Has there really been a schism in Occupy New Hampshire over the Free State Project?

The last two weeks have resulted in unexpected press coverage for Occupy New Hampshire as a splinter group made lots of noise recently about why they have left. Too bad for them, most of Occupy did not go with them, as most of Occupy are open-minded folks who value the participation of “Free Staters”. Here’s the Concord Monitor’s Annmarie Timmins’ rundown of the situation, (published in Sunday 7/22’s paper) which is a well-researched story:

Occupy New Hampshire, the self-dubbed voice of the “99 percent,” became a bit more exclusive this week.

On Monday, a small number of Occupy New Hampshire members incorporated the movement as a nonprofit in order to boot their former bedfellows: the Free Staters. Also prohibited from future Occupy events are gun owners who openly carry.

It’s been a controversial move for a group so opposed to authoritative rule, and several Occupy members have joined with the Free Staters to fight back. They will gather this morning at 11 on the State House lawn to decide what comes next.

The issue?

Mark Provost of Manchester, one of the five directors of the newly created nonprofit, said Occupy’s mission and that of the Free State Project cannot co-exist. And seeing guns at Occupy events have made some Occupiers nervous.

“The core of Occupy is social justice and economic inequality,” Provost said. “On the issue of civil liberties and anti-war, there is agreement (with the Free Staters.) But the core message is the economic justice, and that is where we see the big difference.”

Provost pointed to legislative efforts this session by Free Staters to weaken unions and to their support for deep cuts to the state budget.

Tug of war
Given the Facebook discussions since Provost and the others filed corporation papers, it’s not likely to be an amicable split. More likely, this is the start of a tug of war over what the Occupy movement becomes in New Hampshire.

“If the people associated with the (Free State Project) want to move here, fine,” wrote Occupy member Julia Riber Pitt of Salem in a Facebook post last week. “But when they do things that upset the rest of NH’s 1.3 million people, they deserve to be called out and shunned.”

Ryan Glen Hirsch, an Occupy member from Pelham, responded to Pitt and others on the same Facebook thread: “You have no authority over me. I have no authority over you. You can choose to associate with me or not, but I am still just as much a member of OccupyNH as you.”

Bill Gould wrote, “As they become the very thing they fight against. . . . Well, good luck to them lobbying against firearms in NH. I’m sure that will be a big hit.”

Membership in Occupy New Hampshire will now require signing statements of solidarity and respect, according to the corporation papers filed with the Secretary of State’s office. And the Occupy members supporting Provost have concluded there is “no place” in Occupy New Hampshire for the Free State Project or guns, according to minutes of a recent meeting.

This split is not sitting well with the recently evicted – or other Occupy members.

Rep. Seth Cohn, a Canterbury Republican who calls himself both a Free Stater and an Occupier, called it hypocrisy for a group claiming to represent the masses to exclude anyone.

“The irony of using a corporation to shut down people they don’t like . . . you can’t make stuff like this up,” Cohn said. “Here’s a group that says we represent the 99 percent – except for those people.”

Ann Clancy, an Occupier from Portsmouth whose liberal views don’t jibe with those of Free Staters she knows, agrees. “(Provost) is fighting corporations and trying to turn Occupy into one,” she said. “What he’s basically doing is to try to steal other people’s voices. Is he going to say he’s still speaking for the 99 percent?”

Garret Ean, an Occupy supporter from Concord, said he worries an intentionally decentralized movement like Occupy won’t attract new members if it becomes exclusionary. “I don’t see it working if you have to sign a statement,” Ean said. “Are we going to have to have a card, next?”

Occupy movements across the county, including Occupy Wall Street, have sought and achieved nonprofit status in the last year. According to a story last year by the Huffington Post, they’ve done so primarily to accept and manage tax-deductible donations, not to exclude a group.

But not every state has the population of Free Staters New Hampshire does. Liberty-minded activists voted in 2003 to choose New Hampshire as their home state, and set a goal of recruiting 20,000 people here. Several Free Staters, including Cohn, were elected to the Legislature in 2010, and led efforts to reduce government programs and spending.

Provost declined to discuss why he sought nonprofit status for Occupy New Hampshire. He said he will step down as a director next week and did not want to speak for the group.

In the corporation paperwork he and the others filed, Provost said the purpose of establishing the corporation was to “raise awareness about inequality, corporate power and economic greed.” The paperwork went on to say the new, nonpartisan group will focused on education, outreach and community building.

Occupy New Hampshire will continue to partner with other nonprofits, including “labor unions.”

The paperwork, which is available online at sos.nh.gov under corporation / business name lookup, also explains membership requirements. “Occupy New Hampshire is an inclusive group. We only ask participants to respect each other and the goals of the national Occupy movement as well as Occupy New Hampshire.”

The filing goes on to say, “Any member who refuses to respect others will be asked to leave Occupy New Hampshire.” In addition, members will be required to sign the statements of solidarity and respect. Those statements were not included in the corporation filing.

There is no mention of donations or finances. The paperwork says only that if the group dissolves, “all assets will be donated to a social justice organization.” According to the minutes of the group’s recent meeting, it has $1,500 in the bank.

Debate flares
Several Occupy members and Free Staters interviewed last week said the debate over having guns at Occupy events began months ago but was set aside because the members could not reach consensus on how to resolve their differences. It flared up again two weeks ago, on Occupy New Hampshire’s Facebook page.

As the group was planning a gathering at the State House for last Sunday, there was a disagreement between Provost and others on the Facebook page about guns at the meeting. There was a request that handguns be left at home.

For reasons he declined to explain, Provost removed a posting for the event. That prompted another member to block Provost’s administrative access to the Facebook page. What followed was a fierce debate about the purpose and future of Occupy New Hampshire that played out on the group’s page.

When Ean of Concord arrived at the State House last Sunday, he noticed two distinct groups sitting apart, on separate sides of the lawn. He later learned that three people, none of them Free Staters, had arrived at the gathering openly carrying their handguns. That upset Provost and about 20 other Occupy members enough that they moved across the lawn and sit apart from the others.

But Provost and others had come to the gathering prepared to confront the Free Staters. In a photograph from the event, Provost is holding a sign that reads “Free State Project (is an) invasive species.” Riber Pitt is shown holding a sign that says Free Staters love austerity measures for New Hampshire.

Clancy of Portsmouth protested the split by sitting alone on a bench in the middle of the two groups. For Clancy, Occupy’s emphasis on consensus and group discussion is sacred – and the whole point of belonging. Provost and the others, she said, violated that principle by splitting off without talking it out first.

Common ground?
Able Freeman, a practitioner of open carry and supporter of the Free State Project, was one of the nearly 20 people at the State House last Sunday who didn’t join Provost.

He’d like to remind Occupy members that the right to have a gun in public is protected in the state Constitution. Freeman said he took a four-day defensive training class before he began carrying his gun so he would be safe.

Freeman doesn’t think this divide is really about the guns anyway.

“I think it’s about the libertarians and Free Staters asking uncomfortable questions of the progressives,” which is what Freeman calls the Occupiers because they support unions and government spending on education and health care. But even though his philosophical views differ from the Occupy members, he’s enjoyed the conversations and joining causes with people trying to take control over their own lives.

Cohn has also found enough common ground with the Occupy movement to want to stay.

“I look at the declaration that came out of Occupy Wall Street and I agree with probably 80 percent of it,” he said. “We agree on the problems.”

Two of the big ones for Cohn are getting the influence of money out of politics and making government at all levels more transparent, responsive and accessible.

Cohn said about 70 Occupiers and several Free Staters voted on their top priorities last year at a gathering in Manchester. Everyone was given six stickers, three red and three green. They were asked to put the green stickers on things they supported and red stickers on things they opposed.

One thing in particular struck Cohn. Many people wanted more government investment in education and social services. And they also opposed paying more taxes.

Cohn hopes to find one circle, not two, at the State House today.

“Can we come to some sort of consensus?” he said. “That is what Occupy is doing. That is one of the reasons I was so thrilled. It wasn’t going to be majority over minority. That’s what can we all agree on.”

Provost doesn’t think so.

“The resolution is that there is going to be two separate groups,” he said. “Everyone needs to keep in mind what’s best to both groups for safe and effective organizing. I don’t wish ill on that (other) group. I may have problems four or five of them, but I hope they are successful.”

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323, atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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