Protesters gather around the food tent for an early morning breakfast. (Brad Cooper / GSO)
Stopping on a slightly familiar historic Charleston street corner, I called the Occupy Charleston organizer I was supposed to interview. “I’ll meet you outside,” she said. “Oh, and I hope you don’t mind if some of my friends are here.”
She led me down an old cobbled alley and through a gate into a pleasant little courtyard, where there were five twenty-something year-olds sitting in wicker chairs and benches in a circle. I sat down in the one empty seat and introduced myself.
The discussion began flowing instantly. Any attempt to credit single people in the group with the following quotes would be impossible, and pointless anyway. It was too collective, too organic to label with individual names.
Occupy Charleston, the grassroots movement that sprung up in the wake of the ongoing Wall Street protests in New York, has gathered momentum since its first general assembly on Oct. 7.
The intention of my interview was to gather information about the recent 99-hour occupation of Brittlebank Park, which began last Wednesday and ended on Sunday.
Hundreds of Charlestonians flocked to the park on Lockwood for the demonstration, organized by the Occupy Charleston movement. The weekend was filled with camping, cooking, music, lectures, marches, protests, and general discourse about what Occupy Charleston, as well as the Occupy movement as a whole, is all about.
Many people pitched tents and stayed overnight for some or all of the event. Others came during the day and left at night, while others were there simply observing.
Wednesday was spent mainly setting up sleeping tents, an area to hold daily general assemblies, portable toilets, and a food tent that provided free, hot meals to campers and non-campers alike.
Things were kicked off on Thursday with a ten hour “teach-in,” with speakers ranging from college professors to students to lawyers to old wise men to people simply with something to share.
Also on Thursday, about a dozen protesters marched down Meeting Street to Bank of America and Wells Fargo where they handed out fliers, shouted slogans such as “Give the money back,” and carried signs criticizing corporate greed and corrupt banking practices. Another march took place Friday, with many people wearing costumes as they tramped down King Street.
At least two police officers were permanently stationed at Brittlebank during the event. One officer said he was not allowed to make an official comment to the media, but that even if he was, there would be nothing to say about the peaceful, legal demonstration.
Simply organizing and acquiring a permit for the event was a huge process in itself, involving various city hearings, daily meetings with the police department and fire marshal, and getting permission from the parks and recreation department.
The group also had to raise money for food, generators, portable toilets, tents, and other expenses.
After their permit expired and the event ended on Sunday, a number of organizers drove up to Columbia to meet with Occupy Columbia members to discuss joining the two groups together to form Occupy South Carolina.
“There was no collective idea of staying past the end of the permit,” one said. “But we hope in the future to stage another occupation at a more central location, such as Marion Square or Battery Park.”
A few people showed up one day to protest the protest, holding signs with messages such as ‘Capitalism works if you do.’
When asked about the counter-protesters, Occupy Charleston organizer Nick Rubin shook his head and called it a misunderstanding.
“We are not anti-capitalists. The movement has ideas about what is wrong with capitalism, but we aren’t a bunch of socialists. There are no ‘isms’ here. We want accountability, an end to government corruption, and equality. We all want a fair share of our democracy.”
Stefan Koster, a sophomore at the College of Charleston, walked to Brittlebank on Friday after class to check out the event, more as a spectator than anything. He ended up sitting around a bonfire and talking with a group of people who eventually insisted that he stay the night in their tent, even giving him a mattress and a sleeping bag. He stayed Friday and Saturday nights and helped with cleanup on Sunday.
“Everyone was more than welcoming in having us stay there,” Koster said. “The evening started out with light conversation, but by the end of the night it had transformed into a deeply political discussion. They were very concerned with getting to know us and why we were there.”
One man, who appeared to be in his thirties or forties, simply hung out for the day and left. “I found that the atmosphere was vibrant and engaging,” he said. “People were really happy to talk to me even though I wasn’t camping out.”
For those who don’t know, Occupy Wall Street is an ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City originally called for by the activist group Adbusters that began almost two months ago. The participants of the event, though diverse in backgrounds and beliefs, are mainly protesting against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government, among other concerns.
The original New York occupation, centered around a permanent central camp in Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Manhattan, began nearly two months ago and has spurred offshoot Occupy movements across the United States and around the world, with protests now on all seven continents.
Despite the spread and magnitude of the movement, many people are unsure of the message behind it. According to an Oct. 18 Gallup poll, 63 percent of Americans don’t know enough to say whether or not they agree with the goals of Occupy Wall Street.
The perceived lack of a message, which has been a main criticism of the movement, frustrates the Charleston occupiers I spoke with.
“We have been giving out a targeted, focused message. But it’s ignored by the media,” one said. Of course, there are many differing views withing the movement, but the Charleston protesters have managed to “agree to disagree” and come together on major issues.
These issues are outlined in an official resolution that can be found on the Occupy Charleston website. Its three main points are, in general terms, increasing corporate accountability, ending corrupt corporate ties to government, and creating a minimum standard of living pay to ensure equitability. Specific actions to achieve these goals are outlined in the document.
Much of the anger that fuels those who call themselves “The 99 percent” is centered around corporate money that has become inextricably tied to politics. “[Large corporations] are voting with their lobbyists and their money. It is much more effective to vote with your money.”
The 99 percent is not only used to describe those who are active in the movement, but nearly everyone in society – quite literally, the 99 percent of people who are not at the top, in terms of money, power, and status.
“It’s about money being out of politics, even people who make $400,000 a year,” one of the Charleston occupiers said. “There’s no chance for any of us to be a part of [the 1 percent], because they’re already established.”
“You might as well call it the 99.999 percent,” another quipped.
One member mentioned that her boyfriend is technically part of the 1 percent, but that he is still very supportive of the movement. “It’s not about eating the rich,” she said. “It’s not a witch-hunt. It’s an affirmative, positive movement. But the 1 percent has to get the message.”
A main concern of Occupy protesters has been being labeled as an arm of the Democratic Party, or as a counter-Tea Party – something espoused by many on both sides of the political spectrum. One occupier made it clear that, although individuals might support a party, the movement as a whole has no party affiliation.
“Parties are the reason we’re here. They have used social issues as a smokescreen to keep politics from emerging that represent the 99 percent, and to distract people from what’s really going on. We want to fill the void.”
“Whether you support a specific party or not, you’re going to leave that at the door,” another added. “The stands we take are for Occupy. It’s for the 99 percent.”
On Oct. 21 on their Facebook page, Occupy Charleston published an official statement of autonomy:
“Occupy Charleston hereby declares itself autonomous from the political establishment. We do not endorse any political parties and will reject any endorsement from them. We stand in solidarity only with Occupy Movements.”
The movement is host to all stripes of personal and political views, including liberal Democrats, union leaders, anarchists, Republicans, libertarians, moderates, independents, social activists, veterans, apathetic college students, business owners, and even a Tea Party member who claimed he would “rather die than vote for Obama in twenty-twelve.”
“I was impressed by how many Republicans said, ‘we really like this. It reflects a lot of what we stand for,’” one of the occupiers said.
Another common misconception is that the the Occupy movement is, in the words of one observer, “a bunch of college kids living off their parents’ money.” In fact, very few of the most active organizers of Occupy Charleston are in college, and all of the six I spoke with were financially self-supporting.
“I came out of college with high hopes, but no jobs,” one said. “I did everything I was supposed to – I got good grades in high school, got scholarships, and graduated from college – and now I’m working a low-paying job at a restaurant because there was nothing out there. I don’t want to live hand to mouth for the rest of my life.”
Members of the South Carolina Democratic Party brought pizza to the Occupy Charleston event one day, but did not stay for long. “Here’s pizza for you pajama party,” one protester joked after the pizza arrived, reflecting the underlying feeling that many involved in mainstream politics don’t take the movement seriously.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in her speech at the College of Charleston Thursday addressed the event, as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, after a student asked her if she felt the protests reflect the interests and concerns of the average South Carolinian. She claimed that unions are responsible for funding the movement for further their own goals.
“Occupy Wall Street is interesting,” Haley said. “Do you know who’s funding them? Their money is coming from the unions. The unions are behind Occupy Wall Street to get everyone to strike.”
She said she supports protesting against government in general, but condemned the Occupy demonstrations.
“There’s nothing I love more than to see people picket. That is what makes our country great. What I don’t like is when there’s an influx of money trying to distract people and to get people to do something. I mean, look at the signs when you go to Occupy Wall Street. The signs say, ‘I’m mad too.’ Or ‘honk if you’ve heard of me.’ There’s no theme around it.”
She went on to praise the Tea Party as a real example of a grassroots social movement representing the will of the people.
“If you look at the Tea Party, it was all types. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, saying you’re not spending the money the right way, you’re not representing us. The Tea Party had a theme around it; it was that government is supposed to work for us, not against us. [Occupy Wall Street] has no theme around it. And if you go and look at the money behind it, it’s unions. It’s just unions trying to go and maneuver the options.”
Mrs. Haley’s statement is not quite on point.
According to a Fox News article, there have been some cash donations to Occupy Wall Street collected on behalf of some unions. However, this sum is only around $5,000 of the reported grand total of $435,000. The majority of funds have come from donations made by individuals online and in person.
Overall, the six Charleston occupiers I spoke with felt the Brittlebank event was a success.
“We brought a conscious level to it,” one said. “We created a come-see-for-yourself atmosphere, a place to get solid information. It’s important to get people out there, establish a presence, and collect for longer than a two-hour march.”
They unanimously agreed that, along with making an impact on the outside world, being a part of the homegrown movement has profoundly changed them as individuals.
“I don’t care about the same things anymore. It gives me a true optimism, something I’ve never really had before. We created a new American dialogue.”
The group also forged a strong bond with each other – some hadn’t even known the others until Occupy Charleston took off.
“We are a family. This is our social life now. We met and bonded on something higher than ourselves.”
Indeed, there was a distinctly collective energy in the air by the time the interview came to a close. As we stood up, I asked if they wanted me to put their names in the paper. They just shrugged and smiled, and walked away.