Maybe I could have figured out a ride to Cleveland by car if I had waited till Sunday, but I was determined to make the journey. I had follwed the Occupy movement obsessively on the Internet, and wanted to see it in person. I thought going by bike was a little symbolic too, that I would make nearly all of the 39-mile trip from Ravenna to Cleveland on our great system of taxpayer-funded bike trails, on which construction suddenly stopped when our new “cut-everything” state government was elected last year. I packed what I thought was enough gear to stay the night, made a tweet and Facebook post about my trip, and off I went.
An long, windy ride
My mountain bike probably wasn’t built for distance, even though I often use it that way, riding 10-15 miles usually, sometimes up to 30. But this time my backpack was heavy, and the wind was brutal. Just the first seven miles to Kent was difficult, fighting the howling wind all the way. I almost turned back, but soon seven miles became ten, before I knew it I was at Route 8, heading into Cuyahoga Valley National Park. A freak gust of wind knocked me over at one point, and I banged up my knee a little. My knee would be bugging me the rest of the ride. I flew down a beautiful downhill stretch of trail linking the Summit County trail and to the Towpath, which was the trail along the remnants of the old Ohio and Erie Canal that would lead me to Cleveland. I was exhausted, and the miles were crawling by. I passed a mile marker “16 miles”, then “15 miles”, lots of pedaling, then 14 miles.
Eventually, I got to Cleveland. I had been riding for almost 4 hours now. The trail ended and I crawled up a couple wicked uphills to the Tremont neighborhood, past the “Christmas Story” house and a stretch of upscale restaurants. Almost 40 miles now, and I had rode the trails through woods, next to rocky “ledges”, along rivers, through rural fields, suburban neighborhoods and urban landscapes, past people walking, jogging and fishing. So much beautiful scenery in Ohio, and so much of it is hidden behind “No Trespassing” signs and private property lines. Thanks to our public bike trails, I was able to ride through all of it. I was almost completely drained, but all that stood between me and Downtown (and Occupy Cleveland) was the W. 3rd street bridge.
Luxury Cars and Crumbling Bridges
I coasted down the long hill on W. 3rd to the Flats. I was met with a “Road Closed” sign and red lights flashing endlessly. I could see Terminal Tower across the river, mocking me. At the foot of the Tower was Public Square and Occupy Cleveland, and I couldn’t get there, after all this time. I learned later that the bridge had been closed more than a year. There was no construction equipment, and no sign that the bridge would ever re-open. I was so tired and angry, and I yelled and cursed at the empty factories and the swirling river, not a soul in sight. I decided it was time to take a break, and every few minutes a car would come down the hill and turn around when they realized the bridge was still closed. The only way to go was back up, and I started my long, slow ascent back to Tremont.
I rode up the narrow, pothole-laden street with BMW’s and Audis parked in front of luxury apartments. I asked a couple guys that were walking near the upscale restaurants how to get downtown, and they suggested another bridge that was officially closed but could supposedly be crossed by foot or bike. “Public Square is overrated” the guy joked when I told him I rode all the way from Ravenna. He didn’t seem too enthused when I told him I was going to Occupy Cleveland. When I got to the bridge it was gone, blocked off with signs saying “demolition in progress”, and apparently no bridge to replace the demolished one. To cross the river I had to go all the way to the West Side Market on W. 25th and cross the excruciatingly long Bob Hope Memorial bridge, a total of two miles out of my way. Every street was bumpy with patches on top of patches, from years and years of disrepair, and 39 miles in the saddle on trails and rough city streets were taking their toll on my rear end.
Is this Occupy Cleveland?
Downtown was a mess of orange barrels and lane and sidewalk closures that had no signs of ever becoming open again. The former giant Lebron James “Witness” banner by the Q said something else now. I could hear the drumming and guitars in the distance, and there it was: I was now at the Public Square, looking up at the Terminal Tower. I got there I sat down, so glad to be off my bike. I asked a guy the obvious question: “Is this Occupy Cleveland?” And let me tell you: “I rode 40 miles to get here” is a good conversation starter. They offered me some food, which consisted of ice-cold potatoes and some apple cobbler and rice. But I was definitely grateful.
I walked away from the makeshift stage area to the encampment across the street. There were maybe a few dozen tents crammed onto a relatively narrow stretch of sidewalk, and a kitchen and supply tent. I talked to a few people there, then went back to the stage where they were planning a march.
Candlelight March, Cleveland Style.
On my ride I noticed the closer I got to Cleveland and Lake Erie, the worse the wind got. Everyone gathered around for an assembly .
“MIC CHECK!” everyone yelled back. The “general assembly” process was pretty interesting.
The guy planning the march yelled out instructions, which everyone yelled back. There was maybe 40 or 50 of us. A woman handed me a paper: The lyrics to “Imagine” by John Lennon. The march was silent because it was “a solemn event.” Everyone else gave a thumbs up in approval, so I did too, we all grabbed candles and off we went between the tall buildings.
The problem with a candlelight march in Cleveland is the constant freezing cold wind. It was impossible to light the candles, so we carried them unlit. At first I wasn’t sure why we were silently marching, I was happy to be there after my long journey and ready to make some noise. At first I found it hard to be “solemn.”
Then we passed the Huntington Bank building. I thought of all the people I knew that had been hurt by Huntington, the troubles my parents had on the mortgage on our old house, my girlfriend’s car repossessed the night of Easter Sunday for about $1000 in fees they added to the car loan (after the principal had been paid off), many of my friends being charged hundreds in fees by that bank. It made me sad, angry, “solemn”.
We passed some kind of bar or restaurant that specialized in chocolate, people in suits getting out of limousines, luxury hotels, it all seemed so frivolous, so consumerist, manufactured and pointless. Was this the American Dream? It seemed like nearly every taxi driver honked in approval as we marched by.
An Engineer Among Poets
As we got to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, one man climbed the stairs and read a rousing poem he wrote about the movement sweeping America (I wish he would have posted it so i could link it) Now although there are no official “leaders”, there are some whose voices command respect, without whose hard work and effort, Occupy Cleveland would not be possible, and he was one of those hardworking people. At certain times he pointed at us and we yelled back “The people r
ise! THE PEOPLE RISE!” Two other people read poetry after that, and after that we sang Imagine and the classic of all protest songs “For What it’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (Stop,hey, what’s that sound?). Even though we were dozens, not hundreds, it was something special. Honestly at first I felt a little silly. Me, a nerd, a number cruncher, I felt like I didn’t fit in around all these artists and musicians young and old, I was an engineer among poets. But after the march I felt that we were all part of something bigger, something huge, a turning point in American history, defying the Huntington and KeyBank buildings and standing up against these giant corporate monoliths looming over us.
Some people had heard about my long ride and came up and talked to me. Some older people talked about similarities to the 60’s protests. We talked about corporate greed, about the importance of education and teaching kids arts and music. I mentioned that I was working on my civil engineering degree, and that the streets, the bridges, the city of Cleveland was literally crumbling all around us. I feel now more than ever that the only way we can get out of this slump is to build our way out, to tackle projects on a grand scale like our grandfathers before us.
What Would Bear Grylls Do?
Since I planned on staying the night, some suggested that I secure a spot in the encampment now. I brought what blankets and warm clothes I could carry, and a woman at the supply tent gave me a donated tent which I attempted to pitch as the freezing wind battered the camp. But I think there were some pieces missing, and even with help, the tent kept getting blown over. After an hour and a half of fumbling with it I returned the tent, and tried to rig up a shelter with my own tarp.
I thought “What would Bear Grylls do?” There was a barricade next to a fence with bushes behind it, so I tied my tarp up there with just enough room for me to crawl underneath, thinking it would shield me from the wind. I was tired now so I crawled into my makeshift shelter. I was sleeping on a bed of mulch, so I put one blanket under me and one on top. I thought the bushes would shield me on one side, but I could still feel the bone-chilling wind when I managed to fall asleep to the sound of endless drumming coming from the other end of the block.
I woke up at 12:30 freezing. I thought I brought enough warm clothes, but I was really cold. I wasn’t as prepared as I thought. I would have needed more gear than I could have carried 40 miles on my back to endure the cold night. I called my girlfriend, who was about a 30-40 minute drive away, and she said she would come and get me. I felt bad asking her to come all the way to Cleveland to get me in the middle of the night, but I was so cold, and not as well prepared as I thought.
Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?
As I waited, suddenly we heard eight popping sounds, then two more. In Ravenna I shrug off such sounds as firecrackers or backfiring pickup trucks, but in Cleveland it was unmistakable. “That’s a nine” said one of the black guys standing with us. “Two different pistols” said another. They both looked in the direction of the shots. A cop drove in that direction, only bothering to turn his siren on as he went through a red light. It was a little scary, and made me think about those who live with the reality of urban violence in their backyard every day.
We determined we were in no immediate danger. If we were, I would have told my girlfriend to go back to Ravenna rather than send her into harm’s way. I guess that’s what happens when you Occupy one of America’s 10 most dangerous cities. My heart goes out to Occupy St. Louis, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Detroit, and all the brave urban occupiers out there.
Freezing and Disoriented
A man pulled up in a nice car. When I talked to the girl at the supply tent, I was surprised at the amount of donations that had piled in for this small but dedicated group. Stacks of tarps and food and all different supplies, dropped off at the curb by supporters. The man in the nice car asked “You guys need anything? What can I give you to help?” I tried to think of something, but the words just wouldn’t come out. I barely got out “Uhhhhhh….” I motioned for someone to come over and help. We needed water, sleeping bags, warm clothes, anything. But mostly water. So we told him to bring water. It actually surprised me that this man in the luxury car supported us.
A drunk girl dressed for a Saturday night on the town started arguing with us. “What are you DOING here? Do you REALLY think OBAMA’s doing a good JOB??!!!” One of the guys that pointed out the gunshots earlier argued back that Bush dug us a hole so deep it would be hard for anyone to lead us out of, and that unsustainable corporate greed was the real underlying problem. Her argument thoroughly smashed, she said “I liked the other black guy I talked to better.”
My girlfriend called, and even though Public Square was a straight shot down Ontario from the East 9th exit, I had trouble giving her coherent directions. It took her a while, but she found us. Thank God for her. I was really cold and tired, to the point I was getting disoriented. I couldn’t tell a generous donor what obvious supplies we needed, counter a drunk argument, or give directions that accounted to “go left, then straight.” If I had tried to stay the whole night I would have been in real trouble. And like many of the 99%, I don’t have access to healthcare.
I’ll be back
Staying overnight in the middle of the city isn’t an easy thing at all, it takes preparation and dedication. My long ride to Cleveland and short stay at the Occupy encampment was kind of a tour of some of the things the 99% are protesting about. Suburbanites complaining about ‘big government’, but jogging on public bike trails. Luxury cars driving on crumbling streets, and the rotting infrastructure of today’s big cities. Corporate greed and frivolous excess, while urban neighborhoods are rocked by crime and violence, as Huntington Bank keeps the courts busy with foreclosures.
Now that I’ve been to Occupy Cleveland and checked it out, it will be easier to get some friends to come with me. I know what they need next time I go to Cleveland (by car this time): water and more water, and warm clothes, anything that’s warm. Because it’s about to get a lot colder in Cleveland. And this small, dedicated group isn’t going anywhere.
BTW, I crossposted this to that orange website, but this kind of story really seemed appropriate for the Moose.