October 16, 2011 - Charlotte, NC. Sunday afternoon with DJ, Tabby, Ben, Alex, Bobby, Jon, Walter, Tina, Chris, Tina, Jeremy and Yuri, 20-somethings, mostly, encamped on a lawn near the intersection of North Davidson and East Trade streets, carrying out the mission they have accepted: transforming the world from one based on money, hierarchies and corporate greed to one based on fairness, equality, and the Golden Rule -- "do unto others." This is their platform, one echoing across the globe as the movement known as Occupy Wall Street gains momentum.
"I was tired of seeing a world run by money," says 20-year-old DJ from Mooresville, when I asked, "so...why are you here?" He stretches out his jean-clad legs on the grass, leans back on his hands. "I saw what was going on on Wall Street, saw this as a great awakening for the American people. ...Speaking up has really been lost in the past three decades, since the 60's." Tabby, also 20, nods her head in agreement. The couple has been camping out since October 8th, when Occupy Wall Street began in Charlotte.
The scene just across from the Police Station on East Trade is eeriliy reminiscent of the 60's sit-ins, or, perhaps, Woodstock, without the rock music and with more sense of purpose. There isn't a lot of levity here. Young people, mostly in their 20's, mill around an encampment with 32 brightly colored tents. They wear jeans, t-shirts, bandanas, and tatts. Some body parts are pierced. The sun is warm, the sky a bright Carolina blue as the group sits in a circle under a shade tree. But this is no picnic. This is young people taking action in the best way they know how. "I was sick of being an armchair critic," Alex, 19, tells me. "It was time to do something and not just complain about it."
Critics of the movement in general have pointed out that the group may not be effective in obtaining its goal; to be true, the Charlotte group said, they've received no responses from corporate heads or political leaders. But as Chris, a history student, pointed out, protests such as these won voting and civil rights for many Americans. And the occupiers are effectively fashioning their own brand of society, "completely leaderless," Tabby said, but governed by consensus for the common good. The group meets twice a day to iron out problems and share news. The morning meeting, they told me, is for full-time occupiers, to settle nitty-gritty issues. (Things like what's up with the Port-a-Potties that were purchased, but haven't materialized because the group can't get a permit to place them on the grounds, Hannah tells me.) An evening meeting, called the General Assembly, is for everyone. Among the topics: a community dinner to be held this coming week, not for the occupiers, but for the Charlotte community as a whole. There are tiers of occupiers: full-timers, who live in the tents 24/7; part-timers, who pop in between classes and after work; and weekenders who come on Saturday or Sunday. Originally, the group was governed by an elected Council, but dissolved it in favor of a team of facilitators presiding over the meetings. Facilitators are selected by the group, or they can volunteer themselves. After each person chairs a meeting, he or she rotates off, so no one takes on the role of leader, no one person holds sole responsibility for decisions. And there are volunteer work groups -- security, maintenance, environment, medical. It's a loose kind of order, but it is order. Some anarchists stopped by the other night, they told me, but left when they discovered that Occupy wasn't quite their thing.
While officials may not be responding, the occupiers tell me that Charlotte residents are. "I feel at least 60 percent of the people are in support, however, not everybody has the ability to be here," Yuri, 25, tells me as she finishes up a meal. People stop by, dropping off Dunkin Donuts coffee, Bojangles chicken. A man from Tilt Bar came by with a case of water, returned to spend the evening, they said. A lady in an ice cream truck dropped off two or three cases of water, then apologized. DJ says, "She can't make it out here, but she wants to do her share." A Franciscan friar named Don comes by in the evening; he gave DJ a sleeping bag. "I was actually surprised," Hannah says. "The support has been unreal. The CMPD [Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which is right across the street from the encampment] has been great."
Over in the cooking area, two folding tables are stacked up-top and down-below with groceries -- cereal, pancake mix, water, bread, paper products, packets of noodles, fruit, bread, cheezits and -- this is the South -- grits. As we speak, a volunteer named Diane flips pancakes on the propane stove; the familiar scent of Sunday brunch wafts through the air, mingling with cigarette smoke as the occupiers chuck butts into a bucket in the center of the circle under the tree. All around them, other young people stride around, purposefully moving from tent to tent. Occasionally, announcements are shouted out -- groups meeting, some information that needs to be shared. Although Bobby said some people are afraid to stop by because they don't understand what's going on, many do take the time to find out. A team is in place to give them the information they need.
Suddenly, a group of men begin lifting tents and plopping them down in spots a few yards away. "What on earth," I start to say, and the group tells me that tents are moved every four days to protect the grass. This, after all, is their home. They have to protect it.
Conventional wisdom is that the occupiers are unemployed or simply lazy, an idea the Charlotte occupiers want to put to rest quickly. One tent bears a sign: "I work fulltime.Sold my car to pay bills." In the group I'm with, Walter carries a sign reading, "I have a job and I occupy." He is a pet groomer and occupies on and off as his schedule permits. Chris, 40, is a history and secondary education student at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). Ben has been a pharmacy technician for six years and is studying to become a nurse at CPCC. Alex, 19, juggles work and school; Tina, 31, is the full-time-stay-at-home mother of two children aged four and two and a half; Yuri, with whom I spoke later in the day, is an independent musician/activist/hair stylist/audio engineer. Tabby is a waitress. Still, employment is very much on their minds, not so much because they need jobs, but because they don't like the atmosphere of the workplace. Why, they ask, should CEOs earn so much more, and get so many more benefits than lower-level workers who, well, actually do the work? And it isn't just the workplace that is problematic. The political system, too, is tainted by money. Lobbyists control politicians, they say; politicians, Alex says, should be like NASCAR drivers, wearing the logos of their supporters on their jackets. These days, anyone wanting to run for office can't do it without heavy-duty financial backing -- "it takes money just to run for office," DJ said. Frustration is evident in their voices. They consider themselves patriots, doing their civic duty by speaking out against a system they cannot stand.
"People with kids should be more accepting of this [movement]," Walter says, still clutching his sign. "When our children grow up, they'll wonder why you didn't try to make a change." Banks don't want you to get out of debt; that was never going to happen." "Perpetual debt is the name of the game," DJ adds.
So, what is important, I ask. "Do unto others. Nobody wqnts to be treated unfairly. You don't...I don't, neither do I," Walter says. Jon thinks a moment, trying to remember who made the statement that sums it up for him: "In a perfect world, capitalism won't work and Marxism won't be necessary."
To learn more about Occupy Wall Street: stop by the site on East Trade St., just below the intersection with North Davidson. A dinner for the Charlotte community is being planned for this week.