Problems, solvers emerge at Occupy Lincoln

2011-10-31T06:00:00Z 2012-11-06T21:17:51Z Problems, solvers emerge at Occupy LincolnBy PETER SALTER / Lincoln Journal Star JournalStar.com
October 31, 2011 6:00 am  • 

Call their tent city what you want, they say: Occupy Lincoln, Occupy Mall Street, Occutopia or, simply, Occupy.

Lately, Dana Garrison has caught herself calling it home.

"Like: 'When we get home, we can do this...'"

The UNL student doesn't sleep here, in one of the dozens of tents sprawled out along Centennial Mall; her dogs need her at their apartment.

But she can't stay away. "I stop in almost every day, and most evenings, unless I have a night class."

Until recently, she knew nearly nothing about the Occupy movement. And at first, she was skeptical, playing devil's advocate in long discussions over coffee.

She came around. She's concerned on a broad level by corporate influence in Washington. The ag education major is troubled, for instance, that a seed company like Monsanto can wield so much power in farm fields and federal buildings.

And she's thrilled to see other young people standing up. "That's really empowering for them."

Now, the California native has emerged as one of the leaders in an otherwise leaderless movement.

She saw a need for a welcome tent, so she pitched it. It's now staffed and stacked with brochures and sign-up sheets. She's also responsible for the announcement board and its tent-and-camper registration system.

"Within this development of a new society -- because that's what this is -- nobody wanted to give direction, because they didn't want to look too much like a leader."

Two weeks old now, Occupy Lincoln is finding its rhythm and, protesters say, settling in for a long occupation.

It has kitchen tents and a library tent and a supply tent. It has a commercial zone -- south of L Street -- and a residential zone. It has benefactors, people dropping off coffee and doughnuts and catered meals, or just honking and nodding from the warmth of their cars.

It has donation wish list: fruits, veggies, cordless tent heaters, no raw meat.

It has a schedule: picketing at 7 a.m., breakfast at 8:30, lunch at noon, supper at 5:30, general assembly at 6, quiet time at 10.

It has rules: No alcohol, no drugs, no smoking near the food.

It has a calendar and committees: Yoga on Tuesday, civil disobedience workshop Wednesday.

But it also has problems that need fast action, like sealing the food to protect it from mice. It has growing pains, too, like the tension from a small contingent of homeless people more interested in the free coffee and food and -- hopefully -- an empty tent than they are in the movement.

Said Susan Watson, known in the camp as Suki: "A social worker should be studying this, documenting how it's going."

And as in any group, some emerge as doers. Like Watson, enlisting volunteers to lift a troubled woman's heavy cart from a tent. And Garrison, trying to find an agency better equipped to help the woman.

And Mama Jo. "I'm the old one," said Jo Tetherow. "I have life experience. I can talk to troublemakers and calm them down."

Which is why, Friday morning, the 60-year-old was giving a plastic bucket and a piece of her mind to a homeless man who'd caused problems in camp the night before.

Take the bucket and pick up trash, she told him.

Penance, she said.

The camp was nearly deserted, the smokers outside the State Office Building looking out over a quilt of empty tents.

People might be surprised to learn most protesters wake up and go to work, Garrison said. "I would challenge people to ask us what we do for a living. I think it's pretty big that the people here do this around their jobs."

Near the welcome tent, Tetherow, Watson and Garrison talked about ways to keep peace in camp by keeping out those who didn't belong. They'd had a long night, with homeless interlopers and the usual hecklers and a rowdy crowd leaving the Pretty Lights concert at Pershing.

"We do our best to make sure there's no trouble," Tetherow said. "Because we'd really like to go to bed."

They've started enlisting campers to pull night patrol. But they kicked around other ideas. How about a sign directing would-be campers to check in before searching for an empty tent?

"Or maybe we need signs on each tent," Tetherow suggested. "Occupied, occupied, occupied."

Later, Garrison said the homeless and the mentally ill are stretching and stressing the camp's resources. "We're having some definite issues; we need to get a committee together. We're trying to help these people."

Mama Jo was a little more direct.

"The homeless -- they're attracted to the camp. I'm not happy when people offer them a tent. We're here for a purpose. To open people's eyes. They're taking away what we're trying to do."

She and her husband, Tom, moved to Lincoln nearly four years ago from upstate New York to help care for his mother.

They'd lost their jobs as property appraisers. They watched their retirement accounts erode. They watched their plans change.

"We had the good life, my husband and I. We made good money. We lived beneath our means. We paid off our house. We did everything right. But we're one medical emergency away from bankruptcy."

She has camped every night since the beginning, returning home occasionally to shower, change clothes and surf the Web. She knows real cold is coming, and it will drive some campers away.

But she's planning to stay.

"This is home now. I say, 'Tom, it's time to take me home.'"

Reach Peter Salter at 402-473-7254 or psalter@journalstar.com.

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