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Forward thinkers: DNC upgrades activists' game 

Revisiting Occupy Charlotte

Two years ago, Scottie Wingfield, 36, moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlotte, where her partner had been offered a teaching job. In D.C., Wingfield was used to a robust activist community. She had marched against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as part of the anti-globalization movement a decade earlier. When she found fault with President George W. Bush's policies, she took her issues straight to the White House's front gates. Charlotte, she says, was a culture shock.

With Bank of America's headquarters and a big Wells Fargo outpost rooted in the city, Wingfield saw the place as being taken over by bankers. "The banks were so omnipresent," Wingfield remembers thinking when she moved to Charlotte. "I felt like we were surrounded by yuppies."

Occupy Charlotte changed all that. When the movement's local iteration arose last October, Wingfield discovered the city had more to offer her than its Wall-Street-of-the-South reputation. There were indeed rabble rousers hiding amid all those pinstripes.

"I was in the fetal position before Occupy started," Wingfield says, only half-jokingly. Her rough acclimation to Charlotte caused her bipolar disorder to hit hard — so hard, in fact, that it prevented her from working. The Occupy movement became a relief — an outlet — for her and other local activists.

"We were like, 'Wow, I didn't know you were in this city,'" she says. "I think it was really helpful for people to not feel so isolated. For me personally and for others as well, we didn't know where each other were. We found each other when Occupy happened."

Occupy Charlotte's first main event last fall — a march through the city to Bank of America's North Tryon Street headquarters — brought 500 local activists out of the woodwork. They built an encampment with tents and a kitchen soon after, on a patch of grass along Trade Street across from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. Wingfield says it became "home base."

The Charlotte camp, like other Occupy sites around the country, generated negative headlines and strife. Infighting over decision-making grew fierce enough that one organizer was banned from the encampment — an action backed up with restraining orders. In the winter, a few burned an American flag, an act that others in the group condemned.

While the camp provided a base for Charlotte's activist community, Wingfield admits the daily work of maintaining it — keeping people fed and content — became a full-time job. That may have taken the group away from broadening its appeal and organizing more impactful demonstrations that would bring together larger, more diverse crowds.

Finally, by late January, the city passed an ordinance banning camping on public property, and police razed the camp.

The tents may be gone, but the phone trees and civic-mindedness remain. Freed from having to worry about day-to-day camp operations, the activists began developing relationships with other progressives in Charlotte, throughout North Carolina, and across the country. The Occupiers helped organize the protest of the Bank of America shareholders meeting in Charlotte this spring, and their influence will certainly be felt during the Democratic National Convention.

Local Occupy activists are at the heart of the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, a group whose main project is a huge march through the heart of Charlotte on Sept. 2, the Sunday of convention week. The coalition is comprised of about 80 local and national organizations. Among the biggest events scheduled to take place in connection with the convention are a festival on Saturday and a Southern Workers Assembly on Labor Day, just before the start of the DNC. Members say the events will provide a crash course on organizing and a chance for working and unemployed people to testify about the legacy of anti-union sentiments in North Carolina.

The coalition's events are a link back to the Civil Rights and Workers Rights movements, as well as affirmations that Occupy's message about income inequality and corporate power have deep roots among Southern progressives.

But as larger labor and student organizations and environmental and pro-immigrant groups descend on Charlotte, Occupiers are figuring out whether they can work effectively with veteran activists.

"There's been some interesting dynamics," Michael Zytkow, 26, says of the dozens of groups organizing events around the convention. "Pretty much most members of Occupy are not being paid to do this. There have been times when we've had to prove ourselves in some way."

Donna Dewitt, 63, is president emeritus of South Carolina's AFL-CIO and a fan of the Occupy activists. "They are so much like the baby boomers," she says. "Their experience, the wars, the economic situation is the same."

There may be one difference between the Occupiers and the boomers: Modern activists, Dewitt says, are more prepared. "They do it a different way," she says. "There's a lot of new technology, but they are very disciplined, smart and strategic. We weren't always strategic."

That discipline appears to be paying off. The activists spent eight months negotiating with Charlotte officials to obtain a permit for the Sunday march so they could protest the convention without fear of arrest. They even launched a national petition in May to help generate support.

They finally obtained the permit, and a rally will begin at 11 a.m. on Sept. 2 at Frazier Park with the march following at 1 p.m. along a route that passes the convention center, Bank of America's headquarters and the Bank of America Stadium, where President Obama will give his speech later in the week.

"At this point, our coalition has two functions — the March on Wall Street South and the second, serving as a hub connecting the many organizations who want to perform actions [during the convention]," says Ben Carroll, a march organizer and student activist who has been involved with Occupy Raleigh.

Carroll and other Occupy activists say they are getting a serious education from other groups. "No social movement has been able to survive on its own," he says. "I'm learning something new every single day, whether it's about organizing or different communities in the state or in the South."

Planning for the convention protests has given Carroll the opportunity to work with union members, veterans of the Civil Rights Movement and young immigrant-rights activists. It's also allowed him to get a better sense of Charlotte.

For the Occupiers, the events present an opportunity to leap into the next stage of their lives as organizers and citizen activists. But the Democratic National Convention will prove to be their biggest test yet. "There's a level of intimidation coming into this," Zytkow says. "There's always this feeling of, 'Are people going to approve of me? Where do I start? Am I good enough to be working in this world? Am I hard-core enough?'"

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