ALLAGASH, Maine — On any given day Earnie Gardner passes more people walking down a single Manhattan city block than live in his entire hometown of Allagash, population 268 according to the most recent census data.
But Gardner, who has called the Big Apple — with a population around 8.1 million — home for the past decade, can’t imagine living anywhere else.
When his adopted city became the epicenter of economic and social discontent in this country, the cause became his own.
“When the whole ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement started, I paid pretty close attention,” Gardner said during a telephone interview last week. “Now I’m a passive participant and when I can join them I go as often as I can.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement began on Sept. 17 in Manhattan’s financial district when about 1,000 people gathered to protest what they say are the roles Wall Street, major banks and multinational corporations play in the global economic collapse and recession.
Over the past two months supporters around the country have joined the OWS movement, with protests in cities from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon.
Thousands of protesters have taken up residence in NYC’s Zuccotti Park — complete with tents, generators, medical facilities and even a library.
It’s a situation city officials say has placed undue burdens on its law enforcement and sanitation crews.
Last Tuesday, members of the New York City Police Department cleared people from Zuccotti Park at around 1 a.m. Protesters were allowed to return that night but not allowed to bring their tents or other camping supplies.
From his vantage point, Gardner said the NYPD’s actions and arrests while evicting people from the park were over the top.
According to some reports, when the police entered the park early that morning, they handcuffed protesters and used pepper spray on the crowds. Roughly 70 arrests were made.
“The NYPD is incredibly good at managing crowds,” Gardner said. “They handle the Macy’s Parade, New Years Eve on Times Square and all the Yankee victory parades and now you tell me they can’t handle a crowd of peaceful protesters? Police us, don’t dominate us.”
That is not to say there were not, and continue to be, individuals who are using the OWS movement to promote their own disruptive agendas, Gardner said.
“Those people should be removed and arrested by the police,” he said. “But the bulk of the protesters are very, very peaceful and, unfortunately, that is not what you are seeing in the news.”
In fact, coverage of the ongoing OWS movement has left Gardner — a proponent of a free press — very disillusioned with the mainstream media.
“There is this 60-year-old woman who comes to Zuccotti Park every day,” he said. “She sets up her chair, puts out her protest sign and the pulls out her knitting for the day. Why are we not seeing that on the news?”
What the American people are seeing, Gardner said, is not a true reflection of what is going on in New York.
“The vibe here is what you hope we are as a people and as Americans,” he said. “But our press is a business and they need to sell advertising and no one is going to put a 60-year-old grandma knitting with her little protest sign on the front page.”
The bulk of the participants, Gardner said, are people like himself.
“We work and we have responsibilities,” he said. “We get up, go to our jobs, do the laundry and do the groceries [and] now we’ve added spending a few hours a day at Zuccotti Park to our list of responsibilities.”
This is not the first time Gardner has taken on the responsibility of civil disobedience.
Twenty-five years ago, as a high school senior, he led a student protest and walkout at the former Allagash Consolidated School.
At the time students were concerned that a lack of teachers, what they saw as nonrigorous academic standards and little subject diversity at the tiny school would put them at a disadvantage when they attended college.
“That walkout wasn’t my idea,” Gardner recalls. “But once the idea was mentioned, I took it and owned it.”
Gardner is fully aware the move — which involved 23 of the school’s 28 students in grades 8-12 — ruffled some local feathers and came at a price.
“I got suspended and I know it was an issue with some people in town,” he said. “But I’ve always had this idea of what is just and unjust.”
A quarter-century later, Gardner is holding firm to his belief in what is right.
“The issue here isn’t anti-capitalism,” he said. “We’ve had capitalism in this country for over 200 years and it works, but our capitalist system has somehow changed for the worse.
“This [OWS] group is not for or against anybody,” he added. “It’s a statement that things are out of whack and we need to have a discussion and that discussion may not be pretty.”
Society, Gardner said, is in a state of flux and many people are fed up with a political system they view as favoring the country’s wealthiest citizens — the so-called 1 percent — while the poor bear unfair tax and economic burdens.
“There are a whole plethora of social and economic issues being discussed as part of this movement,” he said. “No one that I talk to wants a handout, but they are sick of a system in which they see no hope of getting rich.”
Last month Gardner’s cousin Chace Jackson came to NYC from Allagash and took part in the OWS movement.
“He wanted to go to Zuccotti Park as a young activist,” Gardner said. “This was something he wanted to do all on his own and he went right down there and held up his sign.”
Gardner said every time he checked on his 20-year-old cousin, Jackson was engaged in discussion with other members of the movement.
“He was talking about northern Maine loggers and trying to work in Maine,” Gardner said. “The issues facing them are the same in Maine or in Minnesota or Montana.”
As the OWS movement evolves, Gardner does not see it going away — though it may slow over the upcoming colder months before regaining momentum in the spring. He hopes to take more of a leadership role.
“I want to help decide what we do next,” he said. “This is my chance to really have a say in change. Twenty-five years later and I’m back — something is wrong and I will walk around the school until something gets done, only now the playground is Zuccotti Park.”