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Pure Onsense

Thurmont's Brief Occupation

Scott Zuke

(June, 2012) Thurmont is accustomed to drawing mobs of people now and again, but normally of the sort that are looking for handicrafts and pit beef at Colorfest. The May 18-19 G8 Summit, held at Camp David, brought in an entirely different crowd. I spent the weekend, like many other curious residents, observing the ramped up security through town, gawking at journalists and cameramen shooting B roll of our quiet streets, and of course, checking out the protesters who drove in from Baltimore and beyond just to be a little bit closer to the world overlords/corporate servants meeting up in the hills above.

Several members of offshoot Occupy Wall Street groups showed up Friday morning, convening behind McDonald's and painting protest banners for a march that never quite materialized. Some were from Occupy Baltimore, and others came down from Connecticut's Occupy New Haven. They traveled in small cars and a beat-up white bus that ran on vegetable oil. Their conversations amongst themselves oscillated between sharing "war stories" of other protests they had attended in Chicago or New York's Zucotti Park, and discussing various political issues, from America's undeclared wars in Africa to Monsanto's use of genetically modified seeds. One guy drew a small crowd as he showed off a custom American flag with 50 corporate logos taking the place of the stars.

They convened in the shade to discuss where they should eat lunch. A couple of them had scouted the area nearby to find locally-owned restaurants, which they preferred over the corporate fast food chains. It was one of several occasions where the group organizers displayed a thoughtful respect for the town; At the larger protest the next day, they would keep an eye on the flower beds in the little square park in the town's central intersection to make sure no one was trampling the plants.

Unfortunately they did not think much of the town's residents. While being interviewed by the Gazette, one of the group leaders casually asserted that most of the people in Thurmont don't even know the G-8 is going on, or why it's here. I would argue that we deserve more credit than that, but one can forgive their view since it was voiced a few minutes earlier by Commissioner Blaine Young, who drove up for a photo-op chat with the protesters and, in an attempt at being disarming, said that people around here are more concerned with where to get the best burger than with politics and international affairs. Thanks, Blaine.

At the larger demonstration on Saturday, local residents roughly equaled, and may have even outnumbered the protesters. They came out for the spectacle of an unprecedented rally in downtown Thurmont, but walking through the crowds I heard young people, old people, families, all talking about different political issues and showing eager interest in the visitors. Parents brought out their children to experience the assembly, and kids excitedly planned to tell their classmates the following week about what they saw. Thurmont may be pretty far removed from the stage of global affairs, but give the people credit for being inquisitive and welcoming.

The demonstration itself was intriguing. Between one and two hundred Ethiopians came into town on buses to protest American aid to their home country--not that we're giving too little, but that we're giving too much! More specifically, they were there to protest US support of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who was at Camp David along with other African leaders to discuss food aid (Ethiopia is still struggling to recover from a prolonged drought in 2010 that left 10 million people hungry, according to the UN World Food Program). Meles and his political party have been in power since 1995, winning subsequent elections by large margins that suggest rampant fraud, and are a pervasive presence throughout the country, to the extent that people avoid speaking against the government in public for fear of being overheard by an official. Last year the watchdog organization Freedom House downgraded Ethiopia's rating from "Partly Free" to "Not Free" in its annual Freedom in the World survey, citing intimidation of opposition parties and a crackdown on independent media.

Perhaps the most interesting fact, given the circumstances, is that Ethiopia has banned street demonstrations since 2005, and routinely breaks up political rallies and meetings by opposition parties. Realizing this draws a stark contrast between the Ethiopian demonstrators and their counterparts from the Occupy movement.

While the Occupy members who came to town were cooperative and generally respectful towards police (some were more paranoid than others), groups who marched through Downtown Frederick chanted anti-police slogans and shouted profanities. In Thurmont they hummed the Star Wars "Imperial March" theme as state troopers in riot gear filed away as the demonstration winded down. These are harmless and sometimes funny expressions of free speech, but they show a lack of appreciation for the freedoms Americans enjoy, compared to those who have faced true oppression. I'm sure most of them have been face-to-face with far more intimidating and less restrained riot control forces in the larger city demonstrations, so I feel like they would do well to acknowledge responsible police organization when they see it, and what we had here that day under the leadership of Sheriff Jenkins was as good as it gets.

In the broader scheme of things, the G8 protests in Thurmont may not amount to anything insofar as influencing politics or swaying public opinion, but as with the G8 summit itself, there's intrinsic value in bringing together people from very different backgrounds and locations so that they can break out of their bubbles, even if only for a couple days.

Read other article by Scott Zuke