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Local News

‘Occupy Hartford’ Movement Calm, But Passionate

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Occupy Hartford (John Rowland/WTIC Photo)

Occupy Hartford (John Rowland/WTIC Photo)

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By STEPHANIE REITZ
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ The downtown patch of land where Occupy Hartford activists have pitched their modest pup tents is constrained by a triangle of busy Hartford city streets and hardly looks like the cradle of revolution.

Yet with every conversation, protesters say, they feel a step closer to changing the world _ or, at least, a little validated that they are not the only ones worried about health care costs, the environment, jobs, corporate power and other issues.

While some of the “occupy” movements at spots nationwide have drawn officers and resulted in arrests, the Hartford occupation had been a relatively sedate affair as of Thursday. Neither police nor the demonstrators had a clear sense of how long it might go on.

Another group of people was spreading the word about a so-called Occupation Day planned Saturday on the New Haven Green to kick off activities there, and a few dozen people held a demonstration Tuesday in Bridgeport.

The Capitol city demonstrators kicked off Occupy Hartford last Friday night with a march that took them from the Old State House downtown to the corner of Broad and Farmington streets, a spot they dubbed Turning Point Park.

Under an agreement reached Tuesday with Hartford officials, they can use canopy-style tents, but cannot use their pup tents to sleep overnight and can expect to see city health inspectors and officers swing through often to check conditions.

Sarah Barr, a spokeswoman for Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, said city officials and Occupy Hartford participants are having discussions intended to balance First Amendment freedoms with health and safety concerns.

In fact, the Hartford City Council this week passed a resolution supporting Occupy Hartford, and City Council member Luis Cotto has been involved in the activities.

Protesters are having regular “general assembly” meetings and discussions where participants can raise topics that concern them _ each limited to 5 minutes to avoid degenerating into a bull session.

The Hartford office buildings and complexes that house some of the nation’s top insurance companies can be seen in almost every direction, making it no surprise that the cost of health insurance is an often-cited concern at those gatherings.

“We’re surrounded by the issue. It’s all around us, literally and figuratively,” said 50-year-old Adrian Robles of Hartford, who said he works part-time stocking shelves at a local supermarket and receives disability benefits because he has severe epilepsy.

The activities have drawn interest from some passersby and others who have brought food to the participants or stopped to write their thoughts on a canvas-covered message board that asks them why they are there. Some responses included “Because I’m not owned,” and “Because a dignified life for all must supersede an extravagant life for some.”

New Britain resident Kiko Rodriguez, 22, stopped by Wednesday to jot a note on that board _ “The world has been awake and we’re waiting for the Empire to do the same” _ and plans to head to New York during the weekend for the Wall Street occupation in New York City.

“I keep seeing a lot of people graduate from college and having to settle for jobs you don’t even really need to go to college for,” said Rodriguez, an economics student at Central Connecticut State University who is job-hunting in preparation for his graduation next spring.

“I try to remain optimistic,” he said about his job prospects, invoking a joke that says the only difference between economists and others in the bread line is that economists can explain the forces that got them there.

It remains to be seen, though, whether the Wall Street protests and their offshoots in Hartford and elsewhere change what the demonstrators call an unfair economic system.

Warren Goldstein, chairman of the University of Hartford’s history department, participated this week in the Wall Street events and said he thinks the movement will have historical and cultural staying power compared with other grassroots movements that spring up and fade away.

“It already has not only managed to plant the flag in a lot of places around the country, it’s got people giving money, it’s got people changing their conversations and their work schedules to figure out how to help them,” Goldstein said.

Compared to the “occupy” movements in some other cities, Hartford’s size has remained comparatively modest, though.

Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said when he stopped there on a recent evening, he could not find any of the protesters and figured they probably were marching or demonstrating elsewhere.

“All of the tents were dark and there was nobody there,” he said. “So I had time in my schedule to speak to them and there was no one to talk to.”

Several have said they are balancing their time at Turning Point Park against college and job schedules.

Clark Vocke, 27, a New Britain resident who works as a restaurant server, said the diversity of opinions and goals is a strength of the “Occupy” movement, not a reason for the criticism that some have leveled against it.

“As much as someone might bash it and say, `They don’t stand for anything,’ well, come on down and stand for something,” he said.

John DeCarlo, a former Branford police chief who is an associate professor of criminal justice at University of New Haven, said police are taking the right tack by taking a tolerant and non-intrusive approach

“You can’t be an occupying army,” he said. “Police are expected to be there to maintain order to the point that laws aren’t broken and public health and safety aren’t violated in some way. Many people can assemble in somewhat large numbers and with some pretty cool signs before it reaches that point.”
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Associated Press writer Susan Haigh in Hartford contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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