Representatives of Occupy Maine and several USM professors held a symposium Thursday to discuss the movement and answer questions from students and community members. The event was organized in part by the USM Leadership Development Board.
Among the presenters from Occupy Maine were USM students Katherine Hulit, Patrick O’Connor and Travis Bonpietro. Also in attendance was John Branson, the attorney representing Occupy Maine.
Branson addressed the legal issues facing the encampment, arguing that the ability to camp in the park is integral to the group’s message, and therefore a First Amendment right. “Almost everything going on in Lincoln Park is protected by the First Amendment,” he said.
Branson said Lincoln Park still remains open and welcoming to the public, despite much of it being taken up by tents belonging to Occupy Maine. “We have not taken over Lincoln Park,” he said.
Hulit, a senior philosophy and women and gender studies major, discussed a recent series of violent incidents at the park, which have garnered negative attention. “These are safety concerns with the city of Portland,” she said. “Anyone sleeping out at any time would experience similar problems.”
Between Oct. 24 and Nov. 20 there have been 16 arrests and 112 calls for police service to the park, more than double the number of calls for the same time period in past years. In part due to the public safety concerns, the City Council Public Safety Committee voted Thursday to recommend against allowing Occupy Maine a permit to continue camping in the park.
Philosophy Professor Jason Read, who has spoken at several Occupy Maine events, spoke about some of the effects of the nation-wide Occupy Wall Street movement on conversations around poverty. “Over the past two months, we have watched the politicians and the media try to heal the wound that this dialogue has opened,” he said. “Occupy Wall Street has ruptured the myth that Americans are not concerned with inequality.”
Another USM professor who has taken part in several Occupy Maine events is Michael Hillard, and economics professor who has spoken about the economic situation in the United States, and its effect on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Hillard criticized the downward trend in unionization of the Americna workforce, from 40 percent in 1954 to 6 percent in 2010. He also called for a shift away from national banks. “Banking should be local, period,” he said.
The presenters also addressed some of the concerns about the movement brought up by attendees. One man criticized the “99 percent” slogan that quickly became a rallying cry of the movement. “I get discouraged, because the image can be divisive,” he said.
But Hulit said the Occupy movement is receptive to such criticism, and that if people don’t like what they see, they should change it. “Everybody here can be a part of this,” she said. “If you think you can do it better, come do it.” And Hulit also said it is not essential that those wishing to take part in the protests stay at the camp. “There shouldn’t be a divide between people who do and don’t stay at the camp,” she said. “The camp is just one part.”