Protests before and after the Democratic National Convention seem to have turned Luis Rodriguez into a local celebrity of sorts — at least in some circles.
"That happens all the time," he says, when I ask if he is ever recognized. "I was recently asked to stand at my church to receive recognition for work on Moral Monday. The reverend called me 'Charlotte's No. 1 Rabble-Rouser.'"
Always in his trademark camouflage hat, Rodriguez led a number of protests in 2012. In May, he helped organize one against a planned KKK rally in Harmony, N.C., and later in the year co-led the largest protest during the convention, the March on Wall Street South.
Rodriguez is an organizer for Action NC, a local group that helps low-to-moderate-income families secure safe, affordable housing and jobs. But growing up, he never intended to become an activist. He went to school to become a Spanish teacher but took a job out of college at OnStar, helping car crash victims. He eventually became a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counselor, assisting people in the process of acquiring or trying to pay for home loans. As a counselor, he bore witness to the way banks would sometimes abuse customers in the home-buying process. He helped birth the Occupy Charlotte movement and eventually started working for Action NC.
Much of his work within the past year has focused on immigration reform.
"We want to eke out a space in society for the nearly 12 million undocumented people who are working here and often getting exploited," Rodriguez says.
The biggest event he and Action NC took part in this year was the #A10 Rally for Citizenship in Washington, D.C., in April. Action NC brought 160 people from the Charlotte and Durham areas to join the tens of thousands who called on Congress to create a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. Every week during the most recent state legislative session, Action NC also bussed three vans of senior citizens to Moral Mondays in Raleigh.
Rodriguez says the DNC made protesting cool again.
"The idea of activism and protests has become way more mainstream," he says. "Every protest I attend, I ask for people to raise their hands if it's their first time protesting. The number of people raising their hands is coming down."
Monica Embrey's hands are dirty, and not in the metaphorical sense. When we meet in early August, her hands are covered in colorful paint after she and some interns spent the day spray-painting the exterior of Greenpeace's Charlotte office. Her short career as an activist unofficially began the day she led a walk-out at her Chicago high school to protest George Bush's Iraq War.
Embrey led many of last year's DNC protests; as an environmentalist — the only paid employee in Greenpeace's local office — she focused on bringing national attention to pollution generated by Charlotte-based Duke Energy's burning of coal for power. "Getting the DNC was really huge in letting people in Charlotte ... see that yes, activism can happen here," she says. "It's been really incredible to watch that growth continue."
With the help of other advocacy groups, Embrey convinced the N.C. Utilities Commission to hold a hearing in Charlotte in February that gave citizens the opportunity to voice their concerns over Duke Energy's future goals. Critics argue the company's 20-year plan should wean the company off coal and nuclear power.
Hundreds went to the hearing to support Greenpeace's counter-plan, in which it argued Duke can save $108 billion over 20 years by investing heavily in renewable energy. More than 90 people testified inside, and many spoke to media and passersby outside about the need for cleaner energy.
As its next project, Greenpeace worked to combat Duke Energy's proposed rate hikes. Activists collected emails and signatures from concerned citizens, as well as photos of individuals holding signs that illustrated personal grievances. Some touched on Duke's continued use of coal, while others focused on its troubled merger with Progress Energy. Over 1,500 photos were glued to poster boards to create a 9-feet-by-32-feet billboard, which made its debut at the company's May shareholders meeting.
The initial proposed double-digit rate hike was reduced by 4 or 5 percent, depending on a customer's service area.
Then came what Embrey calls Greenpeace's biggest victory since 2011: In February, Duke Energy announced it would close Riverbend Steam Station and the Buck Plant in Rowan County, both coal burners, two years earlier than expected. It's a decision she attributes mostly to pressure from activists.
Embrey is cautiously optimistic about the July appointment of Lynn Good, Duke's new CEO. On the first day of her new job, Good received a basket of flowers along with a "to-do list" from Greenpeace. Good responded with a hand-signed note that indicated she wanted to have a better relationship with activist organizations (former CEO Jim Rogers was notoriously indifferent toward them).
"They are listening to the voice of the people," Embrey says. "We would disagree on how fast they're moving, but we'll have to see. They are opening doors for communication."
Beth Henry is busy the morning of her 59th birthday. Her son, who shares the birthday, came in from Columbia, S.C., to stay with her for the week, and she will soon begin her daily meetings with the environmental organizations she is involved with. Despite her schedule, Henry is most concerned with whether I have enough coffee.
It's hard to imagine the well-mannered Henry helping a group of protesters dump 500 pounds of coal in front of Bank of America's headquarters in Uptown, but dump she did last summer as part of local protests leading up to the DNC.
Coordinated by the Coalition to March on Wall Street South and various Occupy branches, activists hoped monthly protests before the convention would raise awareness about the local companies — mostly Bank of America and Duke Energy — that harm the environment or engage in socially irresponsible business practices, like predatory lending.
After retiring years ago from a local law firm, Henry became involved with the PTA and other community-based volunteer groups. She had always taken an interest in the environment, teaching workshops about butterflies and keeping a garden for caterpillars in her yard. But as scientists' predictions of global warming have grown more dire over the years, Henry has gradually become an environmental activist.
"I feel deep grief about what the future is going to be like for my children and grandchildren," she says. "I deal with that grief by working with other caring people."
Since the coal incident, which drew attention to BofA's investments in coal-friendly companies, Henry has started working with more activist organizations, including the Rainforest Action Network and NC WARN.
While she is happy that Duke closed two of its North Carolina coal plants in July, she is now mostly concerned with the "waste lagoons," as she calls them, that were left behind by the plants: basins full of coal ash formed by decades of burning the fossil fuel. The Riverbend Steam Station basins — which overlook Mountain Island Lake, Charlotte's main water supply — are estimated to hold 2.7 million tons of ash.
"[Duke] could lead the way regarding climate change going into the future," Henry says, "and that's what we're calling on them to do."
Recently, Henry has started experimenting with new ways to protest and has even taken on new causes. A giant stethoscope that she built for Charlotte's first Moral Monday, held Aug. 19, symbolized the General Assembly's decision to limit access to healthcare.
"I've never done anything creative like this, so I hope people like it," she says.
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