For about two hours on Saturday afternoon, demonstrators with Occupy Charlotte stood in front of Bank of America in the city's downtown area holding signs and chanting familiar mantras including, "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out" and "We are the 99 percent." Passers-by waved and honked horns. The protest was entirely peaceful.
Occupy Charlotte officially began its local movement earlier in the day, and I was there with the group for the first 24 hours of its occupation. I arrived at noon and found a small number of people on the corner of E. Trade and N. Davidson Streets with signs and masks. They had spent Friday night in Marshall Park, a few blocks away.
The official gathering wasn't to begin until 3 p.m., but as we stood on the corner, the numbers began to slowly swell. It's unclear exactly how many people ended up marching on Bank of America, but the number has been estimated at more than 500.
Before the march began, Occupy Charlotte's organizers — voted into their roles at the group's gathering the week before — met with police. Organizers then asked the larger group to join them on the lawn of the Old City Hall at 600 E. Trade St., where they went over some of the basic information. Marchers were told that the group did not have a leader, organizers were working closely with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department (which does not view the demonstrators as a threat), and that anyone who might be vulnerable if the protest went awry (children, pregnant women, handicapped people, etc.) would carry a yellow balloon. The group then collectively took a nonviolent pledge.
Listen to the group take their pledge here:
After the group's march to Bank of America and return to 600 Trade St., I decided to spend the night with the protesters. Here's why: Few media outlets are actually asking participants what the demonstration is all about, why people are doing what they're doing and how the Charlotte group is connected with the greater 'Occupy' movement. What better way to learn about people than to spend time with them and listen?
What I've learned is that most of those involved are involved for their own individual reasons. I've also learned that the group votes on everything it does, even if it's something as simple as which side of the lawn to set up camp or who's going to collect donations or trash. I've also learned that while the local demonstrators stand in solidarity with the larger 'Occupy' movement and are inspired by it, they are their own movement and their plans and actions are their own. Most view the occupation — the actual camping on public property — as symbolic, and they've set up an information table in an effort to reach out to anyone in the community who would like to stop by and ask questions.
As far as the agenda of the movement, it's intentionally vague. Ultimately, the group is attempting to bring attention to concerns about "corporate greed" and the government's failings which, most participants agree, have led to general feelings of injustice and distress among the American people.
The other thing I learned is that many of people who are deeply involved are kind, thoughtful, and respectful, and encourage other participants to look out for each other. The occupiers I met tended to enjoy getting into informed late-night conversations about world events. They expressed concern about the direction of the country and seemed to be hopeful about making a positive impact on society. What that will look and feel like, exactly, or how it will come about, remains to be seen.
With that, and with the permission of the participants I talked to, I asked several to share their 'whys' with us. My questions were simple: "What is your name? Where are you from? Why are you here?" I recorded their comments, and over the next couple of weeks we'll be posting the individual, unedited responses, so stay tuned.
Something else became clear to me while camping with Occupy Charlotte Saturday night: The citizens of this city are generous and interested in understanding the movement. People showed up with cases of bottled water and food — one family even brought leftovers from a birthday party (and a member of that family ended up camping with the group). Some of those who made donations stayed and asked questions or offered advice. A few people drove by shouting curse words, but many more honked their horns and waved — including several city bus drivers and at least one postal worker.
Here's one occupier's reply to my questions
Izzy, from upstate South Carolina. "... this is simply not one movement for one person, it's not one religion, one group, one politic, one idea or one thing period — it's a multitude of things. It's basically the melting pot movement, and with that we stand behind our beliefs and our ideals, and we stand together unified ..." Listen:
The people who are camping, or occupying, will likely come and go — and their numbers will rise and fall — as work and school schedules dictate their level of participation, but expect there to be an occupying presence in Charlotte for some time. The group has not yet voted on an end date.
The group also plans to conduct additional marches and protests, and the participants will vote on each one. Participants have identified OccupyCharlotte.org as the best portal for keeping up with the group's plans, since there is some confusion over which of the many Facebook pages to follow. Additionally, the official Twitter account is @OccupyCLT and the official hashtag is #OccupyCLT, though #OccupyCharlotte is also being used.
Keep in mind that the lack of leadership and emphasis on individuality could make it easy for the group's overall message, and even its plans, to become distorted. This makes it challenging to keep up, even for a reporter who has spent a great deal of time with them. I'm not sure how to help muddle through this distortion other than to emphasize that anyone can go down and visit with the participants and ask them to explain what's up.
The group will be holding meetings at its occupation spot twice daily at an undisclosed time in the morning and again at 7 p.m. The next General Assembly, like the one held this past Saturday, will be in same place on Sat. Oct. 15 at 3 p.m. according to the group's website.