Thursday, December 1, 2011

Olympia overridden with Occupy protesters, hundreds converge on capitol steps

By Jack Sorensen, Focus Editor

The deafening sounds of chanting echoed through the marble rotunda of the Washington state capitol building. Protesters adopted the lyrics of “We Shall Not be Moved,” a traditional song of American defiance harkening to union, racial equality and feminine suffrage protests of the 1930s. But these protesters were not old. They were a part of a modern, growing movement of U.S. political dissidence.

The Occupy Wall Street movement began in late Sept. 2011 and continued through Monday and Tuesday when hundreds of Washington residents converged on the capital to protest the legislature’s proposed budget cuts.

Occupy protests in Olympia Monday coincided with the beginning of a legislative special session, when the state Ways and Means Committee will strive to compile a sustainable budget.

Monday doubled as a state-wide Washington Educators Association march on the capital, where more than 200 teachers, administrators and school employees voiced their concerns about Washington Governor Christine Gregoire’s latest proposed education cuts, which include canceling state grants for special programs and shortening the school year, WEA Chinook Region Union President Kathie Axtell said. Axtell is also an administrative secretary in the Olympia School District and was one of the organizers of WEA’s Monday activities.

“As an education association we struggle because many of the cuts that are taken from social services are the very things that help our students,” Axtell said.

Occupy and WEA protesters were joined by members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Chapter 571, a national union of laborers, notably truck drivers; the Service Employees International Union, which includes workers from the healthcare, property services, janitorial, public services and state worker industries; the International Socialist Organization; Casa Latina, a Seattle-based lobby organization for seasonal Latino workers; and the American Federation of Teachers.

Monday and Tuesday, protesters flowed through the capitol building and poured onto the capitol steps. Many carried signs and props while others hung banners from the first and second floor balconies of the capitol building.

While the groups and their missions were diverse, all protesters shared a common political theory: More revenue and less budget cuts are the way into 2012. WEA and other smaller groups gathered in Olympia to support more specific campaigns, while Occupy supporters protested a much broader range of missions —Robin Hood-esque tax cuts for poor and tax increases for wealthy, repeal of state legislators and even an end to capitalism.

When Mooring Mast reporters arrived in Olympia Monday, the tension in the capitol building was palpable. Dozens of Washington state troopers stood vigilant on balconies, while more than a dozen more guarded the door to the governor’s office where an angry group of protesters gathered shouting. The troopers stood at the governor’s door in two rows, shoulder to shoulder, ignoring the shouting of the crowd.

“Tax the rich and save the poor,” shouted one protester.

Occupy protesters used their popular “mic check” method to communicate to each other and shout messages to the governor. In their mic checks, one speaker shouts his or her message several words at a time while the crowd repeats in two groups. Using this method, Occupiers successfully passed their message from the governor’s office on the first floor all the way to the second floor balcony.

Breanne Fuller, a 24-year-old Evergreen State College student, said she planned on staying in the capitol building until the special session developed an adequate budget. Earlier that day, Fuller said she staged a student and faculty walkout in support of the Occupy movement.

“America is starving, and all we’re putting the pressure on is our workers and our children and our homeless,” Fuller said.

Fuller was in the capitol earlier in the afternoon when demonstrators interrupted the Ways and Means Committee and postponed budget deliberations. She spent the late afternoon and evening camped in front of the governor’s office door with other Occupiers. Prior to 5:30 p.m., interactions between protesters and state patrol outside the governor’s office remained peaceful.

“I haven’t found them to be aggressive,” said Mokey Skinner, a protester outside the governor’s door. Skinner brought her son to the event, who was lying sleepily next to her.

“Not super fun,” Waylon, 5, said of the event.

Earlier in the afternoon, protesters had interrupted and postponed the Ways and Means Committee’s first meeting of the special session. Representative Zach Hudgins, a committee member, said more than 160 protesters signed up to testify regarding Gov. Gregoire’s proposed budget.

“I am glad to see so many people involved with our process,” Hudgins said in an email interview. However, Hudgins said he was disappointed some protesters “don’t recognize that voters voted against a progressive income tax which some Occupy people would like the legislature to support.

“It isn’t as simple as just closing tax loopholes even if we want to,” Hudgins said.

As the clocks in the rotunda neared the 5:30 p.m. closing time, interactions between protesters and authorities tensed. When the doors closed at 5:30 p.m., state patrol allowed the protesters within the building to remain until the end of the hour, but took the entry doors to prohibit the entry of any additional Occupiers. When the inside crowd saw troopers guarding the doors, it instantly began pouring into the entry foyer, chanting “let them in.”

Tension slowly rose to a boiling point, when a protester shouted “storm them,” and the crowd charged state troopers. Troopers stood their ground for upwards of 30 seconds, simultaneously holding back protesters attempting to exit and protesters trying to enter. When a male Occupier attempted to attack a trooper, however, officers drew weapons and a protester next to Mooring Mast Photo Editor Emily Biggs was tased.

Nicholas Croft, an Occupy protester, reported being choked by a state trooper.

“I’m angry, very angry,” Croft said afterward. He said he was subsequently tased by state troopers.

By the time violence ensued, members of the Occupy movement were the only protesters still on the capital campus. WEA members, who had dissipated earlier in the evening when Occupiers attempted to chant with the educators, were all gone by 5:30 p.m.

Katie Rose, an English teacher at Tenino High School, questioned the violence, asking, “Do you think that’s necessary?”

State patrol made four arrests and issued 30 trespass citations Monday, said Washington state patrol spokesman Bob Calkins. Calkins would not disclose the number of officers present in the capitol building, though Mooring Mast reporters estimated 16 officers were on the balconies and rotunda floor Monday with an additional 15 guarding the governor’s office.

Eighteen-year-old Tacoma resident Anthony Farris was one of the individuals arrested Monday. He said he suffered abuse from the state patrol while held in a room with 12 to 15 other arrested individuals. Farris said Wednesday he was attempting to obtain security footage to verify his claims.

Tuesday’s events ended more peacefully, with Occupy protesters exiting the capitol upon request at 5:30 p.m. Protesters moved to the southeast exit of the building, where they said they believed arrested protesters would be led out. The state patrol did not exit with any detainees while Mooring Mast reporters were present.

After exiting the building and taking to the southeast corner Tuesday, Occupiers directed their anger at government employees exiting the building. While the individuals were not wearing any identifying name tags, protesters shouted insults at them, including “bitch,” “pig” and “slave of the government.” Some capitol employees were followed around the block by shouting protesters.

Some Occupiers disagreed with the movement’s methods.

“Just because they don’t show us compassion doesn’t mean that we can’t,” said Nodia Limb, who argued that other protesters do not have any information verifying the targeted individuals’ manner of employment.

PLU Financial Aid Office encourages students to ‘Save Student Aid’

While the WEA fought against cuts for K-12 education, Gov. Gregoire’s recent budget proposal included cuts that would affect Washington colleges.

Nov. 16, Pacific Lutheran students received an email from the Financial Aid Office titled, “Save Student Aid!” The email was part of a student- and faculty-led campaign encouraging students to write letters to their elective representatives lobbying for protection from state cuts.

Ron Noborikawa, senior associate director of financial aid in the Financial Aid Office, spearheaded PLU’s Save Student Aid campaign.

“It’s primarily been a coordinating effort,” Noborikawa said. Most of the information in the campus email was compiled by Noborikawa, though he said he has been working with the Independent Colleges of Washington and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“This process has been a moving target,” Noborikawa said, adjusting the campus campaign to changing national and state financial aid threats.

Among the tenets of the governor’s proposal is a cut to state need-based grants for private universities, which Noborikawa said would directly affect a number of PLU students.

Noborikawa warned that all students would be directly or indirectly affected since the university would be forced to raise fees to make up for lost money from the state.

“The biggest threat would be if the state legislature proposes and passes that the state need grant program be limited to public institutions,” Noborikawa said. He said state grants at PLU are currently around $3-4 million.

Noborikawa said he was not aware whether any PLU community members had been in Olympia.

The legislature plans to move ahead with Ways and Means hearings regardless of Monday’s delay.

“I am glad to see so many people involved with our process,” Hudgins said, reflecting on Monday’s events.

Story compiled with help from Photo Editor Emily Biggs.