Past Their Sell-By Date
A dwindling group of Occupiers take on the New Hampshire primary.
Jan 23, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 18 • By MATT LABASH
The next day, we hearty Occupiers are off to bird-dog Rick Santorum during a scheduled door-to-door neighborhood walk-through. From the park, we all split off, and I offer to drive three Occupiers in my SUV. Kevin O’Connell, who is from Boston and who wears a Bruins jersey, carries an empty placard, feeling pressure to fill it out before we’re on our way. We decide to brainstorm in the car. “Moratorium on Santorum,” says Jim Taddeo, a political science student who rides shotgun. “That sounded better in my head,” he says.
“Catholics forgive—not pick fights with Iran,” Kevin offers haltingly. “Let’s keep working on it,” I say, not wishing to untangle Kevin’s syntax. I ask my car-mates to locate themselves politically. “I’ve gone old-school Marxist,” says Jim, “though I reject materialism as a metaphysics.” Victor Ochoa from Asheville, who is wearing a brand-new snazzy Patagonia jacket with the tag still on it in case he wants to return it after Revolution Week, offers, “I believe in progressive utilization theory.” Not wishing to open that can of wind, I put the question to Kevin: “What are you politically?”
“Disgusted,” he says.
We rendezvous with other activists at a Catholic church where Santorum is supposed to kick things off. But after waiting in vain for 30 minutes, we find out that he’s running late and is skipping ahead to his next event. I find out the address of the general store where he’ll appear in Amherst and am instructed by another activist to mic-check it for the crowd (the process whereby one Occupier will shout something, and the rest of the crowd will shout it back). “Mic-check!” I yell, and make my announcement. I pause after every word, waiting for the echo to come back, so everyone catches the info.
“That was my first mic-check,” I tell one Occupier afterwards. “How’d I do?”
“Not bad,” he says. “You might want to speed it up a little.”
Waiting for Santorum outside the general store, a 17-year-old Occupier named Austin is shown by a more seasoned activist how to knife through the crowd, clasp Santorum’s hand, then pop his question, giving the world another electric media moment. Austin is nervous. He’s not done this before. He paces, while running the question over and over with his girlfriend, who does her best to play Santorum if Santorum were a 17-year-old girl with multicolored hair. I tell Austin he doesn’t want to get stiff-armed by Santorum’s security thugs. The cops are already checking us out, so he needs to lose the Occupy sticker, his funky hat (Republicans are hair people, not hat people), and maybe to ditch the earrings. He passes on the last suggestion, which is fine. They’re two black studs—pretty conservative as earrings go.
Santorum arrives, and as his Escalade disgorges him, a crowd presses in. Austin is nowhere to be seen. Being a professional news-gatherer, I am in position to ask my own very important question, which will further the democratic process and help illuminate who is best suited to lead the free world: “Senator Santorum, how many sweater vests do you . . . ”
But before I can finish, Austin swoops in like a bird of prey, grips Santorum’s hand and says, “Senator Santorum, I just wanted to ask you if you support 99 percent of the people more than 1 percent of the corporations?” Perhaps taken aback by the subtlety and nuance of the question, Santorum briefly pauses, smiles, and says, “I support 100 percent of the people.”
Congratulations-singing Occupiers ring Austin afterwards.
Not every caper comes off so clean, however. A day later, the Occupiers have descended on a Mexican restaurant where Newt is due for a Latino town hall. I sneak my old pal Victor inside as a member of the press, even if his Patagonia tag, still dangling from his new jacket, elicits suspicious looks. It is strictly back-to-belly. We can’t even get near the main room. There must be 500 people in this tight space, 450 of them journalists. Victor ducks low and rudely squeezes through the crowd like a greased ferret. Still stubbornly clinging to my last shred of dignity, I head outside with the other Occupiers. They are jostling for attention in the parking lot, where they’ve been joined by two PETA activists in pink pig suits (the swine, staying in character, refuse to speak but do refer me to their spokesperson). There is also a man standing in front of a banner depicting a cross-section of women in their skivvies. He is hawking American-manufactured bras, custom-made using 10 unique measurements for the perfect “bra experience.”
I tell him I’m so impressed by his bra spiel that I’m thinking of buying one for myself.
“We guarantee a perfect fit,” he deadpans.
In the parking lot, the Occupiers get rowdy. Mark Provost, one of their leaders, “plays” a drum, two sticks simultaneously, while chanting at the top of his lungs and banging on every syllable in a thrash cadence, “Occ-U-Py-Dem-Oc-Ra-Cy / Occ-U-Py-Plu-Toc-Ra-Cy.”
“He can’t play drums for s—t,” says a fellow Occupier.
The restaurant owners don’t take kindly to this and ask the cops to remove the protesters to the street. The protesters don’t take kindly to the cops’ request. One tries to slide a window open so Mark can serenade Newt’s town hall with his plutocracy rocker. But a Newt security goon starts punching his hand, breaking the skin, sending Mark into a rage: “We’re filing a police report against you! . . . You don’t know who the f— you’re f—ing with! . . . Now you’re done, son!” Occupiers keep firing off chants such as JP Morgan / Goldman Sachs / People Want Their Country Back!, while on the far end of the building, presumably where Newt is actually delivering remarks on the other side of the wall, stands Vermin Supreme with his megaphone up to the window, shouting: “Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt! Newt! We have you surrounded! Come out with your hands up and your pants down.”
I point out to Vermin that he’s a grown man. Doesn’t he ever get tired of being on the outside looking in? “Sometimes I do get in the building,” he says defensively. I meant metaphorically, I tell him. Not really, he says. Sure, it’s hard work being permanently agitated, instead of working a real job. He doesn’t have health insurance even though he lives in a state that mandates it “because I’m an outlaw.” But if he were inside, he says, “that would imply another kind of social status that I don’t know I’d be comfortable with.” So I ask him what he gets out of this—besides a little bit of attention.
“As the kids say, FTWLOLB,” Vermin smiles. “F— the world, lots of laughs, baby.”
On primary eve, I’m in for a different kind of Occupy experience. I’ve headed up through the White Mountains to the North Country. I arrive in hallowed Dixville Notch, home of the grand old New Hampshire hotel, the Balsams, where at the stroke of midnight on Election Day the nine registered voters left in this tiny hamlet will cast the first votes in the first primary in the nation. While the ballot room and a few others will be open for this purpose, the hotel has recently been sold and shuttered indefinitely for renovations. The rest of the property has gone dark.
So I have to stay at the nearby Notch View Inn, where my innkeeper, Bill Sparklin, who resembles Jeff Bridges in his Big Lebowski phase, tells me that his daughter’s boyfriend is a member of Occupy L.A. “He’s been arrested like three times,” says Bill. “And they keep letting him out. Keep him in there!”
Occupier Corry Hughes, a retired special-ed teacher from nearby Jefferson who has a tie-dyed business card that says “Old Hippies for Peace,” organized an Occupier protest outside the hotel, which has attracted about 20 comrades. She cleared it in advance with the hotel owners and the authorities. But instead of playing thrash chants or berating those on their way inside, the generally middle-aged-to-older crowd stands meekly outside the entrance with their get-the-money-out-of-politics signs, welcoming townspeople they recognize.
Inside, the nine voters of Dixville Notch ready themselves in a cordoned-off VIP section. They mostly are hotel employees who now, like so much of the rest of the country, are looking for work. General manager/voter Jeff McIver tells me what a great place this once was. It’s the kind of drafty old resort hotel of yesteryear, with a music director and a band. It’s the kind of place without televisions in the rooms. “Because if you have televisions,” says Jeff, “everybody stays in their room, and you don’t have that music director and that band.”
Back outside, I tell the Occupiers that this is the most well-mannered protest I’ve ever attended. It seems almost odd, as if the protesters have a reverence for the decades-old tradition unfolding inside. “I love this stuff,” says Susan Bruce, an underemployed blogger whose husband died a few years back, whose house was then foreclosed on and who has suffered through bouts of homelessness since. “This hotel has been here since the 1800s. It was built before there was electricity. So there’s reverence for that, especially if you love history.” And she does—her husband was a historian.
“These are the townspeople of Dixville, which is a very small town. We don’t want to mess up their voting. This is what they do. It’s important to them. Many of them are the 99 percent. We’re part of them. There’s no need to be disrespectful. How can you be disrespectful here?”
I point out that many of the voters inside are voting Republican, Republicans being the people her people think are destroying the country. That’s okay too, she says. “Because that’s their choice. I believe in choice of every kind. I know that’s not a Republican tenet,” she jokes. She takes her politics seriously, lives them even. But she’s from a small town where “Republicans are my neighbors. Collectively, Republicans are pretty reprehensible. But individually, not so much.”
Midnight strikes, and the votes are cast and counted. The voters, the media, and even the Occupiers—leaving their signs behind in the cold—all gather outside the ballot room to hear the results not five minutes after the polls close. The first ballot of this presidential primary was cast by Jacques Couture, the hotel’s erstwhile locksmith, a French Canadian and naturalized citizen who voted for Obama, perhaps not a good omen for Republicans (Obama racked up three of the nine votes). Mitt Romney tied for first on the Republican side with Jon Huntsman (two votes apiece), surely the last time Huntsman will ever enjoy frontrunner status.
The room digests these little absurdities. The night seems over before it began. We all breathe a sigh of anticlimax. In my ear, I hear a hoarse whisper. It comes from a charming septuagenarian Occupier in a clerical collar named Rev. Gerald Oleson. His business card reads “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” Oleson is missing most of his voice as a result of throat cancer.
But he puts a nice capper on the evening and, indeed, on the whole New Hampshire primary experience: “It’s like Senator Eugene McCarthy used to say, ‘Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.’ ”
Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and the author of Fly Fishing with Darth Vader.
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