Posts tagged Politics
Gilbert Bentley waited patiently in the first row of Bowling Green Municipal court amid half a courtroom of supporters. They wore orange armbands with the word Occupy on them in protest of Bentley’s trial.
Within a few minutes, it was over. Bentley and his friend Taylor Johnson both pled no contest to charges of obstruction of justice and were sentenced to 15 hours of community service.
Bentley has had a long history of political activism.
At an age when most are uninvolved and disinterested in politics, Bentley attended a Farm Labor Organizing Committee rally in Toledo at age 14.
Six years later, he joined over 200,000 others to Washington D.C.’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, a satirical protest headed by comedians Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.
Now, Bentley sees his sentencing as the easy part.
“It was a lot harder being out there than it was dealing with court stuff,” he said.
For him, “out there” meant a small alleyway on East Wooster Street in Bowling Green, Ohio, where he and countless others camped out for six weeks in peaceful protest.
When his trial ended, Bentley knew this part of Occupy Bowling Green was over, but his fight was only beginning.
* * *
Bentley says it’s always hard to pay attention to politics and not get involved. He credits a love for politics to an early “obsession with history and literature.”
His influences, political and literary, range from authors Oscar Wilde and Jack Kerouac to philosopher Noam Chomsky, and leave Bentley with a rich blend of social skepticism and desire for direct democracy.
His interests in Egyptians and Mayans may have been out of his reach, but the Toledo streets were much more physically and ideologically accessible.
The creation of Occupy Toledo satisfied both his political philosophy and his need for democratic activism.
The Occupy movement began in September of 2011 in New York City as Occupy Wall Street, a non-violent, civil disobedient protest. Angry over wealth inequality and corporatism, protesters took over Zuccotti Park, a plaza near Manhattan’s Financial District, according to Occupy Wall Street’s website.
Many other concerned activists realized these themes elsewhere. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, protesters in cities around the globe set up tents and created their own Occupy movements.
Traveling to and from Toledo to participate, it wasn’t long before he said he wanted to “bring that sound home.”
“We have a responsibility to our home town,” he said.
He and others assembled a march at Bowling Green State University’s Student Union to the Happy Badger, a local business. It was there, he said, that the protestors decided to create Occupy BG.
The idea was simple. No one person spoke for or led the group. From the very first decision to form Occupy BG, every idea has been discussed and decided upon by the entire group.
They chose to set up camp in an alleyway in downtown Bowling Green known colloquially as “Fight Alley” due to its proximity to bars where some customers settle their differences outside. Violence at Occupy BG, however, was never an option.
“We needed to display that we’re not a violent group,” Bentley said.
Public perception of the group became as important as their message itself. Bentley and others knew that if the media and public could not respect those protesting, they would in turn shy away from the message Occupy BG protested for.
While Occupy protesters welcomed a variety of perspectives and opinions, its goals were to provide factual information and spread awareness of social issues.
Scott Hevner, a BGSU Firelands teacher who frequents the Bowling Green coffee shop where Occupy BG holds its meetings, said that while different ideologies are acceptable, it doesn’t make them more correct.
“People have this twisted sense of what constitutes equality,” Hevner said. “Democracy doesn’t mean everyone’s voice and speech is equal and ‘right’…people unfortunately interpret democracy this way.”
Day and night, there were usually at least one or two protesters camped out in the narrow alleyway, stopping any passersby to raise awareness of wealth inequality or to simply have a civil conversation of politics.
“It’s not a case of getting the message out, but getting more people to admit how they already feel or live,” Bentley said.
Bentley likes telling people about the approximately one in three children who are raised in low-income families, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.
Or perhaps he will remind them that 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined, a fact corroborated by PolitiFact, a non-partisan fact checking website.
For six weeks, Bentley repeated these arguments and many others to the hundreds of people who walked by, with mixed results of support and disapproval.
He worked to get his messages through to everyone who walked by in the hopes that awareness and knowledge of political and social issues would rally support in the fight against what the Occupy movement stood for.
Many at first were not receptive, shouting to him “This isn’t Wall Street” or “Why are you here?” he said.
Taylor Johnson, another protester, remembers an early encounter when a person driving by told the occupiers to get a job like the “successful businessmen” who pay for the sidewalks they stand on.
“I thought to myself, I have a good opportunity and duty to pass onto these ignorant people who don’t know their taxes pay for these sidewalks,” Johnson said. “It’s sad when victims don’t even know they’re victims.”
Bentley believes all Occupy movements, no matter how small, have their place in civic discourse, because the issues they fight for exist everywhere.
“You have to have Occupy in every small town, every nook and cranny, every dive bar, everything all around the country at once,” he said. “You infuse people into a movement where they’re actively talking one on one.”
That’s why he was there, through rain-soaked nights and sunless days: for the ability each day to stop a person on their way to work in the morning or to the bars at night. All the devotion, the weeks of time spent on the streets, all to make a person think, maybe even care if just for a moment, about wealth inequality or corporate greed.
Support and assistance came in ideological agreement, but also in tangible donations. From financial contributions to donated food and supplies, Occupy BG continued to grow, its message of social equality beginning to take shape.
Then came the eviction notice.
Dated Nov. 29, 2011, the city of Bowling Green sent a notice to Occupy BG, giving protesters until noon, Dec. 1, to remove their tents, tables, chairs and other personal belongings.
“The First Amendment protections of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech do not include a right to use public property as a storage area,” the eviction notice said.
While city police ordered their belongings and materials to be removed, the protestors themselves were allowed to stay.
On Thursday, Dec. 1, the nearby city clock tower struck noon as over a dozen reporters waited for a potential confrontation, but the police never showed up. It was a small victory for Occupy BG, but Bentley knew what was coming.
Choosing to stay in the tents after the eviction deadline, Bentley went to sleep every night with a mass text to dozens of protesters and other supporters upon a police raid already typed out. The police waited, and when the cameras weren’t running and no one else was watching, they moved in.
Bentley was ready.
* * *
Four days after their ordered eviction date, Bentley and Johnson awoke suddenly to the sound of steel pans hitting one another. The pans were tied to the tent’s opening as a makeshift alarm.
As one police officer ripped the tent down, another poked his head inside and read the city’s eviction notice.
“When I saw him, I clicked send,” Bentley said.
Before the officer could finish the notice, other officers began cutting the tents with shears, he said.
Bentley and Johnson were given two minutes to leave the premises or be arrested. Days before, the two had already made their decision to stay.
Amidst police shouting and threatening them, Bentley says that when their time was up, the police gave them one last chance to leave.
Johnson stepped back inside the tent. Bentley stood his ground.
They were soon handcuffed and walked down the alley where they had lived in peaceful protest for a month and a half.
According to BGPD’s police report, 27 officers were involved in the raid that resulted in the arrests of Bentley and Johnson for obstruction of justice, who were “taken into custody without any issues.”
When he thinks about his decision to stand up peacefully to the officers, Bentley says he’s never been more proud of himself.
In all, Bowling Green spent two weekends and almost $10,000 training police for the Occupy BG raid, according to the Sentinel Tribune.
Public reaction, Bentley said, has only driven more support for Occupy BG.
“I’ve gotten a lot of free drinks.”
Ultimately, Occupy BG carries on, finding new ways to bring awareness to its fight for social equality.
“It’s surreal how much we accomplished,” Johnson said.
For six weeks in downtown Bowling Green, Bentley and others challenged citizens on the issues. The alleyway now sits empty, as it did before their occupation.
While their camp is gone, their spirit and drive for working for a better, fairer America continues on.
“When the people are informed, they will make the better choice.”