The Math Wars hit Portland’s activist community Tuesday, when a prominent sign was removed from Lincoln Park.

The Occupy Maine movement, which has been filling the park with tents for a couple of weeks now, was presented with a banner expressing support from another broad-based group. (This is where it gets complicated – those who are reading this in print may want to grab a pencil.)

The Occupy Maine movement, made up of people who call themselves the “99 percent,” were saluted in the banner by the nonpartisan political organization called Maine’s Majority, which is best known for its slogan “61 percent,” referring to the percentage of voters in the last election who voted for someone other than Paul LePage.

The way politics usually works, one group supporting another is seen as a good thing. You put the 99 percent together with the 61 percent and you end up with 160 percent, more than enough to win any election, although it’s a vote total rarely seen outside of Chicago.

But the leaderless Occupy Maine group decided in its Monday evening General Assembly that addition wasn’t the correct operation when considering the new sign. Instead, they felt their 99 percent includes many in the 39 percent who voted for LePage, and occupiers weren’t ready to write them off.

To them, the banner calls for subtraction, not addition.

This decision to remove the banner goes a long way toward answering the biggest question about the Occupy Wall Street movement – what do these people want?

(The second-biggest question is: Where do they go to the bathroom? And that remains unanswered.)

If the 99 percenters wanted to be part of a political movement that could make the difference in an upcoming election, displaying the banner would make a lot of sense. But if they are building a social movement that changes more than just the faces in Washington and Augusta, then they have to look beyond what it takes to win on Election Day.

The polite removal of the sign was not in the same league as renegade Amish fundamentalists breaking into supposed apostates’ homes and hacking off their beards. But it did cause a few tense exchanges on Facebook, where the 99 and 61 intersect.

“The movement is not left/right it’s up/down,” wrote an Occupy Maine spokesperson. “We voted … that the banner excludes 39 percent of Mainers and we need to come together as 99ers and not create rifts that separate us.”

Here the math gets a little fuzzy, because 61 and 39 add up to 100. So where is the 1 percent with whom the 99ers do want to create a rift?

But the general message of reaching out to Republicans still stands, and removing the banner was not welcomed by some 99ers who are also 61ers.

They pointed out that while few LePage voters are likely to pitch a tent with the people downtown, plenty of anti-LePage activists might be turned off by an organization that looks more interested in being nice to tea party activists than it is in being nice to them.

And there are plenty of signs still hanging up in Lincoln Park that could not get majority support among the 99.

(If they could understand them. One favorite: “If you’re not part of the freaks, you’re part of the boredom.” Indeed.)

One critic, state Rep. Diane Russell, a Portland Democrat, questioned the wisdom of censoring political speech in a public place, and potentially alienating a group that could add bodies to the demonstrations.

“My hope for Occupy Maine is that it will grow and it needs some institutional support,” Russell said in a phone interview from Augusta. “They want more people to show up.”

But it’s clear that however much the two groups have in common, they have very different goals. While the 61 percenters may not be overtly partisan (Democrat Libby Mitchell got only 19 percent of the vote in the 2010 gubernatorial race), you know they have elections in mind when the rallying cry of their movement is a vote tally.

The 99 percenters are presenting a critique of the whole system in which money and politics intermingle, producing elected officials who are beholden to the people who financed them.

This is not something that can be worked out in one election, or even a string of them.

And the kind of movement that would sustain that kind of social change can’t be focused on one date on the calendar or one slice of the electorate. Even if it’s as big a number as 61 percent.

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at:
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