The Occupy Maine movement is in danger of sliding from irrelevance into infamy. If its members don’t start loudly and unambiguously condemning recent acts of vandalism and theft perpetrated against a local publication, they will lose whatever vestige of respect they still have in this community.
The publication in question is Vex, a new free weekly in Portland founded and edited by Mort Todd, a comic artist and former editor of Cracked magazine. Vex is mostly a collection of music listings, humor and comics, but a recent edition contained an editorial by Todd, writing under the pseudonym Lew G. Rant, that addressed a serious issue.
The owners of the Eastland Park Hotel want to buy an adjacent city park, Congress Square Plaza, and build a ballroom there. Members of Occupy Maine have organized in opposition to that plan, and city officials recently rejected the hotel’s bid, citing the value of urban open space. (The hotel reportedly plans to submit amended plans later this year.)
Todd’s editorial ripped the city and opponents of the hotel’s plan for siding with “vagrants” over developers who’d bring jobs and new revenue to town. As Todd observed, the ugly concrete square is “often empty, except for a regular troupe of a dozen or so indigents, smoking drinking, urinating and swearing.” Police calls for assaults and other disturbances are common.
Angered by Todd’s editorial, a young man associated with Occupy named Rob Korobkin penned a scathing essay attacking Todd as a “noxious know-it-all New York elitist [expletive]-head” and advocating for the plaza’s preservation and improvement.
When Todd got wind of Korobkin’s essay, which was posted on a Blogspot site called The Punk Patriot, Todd posted a comment on the blog respectfully requesting permission to reprint the essay in the next issue of Vex. The blog’s administrator — a musician and newbie politician named Asher Platts, who’s also been active with Occupy — soon posted that he’d spoken with Korobkin and that Vex was welcome to print the essay in full.
Todd told me during a recent interview that he had intended to do just that, but the next day he discovered that numerous copies of the issue containing his rant had been defaced with a large sticker stuck to the cover. It read, “Warning: This lame publication now includes added content from those who appreciate public space.” A slightly edited version of Korobkin’s essay (minus most of the personal attacks on Todd) was inserted into those copies.
According to Todd, a substantial number of copies were also conspicuously missing from local shops — too many to be accounted for by normal readership. Todd rightly cried foul, and the Portland Daily Sun picked up the story of the defaced and disappeared papers.
Korobkin said he had nothing to do with the vandalism and theft of Vex, but was otherwise unrepentant. In a letter to the Sun that Korobkin also e-mailed to me, he questioned the assertion that the stickers and inserts constituted censorship.
“His article was left completely intact,” Korobkin wrote. “Unless being juxtaposed next to something eloquent and righteous renders hateful, elitist garbage unreadable, I don’t see how that can be considered censorship. And even if some copies were taken — and I’m pretty sure they weren’t, since, had the goal actually been to remove them, it would have been MUCH easier to just do that — how, exactly, does one ‘steal’ a free newspaper?”
On his Facebook page, Platts echoed Korobkin’s question, wondering, “if you have a magazine and you’re giving it away for free, is it stealing to take some of them?”
The short answer: You bet your butt it is. The fact a publication is free does not mean it has no value. It costs real money to print a free publication, and advertisers pay real money to be in it. If you steal a stack of free papers, deface their covers, or stuff them with other material, you are screwing not just the publisher, but all the local businesses that paid to have their ad inside.
It is disturbing to see how readily Occupy members resort to fascist tactics when they feel insulted: xenophobic slurs against those “from away” and destruction of published material that’s no different than book burning. After my free publication, The Bollard, printed an OpEd last March from a former Occupier who was critical of the movement, a fellow Occupier sent me an e-mail threatening to throw away every copy of that issue he and his fellow protesters could find.
I was able to prevent that by constructively engaging with the e-mail’s author, but here we go again. A movement that claims to support diversity of all types (including opinion) and the right of people to be heard should publicly condemn efforts to stifle that right and demonize people based on what state they’re from. (Todd, for the record, grew up in Yarmouth.)
Will the real Occupy Maine please stand up?
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.