The sure-fire way to find occupations in small cities is to head for the center. After leaving Philadelphia on our Occupy America tour, we drove an hour north to Allentown. Pennsylvania’s third-largest city at 118,000 residents, Allentown has been weathered by years of deindustrialization in the steel, cement, and textile industries that once made it an economic powerhouse.
Occupy Allentown has taken up residence in Center Square, inhabiting one of the four red-brick plazas on each corner. There are a handful of tents, a well-supplied kitchen pavilion and an information desk. A large blue and gray nylon tent, which 12 people crammed into the first night of the occupation, has laundry hanging on a clothesline in back and a cardboard sign on the front that reads “Zuccotti Arms,” in reference to the original Wall Street occupation in New York City.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and less than ten people are sitting or standing holding signs such as “Main Street Wants Jobs.” Cars slowing down to negotiate the circle regularly honk, people wave and one man leans out his window to yell, “Wall Street sucks.”
We’ve come in search of Adam Santo, said to be the local leader of a leaderless movement. A handsome, boxy-glassed youth a few years out of college, Santo says he knew about the planning for Occupy Wall Street prior to September 17. “I wanted to go to New York, but I’ve been unemployed and finances were tight, so I thought wouldn’t it be cool to have an occupation in Lehigh Valley” where Allentown is nestled. Eight months earlier he and three co-workers were laid off from their jobs at a local bank because of a “lack of work.”
Santo says when Occupy Wall Street “Really took off, I thought, I’m going to make this take off in Lehigh Valley, gather support, get people into the streets.” He adds that since Occupy Allentown started on October 3, occupations have sprung up in Bethlehem and Easton and farther away in Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Lancaster.
In the spirit of this social media-organized revolt that begins with a hashtag, #OWS, Santo set up a Facebook page the day before the 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and “harassed my friends to join.” Next, he designed, photocopied, and handed out thousands of flyers to spread the word. I mention Asmaa Mahfouz, the woman who helped ignite Egypt’s uprising with powerful video blogs and by handing out thousands of flyers in the Cairene slums. He wasn’t familiar with her story, but says he was inspired by the Egyptian Revolution.
At the same time, Occupy Allentown is very much defined by the locale. According to Davina DeLor, a 39-year-old freelance artist who is painting slogans on his tent when we encounter him, residents initially assumed the occupation was in protest of a planned hockey arena, which he says “they are using our tax money for.” Allentown is using eminent domain to buy up businesses next to the encampment—including a Wells Fargo branch—that will be demolished to build an 8,500-seat arena for the Phantoms, a minor league hockey team. The city has authorized borrowing up to $175 million to pay for the multi-use facility, while Phantoms’ team owners are willing to throw in perhaps 10 percent of the cost.
While anger is widespread over what is seen as shady political dealings for a taxpayer-funded stadium that will displace dozens of local businesses, many residents are more consumed with just trying to survive the grinding economic crisis. Allentown’s official poverty level in 2009 was 24 percent, twice the state average.
DeLor says, “A lot of people are losing their jobs, food is going up, healthcare is going up, homelessness is going up, but the paychecks are not going up. The jobs are minimum wage or $9 or $10 an hour. And if you have a family you can’t survive on that.” Out of work for the last six months, DeLor says, “Whenever I try to get a job there are tons of people ahead of me and tons of people behind me.” It is these concerns that ultimately motivate the occupiers in Allentown, including families “doubling and tripling up” in houses and “four or five people living in a one-bedroom apartment,” says Santo.
In a departure from big-city occupations like New York, beat cops are openly supportive, says Santo. “They drive by, they wave, they honk. They give us handshakes and hugs…because they realize they are part of the 99 percent.” Local clergy are encouraging their congregations to donate goods and “[supply] us with warm bodies, which we definitely need,” says Santo.
Local conditions have limited the growth of the occupation. DeLor says many supporters have to juggle multiple part-time jobs, which limits the time they can spend protesting. During the week the number of campers and occupiers dwindles. This also may be why the day we were there, October 18, the occupiers were mostly unemployed or retired. Some potential occupiers have joined more prominent occupations, says Santo. “I have a lot of friends in New York. I have a lot of friends in Philadelphia…. I have some friends who just left for Occupy Pittsburgh.” His hope is they will return to help build Occupy Allentown.
Despite a Latino community that comprises 41 percent of Allentown residents, few appear to be involved in the occupation. Santo says that while the older Latino population is more politically active, he speculates that newer Latino communities aren’t as active possibly due to fears of immigration status and cultural divides, while younger Latinos are not involved simply because “It’s just not the cool thing to do.”
Nonetheless, Santo is determined. He says they are trying to secure surplus military tents and is adamant that they can continue the occupation through the winter. It’s a testament to Allentown’s character. It may be worn down, but it’s still standing.
This is not the case in Youngstown, Ohio, a city a few hundred miles to the west. The manufacturing sector is a mausoleum of industry. A brick smokestack stands sentinel over acres of cavernous shells that once poured out streams of goods. Crumbling brick buildings sprout trees two stories up, while inside pancakes of concrete drip toward the ground, suspended precariously by a bramble of rusted re-bar.
Demolition is one of the few signs of economic life. Starting in 2006, the city tripled its budget for razing abandoned buildings. With more than 43 percent of the land vacant, Youngstown is slowly being erased. In some neighborhoods boarded-up houses and empty lots island the remaining inhabited homes.
Since 1950, the population has declined from a high of 218,000 to less than 67,000 today. The poverty rate is a stratospheric 32 percent and the median value of owner-occupied homes is a paltry $52,900. Manufacturing dropped from 50 percent of the workforce in 1950 to 16 percent in 2007. This includes a staggering loss of 31 percent of manufacturing jobs in the region from 2000 to 2007—before the economy fell off the cliff.
At the downtown crossroads, where the Civil War “Man on the Monument” sits, Occupy Youngstown has taken up position in the shadow of three different banks, including a Chase branch. The occupation is a latecomer, having started on October 15 with a rally of more than 400 at its peak, according to Chuck Kettering, Jr., an aspiring actor who has been unemployed for a year from his previous position as an HVAC technician.
“We were once a huge steel city for America,” says the 27-year-old Kettering. “In the 1970s they started closing up all our steel mills, taking all the jobs and shipping them down south and overseas where labor is cheaper. Youngstown’s been a city that has been going through this economic struggle for almost 40 years now, and I think we have a valid voice for addressing these issues on a national scale.”
His family is living proof of the toll of deindustrialization. In a phone interview, Chuck Kettering, Sr. calls himself “the poster boy for the rust belt.” A Youngstown native, he went to work in 1973 at age 19 and worked at two local U.S. Steel plants that closed: one in 1979, the other in 1982. Next, he landed a position with Packard Electronics in 1985 making electrical components for GM cars. After GM spun off Delphi in 1999, Packard was subsumed by the auto-parts maker. However, “Local operations were pressured by wages and most operations moved south of the border” because of NAFTA. Following Delphi’s bankruptcy in 2008, Kettering and some co-workers were given a one-time chance to work for GM and keep their wages, benefits and pensions. “It was a no-brainer,” he says, but their seniority did not transfer to plant assignments. Despite nearly 25 years at Packard and Delphi, Kettering says, “I found myself at the age of 54 starting at the bottom, working alongside 21 year olds trying to keep up on the line. Many of us who transferred were not spring chickens and it was hard to keep up.”
Additionally, his wife, who was hired by Packard in 1979 and worked her way into management, was forced to retire after 30 years with a monthly pension that was slashed in half to $1,600, with expectations of further cuts. Meanwhile, Kettering’s hands are shot because of “excruciating pain” from carpal tunnel syndrome caused by repetitive motions working on the assembly line. Both his wrists were operated on last year and he endured a year of recovery. When he tried to return to the GM facility in Lordstown, Ohio in July, the problems flared up again and he is now on disability for a second time.
He says, “I have always been a guy that wanted to work. I chase these multinational corporations around like a donkey chasing a carrot and they keep the carrot just in front of my nose. They tell me I should be happy I have a job. I should grin and bear it. I am looking to an early retirement, if possible…. Bitterness can set in when you’ve given your all to these companies and they slap you down. It’s all about the dollars for Wall Street and the multinationals. That’s why I’ve encouraged my son to join the occupy movement, as have my wife and I.”
Youngstown’s hard times has bred solidarity. Kettering, Sr. says, “I’m really proud of our local guys, the police and the firefighters really support the occupy movement. Our mayor supports it. We have a united front here in Ohio.”
Despite the support, the city asked the occupiers to “take down the tents before business hours on Monday, October 17 when the banks were opening,” according to Kettering, Jr. He says they complied, but Occupy Youngstown still maintains a 24-hour presence and has pledged to do so until November 8, Election Day.
Unlike the seven other occupations we have visited, Occupy Youngstown tackles electoral issues. Kettering and other occupiers all raise similar concerns. They wave signs and wear buttons opposing Issue 2, which would strip some 350,000 public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. Karen Joseph, a 59-year-old mother of two whose family spends one-third of its household income on health insurance, is by no means the only one who is against Issue 3, which would exempt Ohio from the incoming national healthcare law. Everyone is against privatizing the Ohio Turnpike being pushed by Republican Governor John Kasich. All the occupiers we talk to express dismay at the prospect of hydro-fracking in Mill Creek Park, which Kettering describes as “the jewel of the area with waterfalls, streams, and lots of wildlife.”
The focus on local politics is deliberate, says Kettering, Jr. “All politics is local and we are trying to engage people on local issues. If we can get them hooked there, we can talk about national and global issues and how we can go about setting things right for the 99 percent of the world’s population.”
Even in larger cities local politics and conditions define the movement. At Occupy Philly, everyone knew of the city’s new status as the nation’s “poorest big city” with an official poverty rate of 27 percent. When we visited on October 18, the occupation was a poor people’s encampment with hundreds of homeless, veterans, poor and unemployed among the more than 1,000 occupiers camped out in 344 tents (and counting) on two sides of City Hall.
Donald Stackhouse, a 52-year-old musician and Marine Corps veteran who lives on the streets with his wife of 14 years, said, “The protesters are helping everybody. They are helping the homeless, feeding them. The homeless feel better about themselves, and when you feel better about yourself you can grow.”
Daniel Denvir, a staff writer for the Philadelphia City Paper, says the city’s accommodating attitudes toward the protests has to do with the political temperament of the mayor combined with the strength of local organizing. “Mayor Nutter is conflict averse. I think he didn’t want to crack down on the protests because he didn’t want to be another Bloomberg. And the occupation was going to happen. There were more than 1,000 people at the General Assembly two nights before the protests began on October 6. So if they tried to stop it they would have had to use force to stop it and people would have resisted.”
In Toledo, Ohio, on the other hand, the occupation is struggling with trying to live outdoors in a harsh climate because the city is making life difficult for them. Christopher Metchis, an energetic 19-year-old student who will be attending the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles next spring, explains that City Hall has denied them use of tents and generators, and dispatched city crews to cut off their access to electricity. He has just spent the last two nights outdoors in a wind and rainstorm, huddling under tarps with a few hardy souls on a grass plaza in the downtown business district near the baseball stadium for the Toledo Mud Hens.
Candice Milligan, a 30-year-old trans woman, says the living conditions make it “difficult for people who aren’t able bodied.” She also admits that concrete support is not as forthcoming because much of the public does not know what Occupy Toledo is trying to accomplish. And they have to contend with a police force that is indifferent at best and a local media that is hostile at times.
Nonetheless, locals are aware of the occupation and view it in a positive light. During dinner one evening at an Italian restaurant in Toledo, our waitress, Dawn, tells us she supports it because “the people need a voice, not just the corporations and politicians.”
A common sentiment on the trip so far has been that people are beaten down after decades of social and economic decline. Their prospects are limited and civic embarrassment is more prevalent than pride. They lament the end of the “American Dream,” the notion that hard work and sacrifice would be rewarded with a comfortable retirement and a better life for their children and grandkids. A nurse in Chicago tells us “the dream has become a nightmare.” But the people we encountered, no matter where they live, have hope and are inspired by the Occupy Movement.
Karen Joseph of Youngstown is one of those. She tells us of her two sons, aged 23 and 25. One is at Occupy Philly; the other at Occupy Dayton, Ohio. One family, three different occupations. Karen says those in power, the corporations and politicians, “look down on and discriminate against anybody. It’s just not right.” She says, “They need to treat us like human beings. It’s an issue of dignity.”
Arun Gupta is a co-founder of The Indypendent newspaper and The Occupied Wall Street Journal. Michelle Fawcett contributed to this report.