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Somerville among suburbs where Occupy movement goes grass-roots

Posted by Marcia Dick  February 7, 2012 10:04 AM

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Rand Wilson photos

Matthew McLaughlin (with flag), an Iraqi War veteran who helped launch Occupy Somerville in the fall, said he was drawn to the Occupy movement because he wants to preserve jobs and a working class.

On a recent Saturday morning, a small group carried signs near the Post Office in downtown Salem. When it reached a busy traffic intersection, some stuck a few placards in the ground while others, like Clare Ritchie,  took a break and leaned on her sign that read: ‘‘Tax equalization is real important, [love], 99 percent.’’
 
After she straightened the sign toward the traffic, she smiled, and then sighed. ‘‘We need fairness in our society; we need to help the people who are suffering.’’

While Occupy Wall Street and big-city spinoffs such as Occupy Boston no longer physically occupy plots of land, the spirit of the movement has caught traction in the suburbs.
North of Boston, grass-roots Occupy chapters have sprouted in Somerville, Malden, Salem, Lowell, and Woburn, and on Cape Ann.

There is no one face to the movement. While Ritchie, of Salem, is 78, others are in their teens. In Lowell, an Occupy group is forming at the high school. There is no easy way to profile each chapter: Some members have spent years as activists, and went to Boston and New York to bring food and clothing to Occupy camps. Others, like Ritchie, said dissatisfaction with the disparity of wealth in this country pushed them to pick up their first protest signs.

The suburban groups haven’t pitched any tents or occupied any territory. Their focus remains on economic inequality in the United States. They have blended national issues — such as unemployment, homelessness, and high corporate earnings — with local concerns, which range from protesting the proposed MBTA fare hikes to keeping a hospital in business in Gloucester.

People drawn to these Occupy groups said the movement should not be restricted to big cities since core issues — such as the economy, unemployment, and the need for political reform — exist everywhere.

‘‘We need to build a mass movement in order to change things,’’ said Rob Talbot, who regularly holds an Occupy Salem sign in downtown Salem on weekends. ‘‘People in the suburbs are realizing that they have to be involved, too. Right now, the corporate influence over politics is extreme and human needs are not being met, and they won’t be until the people stand up together and say we need a change of course.’’

Miles from Dewey Square, where Occupy Boston set down tents this fall that some have vowed to repitch on April 1, suburban organizers say the movement is tailored to each community’s pace and priorities. Each Occupy chapter follows the basic ground rules established during the fall at New York’s Occupy Wall Street. Agendas are set during general assemblies, held within each Occupy chapter. There are no leaders; meetings are led by facilitators and decisions are reached by a group consensus.

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Some have websites, and all have established Facebook pages. Just how fast the suburban Occupy groups are catching on is debatable, with anywhere from just a handful to dozens attending events. Organizers say the winter cold has kept people inside and they expect to become more active in the spring.

‘‘The idea is to bring national ideas home where they affect people locally,’’ said Matthew McLaughlin, who helped launch Occupy Somerville in the fall.

McLaughlin, 30, said he was drawn to the Occupy movement because he wants to preserve jobs and a working class.

‘‘People can’t afford to have a middle-class life in America,’’ said McLaughlin, who grew up in Somerville, joined the Army, and spent two tours fighting in Iraq.

He said he believes that without an easing of poverty and the housing crisis, along with political and finance reform, the movement will continue to gain frustrated Americans.

‘‘I feel like there’s no shortage of solutions to the problems,’’ said McLaughlin, who led dozens of members during a December march to Davis Square in Somerville, which culminated in several transferring their savings from Bank of America to local savings banks. ‘‘I would hope it’s in the people’s hands to control the politicians. You have to be involved.’’

Nearby, more than a dozen residents who were part of the Occupy Boston camp have formed Occupy Malden.  Recently, they banded together with other activist groups to protest a foreclosure in Malden.

John Murphy, 24,  said he doesn’t expect to set up tents in Malden.

‘‘I think the movement has evolved past that point,’’ said Murphy, a Malden resident who said he believes protests and public dialogue about issues and pressure on elected officials will help bring change.

In the fall, Valerie Nelson was inspired by the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston camps and decided to call a meeting on Cape Ann.
 
‘‘We’re trying to blend local activism with nation issue participation,’’ said Nelson, of Gloucester, where she once served on the City Council. The group — which draws as many as 50 to its meetings — has held one rally, where members briefly marched in downtown Gloucester.

Nelson said the group spends most of its time thinking of ways to address local issues. It recently submitted a letter to the state supporting the proposed merger of Northeast Health System and the Lahey Clinic  on the condition the proposed new health group keep Gloucester’s Addison Gilbert Hospital open. Occupy Cape Ann also has submitted a proposal asking the Gloucester City Council to support a constitutional amendment to reverse the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. That ruling overturned previous campaign finance laws that restricted corporate donations during elections.

Every Friday, Kayla Walkling heads over to a Lowell soup kitchen that serves families in need. While she pours soup, she sometimes talks to people about their lives, the economy, and possible solutions to poverty. For the University of Massachusetts Lowell student from Wilmington, conversation about present-day America is one of the keys to the Occupy Lowell movement, which she joined a couple of months ago.

‘‘The way to change is by talking to people about inequality, and by proposing reforms that would appeal to them,’’ she said.

Those conversations, she said, have occurred during Occupy Lowell actions, such as landscaping and cleaning up the Lowell Riverwalk, lending solidarity to an Iraqi restaurant owner whose business was vandalized, and by members making themselves visible during Republican presidential primary events in New Hampshire.

Suburban Occupy members say the movement will change, and some say it could grow into a political party.

For Somerville’s Rand Wilson, who has worn an ‘‘Occupy Greed’’ sticker for 20 years, the public outcry is welcome noise.

 ‘‘It’s in its infancy,’’ he said of the Occupy movement. ‘‘No one knows where it’s going, but we want change and the best way to do it is a combination of public protest and talking.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@@globe.com.

 

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