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Occupying the Rust Belt: In Three Deindustrialized Cities, Protesters Find Friendly Cops, Determination and Despair

Americans here are beaten down. But in occupations around the country they have found a space where they can speak of their struggles, burdens and aspirations.

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“It was a no-brainer,” he says, but their seniority did not transfer to plant assignments. Despite nearly 25 years at Packard and Delphi, Kettering says, “I found myself at the age of 54 starting at the bottom, working alongside 21-year-olds trying to keep up on the line. Many of us who transferred were not spring chickens and it was hard to keep up.”

His wife, hired by Packard in 1979, worked her way into management, was forced to retire after 30 years with a monthly pension that was slashed in half to $1,600 and with expectations of further cuts. Now he’s on disability.

“I’m really proud of our local guys,” he says. “The police and the firefighters really support the occupy movement. Our mayor supports it. We have a united front here in Ohio.”

Unlike the seven other occupations I have visited, Occupy Youngstown embraces electoral issues. Kettering and other occupiers wave signs and wear buttons opposing Issue 2, which would strip some  350,000 public sector workers of collective bargaining rights.

Karen Joseph, a soft-spoken 59-year-old mother of two whose family spends one-third of its household income on health insurance, is by no means the only one who is against Issue 3, which would exempt Ohio from the incoming national healthcare law.

Everyone is against privatizing the Ohio Turnpike, which is being pushed by Republican Gov. John Kasich. All the occupiers we talk to express dismay at the prospect of  hydrofracking in Mill Creek Park, which Kettering describes as “the jewel of the area with waterfalls, streams and lots of wildlife.”

This occupation comes with an expiration date. The city asked the occupiers to “take down the tents before business hours on Monday, Oct. 17, when the banks were opening,” according to Chuck Kettering Jr. He says they complied, but Occupy Youngstown still maintains a 24-hour presence and has pledged to do so until Nov. 8, Election Day.

Toledo blues

In Toledo, Ohio,  occupiers are struggling with trying to live outdoors in a harsh climate because the city is making life difficult for them. Christopher Metchis, an energetic 19-year-old student who will be attending the Musicians Institute in L.A. next spring, explains that City Hall has denied them use of tents and generators, and dispatched city crews to cut off their access to electricity. He has just spent the last two nights outdoors in a wind- and rainstorm, huddling under tarps with a few hardy souls on a grass plaza in the downtown business district near the baseball stadium for the AAA Toledo Mud Hens.

While we talk, a few people come by to help with consolidating supplies, folding tarps, stuffing blankets into a crib and kitchen work. A local pastor has also stopped by with words of support. Candice Milligan, a 30-year-old trans woman, says the living conditions make it “difficult for people who aren’t able bodied.” She also admits that concrete support is not as forthcoming because much of the public does not know what Occupy Toledo is trying to accomplish. And they have to contend with a police force that is indifferent at best and a local media that is hostile at times.

Awareness of the occupation movement coexists with despair. During dinner one evening at an Italian restaurant in Toldeo, our waitress, Dawn, tells us she supports it because “the people need a voice, not just the corporations and politicians.” A few minutes earlier, she lit up in excitement when she found out we are from New York, but her face crumpled instantly, exclaiming quizzically, “But now you’re  here?!”

 
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