The tent in front of the Ohio Statehouse is gone. The populist ferment of ordinary people out to fight the rich and powerful in the streets has vanished. It appears that the 1% remain incredibly wealthy and unaccountable. Amid the current political calm resides the collective memory surrounding the Occupy movement, one of the great uprisings against the robber barons in American history.  

On this two-year anniversary of Occupy’s birth, and a year after Occupy Columbus ended their Ohio Statehouse encampment, the Free Press wondered what happened to the controversial Occupy Columbus movement. Was it assassinated by the power elite that control the city of Columbus and the politicians that do their bidding? Did it die of natural causes?

Occupy’s Origin

Stimulated in part by 2008’s “Great Recession” and the later “Arab Spring,” Occupy was a worldwide movement for economic and social justice. Occupy Wall Street first grabbed national attention as the occupiers took control of New York City’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011. Within three weeks, Occupy protests sprung up in nearly 100 major cities in 82 nations and an estimated 600 communities in the United States.

The repression of the movement was immediate. Within two days, seven people were arrested in the Park. A week after Occupy Wall Street started, 80 occupiers were arrested trying to march uptown in New York. On October 25, 2011 the police cleared out the Occupy encampment in Oakland, California in a violent confrontation. The occupiers responded by shutting down the Port of Oakland on November 2, the fifth-busiest port in the U.S.

Philosopher and activist Cornel West proclaimed the movement “a democratic awakening” and was arrested at a Washington DC Occupy demonstration on the Supreme Court steps.

Coordinated attacks from police and politicians

Reports of a conspiracy by overwhelmingly Democratic big-city mayors to shut down Occupy, a movement occurring in the shadow of the Obama re-election campaign, emerged in mid-November 2011. Mother Jones reported that at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meetings, conference calls were coordinated between federal law enforcement officials and at least 18 mayors concerning the Occupy movement. Rick Ellis at the, citing an anonymous Justice Department official, alleged that the crackdowns on the Occupy movement in New York, Oakland, Denver, and Salt Lake City were coordinated with help from Homeland Security, the FBI and other police agencies.

The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) emerged as a shadowy force coordinating the crackdown on Occupy. PERF’s Executive Director Chuck Wexler admitted in a “Democracy Now!” interview that he organized a series of conference-call planning sessions with police chiefs in major cities about how to deal with occupiers.

In an article written by Shawn Gaynor for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, he noted: “Reports of at least a dozen cities and some indication of as many as 40 accepting PERF advice and/or strategic documents include San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Portland, Oakland, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.”

Occupy occupies Columbus

The Free Press reported on the beginning of the movement in Ohio’s capital city. Free Press writers attended the initial General Assembly sessions held at Bicentennial Park, followed the emergence of the 24-hour Statehouse vigil, and the threatened act of civil disobedience at the Columbus Commons. Even Mayor Michael Coleman did a walk-through at the first Statehouse demonstration offering encouragement and support for the movement. Of course the movement was occupying the Statehouse, not City Hall, and the urban mayors had yet to take their anti-Occupy stance.

Bob Hart, serving on the Occupy Columbus legal team, advised a gathering of 50 demonstrators about non-violent protest and the process of being arrested, Free Press reporter Tom Over quoted Hart saying “The primary thing to understand, from a group perspective, is whether it’s your strategy to get arrested. It takes people off the street. It takes money out of your organization. It splits your forces. So people need to understand what the penalty is and what will happen in terms of fines.” An early confrontation between occupiers and Columbus police occurred at the Commons. After a tense standoff, the police cleared the area without arrest or violence.

Seven members of Occupy Columbus were arrested for trespassing at a US Bank branch on October 15, 2011. A Facebook message from Occupy Columbus called the bank visit a “tour” that was “protesting the bankers’ unapologetic role in our economic downturn.” Two of the seven said that the arrest was without warning, simply after entering the bank. The Free Press obtained a video that indicated the police were already on the scene waiting to arrest the occupiers. When contacted, a US Bank manager categorically denied calling the police on the demonstrators. This raised questions on police surveillance concerning the Occupy movement. All seven demonstrators were charged with 4th-degree misdemeanor charges, some pleaded guilty and some went to trial and were found guilty. A debate occurred within the movement on whether to have a show trial and put undercover police on the stand or to simply fight what appeared to be trumped up charges.

City of Columbus sides with the Statehouse

The Mayor and City turned against the Occupy movement, repeatedly unleashing the health department and the police to roust the Statehouse occupiers. At one point, the occupiers were forced to move into a private parking lot until they won the right to go back to Statehouse. The battle between Occupy Columbus and the City literally came down to the question of permits to occupy the sidewalk owned by the City in front of the Statehouse. In one legendary permit renewal meeting, a city official lectured occupiers and attorneys that the governor’s office was calling her every day complaining about the Occupy movement and she needed to do something. This writer pointed out that she was a city official in a Democratic administration who did not work for the Republican governor and suggested she should be more concerned with First Amendment rights than helping the governor violate those rights. Her scream was so loud that it caused a stampede of city officials into the room. The permit was extended.

Much like the VH1 series “Where are they now?” the Free Press sought out some of the occupiers to let them tell the story in their own words:

What was your involvement in Occupy and why did you think it was important?

Robert Crane

“I held the responsibility of filing and keeping the permits allowing the sidewalk occupation in front of the statehouse... this included fighting with the city to keep the site from being shut-down... until they just wrote a new law that did so…. I've always been a politically minded person and felt this was a national calling for people to get involved and attempt to retake the reins of our political system from the corporations & '1%' that have systematically wrested control for their own gains.”

Laura Tompkins

“I attended what General Assemblies I could when they didn't conflict with work. Police arrested me during a bank protest downtown when I stopped to safeguard the keys and cellphone of a friend who was being put in handcuffs.”

Jesse Kloth

“I did many different things with Occupy Columbus but mostly I just showed up and stuck around.…It was important to me because most of the issues we spoke about affected me directly and it was clear the two party system of imperialist America would not fix anything. I also came to despise capitalism in general.”

Ruben Castilla Herrera

“I spent several days and evenings observing, participating and meeting people at Occupy Wall Street. It was life changing for sure….When I returned to Columbus, I was one of several people who helped in organizing Occupy Columbus…. It was important for several reasons: we were part of collective conscious movement that went straight to that which is responsible for all injustices....the corporations; [we] brought a diverse group of people together, it was an emerging collective consciousness; there was a physical space that was visible 24/7. This was important.”

Connie Gadell-Newton

“I acted as a criminal defense attorney for activists who were arrested in a direct action protesting banking practices in a "Bank Tour" where they went to bank headquarters and loudly talked about corrupt banking practices. They were arrested for criminal trespass, a fourth degree misdemeanor, and I represented them through trial. We ultimately lost the trial, the jury being stacked with two bank workers and others likely to convict.”

Jaime Pardo

“I believe Occupy was an opening phase of the Facebook revolution, getting government to understand that, because of the internet, they need to do a better job of being transparent and diplomatic.

Connie Everett

“A number of people knew me and knew that I had some experience with media and so I became a spokesperson for OC, appearing on national and local radio and TV and delivering petitions to the mayor's office, etc…. At first, Occupy seemed to be a groundswell to address people's grievances about economic policies and social injustices. These are key to change if we ever hope for a more egalitarian, equal, and just society. It also seemed an opportunity to educate and learn more about the underpinnings of our capitalist system and why it isn't working for 99% of the population. It was a moment when people who usually ignore politics became engaged.”

Why do you think the Occupy movement faded away in Columbus?

Pranav Jani

“I was involved mostly in the Occupy Ohio State movement….Occupy faded in Columbus when it did in the rest of the country -- when the occupations in New York City and Oakland were beaten down by police. But as Occupy Ohio State did not ground our activities in a physical occupation, we were able to continue for longer. Here, as in the rest of the country, the (often deliberate) lack of focus on specific campaigns and the lack of a coherent set of ideas meant, in my opinion, that the movement could not sustain itself.”

Will Klatt

“Too much time was centered around maintaining the occupied campsite which wasn't an effective pressure point. Without national leadership the broader national movement started to die out which effected local groups. We didn’t act during moments of momentum and eventually the press started to lose interest in the story, which led to less activity. Lastly, the complex outcomes of Arab Spring, which served as a springboard to Occupy, led to a loss of a narrative that the popular occupation of public space is an effective means of bringing about positive political change.”

Robert Crane

“Columbus was insulated from the full harshness of the economic downturn that a lot of the rest of the county (and even other parts of Ohio) experienced.”

Jesse Kloth

“There were too many moderates and right wingers. It was made clear that people with revolutionary ideas would be marginalized. They even refused to support the Bank Tour protests which probably were the best-aimed actions of the year.”

Connie Everett

“First of all, it was the mix of people. Some leftists, some Tea Partiers, lots of Libertarians and a lot of just plain frustrated people watching as their investments, retirement funds and home were ripped away. Leftists left the party early, I'm sad to say. What became the core group was comprised of Libertarians who couldn't agree on targets or tactics and a lot of people with very little political knowledge or accurate information who needed desperately to vent their anger and frustration and sense of impotence… I know this was a "leaderless" movement, and I appreciate the desire for pure democracy and everyone's voice honored, but I do believe movements need at least guidance.”

Ruben Castilla Herrera

“Nothing really fades or ends, it just changes. That's the way things are. That's how life is. I think we need to stop and think that things fade away. We get into this "campaign" mentality. If we truly work for justice, things don't end nor fade. They just change forms and people come, stay and go.”

Ben Turk

“Lots of reasons. I think the root was a lack of action or real follow-through from committees. This environment allowed disruptive people to bog everything down in overlong GAs (General Assemblies) and bitter fights over symbolic, ideology-based and trivial things.”

Connie Gadell-Newton

“Of course, police involvement and the involvement of those adverse to the movement didn't help.  It is hard to know for sure, but it is suspected that trolls, police informants and the FBI were at work trying to take down the movement.”

Stuart McIntyre

“All momentum-driven mobilizations fade away; Occupy was the moment of the whirlwind.  What's important is its lasting impact.”

What do you feel is the lasting impact of the Occupy movement?

Connie Gadell-Newton

“It was great to see so many people come together over a cause. I am happy that I was able to represent activists who were arrested for protesting, and I plan to work with activist and protester criminal defendants in the future. I do not think the effects of Occupy were all positive, as we see the mentally and economically unstable young men in Cleveland who were entrapped by agent provocateurs into doing something stupid (trying to blow up a bridge with a fake bomb) and discredited the movement, including other more stable activists who just seek to do good work.”

Pranav Jani

“Occupy was incredibly significant and inspiring, one that left me a better activist. Like every movement I've been a part of, it taught me new things and introduced me to new people – many of whom I continue to work with today.”  

Ruben Castilla Herrera   

“I don't know actually. I do know that I met, worked with and became friends and allies with many people. Many of which have continued to work for justice in one way or another. I was primarily working on immigration reform, Latino issues and migrant rights before, but I know that since Occupy, I have realized the connections and intersectionality of our various fights and struggles.”

Stuart McIntyre

“Occupy brought together a strong community of activists, organizers and change-agents that exists to this day, and it quickly taught many of us critical lessons about power and social change. It also planted the seeds for my organization; the Ohio Student Association, and it fundamentally changed our nation's narrative about the distribution of wealth and power.”

Robert Crane

“If nothing else it has firmly planted the terms and ideas of fighting for the 99% versus the 1%; rights of corporations vs. rights of people; and general economic fairness...into the lexicon of the news, politicians and main-street Americans. I continue to work towards creating avenues to both get people involved fighting for local/national/international issues and bettering the intercommunications of different activist groups allowing them to network their efforts and hopefully expand their effectiveness.”

Laura Tompkins

“Occupy brought a critique of capitalism briefly into the mainstream and opened a lot of minds to the possibility of another world in our lifetime. It didn't hang on for long, locally or nationally, but it did generate a little rain to feed pre-existing radical projects and sprout a few new ones.”

Jesse Kloth

“The lasting effect most people speak of is a change in the conversations of the world. The 1% versus 99% paradigm.”

Ben Turk

“That the police and the state are enemies whose restraint (when they show it) is strategic, manipulative and opportunistic, not based on ethical or humanitarian concerns. The closer we get to our goals (regardless of what they are), the more they will show themselves to be crafty inhumane authoritarian brutes. We're fools to trust them when they've got their friendly faces on.”

Connie Everett

“I do believe people are more suspicious (a good thing) of big banks, credit cards, government oversight and assumed authority figures. Lots of people moved their accounts to credit unions instead of banks, for example. Of course, those credit unions are associated with said banks, but it's a start. I hope people are taking more responsibility for their money, contracts, mortgages and especially who they elect to represent them in local, state and federal elections. I know people are more aware of the 1%, but I fear many still just want to believe they can become part of it someday – the old American Dream, ha!”  

City shuts down Occupy

Columbus City Council passed City Code 906 regarding permitting for public sidewalks on July 16, 2012. Under the old ordinance, Occupy Columbus could have a tent on the sidewalk for 30 days at a cost of $30. The new ordinance required a $500 deposit, cost $100, and allowed a permit for 72 hours valid only from 8am to 9pm. Rob Crane pointed out to City Council that a comparison of the old and new permit fees by day constituted a 3300 percent increase.

The Dispatch characterized the end of Occupy by announcing how the “protesters wear out their welcome” though few reported on the absurdity of the new fee. Columbus City Attorney Richard Pfeiffer told WOSU Radio that “It’s not an unreasonable fee.” Ohio State Moritz College of Law Professor Emeritus David Goldberger pointed out that the City should be allowed to recoup actual costs and cannot impose higher fees to discourage or limit free speech.

An earlier series of emails between City officials documented that the $30 fee covered the City’s expense. On February 2, 2012, Pfeiffer wrote an email noting that the $30 fee was reasonable. “As far as costs to the City because of Occupy Columbus, I am not sure there is any additional cost at this time,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, the new ordinance went into effect September 10, 2012 and Occupy held a party protesting the city’s new law that night in front of the Statehouse by their tent. Touted as one of the longest Occupy movements in the nation, Occupy Columbus had held the vigil for 335 days.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit declaring that the ordinance suppressed free speech on May 30, 2013. “It is unconstitutional for the government to have unfettered discretion to censor speech,” said ACLU of Ohio attorney Jennifer Martinez Atzberger.

By the end of July this year, however, the ACLU dropped the lawsuit after the City altered its permit rule. The City reduced its $100 charge for a three-day permit to $40 and extended the time of the permit to five days with the possibility of renewal.

To re-occupy or not to re-occupy?

This writer visited Zuccotti Park on March 17, 2012 for the “reoccupation” and spring re-birth of the movement. The New York police responded with massive violence not only against the occupiers but against the media and sympathizers documenting the event. The police arrested more than 70 people that day. However, even to this day, Occupy Wall Street launches sporadic re-occupations of Zuccotti Park every other month or so.

Whether or not Occupy, as a global movement against capitalism, re-emerges with a physical presence in Columbus the issues remain the same. Little has changed in Columbus’ power structure. The titans still rule Columbus. And the kleptocracy, nationally and internationally, still loot