As politicians edge away from Occupy Denver, one state rep. joins the Occupation

It is rare that this many politicians agree on anything, but in Colorado most seem to agree that it is wiser not to comment on Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Denver.

Calls and emails to the governor, mayor, senators, etc were mostly met with stony silence or the occasional “We’ll get back to you,” which meant what it usually means: not likely.

Amid the gathering silence, one elected official, State Representative Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, has distinguished himself not so much by his willingness to talk about Occupy Denver, but by the fact he is among the occupiers, having spent the last three nights in a tipi in what is now a tent city with more than 50 tents set up on a typical night.

Colorado State Rep. Wes McKinley, camping out at Occupy Denver.
Colorado State Rep. Wes McKinley, camping out at Occupy Denver. (Kersgaard)

McKinley told The Colorado Independent he is just doing what elected officials are supposed to do–getting to know the citizenry.

“I’m a state representative,” McKinley said. “It’s my job to represent people. How do you do that? You listen to them, and try to understand them.

“I think it is interesting to see citizens getting more involved in their government and that is what we see here. This is a group of people that we in government don’t normally hear from but they deserve to be represented.”

He noted that Governor John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock have been discussing the Occupation and what to do about it, and said, “Why don’t they just come down here and talk to people. People down here have been pretty respectful. They should just come down and talk.”

A government by and for the people

McKinley said some people have made a big deal out of his presence at the Occupation, as if his sleeping in a park is a sacrifice. “I like to sleep outside in God’s atmosphere,” he said. “I’m not a politician. I’m a cowboy. This is part of our society, part of our country, and I’m just down here to support them. They seem to feel that the government doesn’t listen, and that is true. The government doesn’t listen. I want to find out what these people care about. Anytime the people get involved, we get that much closer to being a government for the people and by the people.”

He said he thinks the movement has already accomplished a lot by letting people know that they want more from their government, and by writing a letter to Governor Hickenlooper. (See the letter below.)

Politicians don’t want to get burned

One local political consultant said it is perfectly understandable that politicians don’t want to talk about Occupy Denver.

“I’m not sure I would want to talk about it. It is pretty complicated,” he said. He did not want to be quoted by name as he works with the very people he was discussing with The Colorado Independent.

The main reason politicians don’t want to go on record supporting or opposing the movement is that they don’t know what the movement is or where it is ultimately headed, he said.

“Is this just a bunch of people who are always angry about something, or is bigger than that. It is not clear what the occupiers want. For an elected official it is a real balancing act. It is hard to say ‘this is great’ or ‘it’s a bunch of bums’ when you don’t really know how it’s going to play out,” he said.

If a politician praises the movement and then people in it turn violent or prove to have a really disagreeable agenda, then the politician is hung out to dry.

“It is hard for a governor or a mayor or, say Senator Udall, who is a pretty thoughtful guy, to jump in before they know what is really happening,” the consultant said.

On the other hand, he said he didn’t understand why Herman Cain would condemn the movement. “It’s pretty outrageous to be criticizing people for expressing their point of view.”

Colorado College political scientist Bob Loevy agreed. “This is something no smart politician would want to touch,” he said. “The main reason they don’t want to talk is they don’t know where this movement is coming from or where it is going. At this point it is just too dangerous to be associated with it. It is unclear who is behind it.

“This could be another great civil rights movement, in which case the politicians will eventually get behind it,” Loevy said. If, on the other hand, it turns ugly or goes nowhere, they’ll be glad they kept their distance,” he said.

It isn’t just in Colorado that elected officials shy away from taking a position on the movement. Democrats especially, tend to see occupiers as natural allies, but also as unpredictable wildcards.

Norman Provizer, chair of the political science department at Metro State, said he is not surprised so few politicians are willing to speak publicly about the movement.

“Democratic politicians don’t know how to deal with confrontational politics from the left. They are concerned about being tarred with the mob’s feathers. Their opponents on the right seem to have no trouble playing to a mob. They don’t call it a mob but that is what the Tea Party is,” Provizer said.

Occupiers more popular than Tea Party

This is all the more interesting in light of a new national poll by Time Magazine, showing that the Occupy movement has twice the national support enjoyed by the Tea Party, with an approval rating of 54 percent for occupiers compared with just 27 percent support for the Tea Party.

Those a step removed from political office, were less reserved in discussing the movement.

“We definitely support the action,” said Colorado AFL/CIO Executive Director Mike Cerbo, a former Colorado state legislator.

“We have a lot of members involved, but this is a true grassroots movement,” he said, noting that the union has no official involvement.

He said, though, that he participated in Saturday’s march.

“There is a lot of anger, a lot of angst in the middle class. We are proud to be part of the effort to highlight the need for jobs and the frustration people have about Wall Street. There is a real need to get the economy going,” he said.

If most politicians themselves were reluctant to talk on the record, Colorado’s Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio, never shy, rose to the task:

“People are justifiably frustrated with the way that things have been working, be it on Wall Street, in Washington, or wherever privileged access is shortchanging hardworking Americans. They see a world where corporate interests get their way in Washington. Corporate bailouts and tax cuts are practically sacred, but middle class priorities get blocked time and again,” he said in an email. “I think these are issues that need to be raised because it is Republicans in Washington who have fought for this tilted playing field. The GOP fights tooth and nail against the priorities of the 99%–against police, firefighters, teachers, you name it. Any movement that brings this problem into focus is a healthy one.”

After requesting comment from both Hickenlooper and Hancock, they issued a joint statement Wednesday evening:

The Occupy Denver protesters are on State property. The State and City are working together to find a solution that balances Occupy Denver’s First Amendment rights with growing concerns around public safety and public health in violation of city ordinance and state law.

Public safety is an issue known to all who Occupy Denver. They have taken over a park long known for gatherings of the homeless and street corner drug deals.

“Thugs and drug dealers were here long before us, but we have to live with them,” one occupier said. Many of the occupiers themselves have been seen openly smoking marijuana in the park.

As a leaderless group, rules for behavior are hard to come by. As the group gets larger and stays longer, additional media seems to arrive by the minute and the more serious protesters say they don’t want to be seen as a group of stoners or partiers. While there are plenty of people in the park who seem pretty content to just hang out, others insist there is a point to be made, and they don’t want that point to be missed in a cloud of smoke.

Jennifer Goodland, who teaches history at Metro State and other local colleges, said she earns $3000 per semester per class taught at Metro. She’s teaching two classes at Metro this semester and one class at a community college, where she is paid less than $2000. Add it up and the woman, with a master’s degree from CU, stands to earn less than $20,000 a year. She is planning to begin work on a doctorate soon.

Jennifer Goodland at Occupy Denver
History instructor Jennifer Goodland barely makes it with a master's degree. (Kersgaard)

“I earn less than many of my students,” she said. “I do it because I love it.”

“Powerlessness is the cause behind this movement,” she said. Because the movement does not have a leader and does not have a list of cohesive demands, she said much of the public and media see it as “just a bunch of bored kids.

“Powerlessness is the unifying factor. People feel they have no control over their government and that is why they are here,” Goodland said.

Here is the letter, the group delivered to Governor Hickenlooper:

Dear Governor Hickenlooper,

As you are already aware, several members of the Occupy Denver movement have constructed a tent city in the park area surrounding Veteran’s Memorial. We are non-violent. We utilize a non-hierarchical, democratic, decision making process. We are organized. We respect our state park as our home, as it currently is our home.

We will ensure that the park remains an open and welcoming space to the General Public and citizenry of Colorado.

Our tents are a symbol. We are here to draw attention to the injustice of corporate sovereignty over modern life.

We respectfully request that your administration honor our constitutional right to peaceable assembly: we are formally requesting a variance or waiver pursuant to the municipal code of the City and County of Denver and Colorado state law that would allow us to continue occupying the park area surrounding Veteran’s Memorial.

Tuesday, October 11 on KOA you stated, “we have always supported the First Amendment,” and that you are worried about the precedent set by our tent city, because it could lead to multiple tent cities across Colorado.

Governor Hickenlooper–there are already multiple tent cities across Colorado–the only difference is that ours isn’t hidden from the general public. If you are truly concerned about the precedent set by our occupation, we invite you to work with us to create a Colorado in which tent cities are no longer a necessity.

We, the people of Colorado, have no proper institutional forum to organize and address the issues that confront us. As such, the tent city that we have constructed serves not only as a symbol, but a forum in which to organize, voice our concerns, and demonstrate solidarity with our under-represented brothers and sisters across the United States of America.

If you have concerns of public safety or health, we invite you to work with us to ensure that we have adequately addressed public safety and health issues.

If you have other questions, concerns, or requests, we invite you and members of your administration to join us at one of our General Assemblies to address them. Our General Assemblies are held daily at 3pm or 7pm.

Thank you for your time and careful consideration of this matter.

With Sincere Regards,

Occupy Denver General Assembly
(3pm & 7pm)

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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