Tea Party, Occupy movements spur political involvement
It hardly resembled an "occupation."
Six people gathered outside the Bank of America branch on Route 59 in Aurora last month during the opening stages of Occupy Aurora — one of the first suburban protests held in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in September in New York City.
The Tea Party and the Occupy movement both had their suburban beginnings as small, scattered protests. But similarities between the movements may end there. Here's a look at the priorities and politics of the Tea Party and Occupy movements and what they're protesting.
Protesting: High taxes, excessive government spending, government regulations that hurt small businesses
Politics: Local Tea Party organizations are not official political parties, but their members tend to lean conservative
Policies: Tea Party groups support limited government, free market principles and lower taxes
Protesting: Inequalities in the financial system, corporate greed, the influence of corporations — and their money and lobbyists — on government, expensive student loans
Politics: Local Occupy protesters claim their movement is not political per se. Occupy Naperville, for example, included representation of the Green and Socialist parties
Policies: Occupy protesters aren't backing specific financial fixes yet, but say they support campaign finance reform and student loan forgiveness
But it might be unwise to hastily dismiss the relatively small number of suburban Occupy supporters protesting against a financial system they say most benefits corporations and the wealthy. The Tea Party began emerging in the suburbs just two years ago with similarly small protests.
One of the first suburban Tea Party protests was an April 2009 gathering in Elk Grove Village that attracted about a dozen people.
Within a year, the movement — and its opposition to big government, bailouts and higher taxes — was a political force to be reckoned with.
Suburban residents who had joined the leaderless, grass-roots effort were making themselves more visible. A tax day protest in April 2010 drew an estimated 400 to 500 people to Naperville city hall.
Occupy Naperville organizers are hoping to attract similar crowds in the coming months now that they have launched weekly marches through the city's downtown streets. They say they plan to continue the Saturday protests indefinitely.
"This is going to be big," said 31-year-old Zackery Fall of Naperville. "And it's not going to stop."
With protests happening around the world, Stephen Maynard Caliendo says the Occupy movement certainly is picking up steam.
"Most social movements start with this agitation as a result of a perception of people being left out," said Caliendo, a political science professor at North Central College in Naperville. "The question will be at some point whether or not the frustration becomes focused into something more tangible — something that can be accomplished."
"Are they going to go away?" said Phillip Hardy, an assistant political science professor at Benedictine University in Lisle. "And if they go away, are they going to be back with the same kind of momentum when the weather breaks in the spring?"
Hardy, who is planning a study of the Occupy Chicago protest with several colleagues, said the movement has the potential of gaining "some voice in our electoral system" if it can carry its momentum through the 2012 elections.
That possibility isn't lost on local Tea Party organizations.
Tony Raymond, director of Northern Illinois Patriots, which meets in Lake County, said the Tea Party is watching how politicians react to Occupy protesters.
"If they embrace these protests as the Democrats have seemed to do recently, we will be making sure they are not elected to office," Raymond said.
That's not how Occupy Naperville organizers phrase their message.
Corporations — and their money — have too much influence over government and it needs to stop, said Evelyn Thompson, a 22-year-old college student from Naperville who works two jobs. Lobbyists are a large part of the problem, she said.
"It's about corporations and the money they funnel into government, politics and influencing our policies and taking advantage of the American citizen," Thompson said.
The Occupy movement isn't inherently political, fellow protester Fall said.
"This isn't a political party," Fall said. "It's not about politics. We want to get money and corruption out of politics and have a real democracy."
"We see the same crony capitalism, but how we go about it is the exact opposite way," said Lennie Jarratt, chairman and one of the founders of the Lake County Tea Party.
The Tea Party supports limited government, free markets and less taxation, said Raymond of Northern Illinois Patriots.
The Occupy movement responds to financial concerns and supports an end to corporate influence on politicians, along with other reforms, such as student loan forgiveness, Thompson said.
Locally, Occupy protests have sprung up in Aurora, Elgin and Naperville along with other Illinois sites in Chicago, Champaign-Urbana and Rockford. Some Occupy events nationwide have turned violent, notably in Oakland, Calif., where police used tear gas on crowds that reportedly were pelting officers with bottles and paintballs. But suburban events so far have stayed peaceful.
When Occupy Aurora started the morning of Oct. 15, the six protesters barely made a crowd at Route 59 and Liberty Street near a Bank of America branch. But organizer Nadia Kanhai said the size of the protest peaked at 25.
Kanhai said another Occupy Aurora date hasn't been set, but she plans to coordinate with Naperville organizers so the events don't overlap.
The first Occupy Naperville protest Oct. 22 drew roughly 50 people who marched about a mile from Ogden Avenue and Washington Street to a downtown corner shouting "We are the 99 percent," or "Stop your shopping, bombs are dropping." About 65 people joined a second Saturday march.
Meanwhile, North Central's Caliendo says his students are watching both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements with great interest.
"We've had a tremendous drought of people really being active in politics — not just in voting, but in terms of being intellectually engaged," Caliendo said. "People are definitely engaged again."
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