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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.

The surefire method to find occupations in small cities is to head for the center of town. After leaving Philadelphia on our Occupy America tour, we drive an hour north to Allentown. Pennsylvania’s third-largest city at 118,000 residents, Allentown has been weathered by years of deindustrialization in the  steel, cement and textile industries that once made it an economic powerhouse.

Along MacArthur Boulevard, one of Allentown’s main drags, tidy but weary brick row homes line outlying neighborhoods. Close to Center Square, site of the requisite Civil War monument, the neighborhoods are heavily Latino and buildings exhibit signs of disrepair.

Occupy Allentown has taken up residence in Center Square, inhabiting one of the four red-brick plazas on each corner. There are a handful of tents, a well-supplied kitchen pavilion and an information desk. A large blue and gray nylon tent, which 12 people crammed into the first night of the occupation, has laundry hanging off a clothesline in back and a cardboard sign on the front that reads “Zuccotti Arms,” in reference to the original Wall Street occupation.

We’ve come in search of Adam Santo, said to be the local leader of a leaderless movement. A handsome, boxy-glassed youth a few years out of college, Santo says he knew about the planning for Occupy Wall Street prior to Sept. 17.

“I wanted to go to New York, but I’ve been unemployed and finances were tight, so I thought wouldn’t it be cool to have an occupation in the Lehigh Valley,” where Allentown is nestled. Eight months earlier he and three co-workers were laid off from their jobs at a local bank because of a “lack of work.”

Santo says when Occupy Wall Street “really took off. I thought, I’m going to make this take off in the Lehigh Valley, gather support, get people into the streets.” Santo set up a Facebook page on Sept. 30, the day before the 700 arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge, and “harassed my friends to join.” Next, he designed, photocopied and handed out thousands of fliers to spread the word.

I mention  Asmaa Mahfouz, the woman who helped ignite Egypt’s uprising with powerful video blogs and by handing out thousands of fliers in the Cairene slums. He wasn’t familiar with her story but he does take Egypt’s revolution as inspiration.

Occupy Allentown is very much defined by the local. According to Davina DeLor, a 39-year-old freelance artist who is painting slogans on her tent when we encounter her, residents initially assumed the occupation was in protest of a planned hockey arena, which she says “they are using our tax money for.”

It’s one of those familiar enterprises of our time: socialism for the well-to-do. Allentown is using eminent domain to  buy up businesses next to the encampment – including a Wells Fargo branch – that will be demolished to build an 8,500-seat arena for the Phantoms, a minor league hockey team. The city has  authorized borrowing up to $175 million to pay for the multi-use facility, while the Phantoms’ team owners are willing to throw in  perhaps 10 percent of the cost.

While anger is widespread over what is seen as shady political dealings for a taxpayer-funded stadium that will displace dozens of local businesses, many residents are more consumed just trying to survive the grinding economic crisis. Allentown’s official  poverty level in 2009 was 24 percent, twice the state average.

In a departure from big-city occupations like the one in New York City, beat cops are openly supportive, says Santo. “They drive by, they wave, they honk. They give us handshakes and hugs … because they realize they are part of the 99 percent.” Local clergy are encouraging their congregations to donate goods and “[supply] us with warm bodies, which we definitely need,” says Santo.

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