Mainstream progressives get Occupied

The 99 Percent Spring begins
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  April 18, 2012

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DOWN TO BUSINESS Participants in the 99% Spring get ready for action.

"We are the 99 percent!" reverberates in the basement of the Portland Public Library on a Saturday morning. Ninety radicals — well, maybe damn strong liberals — are plotting to take over the government — well, in any case, to harass the one percent.

It's a "99% Spring" training session, one of nearly 1000 nationwide organized by 150 unions and progressive groups for a week in April. The training is for six weeks of "nonviolent direct action." Half a dozen other such sessions are taking place in Maine this beautiful sunny day.

In language and enthusiasm, 99% Spring is clearly an outgrowth of Occupy. Some Occupiers see it as a welcome expansion of their movement. Others see it as co-optation by Democrats.

A Democrat, Jim Lysen, of Lewiston, sits beside me in the auditorium. A health-care-center administrator, he tells me his wife and daughter were recently on a conference call with President Obama, who told progressive activists their work helps him move the country in the right (left) direction.

An energetic Jennie Pirkl, 30, a Maine People's Alliance organizer — MPA is the principal organizer of the training — is the first to tell her story in front of the group. Personal stories are a big part of the day-long meeting, bookended with declarations of "I am the 99 percent!"

Her home is underwater, Pirkl says, and she and her husband have $100,000 in student debt. The financial oppression of students and young people will become a theme. But, "Lucky for us, President Obama was elected," bringing help on both student debt and mortgages.

Tax Day, Tuesday, April 17, is the immediate target for protests. But "we're not talking about civil disobedience," Pirkl announces. And we must first establish rules for our discussions. There's beaucoup emphasis on process, just like Occupy, but it's clear this is going to be a much tighter and more firmly steered ship.

Next we watch a good movie on American protest movements — from the (original, Boston) Tea Party to labor, feminist, and civil-rights activism, ending with Occupy and Trayvon Martin.

"What do you mean you haven't been in jail yet? What's wrong with you?" asks, in the movie, a 1960s-era civil-rights organizer.

Jail: That's what I thought direct action was about, as in sit-ins and occupations that, at least, risk arrest. Jim Lysen, 64, says the actions contemplated here will go "right up to the point" of arrest.

When we break into small groups, a tattooed Doug Collins, 25, of Portland, describes how he can't afford to go to college and has a dead-end job. This meeting does not contain many limousine liberals.

Once back in the plenary, we determine we want jobs, health insurance, reduction of student debt, an end to homelessness. Homeless Voices for Justice is a cosponsor, along with the League of Young Voters. We also want an end to racism, classism, environmental destruction, and fear. End "imperialistic capitalism," one man declares. A society "where everyone is taken care of," shouts another.

Rachel Lyn Rumson, 39, of South Portland, an OccupyMaine veteran, tells me she's sympathetic with 99% Spring, "but it's not Occupy," though it's using Occupy's "thought-forms." She's concerned about the "professional organizers" and the "blatant disregard of the horizontal model of social change" — of democratic decision-making.

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  Topics: News Features , Lewiston, Portland Public Library, Maine People’s Alliance,  More more >
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