Occupy Kalamazoo Kicks off

"We got sold out. Banks got bailed out."

"This is what democracy looks like."

These were among the chants of the 400 people who came out for the first Occupy Kalamazoo demonstration on Wednesday, Oct.12, 2011. They stood on the sidewalk in front of various downtown banks on Michigan Avenue within a two-block area to attract lunch hour traffic from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Students were among the majority of people to show up and they readily gave their reasons for demonstrating:

"I want people to hear my voice. The rich people get theirs heard," said Cody, a Western Michigan University (WMU) junior who also identified as a regular voter.

"I'm pissed that the protesters on Wall Street were arrested and the bankers who screwed us out of our savings were not," said Ian, a WMU junior. "Bernie Madoff is a kind of scapegoat for them and that's it. He was one out of many more who should have been sent to jail."

"The greed (of the rich) and ignorance (of the 99 percent) are two of the biggest problems," said Matt, a WMU sophomore. "It's best to do something. This is me doing something."

"It's crucial to participate," said Aldo, a Kalamazoo College student. He added that his parents immigrated from Mexico and that making ends meet has been a constant struggle for them. So he is pursuing a college education. However, he is unsure about his future.

Many college students and graduates talked about their debt -- and they knew exactly what they owed without hesitation.

Christopher is only in his second year at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) and currently owes $20,000. He wants to be a teacher, maybe a professor and believes he has "decent prospects."

"I'm smart and good with people," he said.

Dustin, on the other hand, has racked up $200,000 in debt as he pursues a Ph.D. in philosophy at WMU. Yet, he believes he will find a professorship after he finishes in two years.

Jamie graduated from Grand Valley State University a year ago and now is $30,000 in debt with $12,000 of that amount in interest. She was layed off from her job with the public schools and has no job now.

Ryan has been going to KVCC for the past 18 months and has accumulated $10,000 in debt. He plans to get his bachelor's degree in fine arts to be a performance musician or composer.

Branden graduated from Olivet College in journalism and mass communication and now faces $33,000 of debt. However, he can't find a job in his field so he works for minimum wage in a café. He is one of the 80 percent of recent college graduates who is living at home with his parents and a younger brother and sister.

"It's just not really ideal. I love them to death, but damn it," said the 22-year-old who wants to be out on his own. "It's not what I was expecting when I started college."

Ian, 22, went to college without having to pay for it because his mother is a professor there. He has no prospects for a job now but would like to be a teacher.

Strategies for paying off college loans range from claiming economic hardship to requesting deferments, according to the students. Meanwhile, they suggested that the economy could be stimulated if legislators cancelled student college debt.

"Then we could buy a house and a car," said Jamie. "Instead, this money is going to the banks."

The students blamed the banks, corporations and government for putting them in this financial difficulty. They were very much aware that fiscal policies were all geared toward the benefit of rich people.

"They have the wealth, the power and the means to keep it," said Dustin. "Corporate tax cuts affect students and the rich don't care."

Dustin clarified that the people participating in the Occupy movement were not asking to be rich but rather to be prosperous middle class citizens.

"Economic stability provides for social stability, a critical factor for keeping families together," he said. "Where are the family values with these economic policies that favor the rich?"

This group of students appeared in good spirits despite their debt and inability to get the professional jobs they prepared for in college.

"I teach in Europe to keep up my spirits," said Dustin. "And, I've learned that people there pay taxes so that education can be free. This is an alternative for the United States."

"I'm 22," said Branden. "I can't give up yet."

While the banks in Kalamazoo were selected as the site of the demonstration, bank officials said that a representative from Occupy Kalamazoo stopped by before the event to let them know that they were not the targets of their protest.

Tom Schlueter, president of Keystone Community Bank, said he appreciated the gesture and added that he was supportive of the demonstrators' right to protest and glad that everything seemed peaceful.

Keystone is a community bank with six branches in Kalamazoo and one in Oshtemo. It employs 55 people. It has emphasized this role by putting signs in its front windows that indicate it is a local bank for local people.

"We're putting our money where our mouth is," said Schlueter.

Officials at PNC were unable to comment on the demonstration; that was a job for the bank's spokesperson at its Pittsburgh headquarters. However, they said that PNC has been a big supporter of local nonprofit organizational programs to the tune of over $1 million per year. The bank also employs 2,000 people, which amounts to millions of payroll dollars put into the local economy. And, although the name and ownership of the bank has changed several times over the past few decades, many of the same people working for the bank have remained the same.

Plenty of people were on hand to see the Kalamazoo demonstration.

Drivers on Michigan Avenue honked their horns in support, to the cheers of the demonstrators. Several truck drivers blew a long horn and this made the crowd even more excited. Construction workers passed by with big smiles on their faces, but made no comments.

Two well-dressed women stopped and took photos of the demonstrators with their cell phones and said they were supporters of Occupy Kalamazoo. Several demonstrators also used their cameras and many other people were on hand to document or report this event for themselves, a community project or the mainstream media, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and WWMT-Channel 3 (CBS).

Police were not dressed in riot gear or helmets, nor carried nightsticks. One officer had a video camera, which he was prepared to use in case any trouble broke out. No incidents were reported.

In the midst of the demonstrators was one man circulating a petition on the emergency financial manager referendum (Public Act #4). Last spring Governor Synder signed a bill that allows the managers to remove elected officials from office and to terminate collective bargaining agreements. He succeeded in getting a lot of signatures.

Various organizations in town lent their support to Occupy Kalamazoo including the Interfaith Strategy for Advocacy and Action in the Community (ISAAC), the Michigan Organizing Project, the Community Action Team, the Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War and We the People.

No political parties were represented except for one young woman who was there to promote Ron Paul for president. Erin, a regional coordinator for the campaign, said Rep. Paul showed up at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York. Among his positions is to end the wars, dismantle the Federal Reserve and return to the gold standard so the nation no longer has to fund these wars or start new ones, she said.

She also pointed out that the Occupy movement believes large corporations have too much power, while the Tea Party believes government does. Ron Paul says that large corporations lobby for the government to have more power and in return the government enacts laws and regulations that favor the large corporations.

Young college students were clearly front and center in organizing, directing and demonstrating for Occupy Kalamazoo, but a lot of middle-aged and elderly people attended as well.

Mike, a U.S. veteran, believes the economic system "seems designed to keep people in perpetual debt." Recently, he lost 40 percent of his 401(k) before he lost his job. He borrowed money to put his daughter through college and now she is underemployed.

"I'm pleased to see so many people who came out to demonstrate," he said. "So many people have been asleep. Now they are waking up in Kalamazoo, New York and all over the world."

"It's time for a change," said Beth, an unemployed writer. "Corporations are not people and we need corporations and Wall Street to be accountable for their actions. It's frustrating."

One middle-aged man let the crowd know that his two children have become professional students because they can't find jobs. They are now working at McDonald's.

One WMU staffer said she just lost $46,000 on her 401(k) plan last quarter.

"I got my statement on Saturday and just started crying," she said. "I don't think I'll ever be able to retire." She said her father retired at age 55 and that's when he started to live his life well.

Meanwhile, her daughter is in graduate school studying to be a mental health counselor--with no promise for obtaining a job. Her son is out of high school but hasn't yet found a job, she said.

"I'm one of the luckier ones. So many are much worse off than me."

A few demonstrators were upset that more people didn't show up.

"They're just going on about their business," said one man as he pointed to the cars passing them by.

Another man supported the cause but believed the demonstration had a long way to go before it would make a difference.

"When it comes to practicing free speech, give me France any day," he said. "They have an effect on politicians."

Denise, a stay-at-home mom, was more cautionary about the day's action.
"Put your feet and your mouth to the cause," she said. "It might not come again,"
She believes the corporations are buying off the politicians and that this is wrong.
"It's only gotten this bad because good people have not stood up for themselves for too long."

The next demonstration is set for Saturday, October 15 at 12 noon in Bronson Park.

On that same day, there will be a demonstration in Lansing at the state capitol from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m..

Olga Bonfiglio is a writer in Kalamazoo, Michigan and blogs at Olgabonfiglio.blogspot.com. If you would like to contribute to Off the Bus, the Huffington Post's platform for citizen journalism, please sign up at www.offthebus.org.