As we drove up the rain poured down. My father broke our conversation as he paused to jerk the wheel and pull the car back onto the road as we started to hydroplane toward the ditch.
When I got out of the car I noticed that the rain had subsided to a trickle, but it was chilly. From where we had parked I could see the tents in Niagara Square. I imagined what it would be like to have been there for weeks and I thought about the bitter winter that they will have to endure; I could envision the snow accumulated in mounds weighing down the roofs of their tents. The thought of staying in that square through the winter seemed horrific to me. I felt admiration for these people who had such strong beliefs that they were inspired to make serious sacrifices. I felt weak at the moment, and glad that I had a warm place to go to read, write and sleep.
Niagara Square sits in the center of a traffic circle. The old buildings that surround it are strong structures that were built in the sturdy pragmatic style of the growth of the steel belt during the peak of the U.S. industrial era. But on this day the buildings, like everything else around me, seemed cold.
My father and I had to scurry through a constant flow of cars to get into the square. There was a rag-tag grouping of 30 tents or so that were held together with duct tape, nylon rope and other more crude debris—many of which were covered with tarps. Several of the tents had slogans scrawled on them ranging from “Peace” to “We are the 99%.” There were also various signs, stuck in the ground, with clever slogans; one of my personal favorites was an anti-hydrofracking sign that said, “No Fracking Way.”
We brought with us some goods that we thought would help the occupants (food, water, clothing, etc.) and we entered one of the two main tents to find a place to deposit them. We had unknowingly entered a “teach in” by some representatives from The Coalition For Economic Justice (CEJ). An attractive young woman with nut brown hair named Allison Duwe was speaking about how corporate subsidies, like the $400,000 given to three dollar stores in Buffalo, hurt the local economy. She explained that some of the proponents tout corporate tax breaks as necessary. However, the reality, she explained, was that the jobs created by the dollar stores (like many other corporations that receive tax breaks) were low paying, often part-time, and with little benefits. In some of the literature that we were handed it said that the effects of this practice are that “retail jobs like dollar stores subsidizes poverty-level jobs that leave the workers dependent on public assistance.” She continued to explain that the money given to chain stores often is taken out of the local community. She asserted that the emphasis should be on helping local businesses that keep revenue in the community and bolster the economy by keeping profits local. She concluded her speech by insisting that a priority of those working to “find an economy that works for the 99%” begins by creating the means to “rein in corporate subsidies.” After the “teach in” she encouraged everyone to join her at a rally that was taking place at Northtown Lexus to protest a $536,000 subsidy given to the car dealership, which, according to the CEJ literature, “increases the tax burden on all Erie County residents and does nothing for the local economy.”
After the meeting we were instructed to take our goods to the supply tent and then we walked outside to the curb to check out the demonstration. We were standing out in front with Karen, a sweet-faced mother of two, who was holding a sign with the same quote from Dr. King as Y-Von had on her sign at Occupy The Hood—Cleveland, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” She informed us that she is a working mother and politically active as a voting canvasser and a block leader. I was astonished at how many people honked in approval at the few of us standing there.
A dark skinned woman in a silver sedan pulled over in front of where we were talking to Karen. She stretched her arm out of the car window and in her hand was a twenty dollar bill. As Karen walked over to receive the money and began to thank her, the woman’s lips parted into a bright white smile and she said, “Thank you for what you are doing out here.”
A young man with an orange bandana on his head, wearing a black leather jacket with two pieces of red tape which formed a cross on the left arm of his jacket walked over to where the three of us were standing. He introduced himself as Paul and said that he was one of the medics of Occupy Buffalo. Then he encouraged us to go into the main tent and stand by the heater and consume some warm drinks. We declined and said that we were okay but he insisted that since we had been standing out in the elements for more than an hour that we should be careful and take extra precautions if we started to feel unwell. I found his genuine kindness touching but I hadn’t journeyed to Occupy Buffalo to spend my time huddled around a heater drinking hot cocoa.
I continued to converse with the twenty-three year old who said his full name was Paul Slater. He explained that he was in the process of winterizing all of the Occupy Buffalo tents by placing three layers of plastic tarps on each one and laying two layers of tarps on the floor of the tents that would then be covered with blankets and he assured me that when the snow comes to stay, each tent will be equipped with a heater. Then Paul disappeared into a row of tents.
A kind grandmotherly lady with short white hair and glasses in a green Subaru wagon pulled to the side near to where we were standing and said that she had a bag with three kinds of apples to donate to the occupation. She said that she was, “getting too old to be out in the elements for long” but she was “happy to contribute to the cause.” She continued to say how thankful she was that people were out doing what they can to fight for justice.
Next a young man, who I recognized from the “teach in,” walked over and introduced himself as Eddy. Later he told me that his full name was Edwin Rosario and he was a twenty-two year old Buffalo native.
Eddy looked like a younger, shorter and more handsome version of Delonte West. He spoke enthusiastically as he paused from his rapid-fire dialogue only to take drags from the perpetually lit cigarette in his hand. He pointed up the street and said that he worked in a pizza shop, the storefront of which I could barely make out from where we were standing. He said that he had a very comfortable life living at home with his parents and the rest of his family and working at the pizza shop. But ever since he got involved in the movement in mid-September he began to spend increasingly more time in the square until he finally decided to pitch a tent and stay. When I asked why he eschewed such a comfortable existence to live in the cold mess that Niagara Square had become, he replied that he believes deeply that the working man is taxed unfairly in comparison to the corporations and the wealthy elite who benefit from corporate success. He then said that he is committed to the movement and doesn’t want to see it fail and believes that his friends in the movement need as much support as he can give. Then Eddy asked us if we would help him rebuild his tent, which was badly damaged by the previous day’s windstorm. As we walked to his tent I noticed that the rain had turned the grassy parts of the square into mucky slop. I couldn’t help but constantly slip in the mud as we walked through the corridors between the tents nearly tripping several times on tent stakes that seemed to be always underfoot.
Eddy’s tent was a large dome with slender metal rods that formed the exoskeleton. He was proud to show us the sign he made for the doorway of the imploded tent that read, “Land Fortress.” It was one of several tents that were in shambles after the previous day’s windstorm. I was told that the storm blew away nine tents, two of which occupants had to run down the street to recover more than a block away from the square. As we worked to pound new stakes in the ground to fortify Eddy’s tent Tic-Tac-sized pieces of hail began to fall from the sky. We labored away at Eddy’s tent in the hailstorm, untangling ropes and pounding in stakes and every few minutes, Eddy would drop what he was doing to greet some member of the occupation, who had recently arrived from some mysterious hiatus, as if he was greeting a long lost relative. It began to hail harder and I saw Paul stand up from a nearby tent that he was working on and extended his arms, bent at the elbows, as if he was about to receive a load of firewood and scream, “Bring it on!”
After we finished working on Eddy’s tent, Eddy said that a friend of Occupy Buffalo had offered him a shower at his house and so he had to leave. He said that a woman who was staying with her son needed help with her tent too, so we bid farewell to Eddy and moved on to the next project. As we walked to the next tent an armored car drove by and turned on a whooping alarm and the driver gave a supportive thumbs-up.
By the time we had finished with her tent darkness had long since descended on Niagara Square. My father, who had been battling laryngitis, had completely lost his voice. It was time to go. On my way out I noticed a sign that read:
We’re not going anywhere.
As we drove back hail beat at the windshield, blurring our vision of the road.