10:33am

Thu December 1, 2011
Politics

Occupy movements hunkering down for winter

There are twin threats staring down the Occupy Wall Street movement.

First, across the nation, there's the growing impatience of local officials, who are tiring of protestors' tent cities.

And then there's a uniquely upstate challenge bearing down: winter.

Albany

Occupy Albany protestors are determined to voice their frustrations with the state of the economy - and with the state of New York. Despite the threat of winter weather, dozens of protestors are still living in a tent city in the shadow of the capitol.

"Things are getting truly desperate in the rural and urban ghettos of New York, and they have been for decades," says Siobhan Burke, a 28-year-old woman who's been part of Occupy Albany since it began. "And we're bringing it directly to steps of city and state government." 

Burke and other protestors say they're committed to living outdoors through winter, so they can be here when state legislators return in January.

Colin Donnaruma is another occupier who says one of the main goals of Albany's Occupy movement is to pressure lawmakers into extending the so-called "millionaire's tax," which is set to expire at the end of the year.

"We want to really highlight that and show that the governor and the New York State Senate are siding with the one percent rather than the 99 percent," Donnaruma says.

Although occupiers say they feel strong support for their broader message about income inequality, the protestors still believe it's important to maintain a physical camp, despite the threat of cold temperatures.

"What we have decided as a group at Occupy Albany is that we need both," says Rachel Dash, of the group's winterization committee. "We need to show people that we're here in the camp, because it's a physical presence, but also we need to survive ideologically." 

Dash says group intends to buy a large military tent. They're also working on plans to rent a space nearby, like an empty storefront, which could be used for meetings and as a warming station.

Rochester

While Occupy Albany is taking on issues of state policy, Occupy Rochester is taking a different approach.

"We here at Occupy Rochester do have kind of a local focus," says occupier Susan Spencer. She says Occupy Rochester is increasingly focusing its efforts on reforming city schools and fighting illegal foreclosures.

But while Occupy Rochester is taking on city issues, Spencer says it has also been able to smooth out relations with the city itself.

"We are very firm on our first amendment rights but we also recognize public safety and health issues and try to take those into account every single day," Spencer says.

To make sure those concerns are addressed, the City of Rochester and Occupy Rochester have entered into a 12-point contract that lets the movement maintain a 24-hour encampment in Washington Square Park until at least January 12.

The agreement was even recently cited as a model approach, by a lawyer representing the ur-occupation, Occupy Wall Street.

The accord comes after initial conflict with the Rochester mayor's office led to about 50 arrests on the grounds of trespassing - and as major eviction fights in New York and Los Angeles have thrust the Occupy movement back into the headlines.

But at the Rochester encampment, all is well. Spencer, who serves as one of Occupy's liaisons with the city, says 25 to 30 full-time occupiers sleep over every night. The point, she says, is to make sure Occupy Rochester's presence remains felt.

"This is not about camping," says Spencer. "The reason why we want to be in parks and why we want to maintain a 24-hour presence is we believe in vigorous discussion, public debate and the reawakening of the public forum."

As for the upcoming winter, Spencer, a full-time engineering Ph.D. student at RIT, says Occupy Rochester is getting ready to hunker down.

"We are going to be very brave first of all. And also we're going to try to be very prepared."

Buffalo

For just the fourth time in 120 years, Buffalo has seen no measurable snow before December.

That run of mild temperatures has bought time for Occupy Buffalo to plan for winter.  After all, they're in it for the long haul, says occupier John Rossman.

"Many of us are natives here, that grew up in this town," says Rossman. "A little snow never hurt any of us. In fact, we're looking forward to that day."

The camp hasn't really been tested yet by bad weather. The two dozen tents - and now a 20-foot teepee - look unprepared to handle what's typical this time of year. But organizer John Washington says the camp envisions using the snow to their advantage.

"The next step is, a lot of us are learning how to build igloos," says Washington. "We know [the city] will pile up snow here.  The Eskimos have been doing this for thousands of years, so we should be able to figure it out."

Niagara Square, where the Occupy Buffalo camp sits, should provide plenty of fodder for that project. It's where the city piles up excess snow - by the ton. 

Washington says the group envisions using that snow as building material, and has even checked out books from the local library about how to construct igloos. Warmed by body heat, Washington says, the inside of igloos can reach temperatures in the 50s.

But whether Occupy Buffalo will be allowed to build its frozen city is another story, according to organizer Marco Marreo.

"We've been told that may be a health concern and a reason to have us removed."

Marreo says occupiers will try to prove the igloo plan can work before the city moves to evict.

"We are worried about health," says Marreo. "We know we can't help the movement if we're not taking care of ourselves, so we're trying to stress that to people."

To that end, protestors recently set up a hospital tent. Veterans and boy scouts have also stopped to dole out tips on insulating the tents, most of which are not rated for winter.

There's even talk of stacking hay bales to block chilling wind gusts, which whip in from Lake Erie - less than a mile away.