On the morning of Oct. 15, Senator Beth Johnson Park, on the corner of Legion Place and South Ivanhoe Avenue, was officially occupied. From there, a crowd estimated at more than 1,000 marched through the streets of downtown Orlando as part of the Occupy Orlando protest – a local effort related to the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City – and some planned to stay at the park to protest indefinitely. But as the day wore on, these protesters had a decision to make. The park closes at 11 p.m. Should they stay and risk arrest, or leave the park at closing time and reconvene in the morning?
Approximately 40 people willing to protest through the night weighed their options, just as others have been doing in cities across the country since the occupation movements of the past month have taken hold. By the time eight Orlando police officers arrived on the scene late into the evening, the group, mostly comprising people in their 20s and 30s, had agreed upon a nonconfrontational solution: Everyone would leave the park, but those who wanted to protest into the night would move to the adjoining sidewalk and continue their march. They would march in shifts; those who weren’t marching could catch up on sleep – some in their cars – until it was their turn to protest. After everyone had served their assigned shifts, it would be 6 a.m. – time to reoccupy the park.
“We are the 99 percent!” chanted the first of the graveyard shifts, marching in loops around the block. Though this was the third march of the day for many protesters, it was still only the first day of the occupation, which, until something changes, has no end date.
Just as thousands have been doing in lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park since September, those who are part of Occupy Orlando are laying claim to public space to protest economic inequality in the United States. In Orlando, Senator Beth Johnson Park was chosen because of its proximity to the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, which has been singled out for special opprobrium by leftists because it lobbies for business-friendly legislation – a term associated with corporate tax loopholes and stripped-down worker protections. After a sizable march kicked off the occupation on Oct. 15, Doug Head, former Orange County Democratic Executive Committee chair, accused the chamber of “indoctrinating” potential political candidates through its Leadership Orlando program. “They all get trained, in that building, on how to screw you,” he told the crowd during Saturday’s protest. The chamber’s director of communications and president of Leadership Orlando, Ruth Mustian, could not be reached for comment.
Despite criticism of the various occupation movements that portrays the protesters as mostly disgruntled, college-educated young people, the crowd at Occupy Orlando was diverse – those who spoke before the march ranged from a white former Army sergeant to an Indian college student to a Latina homemaker. Even among the younger crowd, a wide range of interests is represented: Some are “hacktivists” affiliated with the group Anonymous, others are Ron Paul enthusiasts, but most defy easy categorization. Take, for example, Rebecca Cruz, one of the media coordinators for the group. She’s a photographer by trade, but quit her job in 2006 after she gave birth to her son. “It was a good decision at the time – but now that I could stand to go back to work, I can’t,” Cruz says. “I’m competing against a ridiculous amount of people.” She says she joined because the message of the Occupy Wall Street protests struck a chord with her.
Like Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Orlando has no official leaders, no elected hierarchy. Instead, it is composed of “working groups” devoted to specific issues – teams of people volunteer to tend to the group’s food, medical, media, peacekeeping and legal needs, among others. (Both the current and former lawyers of Food Not Bombs, Shayan Elahi and Jackie Dowd, say they have trained roughly 35 people to be legal observers for the legal team.)
It’s too early to say what a typical day of the Orlando occupation looks like – this article is being written mostly on the basis of observing its first weekend – but every day includes a general assembly, which is what one organizer referred to as the heart of the movement. It is there that the activists propose ideas to be voted on, which first have to pass a validity check by a volunteer coordinator, a “what-why-how” test to determine whether it can be implemented, and finally, the yea or nay vote of a 90 percent majority.
Occupy Orlando is also like Occupy Wall Street in that it has not yet established any specific overarching goals, policy initiatives or demands. So far, the only clear goal of the occupation is to continue the occupation. “Our movement is far too young to adopt a specific political philosophy,” said one organizer, a man in his 40s, who asked that his name not be disclosed. “We’re here not to provide solutions yet, but to get people asking questions.”
Evanne Floyd, a drama teacher from Brevard County (which reportedly is also being occupied) who visited to help Occupy Orlando’s media and “protest leads” teams, put it this way: “This is like a crowd-sourced protest.” Floyd got involved not only because of her outrage over actual economic inequality, but also due to what she feels is a cultural dogma that teaches people to feel worthless if they’re unemployed. “When did we get to that point, where you’re only worth what you earn?” she asks. “[People] just leap to the conclusion that you must be poor because you fucked up.”