At the Occupy Charlotte encampment on East Trade Street, people continue to come and go after two months of occupation. Tents still dot the Old City Hall grounds, but the kitchen is now a shadow of its former self. The numbers of demonstrators have dwindled at the Saturday protests from a high of about 600 on Oct. 8 to a low of fewer than 50 on Nov. 18. There's been infighting, worries about the Charlotte City Council attempting to make camping illegal, and numerous marches. There's also been talk about what the movement's role will be during the Democratic National Convention next fall.
The Charlotte camp has hosted Occupiers from around the state and country, and some of Charlotte's Occupiers have visited other camps. So we were curious: How does Occupy Charlotte compare to the encampments in other cities?
Similarities include the self-regulating nature of all Occupy camps: each holds regular General Assembly meetings using a direct democracy protocol, complete with the now-famous hand gestures. But no major celebrities have stopped by Occupy Charlotte and there's been little national media attention here. More notably, thousands show up for protests in cities like Portland, New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston, whereas hundreds, at most, have protested here.
We met with Charlotteans who have visited those cities. Here are some of their observations on how Occupy Charlotte stacks up.
New York City
Occupy Charlotte member Luis Rodriguez visited Occupy Wall Street's Zuccotti Park base in late October and was surprised by its small size, geographically. "You're talking about a tiny little park," he said. "On the front lawn of 600 East Trade Street, you could probably fit four Zuccotti Parks.
"There's this mythology that's come up amongst occupations across the country of Zuccotti Park," said Rodriguez, a 33-year-old writer and resident of East Charlotte. He said people tend to believe, erroneously, that the New York branch of the movement is vastly different. In reality, although the crowds are huge in Lower Manhattan, the New York and Charlotte groups are similarly organized. But there are some notable distinctions: While Charlotte's campers sleep on soft ground, campers in New York City lie on concrete. What's more, Occupy Wall Street's relationship with the police department has been dismal, while Charlotte's is cordial.
Rodriguez was impressed with the way New York Occupiers managed their supplies. "The way they did what they call 'comfort' — which is what we could classify as our 'supplies' — is very different," he said. For example, instead of everyone grabbing what they want, the inventory there is managed and carefully divvied out.
In October, retired social worker and teacher Alan Burns camped out at one of Washington, D.C.'s three occupations. Burns has marched with Occupy Charlotte several times but hasn't camped with the group. He said the members in D.C. skew older, but that they have a lot in common with Charlotte's Occupiers, particularly the way they care for the camps. "They move the tents around, they look after [the site]; it's clean," said Burns, 65.
Also like Charlotte, D.C. protesters have a Code of Conduct — a written agreement about how members should conduct themselves. Like Charlotte, D.C. had a civil relationship with police, although that changed over the weekend when 31 people were arrested.
There are other differences. While the Charlotte City Council has temporarily tabled the issue of whether to outlaw camping at Old City Hall, D.C. keeps extending its campers' permits. One amenity D.C. Occupiers have that Charlotte protesters may be jealous of is access to porta johns. (Recall that Charlotte denied the local group's request for outdoor facilities.) Additionally, D.C. knows how to throw a colorful protest, incorporating giant flags, drummers and an announcer to narrate the marches.
When Jessica Smedley visited Occupy Portland's three-block encampment during a visit to her hometown in early November, she found that the camp had a radio station, a coffee station, WiFi (Charlotte just got WiFi), multiple community gardens and compost areas. The Portland group generates power with a bicycle (Charlotte uses solar panels), incorporates flash mobs, has a kid village, hosts a "dog-cupy," uses megaphones at the G.A. meetings and offers interested protesters text updates.
Smedley, 31, lives in South Charlotte. She is not a member of Occupy Charlotte and has not visited the local site, but she knows Portland well and said the city is accustomed to organized protests of all kinds — "just about weekly ... about anything," she offered. Portland has spent $750,000 in police overtime pay, according to an ABC News report, while Charlotte has spent zero.
Danny Foster's family recently moved to Charlotte, but he still lives near Boston where he studies economics and international relations at Tufts. In Charlotte for Thanksgiving, he joined the local group in a march to Duke Energy. "I really appreciate the way Charlotte has been keeping the focus local," he said.
A "big fan" of Occupy Charlotte's Code of Conduct, Foster said, "I don't think it's a bad idea to have some ground rules." Occupy Boston has a Statement of Purpose similar to Charlotte's, but that's where similarities end.
On Oct. 11, after the Boston camp of about 1,000 attempted to expand, police arrested 129 people for trespassing. On Nov. 17, a judge issued a restraining order preventing police from evicting protesters. This past weekend, police evicted the Boston Occupiers' sink instead.
Boston's main camp is muddy, with plywood and crate walkways. The group live-streams its G.A. meetings and offers an automated phone recording for those looking for more information. The Boston group also includes an event called the "Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series," which has attracted famous visitors including philosopher Noam Chomsky.
Despite police raids and other struggles, a core of Occupiers at most camps has continued to soldier on and there's been talk of a national convention of Occupiers in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012. Soon after that, Charlotte will host what none of the other cities will have: the Democratic National Convention.
"We'll get it together," said Rodriguez. "We've got to."