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Finally, It's a Purpose Both Sides Agree On
Saturday afternoon, right around the time "Occupy Wall Street" sprouted a seedling in the middle of downtown Portland, Pete "The Carpenter" Harring found himself drawn to the unfolding action in Monument Square.
"I was thinking there might be a little bit of common ground," recalled Harring, founder of the Maine Tea Party/Maine Refounders, in an interview Tuesday. "That's why I went down there -- to see if there was at least something we could agree on, even though our political views might be completely opposite of each other."
He had that last part right. Back home in Standish, Harring fired up his website (themaineteaparty.com) and pounded out this scathing review of the small-but-determined encampment now known as OccupyMaine:
"What I found was that most of them were anti-rich, anti-capitalism, spoiled liberal progressives who really have no idea what they are protesting. They are just useful idiots to further the socialism agenda."
To which Demi Colby, 23, a member of OccupyMaine's media team, replied in a separate interview Tuesday, "He should have stuck around. He really should have. Because he would have realized that his views are respected."
As any poll will tell you, the country's entire political spectrum is awash in anger and frustration these days. Less obvious is that many of those currents -- from the right, from the left and from everywhere in between -- lately appear to be flowing in the same direction.
Take, for example, Pete the Carpenter and Demi the Protester.
He's a guy who "pounds nails for a living" but finds himself struggling these days "to keep a roof over my head."
She's an unemployed former college student from Richmond whose car broke down last spring, which left her unable to get to her classes at Southern Maine Community College, which led to a pair of absence-induced F's, which led to an academic suspension, which means no more financial aid to wrap up her final semester.
He leans far to the right -- and he's proud of it.
She leans far to the left -- and she's proud of that, too.
But step away from the labels and something unexpected comes into focus: These two, and many like them, aren't quite the polar opposites you might expect.
To wit: They both think the federal government has been bought and paid for by corporate interests with pockets infinitely deeper than their own.
"I'm tired of calling (Maine's congressional delegation) . . . and having nothing change," said Colby. "They need to come meet with us. They work for us. They know that this is going on. They need to come to us."
Cue Harring: "I believe that a good many elected officials are highly influenced by the lobbyists for the big corporate giants out there. Basically, they own the government."
They both think that the Federal Reserve, far from providing a way out of the current economic doldrums, actually contributes to them.
Asked to list OccupyMaine's specific objectives, Colby began with "End the Federal Reserve."
Echoed Harring, "I personally don't believe the Federal Reserve is constitutional and I believe they're part of the problem by manipulating interest rates and printing money whenever they feel like it."
They both think the key to renewed prosperity resides not on Capitol Hill or in a Fortune 500 boardroom, but rather with those everyday Americans who are stuck aboard the slow-motion train wreck that is our economy.
"This has been a long time coming," said Colby. "A lot of older individuals have expressed to us that they've just been waiting for someone to finally do something. . . . I think people finally decided to say enough is enough."
Or as Harring put it, "If there were more and more people who actually took the time to find out what's going on and educate themselves on these matters, they'd realize we can ... definitely influence the way corporations and big business operate."
To be sure, these two social activists view the world through decidedly different filters.
Colby wants an end to the legal doctrine of "corporate personhood," whereby the U.S. Supreme Court ruled as recently as last year that corporations enjoy the same free-speech rights as living, breathing people.
Harring, on the other hand, thinks the answer to corporate excess isn't the long arm of government, but rather the simple law of supply and demand. A case in point: Bank of America's just-announced plan to start charging customers $5 monthly fees to use their debit cards.
"That kind of ticked me off," said Harring, who dropped his account with Bank of America years ago. Still, he added, "If the American people were to wake up and say 'no, period' to the corporations, then it's going to hurt their business and they're not going to do it."
Without a doubt, Pete the Carpenter was speaking to his tea party base when he lambasted OccupyMaine in his blog as a collection of "useful idiots." He still thinks they need to lose the "entitlement mindset" and stop beating up on capitalism.
But the more Harring talked about the protesters Tuesday, the more he found himself conceding that "we've got something here that's kinda, sorta in common."
Meaning he, just like Colby, felt tugged toward Monument Square on Saturday?
"Yes, I did," Harring replied. "Because our country as a whole is in a world of mess right now. And if we continue going down the road fighting each other over 'right' and 'left' and stuff like that, we're just going to get nowhere."
Suggested Demi the Protester, "The whole point of this movement is to respect each other's political, social and religious views (and) to come together in solidarity for a common goal."
Suggested Pete the Carpenter, "We need to be able to look out there and reach out and say, 'OK, what do we have in common?' Let's focus on fixing what we can agree on and we can quibble about all the other crap later on."