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Capitol Report: Occupy Wall Street branching out to Madison

Capitol Report: Occupy Wall Street branching out to Madison

On Friday evening, the populist Occupy Wall Street movement that echoes many of the same grievances that brought tens of thousands of protesters to Wisconsin's Capitol earlier this year will take root in Madison.

Characteristically of such grass-roots uprisings, details as to the form Occupy Madison will take are not clear -- but according to its Facebook page, the event begins at 6 p.m. Friday at Reynolds Park, located off East Dayton Street near Lake Mendota. Actions are scheduled to run through Jan. 31.

Many say it was only a matter of time before the movement made its way here. Occupy Wall Street demonstrators frequently cite corporate greed and economic inequality as reasons for their ongoing presence in the heart of the country's financial district.

While protests in Madison last winter largely began to fight efforts to scale back union rights, demonstrators in recent months frequently voice frustration over the perception that working-class families are bearing the brunt of efforts to eliminate the state budget deficit.

Signs at the daily "solaridarity sign-a-long" in the Capitol Wednesday were not unlike signs demonstrators hold on Wall Street. One's message is to "Stop Force Feeding the Rich" and another "The big banks own FitzWalkerVos," a reference to Gov. Scott Walker and top Republican lawmakers. Not surprisingly, many of the same people who were involved in protesting at the Capitol are involved in planning for Occupy Madison.

"Madison showed the rest of the country how a peaceful, political uprising can be done," says Stefani Quane, who was so moved by the ongoing Capitol protests that she moved from Seattle to Madison June 1. "We are the model."

Joel DeSpain, a spokesman with the Madison Police Department, says the city has not yet issued a permit but is aware of the event.

"We would like to hear from them, so we can discuss what is permissible and what is not permissible. We are not sure what they are planning or doing," DeSpain says. "We will work with the people to protect their First Amendment rights, but we also have to enforce the laws of the city."

What began Sept. 17 as a movement that went relatively unnoticed by the media started to gain steam over the weekend when roughly 700 participants were arrested as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Now, Occupy Wall Street is drawing wider attention and both praise and criticism. Right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh calls those who were arrested "a bunch of idiots," adding, "they're such rank amateurs and they think they're so tough. They think they're so powerful. The establishment that they hate is just using them."

But former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold came to their defense Wednesday. In an interview with The Washington Post, Feingold says he supports the movement, adding "this kind of citizen reaction to corporate power and corporate greed is long overdue."

According to a Wall Street Journal blog, even Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has signaled some sympathy for the demonstrators protesting in New York and other cities, saying "at some level, I can't blame them."

Americans are "dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington," Bernanke warned lawmakers Tuesday in an appearance before the Joint Economic Committee.

The leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement, driven largely through the use of social media, has spread to Los Angeles, Chicago and Boston. Demonstrations are planned in Appleton, Milwaukee and dozens of other cities across the country on Oct. 15.

While the protests that drew national attention to Madison began over Gov. Scott Walker's successful effort to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees, Quane says over time it has come to symbolize much more.

"This is not a Scott Walker issue," she says. "This is a movement in response to Wall Street bankers who orchestrated huge shifts in money and other economic practices of the ultra rich."

Many who have posted on Occupy Madison's Facebook page have focused on the growing gap between what are often referred to as the country's "super rich" and the "other 99 percent."

Post after post shows people holding handwritten signs, detailing their economic plights and ending with the statement: "I am the 99%."

Over the past year, journalists and others analyzing income distribution in the U.S. have shown that since the downturn in the economy began, the gap between the top 1 percent and the remaining 99 percent of the population has widened to a record level.

The richest 1 percent of the population now owns over 70 percent of all financial assets.

"Wisconsin is the home to people standing up and saying 'this is enough of the attacks on the middle class,'" says Harry Waisbren, a UW-Madison graduate and Milwaukee native.

He now lives in New York doing communication work for the recently created Job Party, a political party he says started as a result of the protests in Madison. "Wisconsin is an inspiration to what is happening in New York."

He says he and others who are participating in the Occupy Wall Street events will be distributing the famous foam cheesehead hats and other Wisconsin "gear" to tie together the ongoing movement in Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street.

Ed Knutson, a 36-year-old mobile applications developer from Milwaukee, has been tweeting under the name "Superbranch" since spring.

He has posted dozens of tweets daily since protests broke out in Madison and has recently added the events surrounding the Occupy Wall Street movement to his topics.

Knutson, currently in New York on business, said Tuesday there are many similarities to the events between the two cities.

As in Madison, the movement in New York lacks clear leadership, with people joining together to march or protest under an umbrella of issues rather than one single point or demand.

"If I had to summarize the movements in one word, that word would be justice," says Knutson. "People want to know how we can get back to a just and fair society, where there is shared sacrifice from everyone, no matter what their income level."

In his interview with The Washington Post, Feingold rejected the argument that Occupy Wall Street has failed to articulate a clear message or agenda.

"The guys who are protesting are not filing legal briefs," Feingold says. "They are expressing the populist, genuine view that people have been ripped off. It's a fundamental identification of the fact that people are getting taken for a ride by powerful interests who are getting away with murder."



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