Protesters prepare for 'Occupy Winter'

Hennepin County Government Center plaza
Participants in Occupy MN keep sleeping bags and blankets on the lawn at the Hennepin County Government Center plaza in downtown Minneapolis. On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011, protesters sat in a circle and tried to keep warm.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

It's been nearly seven weeks since Occupy MN demonstrators began camping on the plaza of the Hennepin County Government Center in downtown Minneapolis.

The movement started in early October with several hundred demonstrators, and as winter approaches, fewer than a dozen remain. Organizers are trying to expand the movement into neighborhoods throughout the city — with mixed results.

Some demonstrators plan to put up tents at the plaza Wednesday evening in violation of the county rules. Camping in the plaza has been a source of contention from the start of the protest, and the county has begun to enforce the ban earlier this month.

Roger Bracher has been sleeping at the plaza on and off since the start of the Occupy MN protest. Like many participants, he's upset by the growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

"It's time for people, particularly people that have the liberty to just stand up and say this is enough, to stand up and say this is enough," Bracher said. "And that is why I am here."

Bracheri is homeless and 62 years old, with a white beard and hearty laugh. He dismisses questions about keeping warm at night.

"Come on. I look like a grizzly bear. All I have to do is tuck my paws under my arms and I will stay warm," he said.

Roger Bracher, 62, and Lion Starling, 65, at the Hennepin County Government Center plaza on Nov. 17, 2011.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

But the weather has dropped below freezing at times. When Bracher went to take a sip of his fruit juice the other day, he found it had turned into slush.

The cold weather is making it difficult for organizers to persuade people to stay at the plaza. In the middle of the night, security guards at times aren't sure if there is anyone beneath the pile of sleeping bags and blankets on the plaza lawn, said Kirk Simmons, Hennepin County security manager.

The movement lost some momentum when the county — making winter preparation in the plaza — turned off the outdoor electrical outlets the protestors were using to power space heaters, coffee pots, heated blankets and video game consoles.

"Everything else you could think of was plugged into everything," Simmons said. "They don't have that anymore, so it's becoming a challenge — and you get into the sub-zero temperatures, it's tough."

The protesters that remain seem to Simmons more interested in provoking confrontations with security. One man was cited for trespass last Friday when he ran through the skyway and unplugged electrical cords from the automated teller machines. Simmons assumes the man was protesting against big banks, but he said at least one of the ATMs was owned by a local credit union.

"That's the mentality of the stuff that's kind of been going on here lately. It's just making less and less sense," Simmons said. "There doesn't really seem to be any real clear message anymore, and you know it's becoming more of a nuisance than anything."

Organizers disagree. They say the protests at the plaza are symbolic, and they are expanding the movement beyond downtown Minneapolis to draw further attention to real problems.

Bridge protest
Nearly 300 people marched across the 10th Ave. bridge during the evening rush hour on Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 to protest the lack of jobs for black Minnesotans. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found the rate of unemployed African-American Minnesotans is three times that of white residents -- the widest disparity in the country.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

They point to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute that found the rate of unemployed African Americans in Minneapolis is three-times that of whites. It's the widest disparity in the country.

A demonstration last week focused on that disparity during a march across the Tenth Ave. bridge near the University of Minnesota campus. The crowd of nearly 300 demonstrators was energized by speakers from local churches and unions as they stood in the middle of the bridge and blocked traffic.

As they spoke, police cars drove up and asked them to leave. Eleven people were arrested.

There are ways politicians could address the concerns of the Occupy MN demonstrators, says labor historian Peter Rachleff of Macalaster College. He said in the 1930s, Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson issued an executive order halting foreclosures on homes and farms in the state.

Sara Kaiser
Sara Kaiser addressed a crowd of supporters outside the Minneapolis home that she lost to foreclosure. At the Nov. 19, 2011 rally, Kaiser, an anthropology lecturer at the University of Minnesota, said she lost the home because she could no longer afford the payments on her adjustable rate mortgage. Supporters broke into the home shortly after Kaiser finished speaking and vowed to remain until a bank agreed to negotiate her mortgage.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

"I think the responsibility of the protestors has been to frame the debate. And they have really shifted the terms of the debate," Rachleff said. "Now the responsibility of the people we've elected to office is to turn the people's sentiments into concrete measures."

Home foreclosures are another problem that Occupy MN organizers are working to fight. Sara Kaiser had contacted the group to ask for help. She lost her home in southeast Minneapolis when her mortgage payments went up and was unable to convince the bank to refinance.

"My story is a very typical story, so typical that it could happen to you, to your friends, to your family, anytime, anywhere. It happened to me," Kaiser said.

Kaiser had already moved out. Over the weekend, OccupyMN participants broke into Kaiser's former home and moved in with sleeping bags.

Two protestors climbed onto the roof to hang a banner. Inside the house, protesters discussed what they would do if the police arrived.

Two people climbed onto the roof to nail a banner on Sara Kaiser's former home in Minneapolis, Minn. on Nov. 19, 2011. Kaiser's home went into foreclosure when she stopped making payments on her adjustable rate mortgage.
MPR Photo/Madeleine Baran

One of Kaiser's neighbors, Lewis Lakey, was outside to show his support.

Lakey heard about the protest and stopped by to shovel the front steps. He says he's like many Minnesotans who support the movement and want to do something other than marching and chanting.

"I already have my philosophy on this and my stand on it," Lakey said.

"I like coming over and doing the work part. I'm not going to get into the discussion as much because that's just not me. And there's plenty of people to do the talking, not enough people to do the work."

Lakey wishes more people were involved, and that it is too early to determine the movement's success.

"No matter how many people are down there, it's not a failure. It's a start," Lakey said. "Is it the rip-roaring start that we had all hoped for — you know, thousands of people down there? No, but that's a part of spreading the word."

A few hours later, police showed up at the house and arrested two people. The fire department later boarded up the building. Despite the setback, organizers say they plan to break into other foreclosed homes in the coming weeks.

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