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Wednesday, December 7,2011

Clearing out

Occupy Lansing calls it a season and plans to clear Reutter Park, vowing to be back in the spring. Mayor’s Office coordinates with protesters in last week.

by Andy Balaskovitz

Occupy Lansing is voluntarily calling it
quits for the winter. Within a week, protesters plan to clear Reutter
Park of tents and supplies, a spokesman said Tuesday.


The decision was made Monday night at
the downtown Capital Area District Library — across the street from
Reutter Park — during the group’s General Assembly meeting. The
decision goes beyond a deal reached last week with Mayor Virg Bernero
that would have ended overnight camping.


“The general consensus was that we are
draining too many resources trying to keep camp open during the
winter,” said Edge Brussel, who arrived at Monday’s meeting shortly
after the vote to close it down. “While we thank the mayor and the
city’s continual support, the plan is to reopen in the spring,
withdrawing from the park in the winter to focus our efforts elsewhere.”


Brussel said the goal is to have the
park cleared by the middle of next week. On Occupy Lansing’s Facebook
page late Monday night, one member offered to keep tents and supplies
in his basement until spring. “Emphasis on keeping/cleaning re-useable
items for Spring: tents, tarps, sleeping bags, etc. Arrangements still
being worked out on paying for porta-johns ($470 back payment).
Porta-Johns being removed soon,” minutes from the general assembly say.


Brussel said Occupy Lansing will
continue “outreach to the community, education” throughout the winter
before returning in the spring. Some of the first protesters arrived on
Oct. 10.


Unlike Occupy protests in New York City,
Oakland and Philadelphia, Occupy Lansing is voluntarily leaving, not
being forced out by the police. Brussel said the weather was the
deciding factor in leaving.


“We decided we’re exhausting ourselves —
that’s not our fight. We’re not mad at Mother Nature. As much as those
willing to stay in the park are patriots, that willingness to sacrifice
their personal comfort is important symbolically,” she said. 


“We were all jazzed and hopeful to live
in the park (through the winter) and make that statement, but it’s been
slowly chipped away,” Brussel added.


When county and city public health
officials cleared the park of portable heaters and a kitchen two weeks
ago, Brussel said, “That was the first moment when we started
questioning whether or not this is possible.”


Another low point came recently when the
U.S. Senate passed Senate Bill 1867, the National Defense Authorization
Act, Brussel said. “Hearing the language of that feels like it could be
very directly used to squelch the Occupy movement. … We’re passionate
about this (issue) part of our lives until we see reform in our
country.”


Brussel called the decision to vacate
for the winter “a good step forward. We do have the advantage that the
city is supportive of us.”




Brokering a deal


Supportive and compromising are both
ways to describe Bernero’s attitude toward Occupy Lansing. As the story
goes, Bernero arranged a meeting with three local occupiers — including
Brussel, Chris LaMere and a man with the nickname “Bear” — to talk
logistics. It lasted roughly an hour-and-a-half on Wednesday night in
Bernero’s 9th floor office in City Hall — two blocks north of Reutter
Park.


During that time, Bernero and his deputy
chief of staff, Randy Hannan, had health concerns for those who wanted
to camp overnight in the dead of winter. Hannan said the first hour of
the meeting was about “business” while the last half hour included “the
mayor’s broader thought on political issues.”


“It was a good discussion,” Hannan said
Monday night, before he received the news that Occupy Lansing would
disband entirely for the winter. “The mayor is a strong supporter of
the movement.” Indeed, Hannan said, Bernero “has been talking about the
unholy alliance of Wall Street and Washington for years. I think the
first time he threw that out was to Neil Cavuto on Fox News in 2008.”


Hannan said for Occupy encampments in
Michigan, “winter really made it impractical to sustain outdoors.” He
added that “Basically, out of our concern for health and safety at the
park, (we wanted to see them) discontinue overnight camping.”


He added that the idea was presented to
the occupiers, who then took it before the General Assembly on Saturday
to be agreed upon, which it was.


Hannan said he’s not “ruling it out at
this point” to allow protesters to camp overnight again in the spring.
“I think our relationship has been a model. Our Occupy Lansing people
are very reasonable, responsible, practical.” 


LaMere, who is 55 and has lived in
Lansing for “30-some years,” said Bernero was concerned about “someone
freezing to death or a tent going up in a fire. He said that when he
goes home at night, he drives by here and worries someone is going to
die down here.”


LaMere agreed with Brussel that some of
the low points of the movement have been having heaters and the kitchen
removed and “internal conflicts.” But, she thinks Occupy Lansing has
been successful in localizing a global movement.


Brussel said Bernero spoke “very
genuinely. We went into the meeting wanting very much to keep our
overnight presence and stay in the park. On both sides, compromises
were made. The mayor wants to support our movement, we want to support
our mayor.”


Brussel said Bernero told the group, “I
could have just arrested people. I have every right to do that. But for
him to come and talk to us was a beautiful example, and sets an example
for the rest of the country.”


The meeting left an impression on LaMere.


“It was very cool,” she said. “He was
really great, totally supportive. He kind of took off his mayor’s hat,
was a person, you know?”



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