Susan Campbell (Opinion): Our ragtag army in Hartford

A reunion of Occupy Hartford participants at Broad Street and Farmington Avenue in Hartford, Conn., held Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.

A reunion of Occupy Hartford participants at Broad Street and Farmington Avenue in Hartford, Conn., held Sunday, Oct. 17, 2021.

Jim Moynihan/Contributed photo

Every Monday night during the fall of 2011, Diane Hasz drove from Cromwell to Hartford to help feed the people living at the Occupy Hartford encampment at Broad and Farmington.

Because there were so many special diets among the group — which at one point swelled to 70 people — the menu usually included hard-boiled eggs. A hard-boiled egg is a simple matter. There are no hidden ingredients. You eat it or you don’t.

Hasz did not stay overnight at the site, but the plot of land, known as Turning Point Park, came to mean something to her. It had an adult-summer-camp feel with the serious mission of calling attention to income and wealth inequality and pushing for economic justice.

Connecticut, where the gap between the haves and have-nots had reached historic levels, was fertile ground for that message. The Hartford camp was one of some 600 around the country that formed to remind a country coming off a devastating recession that the vaunted 1 percent was sucking up the resources, buying elections and behaving as if the United States wasn’t a democracy.

If the media more or less treated the occupiers as dirty hippies, more than half of Americans agreed with the premise that power over too many had fallen into the hands of too few. If they didn’t actually visit or stay in the camps, they aligned themselves politically and ideologically with the 99 percent.

And then, the police came — first to the original Occupy site in New York and, in December 2011, to Turning Point Park to roust the occupiers. Hartford police acted on orders from then-Mayor Pedro Segarra, who cited “reports of ‘violence’ and ‘drug use’” at the site as a reason to break it up. Ironically, as the weather got colder, occupiers already were discussing whether to stay encamped.

Up until the removal, relations between police and campers had been cautious but cordial, yet the removal was not all that smooth. Police came on horses and in armored vehicles to roust people, who put up zero resistance. One occupier walked over during her lunch hour and was arrested.

After the camp was gone, Occupy activities continued, but over time, occupiers met less and less frequently. A few moved away. At least one, poet and activist JoAnne Bauer, died. But on Sunday, a handful of the activists returned to the Hartford site to reminisce. With arms flung out to receive long hugs, they talked about their legacy.

It would be tempting to see the Occupy movement as nothing but a blip on the radar. Wage and income inequality has increased, especially in Connecticut, where Forbes counts 14 billionaires, most of whom only got richer during the pandemic According to a September report from the Connecticut Voices for Children, the state’s wage inequality is greater than the national average.

When race is factored in, the gap is even greater.

But the Occupy movement — locally and nationally — was more than statistics. It got people up and active. On Sunday, Debra Cohen said the movement moved her off the couch, and she hasn’t returned to it yet.

“I’m embarrassed to say, I did so little in the ’60s, and beginning with Occupy, I’m making up for what I haven’t done,” she said.

In 2011, Paxton Moynihan was at the encampment every day with his service dog, Weezie. Weezie is retired but came with Moynihan to the reunion and stood by while Moynihan pointed out where on the empty lot stood the tents, the food station (more often than not with a bubbling pot of soup) and the site for the GA — general assemblies, or organizational meetings.

Those meetings, for people weaned on Robert’s Rules of Order, were decentralized to the extreme. Everyone was encouraged to participate, and it’s not too far a stretch to say Occupy laid the groundwork for subsequent powerful (and equally decentralized) social justice movements, including #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. There are elements from Occupy, as well, in latter-day environmental movements, including a heavy reliance on social media to spread the word.

The movement also started conversations about worker pay, including raising the minimum wage, and the need for union protection. Over time, the Democratic Party has inserted some distinctly Occupy language into subsequent party platforms. The conversations continue.

As old friends talked and shared food, the sky began to darken and the temperature dipped. Most of us are still the 99 percent. Billionaires still buy elections, but if we ever doubt the possibility of a ragtag group of new activists moving the needle, we need only look to a bare patch of grass in downtown Hartford.

With that, Hasz reached into her bag and brought out a dozen hard-boiled eggs. The group nearly applauded. Of course. You can’t argue with an egg.

Susan Campbell is the author of “Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood,” “Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker” and “Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl.” She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.