Occupy movement strikes a chord in Seattle
Beyond the few on the streets, many in the middle are taking up the cause.
THERE'S A SMALL sign in the living-room window of Barbara Strindberg and Linnea Skoglund's home in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood that tells everyone driving or walking by, "We are the 99 Percent."
It's a show of support for the Occupy movement that started with protests on Wall Street last year and branched out to cities across the country, including Seattle.
Strindberg and Skoglund, both 60, are the picture of working-class Seattle. Strindberg worked at an electrical-sign company as a graphic designer up until last year.
Skoglund is a retired drawbridge operator who worked for years on the span connecting the Roanoke neighborhood to the University District.
From the outside, they appear to live a comfortable life.
But once you walk through Strindberg and Skoglund's front door and probe the reasons they've joined the Occupy movement in spirit, the full complexity of that "99 percent" idea comes into high relief.
Skoglund, who boasts of being one of the first female longshoremen in Seattle, has multiple sclerosis, and she increasingly requires help performing some tasks and moving around the house she and her partner purchased in 1984, shortly after they began their relationship.
Strindberg left her job a year ago, not to retire and rest easy but to care for Skoglund full time.
The couple lives primarily on Skoglund's pension, Strindberg's IRA and regular savings. Skoglund has a generous insurance plan, but it doesn't cover some equipment she needs. They may have to pay for a wheelchair to go with a special lift they've spent their own money to install in the house — an expense that could total thousands of dollars they really can't afford to spend.
"We were living quite nicely with both of us working," Strindberg says. Now she's worried about how long the savings will last, considering the monthly mortgage and insurance premiums of about $400 each per month. "I'm not sure how much longer we can do it."
Skoglund says her mother, a Swedish immigrant who came through Ellis Island in the 1920s, taught her that "to be self-sustaining is best."
Lately, though, it's hard for her and her partner to live by that principle.
Given the kitchen-table concerns of Americans like them, Strindberg and Skoglund say they can't believe politicians speak of cutting social programs and tax breaks for the middle class while preserving perks for the wealthy and well-connected.
It's not just that regular folks and the powerful aren't playing on an even field — it appears to this couple, at least, that those at the top are playing an entirely different game that enriches only themselves.
"More people are fed up than are not fed up" with the nation's politicians in particular, Strindberg says. "They're not governing — they're arguing and fighting."
Harvard law professor and ethicist Lawrence Lessig put it another way in a recent television appearance: "The most interesting political divide in America right now is between the inside and the outside. The inside is from Mars and the outside is from Earth."
In his book "One Way Forward: The Outsider's Guide to Fixing the Republic" he says "movements today are movements without leaders. They are movements of ideas mixed with passion." This observation perfectly captures the Occupy campaign.
Organizers of the Occupy movement, many of whom are disillusioned with electoral politics, are not like their equally frustrated counterparts in the Tea Party, which had a significant impact in some 2010 congressional races. In fact, Occupy is not set up to morph into an actual party with clear leaders and a platform.
Its members are less interested in running candidates than in amplifying the public's murmuring unease about the state of politics and the economy.
Signs of the "passion" Lessig talks about are visible everywhere: from the placard someone recently hung above Interstate 5 on Capitol Hill proclaiming "Corporations are not People," to the cutout of a closed fist hung on a fence along Yesler Way in the Central District that beckons drivers to "Rise," to the letter board on an industrial building across the street from yacht marinas on Lake Union that screams, "Wake up America . . . Everyone benefits when everyone benefits," to the more personal message in Strindberg and Skoglund's living-room window.
Who is the 99 percent? Consider these two answers:
Going strictly by the numbers, it's every household earning less than $408,000 a year in Seattle, according to a nationwide analysis by The New York Times.
The Occupy movement's answer is more rhetorical: "Take a look around."
YOU WALK into Anita Manuel's cozy apartment in a West Seattle senior-housing complex expecting to visit a woman enjoying her golden years, and her captivating sunset view over Puget Sound, in peace.
But Manuel, a 68-year-old with rosy cheeks and a smile as sweet as sugar, is fighting mad. That smile can turn to a frown in an instant as she talks about what she sees as the nation's main problems — pollution, corporate greed, the erosion of democracy itself.
Manuel says she's been a "good Democrat all my life" but she has just about given up on elected officials of every stripe, as well as the moneyed interests that support them.
"We have a battle going on — an economic civil war," pitting people whose wealth and power come from the status quo against everyone else, Manuel says bluntly.
But like lots of people, Manuel was drawn to the Occupy movement in part for personal reasons.
A piano instructor who earns a big chunk of her income giving lessons, Manuel sold her car to help buy a $22,000 Boston grand piano on an installment plan in July 2008, only to watch the value of that investment sink in the wake of the financial meltdown beginning that fall.
Because of the economic collapse, she went from teaching classes with several students each to having only several students in total today, a decline that slashed her annual income from lessons in half.
She's suffered health problems, racked up college debt from a degree program she thought would lead to a new career, and struggled with finding suitable office jobs due to her sensitivity to common chemicals.
Teaching from home seems like a great alternative — in good times, that is, when parents can afford to send their kids for lessons.
Millions of Americans are under water on their home mortgages. Manuel's being dragged down by a piano.
On a recent visit, it fills the living room of her apartment, crowding out a smaller piano and a couple of chairs.
Its hulking size reflects its disproportionate role in her struggle to makes ends meet on an income buttressed by Social Security benefits.
She's tried to play by the rules and do everything right, but the past several years have been overwhelming.
Manuel speaks with resignation about recently filing for bankruptcy, a move that trimmed her rent and allowed her to keep the piano.
She spends far more time, however, talking about the concerns of Occupy Seattle, where she has been active since last fall, as well as her own longstanding concern about the environment.
Manuel feels a renewed sense of hope in the fact that people who've joined the movement are from vastly different social and economic backgrounds, from her situation as a senior who can barely afford to retire to recent college grads who can't get started in life.
At Occupy meetings and events, she says, people "really have to deal with each other and their different world views." She's met with everyone from black pastors to Tea Party Patriots.
The Occupy movement's emphasis on unity across backgrounds and causes was on display at a protest in support of farm workers this winter on the steps of a Darigold plant in Seattle's Rainier Valley.
Manuel was there, and so was 25-year-old Maria Guillen, one of the protest organizers.
Guillen grew up in a farming community in Central Washington near Lake Chelan, an area with many migrant workers. Immigration and labor issues hit close to home for her, even though she herself did well enough in school to earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington.
Guillen, a visual artist and youth mentor who studied anthropology and public health at the UW, lives simply with two roommates in an apartment in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. Ever since joining the movement in October, she has spent most of her free time working for the cause.
Guillen cuts an imposing figure in her protest beret. But she is strikingly soft-spoken in conversation — a calm demeanor that belies her fierce dedication.
Guillen lived in the Occupy Seattle tent city at Seattle Central Community College for most of November. Nurses were on staff there, a food tent was set up — all the things activists would need to go for the long haul. But what really struck her about the encampment was the sense of togetherness.
"This economy has destroyed communities," she says. "In a way, coming together in this movement is a way of rebuilding them."
She calls the Occupy movement an "awakening" that's "bridging struggles" among the people who get involved.
WHAT'S FASCINATING about the Occupy movement is how it attracts both people who are actually struggling and people who are doing just fine but feel compelled to get involved anyway.
Dino Cankusic represents that segment of the 99 percent.
Cankusic, 41, immigrated to the United States in the late 1990s as a refugee from the war in Bosnia, in the former Yugoslavia.
"The U.S. was something you could only dream about," he says. "From what you could see in the movies, it just looked like something you couldn't achieve at all."
When he left Bosnia, "I lost my sense of belonging to a country," Cankusic says.
So he hitched himself to the American dream.
Speaking no English, he first landed in Michigan and relied heavily on the kindness of total strangers. One woman taught him to speak English, free of charge. A man sold him a car but allowed Cankusic to defer payment until he got on his feet financially. Cankusic got a job at a jukebox factory and used the car for another new job delivering pizzas.
He eventually moved to Seattle and built a contracting business focusing on residential projects, and now he has six employees.
America looked out for Cankusic.
He wants his kids, the two who came with him from Europe and a third he had with his current wife, Laurie Bullock, to inherit that kind of America, where people don't think twice about helping someone in need. But for a stroke of luck, he could be in need again one day.
"We are definitely middle class and have a good life — but not peace of mind," Cankusic says of his family. "I feel threatened by the future."
The Occupy movement for him is about promoting basic human impulses and values as well as specific issues. In particular, he's worried that politicians will destroy the social safety net for those most in need and turn back national health-care reforms.
In America, he says, "We take care of each other — that's what unites us."
Every Thursday night, he invites friends, neighbors, colleagues and fellow activists to his home for informal meetings in a "safe environment" to discuss ways to further the movement.
Some people who may never join a march or engage in more disorderly acts (a topic that has sparked fierce debates at Occupy meetings), might join the discussion group and show their support that way, he says. One of many signs that littered the floor of the living room during one of the Thursday meetings carried the reassuring message, aimed as much at Occupy participants as passers-by: "Protest is normal."
IT'S AN UNSEASONABLY warm, sunny afternoon in February, and some activists have decided to occupy the penthouse office of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn to protest police use of excessive force. They want the chief to step down.
A lively scene unfolds as Occupy protesters lounge on chairs in the lobby, sprawl out on the floor and chant.
The mayor is nowhere around. So the activists conduct official movement business and wait, some taking up positions on the balcony overlooking downtown and Elliott Bay.
Moving through the crowd is Karrsen Brannon-Young, a 22-year-old Alaskan who graduated from Gonzaga University last year and came to Seattle "looking for adventure."
What he found instead was a cause.
When not bussing tables at a restaurant in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, he was working behind the scenes with the movement. He moved out of the apartment he was sharing in the University District last fall to live full-time in the tent encampment at the community college.
"You learn to live like some of the people you're fighting for," he says of his beginnings in the movement.
Brannon-Young, who typically can be found wearing a hoodie, jeans and sneakers, is the son of a schoolteacher and a financial adviser. His family was "solidly middle-class."
"I've learned that America is kind of a facade that we're taught to believe in," he says. "This is the 'land of opportunity' but it's highly contingent on where you grew up."
Brannon-Young says Occupy represents a new kind of activism, one in which individuals or groups within the movement get to determine the issues to push at any given time. It's a highly democratic process, but also a little confusing for outsiders wondering what, exactly, the movement stands for.
"We're trying to create a more just world," he says. "Now, there are so many aspects of that, that trying to pick one out and say this is what it's about, is not fair."
The hope, of course, is that the protests and signs and general sense that something's not right in America will spark further conversation or even spur people to take up the cause in their own way.
The campaign is as much about occupying hearts and minds as occupying spaces.
The state of the society is "disheartening," Brannon-Young says. "But I haven't fallen into the whole 'America needs to come down' mentality. We always have the possibility to change things here."
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. John Lok is a SeattleTimes staff photographer.