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Occupy Buffalo -- how long?; With permit for presence at Niagara Square almost expired, City Hall's decision awaited

The effects of winter and the march of time have taken a toll on 3 1/2 -month-old Occupy Buffalo.

The 45 tents once dotting Niagara Square now number 19, with 10 to 15 people in sleeping bags on a given weekday. Subfreezing temperatures make the site look like a ghost town. There are occasional problems with theft, and a splinter group has accused the Occupiers of selling out.

The Occupy Wall Street movement, with its "We are the 99 percent" message, galvanized attention about worsening economic inequity and corporate greed in the United States. But as the novelty of the movement has worn off, some wonder what Occupy Buffalo still hopes to accomplish.

Critics say the encampment presents an eyesore in front of City Hall that has outstayed its welcome, while others say the spotlight on Wall Street malfeasance has become diluted with other issues.

Yet the Occupiers are also hailed by many for keeping the anti-Wall Street message and movement alive, and for braving a winter that -- while mild by Buffalo standards -- has seen a 75-degree temperature shift since the protest began Oct. 8.

The immediate future for Occupy Buffalo could be determined by Wednesday, when an agreement with the city allowing the encampment expires. Mayor Byron W. Brown has defended their right to be at Niagara Square, and spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge said preliminary discussions are being held on whether to extend the permit.

"They have been a good group to work with, they have been professional, and they have worked well with the city," DeGeorge said.

Compounding the decision is the upcoming Buffalo Winterfest & Powderkeg Festival, scheduled to take place in Niagara Square, as well as on parts of lower Delaware Avenue and in the Statler on Feb. 11 and 12.

Drew Cerza, the festival's organizer, said he plans to use the square for snowman-building and other family-friendly activities, weather permitting.

"I will take my lead from the city," Cerza said, "but if it's up to me, we would like to occupy the whole square."

John Washington, of Occupy Buffalo, said the group does not have a contingency plan if the city says that it must leave.

"We try to take a positive attitude. We have done everything that we can to try to comply," Washington said.

The Buffalo protest began three weeks after Occupy Wall Street launched in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17. That occupation and several others -- including ones in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Boston, Albany and Oakland, Calif. -- saw police crackdowns and arrests. Encampments remain in cities such as Washington, D.C.; Syracuse; Cleveland; Kansas City, Mo.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; and Harrisburg, Pa.

>Suggesting 'other ways'

Occupy Buffalo has experienced no arrests and has enjoyed a good relationship with the Brown administration and the Police Department. Members say that it is important for the Occupy movement, which anticipates a surge of involvement in the spring, when the weather warms, to continue to hold public space.

"It's an attention-getting device. Without it, people aren't talking about the issues, aren't thinking about becoming actively involved. It's the center of conversation," said Chris Weinert, who began sleeping in a tepee at the encampment this month.

Not everyone wants them there, though.

"The square was put there for people to appreciate, with the [McKinley] Monument in the center, and [the tents are] an eyesore," resident Frank Calabro said as he was entering City Hall. "If they want to get a message across, there are other ways to do so."

Edward McEwan, who works across the street, said he doesn't see anyone on most days, and it bothers him.

"They're not even out. Come on, if they really want to protest, they should be out in the bad weather as well as the good," McEwan said.

Washington, who sleeps in a tent several nights a week, said the drop-off is understandable.

"We all expected that not everybody would be willing to stay here when it got cold," he said. "With 40-mile-an-hour winds, it's hard to sleep."

Because it's so cold in the daytime, most of the 10 or so folks regularly around, including a half-dozen who are homeless, are usually in the larger tents. The numbers begin to increase significantly at about 5:30 p.m., after the workday ends.

The number of people sleeping there overnight goes up on weekends, when job-holders don't have to get dressed for work in the morning.

In addition to the core group of about a dozen, about 50 others spend time at the encampment each week, members said.

There are numerous committees to help guide the group, from finance and media to direct action and strategic planning. Decisions are reached by democratic consensus at meetings held inside one of the larger tents.

Occupy Buffalo also functions as a social action center, where concerns about growing inequity and corporate greed are channeled into mostly local issues. Restoring proposed cuts to bus routes, exposing bank culpability in home foreclosures, opposing hydraulic fracturing and condemning corporate "personhood" are some of the issues that have prompted activists to speak out, distribute leaflets, and hold marches and rallies.

The group has about $10,000 in donations from unions, organizations, churches, individuals and fundraisers, according to a ledger.

>'Changed my life'

For some, getting involved has been a transformative experience.

"This has definitely changed my life," said Curt Rotterdam, a Buffalo stagehand and music promoter who said he used to spend too much time sitting on the couch watching television.

"I was handing out fliers informing people about the proposed NFTA route cuts. I felt like I was doing a good thing," Rotterdam said.

Samantha Colon said sleeping in a tent was a small sacrifice to draw attention to the bleak employment picture on Buffalo's East Side.

"There are no jobs in my neighborhood. There is no business," Colon said. "I want real change, and if I have to give up the comfort of my home for whatever small amount of time it's been, it's worth it."

Colon praised the gains of the Occupy movement. "It has changed the national dialogue from deficits and spending cuts to a discussion about the income gap and inequalities and injustice," she said.

Jamie Nicole Stewart combines her involvement in Occupy Buffalo with a full-time job in the nearby Liberty Building. She became involved to highlight economic inequity and the need for jobs.

"I've always been blessed to have work, but I also have a lot of family and friends who have a great work ethic, went to school and have college educations, and are drowning in debt and can't find jobs in their field," Stewart said.

Stewart said the reaction from people in the square has remained supportive.

"The police wave a lot, [give us the] thumbs-up," she said. "Fire trucks honk when they go by. It's not as crazy as it was in the beginning, but it's still consistent."

Common Council President Richard A. Fontana doesn't share that enthusiasm. He wants Occupy Buffalo to leave.

"I really think this little experiment should end. It doesn't work for the residents of Buffalo," Fontana said. "Most of the residents I speak to say, 'Clean up the square.' "

Occupy Buffalo, which has consolidated to one-quarter of the square, maintains a strict no-drug, no-alcohol, no-violence policy that has led to several evictions.

>Thinking about spring

"We're very open. People say they want to be part of the movement, they want to pitch a tent; we allow them," Albert Brown said. "But if they, over time, are not getting involved in groups, they are not protesting or actively trying to put the 'move' in the movement, if you will, and if we find they have substance problems, we ask them to move on."

Weinert, whose tent was stolen, said he has been surprised by the number of people with emotional problems who are not part of Occupy Buffalo but who wander into the square.

"It's right through the night, all hours of the night; the weather doesn't affect them," Weinert said.

In December, Chris Phillips led a failed splinter action with others to occupy Lafayette Square, leading to an arrest. Phillips didn't seek Occupy Buffalo's approval, and the group, in turn, voted him out. He and Steve Norris, also voted out of the group, say Occupy Buffalo's leadership has betrayed the spirit of the movement.

Occupy members say Phillips and Norris are disgruntled for being forced to leave.

Greg Mitchell, a former editor of Editor & Publisher who has covered the Occupy movement for the Nation magazine, said that it has had a profound influence, even entering into President Obama's discourse. He said that it's too early to say where the movement is headed.

"It really exploded in October, stayed strong in November and then became less active, less in the public eye with the beginning of winter. How much the weather has to do with that, and how much is a natural falling-off, I guess we'll see when it gets into March and April," said Mitchell, who is from Niagara Falls.

The Brown administration's decision may determine if Occupy Buffalo remains in Niagara Square that long.

Colon, from the East Side, said she hopes that it can -- and she believes that a lot of people are behind them:

"We hear things [from supporters] like, 'I can't stay out there, but don't go home.' "

email: msommer@buffnews.com