Occupy protesters underwhelmed after meeting with senator’s staff
Miranda Leitsinger/msnbc.com Members of the Occupy movement from North Carolina ventured to Washington, D.C., for Occupy Congress. Front row left to right: Moises Serrano, Giovanna Hurtado, Amanda Porter-Cox. Back row left to right: William Murphy, Jon Ashley, Tony Ndege
For Occupy protester Jon Ashley from North Carolina, meeting with the staff of his U.S. senator on Tuesday produced nearly the same results as an earlier letter he had written to her: A “form response.”
Ashley was one of nine Occupy Congress protesters from North Carolina who met with the staff of Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., on Tuesday morning to communicate their concerns about what they see as the most important issues facing the country.
Several of the protesters described the meeting as underwhelming, like receiving a form letter in person.
“I’ve written letters to congressmen and senators before you usually just get a form letter back from one of (their) staffers,” said Ashley, a 27-year-old record engineer and producer. “I realize that if you drive here from another state, you get a form response from one of (their) staffers.”
“He didn’t seem to be knowledgeable about any of the legislation that was of concern to us,” he added.
“Very uninformed,” interjected Giovanna Hurtado, a coordinator and activist with El Cambio, a group dedicated to helping undocumented students get education that is part of the loose Occupy confederation. “And everything was not his topic.”
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Ashley said the staffer who did most of the speaking — an economic policy adviser who was one of three Hagan staffers who met with the Occupy protesters — was unable to respond to a question about her “no” vote on the so-called Udall Amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.( The amendment, introduced by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., would have forbade the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens accused of being terrorists, but it was rejected by the Senate in November.)
He replied, “That’s not my area of expertise” and said a foreign policy staffer would have to handle it, Ashley said. “That could be just him deflecting … It would be shocking to me to believe that Hagan’s staff, for a senator, to be that ignorant of what essentially she’s voted on.”
In a statement to msnbc.com, Hagan’s communications director, Mary Hanley, defended the reception the protesters.
“Since entering the Senate, Senator Hagan has made it a priority to ensure the voices of North Carolinians are heard in Washington,” she said. “When North Carolinians contact her offices in North Carolina and Washington, D.C., and meet with members of her staff, it ensures that concerns from across the state reach her desk. She shares the frustration many North Carolinians feel given our stagnant economy and unacceptable unemployment rates.
That’s why she was a strong supporter of the President’s American Jobs Act, backed Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and advocate for North Carolina consumers, and is fighting to fix No Child Left Behind and ensure all our students receive a quality education.”
A reporter who was invited by the group to join the meeting was not allowed to attend. A press staffer said it was their policy not to allow media into staff meetings with constituents.
One of the protesters also live streamed video of the meeting over the Internet, however.
Tony Ndege, a 33-year-old from Occupy Winston-Salem who set up the meeting, said the staff had seemed to anticipate the meeting would generate controversy. But he said the Occupy movement isn’t just about “people who want to take on the establishment. A lot of us do, but that’s not the whole thing. We have some deep issues here, and the reason why people are demonstrating is because that’s the only way we can be heard.”
Hurtado said she asked the staff about the possibility of getting legislation regarding in-state tuition for undocumented students. They were instructed to write a letter and told that the office would respond, she said.
“I kind of felt like we were given the runaround basically,” said Amanda Porter-Cox, a 24-year-old graduate student in education who asked about the senator’s votes in that area, specifically in stopping budget cuts to schools and helping teachers find work. She noted the staffer had said some things about what work Hagan had done, but she still felt as if it was “almost like they didn’t want to answer our questions.”
“These are people who are used to more of the game of politics as opposed to deeper, systemic politics discussion … on an ongoing basis,” Ndege noted. “I think that was really what it was, the fact that they are used to a different kind of conversation and getting messages across in a different way.”
While the group that attended the meeting said they came away mostly disappointed, Ndege hinted at a silver lining.
“Either way, I think it’s one of those issues where action creates opportunity, even if you think it might not be an opportunity right now, you never know how it’s going to turn out.”