In St. Pete, Arun Gupta dissects the Occupy Movement
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01/03/12 Andrea Lypka
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photo by Andrea Lypka

The rage against Wall Street greed has galvanized the Occupy movement across the nation, including in Tampa Bay. A journalist, who has traveled to dozens of Occupy sites around the country, told an audience in St. Petersburg Monday night there’s a common thread: each Occupy site is creating a mini alternative society based on shared values.

Over the past three months, journalist, editor, and political activist Arun Gupta and his partner Michelle Fawcett have traveled about 9,000 miles to visit 30 occupy protests in 20 states including Detroit.

“You have all sorts of abandoned houses, burned down buildings, you have these wide boulevards, of course Detroit is motor city and it was of course built for the cars. But it has lost about half of its population; its peak is in the 1950s. Then on the other side what you see in terms of economic activity you see a lot of small scale gentrification, coffee shops where you can get $4 espressos, little boutiques, delis, restaurants. But the big projects are casinos and strip clubs. Everywhere billboards for lawyers saying that they will help you get your social security check or welfare check or some sort of medical check. It is predatory capitalism,” Gupta said.

The protesters Gupta spoke with under the abandoned skyscrapers were mostly unemployed and homeless.

“Detroit, according to an estimate has a real unemployment rate of about 45 percent. It is absolutely stunning what the level of unemployment is,” Gupta said.

And the story repeated in other cities they visited.

“Particularly in the Rustbelt. There are huge spots of America that have been just forgotten, they have just become irrelevant to global capitalism. They have been just hollowed out and destroyed,” he said.

One of the protesters was Jerry Edwards, a high school dropout who worked in the automotive industry.

“And he worked there for about 15 years. He married his high school sweetheart and they had four sons. He kept saying I had a beautiful life. He had good money coming in but it was a tough job. He describes the intricate ballet with his hands of having to make these dashboards, one every 23 seconds. And again, and again and again,” he said.

But Edwards’ health was failing.

“He has suffered an injury as a child where he fell out of the window and lost a kidney and his health was already in decline even though he was just in his late 30s. He lost his job, his wife left him. I asked him what happened to his sons; he indicated that at least two of them died if not all of them were dead. Someone would take a look at Jerry and say that well, he is a homeless man. But I think these are forgotten workers, people we see in the streets all over America. There is an epidemic of homelessness that we have seen grow over the last 30 years. These are workers who did actively contribute to the society but are no longer able to because of this extreme concentration of power,” he said.

Even though the nation’s official unemployment rate is 8.6 percent, this number does not include discouraged workers, students, people forced into early retirement and others. Gupta said the real unemployment rate is 20%.

“During the Great Depression it was about 25 to 30 % at various times. This should make us pause and think that we are in another Great Depression. You don’t even hear the word recession used anymore, we are in a recovery now, you know, we may possibly go into a recession. This is how the Great Depression worked; it wasn’t as it was a severe ongoing downturn. There were ups and downs for over a decade. And we are basically in this pattern because we are now in its fifth year,” he said.

Gupta said that there are about 50 million people in poverty.

“But according to the statistics, poverty means that a family of three can live on $19,000 a year. I am not sure how one person is supposed to live on $19,000 a year, much less three people. So if you use more adjusted statistics that looks at what living wage is, what is shows is essentially that 100 million Americans live in poverty. One third of the population.”

The event was sponsored by Awake Pinellas, an organization that promotes social justice. Some of the members have attended occupy Tampa and St. Petersburg. Organizer Timothy Martin with Awake Pinellas said the political climate has contributed to public distrust and anger in Florida.

“In 2011, the Florida state legislature driven by an ideological zealot for governor soldiered by a conservative super majority with tea party foot soldiers like the local state representative Jeff Brandes and Ari Ahern worked overtime to enact legislation that pushed us to the margins. If you have progressive political leanings and you live down here in Florida, it was quite frankly a massacre. They repealed the growth management act effectively destroying 40 years of growth management regulations offering protection for the worst development. The measure effectively headed over the state’s own sustainable build everywhere sprawl culture. They passed voter’s suppression legislation with far reaching effects on the young, the poor and the elderly. The first time in living memory, the League of Women Voters have halted the registration efforts for fear of being find thousands of dollars,” Martin said.

According to Martin, the new legislation will make it harder for the working poor to vote in Florida because the number of early voting days is reduced.

“And college age kids are also disenfranchised because they are now forced to file provisional ballot if they changed addresses. Legislature worked overtime to make it harder for a woman to choose by passing a variety of anti-choice legislation. Conservatives like to talk about having less government in our lives yet they want to force women seeking abortion to have an ultrasound prior to terminating the pregnancy. Even on the environmental front, things went from bad to much worse. They reduced the money for the Everglades restoration, drastically cutting the funding for SWFWMD, the agency overseeing that restoration. For the third year in a row, they reduced funding for the Florida Forever program, a decade long bi-partisan program to protect our natural resources and environmental treasures,” he said.

Shannon Love is with the Pinellas County Young Democrats. She has been to a couple of Occupy St. Petersburg meetings.

“I think that there is a general consensus that there are some problems in America that need to be solved. I think that there is a general consensus that people are upset, angry. And even more than being angry, they are tired of feeling it is never going to get better. I would say that this is really one thing we need to bring back to America as a society where people believe in what can happen and I think this is something we haven’t done and it is something that needs to be changed and I really think that the Occupy movement is an encompassing survey of how unhappy Americans are trying to become with that realization,” Love said.

Love hopes that some branches of the occupy movement will start working with political organizations.

“There is a Wall Street Journal survey that says that less than 30% of the people from the occupy movement or Occupy New York it was, actually voted. And I think if you want legislation, a legislator, an effective legislation you have to be willing to do that. So I wish we could translate this into a political movement as well,” she said.

Awake the State rallies next Tuesday, on the first day of the Legislative session in Williams Park in St. Petersburg. For more information visit their website.

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