PORTLAND, Maine — Members of a growing Occupy Maine group in Monument Square on Monday proclaimed solidarity with the larger Occupy Wall Street movement and noted similarities between their efforts and those that overthrew the government of Egypt this summer.
They also began to hone a message for what has been criticized by some as a directionless protest, with signs and slogans at numerous satellite Occupy settlements around the country running the gamut of social causes.
On Monday in Portland, Occupy Maine members took their occupation on the road with a 90-minute march from their Monument Square base of operations to the University of Southern Maine, where they held a brief rally, and back again.
They expressed anger about what they described as corporate influence on the American government and rallied around the notion that they represent “the 99 percent” — or everyone below the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, who they argued have a disproportionate say in how the country is run.
The problems facing that 99 percent of the population, said Occupy Maine member Jake Lowry, are not easy to pack into a sound bite and range from the economy to education to social justice.
“People want a cookie cutter message, and it’s not that easy,” said Lowry, 24, a USM student. “Our future has been betrayed. A lot of us are students who are one paycheck away from being on the streets.”
The Occupy movement began with a group that started to camp out in New York City in mid-September and has inspired occupations at several other locations nationwide since, including the Portland movement, which officially coalesced with a general assembly meeting Saturday.
On Sunday, Portland police issued Demi Colby, 23, of Gardiner a summons because the group erected a tent at Monument Square when they did not have a permit for the temporary structure. Colby, who came back to her home state from the Occupy Wall Street gathering to help organize the Portland group, said Monday she volunteered to take the summons for the group.
“We had more people at our first general assembly than they did on Wall Street,” Colby said of the approximately 100 people who she said turned out Saturday afternoon in the rain.
On Monday, Colby said police informed the occupiers they could claim 4 square feet of space per individual to “make or sell artwork,” and the Occupy Maine members planned to paint signs as artwork to keep the occupation legal. Settlers at the Monument Square site said Monday they have no plans to disband in the near future and were making arrangements for food and medical supplies at the location beyond the end of the week.
“This isn’t just a protest, this is an occupation,” Lowry told the Bangor Daily News. “This is people in the public arena making it our own.”
John Rasmussen, 27, said he came from out of state to Portland to help with the Occupy Maine movement. Rasmussen said he worked with protesters in Cairo, Egypt, early in the summer to help translate their press releases and statements for Western journalists in an effort to make sure their messages were clear.
The Middle Eastern protests, Rasmussen recalled, had a main overarching goal: to implement democracy. The American versions, he said, have a more complicated road ahead because of the system already in place.
“We need to reclaim the ‘democracy’ by making it truly mean ‘voting by people’ not ‘voting by lobbyist dollars,’” he told the Bangor Daily News on Monday.
The group has listed demands on its Facebook page, including an end to “corporate personhood,” capital punishment and tax loopholes for the wealthy on the national level, and the investment in public transportation infrastructure and the return home of Maine National Guardsmen from wars overseas on the state level.
During the group’s march from Monument Square to USM and back, more than 60 marchers carried signs and chanted slogans such as “How do we end the deficit? End the wars and tax the rich” and “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
Lowry said many of those now part of Occupy Maine voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections. But fellow marcher Matth Mitchell, 28, of Waterville noted that the movement cannot be generalized as a Democratic Party movement and said the group’s members are just as disenchanted with the Democrats as with the Republicans.
“We thought we had found someone who represented progressive concerns [in Obama], and it just hasn’t worked,” Lowry said. “We’re not waiting for a political savior. This underscores what’s valuable in a democratic society: At some point, the people need to stand up and say, ‘That’s enough.’
“This rhetoric of ‘shared sacrifice’ doesn’t sit well with us,” he continued. “We’ve already been sacrificed. It’s hard for us to go to school. It’s hard for a lot of us to find jobs.”