of drones at a National Guard base outside of Syracuse (and been arrested for their troubles); they’ve pressed State Senator Mark Grisanti on his calculated ambivalence to fracking; and they’ve been an active voice in the otherwise sleepy chambers of the Buffalo Common Council.

In other words, Occupy Buffalo has been fully exercising their muscle in participatory democracy. And they’ve seen results. The NFTA has recently made changes to become more responsive to the public, and IDA reform has become a hot-button issue taken up by Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz.

John Washington (pictured at top), who serves as something of an unofficial spokesperson for the group, sees a link between the old and new phases of the movement.

“Living in Niagara Square for that period, and to be immersed in a group of people that’s organizing to create change, really shows you how powerful you can be,” Washington said. “[We’ve] seen that in the Common Council meetings, where 10 or 15 people just showing up can result in $45 million being pulled out of a big bank.”

Last spring, under criticism from Occupy Buffalo, Buffalo Comptroller Mark Schroeder divested 10 percent of the city’s holdings from JP Morgan Chase, a national bank with layers of undesirable odors and few local employees, and moved the money into the local First Niagara Bank.

But Occupy isn’t settling there. They’ve set their sights on the remaining $400 million still being held in a JP Morgan Chase account, and it appears Masten District Councilman Demone Smith is on board. Smith has drafted a “Responsible Banking Act” for the City of Buffalo.

The cover page of the proposed legislation somewhat clumsily states it will allow the city to “strategize absolutely with financial institutions through their Community Reinvestment Act effort to partner with the city in rebuilding areas of the city which have been marginalized or neglected,” and that it “also allows us to divest from financial institutions that have shown to be irresponsible in their own dealings which have spurned public outrage.”

Smith, for his part, welcopmes expressions of public outrage in the chambers and supports Occupy’s presence, crediting the occupiers for working on needed banking reforms and bringing intelligence and insight into Common Council meetings. “We agree more than we disagree,” Smith offered.

Delaware District Councilman Michael LoCurto shared similar sentiments: “They raise awareness of issues with the Council and the city. In the case of their advocacy regarding JP Morgan, they affected policy.”

Occupy Anniversary

A three-day series of events in Niagara Square, commemorating the beginning of Occupy Buffalo’s formation, occupation, and continuing advocacy of social and economic justice.

Friday, October 5

4-5pm: Union Solidarity March

6-7pm: Peace Release: Vigil For Joe Food

7pm onward: All-night sleep-out in Niagara Square in honor of Joe Food

Saturday, October 6

1-2pm: Occupy Buffalo Anniversary Celebration

2-4pm: Anniversary Assembly: Past, Present, and Future of Occupy Buffalo

4-6pm: Student Debt Assembly, Prisoners Rights Discussion, Open Issue-based Discussions and Teach-ins

6pm onward: Occupy Buffalo Birthday Party

Sunday, October 7

2-3pm: Interfaith Peace Network Vigil to mark the 11th Anniversary of the War in Afghanistan

3-4pm: “No Wars, No Drones!” Anti-War Rally

Wary of the potential for law enforcement to use drones domestically, Occupy Buffalo and the Western New York Peace Center called for the Common Council to become the first city in the United States to ban the use of drones in its airspace this past August. The law enforcement issue hits incredibly close to home for members of Occupy, who were closely monitored by the Department of Homeland Security. A recent FOIL request by Occupy’s attorneys, Michael Kuzma and Brian Daire Irwin, was answered by 13 pages of email correspondence from the United States Coast Guard that went on to pretty much conclude that the movement posed “low/negligible threat to USCG personnel or interests.” Both the occupiers and their lawyers believe there’s more surveillance yet to be released.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Washington said in a phone conversation. “Anyone who understands how the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, even local police departments work…when you have a group of 75 to 150 activists in a public circle with a Facebook page, a website, and holding open meetings, I mean, the idea that all you have is 13 pages from the Coast Guard is absolutely ridiculous to me.”

The absurdity of Coast Guard’s involvement in monitoring what its own document, provided to Artvoice by Occupy Buffalo, calls an “overwhelmingly peaceful” protest isn’t lost on the Coast Guard personnel. One email dated for January 20, 2012 reads:

I have reviewed the “Occupy” websites for Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, and Rochester and have not found any evidence that these groups are planning any solidarity protests, or are even aware of the planned west-coast actions. My assessment is that the probability of solidarity protests…is LOW.

Whether the Coast Guard is still watching Occupy Buffalo or not, it probably won’t keep them and others—like the Western New York Peace Center, the Coalition for Economic Justice, and various labor unions—from pressing forward as lobbyists for the people who can’t afford to hire their own. Members are looking for the movement to evolve into focused areas of activism, where members draw from the pool of consensus within the group to work on individual topics—for example, student loan debt.

This weekend, as Occupy Buffalo celebrates its first anniversary with events in and around Niagara Square (where else?), the movement wants to remind everyone that the tents might be gone but the occupiers are still here. They might be done, for now, with occupying space, but they’re resolutely focused on the long game.

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