Occupy Brookings

Stuart Hughes

National protest movement Occupy Wall Street is taking on Main Street Brookings, as students and locals band together in support of local businesses, by practicing “Cash Mobs”.

Since protests began in mid-September 2011, the movement has spread to more than 95 cities and 600 communities, many of them small towns like Brookings. Brookings Occupiers say they are about boosting local economies, advocating buying locally, and improving public education. They also want to show people their local movement is more than confrontation with authorities, opposite the larger-scale protests.

“We’re trying to work creatively to support local business, public education, and local financial institutions,” said Phyllis Cole-Dai, author and Brookings Occupier. “We have a lot of big business in Brookings that undercuts local peoples’ financial well being.”

Occupiers have had success practicing a unique type of occupation they call “Cash Mobs.” Protestors gather at local businesses and spend various amounts of money buying products in order to provide stimulus in an arid economic climate. The method has been copied by Occupy Sioux Falls and typically draws around 30 participants who spend hundreds of dollars each, which they say goes directly back into the Brookings community.

The group has a campus following, but until now has resisted forming a university recognized group. Although such group would allow them to meet on campus they don’t want to alienate potential members based on age or education. However, forming a solid member base has been discussed, and as the group grows members say they hope college students will take ownership of the Occupy message, which includes reducing student debt.

Members met at the downtown Cottonwood Coffee shop to begin their first Cash Mob. SDSU graduate Clark Young, who manages Cottonwood Coffee, said when consumers buy locally, they benefit themselves, and not just a local business.

“Downtown is a really hard place to run a competitive business, but a dollar spent in town doesn’t go outside South Dakota. A dollar spent in town, stays in town,” said Young.

Occupiers say they wish to avoid political labels but support for the protests appears to fall upon partisan boundaries. The movement is controversial and polarizing, with some saying Occupiers are causing an undue stir in Brookings.

Senior journalism major Michelle White said she understands the movement in New York, or Washington D.C. but that it doesn’t make sense in Brookings.

“I understand the group protest on Wall Street, but in Brookings I think they may be protesting to protest,” said White.

Occupiers insist that confrontation does not mean violence, and that the group is committed to peaceful action. Though no traditional protests have taken place, and strictly peaceful actions have been utilized, Occupiers say they are planning to augment their efforts, and are not eliminating using more confrontational methods. Protests including occupations of university financial aid offices, legislative buildings in Pierre, and local legislative coffee meetings have been discussed.

“People are afraid we will become destructive, and violently adversarial, but that’s not what we’re about. We intend to shock people out of complacency into realizing that we have huge problems in our country,” said Cole-Dai.

Occupier and senior Global Studies major Libby Marking said she is protesting to help her community and raise awareness of the Brookings City Council’s actions, like its controversial courting of restaurant chains like Buffalo Wild Wings. She said bringing such businesses into town hurts Brookings as a whole.

“We don’t approve of the city council bribing outside businesses to come to Brookings. They need to realize that local businesses are the most important part of our economy,” said Marking.

Young said the Mobs are raising awareness for local business, and exposing the difficulties that local businesses have.

“We need to take a closer look at our food economy because it’s dominated by fast food and corporations,” said Young. “I hope the Occupiers can raise awareness that local businesses exist and are being hurt by unfair competition.”