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Activists Demonstrate Renewed Commitment 

Charlotte sees a spate of recent protests for progressive social change

Amber Vollmer, Amber Stepp and Katie Cathey weren't on Elizabeth Avenue last week to speak out against the war in Iraq or President Bush. Nor were they among the non-participating people who'd happened upon the protest.

The three UNC-Charlotte students had shown up simply in search of a demonstration any demonstration.

"We've been looking all semester," Stepp said.

The three have found only a few in Charlotte since their sociology instructor made an unusual assignment: find protests and talk to demonstrators about their motives. But Charlotte, it seems, isn't an ideal city to witness activism firsthand.

"I don't think Charlotte wants to promote controversy," said Vollmer.

"This is a banking community," Cathey offered by way of explanation.

Not exactly a shocking discovery: Charlotte ain't Berkeley. It's not even Chapel Hill. But recent events show the city isn't as politically inert as it might seem. A couple hundred people chanted anti-Bush slogans at the demonstration April 6, the day Chearlottean Harry Taylor made international headlines for the sharp criticism he gave Bush during the President's talk at Central Piedmont Community College.

And just two weeks earlier, thousands of people gathered in Marshall Park to support changes to immigration law that favor newcomers. That crowd was overwhelmingly -- but not completely -- Hispanic, and the event attracted attention across the Carolinas.

Charlotte has experienced a spate of recent protests that would make any liberal proud, and at least a few events have attracted more than the same handful of hard-core picketers you see in front of St. Peter's Catholic Church almost every weekend.

Laura Ciudad of the Latin American Coalition says the level of local activity surrounding the immigration issue has amazed her. "I've never seen so many people wanting to be involved, to be a part of the movement. And just wanting to take action. I mean, Latinos and non-Latinos, immigrants and people who have been here for several generations," she said.

Charlotte's reputation has been Mayberry with tall buildings, a local minister recently said to Creative Loafing. In the 1970s, the school busing issue made Charlotte a laboratory of social and racial change, but that door has long since closed. Let Chapel Hill worry about Darfur and sweatshop labor -- Charlotte is a place where the reasonably comfortable majority can make money, raise a family and worry about property taxes.

Last week, however, the city drew attention when Taylor, a 61-year-old real estate developer, told Bush he should be ashamed of himself. Within hours, thousands of people had left laudatory messages at By the morning of April 10, nearly 10,000 people had posted their names on the site and Taylor's phone still had not stopped ringing. "I was the kid that said the emperor doesn't have any clothes on the other day," said Taylor, "and there's a million people who want to say that."

Taylor, who first came to activism through the Sierra Club three years ago, was part of a demonstration outside a previous Bush visit. "There's like 150 people down there protesting. There should have been 50,000 down there," he recalled.

He believes political consciousness in Charlotte is "extremely apathetic" but said he doesn't want to come off as judgmental, because that "doesn't help marshal the forces and get people to think."

Taylor believes he struck a chord with his recent criticism not just because of his views but because he presented them calmly and civilly. "When you start yelling at your neighbors and screaming and swearing at them, I don't think you're getting anywhere," he said.

In recent years, local political activity has involved hardline social conservatives who protest Charlotte's annual gay pride festivities and gay-themed theater. So far, opponents haven't managed to run gays out of town, although you might think so if you listen to Operation Save America, the Concord-based group otherwise known for harassing women outside abortion clinics.

Operation Save America leader "Flip" Benham has credited the Lord with postponing this year's gay pride event. But Laura Witkowski, executive director of the Charlotte Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said the postponement is because previous years' organizers were "burned out." She plans to announce the event's new date soon.

Last year's gay pride event was held at Marshall Park, where the March 25 immigration demonstration took place. But that rally wasn't the only pro-immigrant demonstration. On April 10, local immigrant activists participated in the national "Day of No Consumption," in which people boycotted businesses and students staged walkouts.

"The reason that immigration is getting as much publicity is because these demonstrations are huge," Taylor said. "We don't see that often enough."

Taylor's recent foray into the spotlight underscores his view that people shouldn't sit idly and wait for instructions. "We get the government that we allow to be in there. The reason that the politicians can do what they do is because they can," he said. "If democracy is going to work, the people that are living in the democracy have to be involved."

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