On the night of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, black activist Bill Saunders says he was sitting in the Progressive Club on Johns Island when a gunshot crashed through the window. The bullet missed, but the message stayed with him: He could die for the cause.
By crazy luck, street smarts, or the grace of God, Saunders has not died in the intervening decades. He has been to jail five times. He organized an armed militia to protect himself and other protesters when the civil rights movement came to Charleston. His critics have painted him as a communist and a militant in league with the Black Panthers, but he rejects the labels. Today, at 78 years old, Saunders is still raising hell, albeit more quietly from the modest Rivers Avenue headquarters of his Committee On Better Racial Assurance (COBRA). So when Occupy, the first major liberal protest movement of 21st-century America, made inroads in the Holy City in October 2011, Saunders believed in the cause and paid close attention.
But when, about a month into its existence, Occupy Charleston asked permission from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. to occupy Marion Square, Saunders could only laugh. “‘Please, sir, please let me occupy. I can be good!'” Saunders says mockingly. “No, there’s no way that the mayor would approve anything, so you do it. You do it because it’s the right thing … You’ve gotta be willing to pay the damn consequences.”
Eventually, 10 Occupiers did pay the consequences in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 22, 2011, when police arrested them as they stood their ground in Marion Square. But rather than add fuel to the local Occupy fire, the arrests effectively deterred the protesters from further occupations. Occupy Charleston, which had only ever occupied out-of-the-way Brittlebank Park for 99 hours (with police sanction), never occupied anything again.
The last time members of Occupy Charleston can remember having a formal meeting was in the fall of 2012. Occupycharleston.org, once the homepage of the movement, now consists of Japanese text and a banner image of stir-fry beef. Members have moved on, some to other political movements, others to the doldrums of apathy.
Former Occupy Charleston members have a variety of theories about why the movement fizzled. Some blame the police crackdown, others a lack of focus, others a division between older and younger participants. “We were fighting a huge machine with nothing. Of course they prevailed eventually,” says former Occupier Dave Crossley.
It’s probably fair to speak of Occupy Charleston in the past tense now, but it’s not fair to call it a failure. Occupiers shook up the 2012 Republican presidential primary season in Charleston, gaining worldwide media attention as they glitter-bombed Rick Santorum in the name of gay rights and loudly called out Michele Bachmann for accepting money from the Koch Brothers. In April 2012, they picketed in front of then-U.S. Rep. Tim Scott’s office to demand that he stop student Stafford loan rates from doubling — a problem that still looms large in 2013. As recently as December 2012, Occupiers participated in an effort to block a container ship from delivering Bangladeshi-made garments to the Port of Charleston. And a small group of former Occupiers continues to serve a free potluck lunch every Sunday at 1 p.m. in Mall Park to crowds that include homeless and food-insecure people.
“I think the greatest success of Occupy Charleston was showing that it could be done here,” says former Occupier Nick Rubin. “We made international news. If Occupy could get a foothold here, then it could get a foothold anywhere.”
William Hamilton, an attorney who participated in some of Occupy Charleston’s earliest activities, says that while the group certainly had organizational problems, the political woes they were railing against were far more egregious. “Dismissing the local Occupy movement, which was quite imperfect, as a bunch of spoiled, dirty hippies missed realities far more important than the fact that most of them were happy to take regular showers,” Hamilton says. “Those missed realities were things we still need to talk about, and our lives would be happier if we did.”
One way of assessing Occupy Charleston’s scale and success is to compare it to one of the largest, most successful protest movements in Charleston’s history: the hospital strike of 1969, a 113-day labor dispute that drew the support of Coretta Scott King and the attention of President Richard Nixon.
In 1968, an African-American nurses’ aide named Mary Moultrie began organizing black workers at the Medical College Hospital (now the Medical University of South Carolina) to address grievances with their employer. Moultrie had earned her Licensed Practical Nurse certification, but the hospital refused to promote her beyond the low-paying position of nurses’ aide.
Moultrie worked alongside Bill Saunders, then a mattress factory employee with an interest in voter registration and labor organization, to address the nurses’ grievances. Dwana Waugh, a visiting public historian at the Avery Research Center in Charleston, says accounts from the time reveal that white hospital employees referred to their black co-workers as “monkey wrenches” and refused to share patient information with black workers at shift change.
Things reached a tipping point when the hospital fired 12 employees, including Moultrie. The workers had been in contact with the New York-based healthcare union Local 1199, and in March 1969, 400 members of Charleston’s newly formed Local 1199B formed a picket line. This piqued the interest of Coretta Scott King, whose late husband Martin Luther King Jr. had once called 1199 “my favorite union.” Soon civil rights and labor leaders from around the country flocked to Charleston, which proved to be one of the last battlegrounds of the civil rights era. By one account in the socialist newspaper Liberation, 10,000 protesters, mostly African Americans, marched in Charleston on Mother’s Day 1969. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference encouraged participants to clog the aisles at local stores, and unionized longshoremen threatened to shut down the port in solidarity.
So, how does Occupy Charleston stack up against the ’69 hospital strike? Both were, at least partly, extensions of a national movement — civil rights in ’69, Occupy Wall Street in 2011. But whereas the list of grievances was broad-ranging for Occupy Charleston, including everything from campaign finance laws to employment policies at Walmart, the hospital strike had deliberately specific goals. Saunders recalls meeting with workers who had a list of 20 demands from their employer, and he told them to narrow the list down to 10. In the end, the workers got most of their demands, including the re-hiring of the 12 fired employees, the establishment of an official grievance procedure, and the creation of a nondiscrimination policy at the hospital. The hospital stopped short of recognizing 1199B as a collective bargaining group, and workers at MUSC still do not have a union today.
Another contrast is in how the two groups dealt with authority. Occupy Charleston politely requested permission to occupy, but the hospital strikers simply took to the streets. Saunders says he respected then-Police Chief John F. Conroy, a tough ex-Marine who largely kept violence at bay even as National Guardsmen entered the crowds. Still, Saunders says, when the FBI came to him at one point concerned that violence would break out in Charleston, his response was less than conciliatory. “I told them we’d never have a riot in Charleston. We’d have a war, not a riot.”
Occupy Charleston never matched the spectacle of the Occupy movements in Zuccotti Park or at Los Angeles City Hall. But Chris Faraone, a Boston-based reporter and author of the seminal Occupy account 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, says the real hallmarks of a successful movement were “small, short victories, particularly local ones.” Faraone traveled to report on about two dozen Occupy movements nationwide, and the stories he tells aren’t about toppling corrupt banks or overthrowing governments. Victory came in Austin, Texas, when Occupy convinced City Council to pass a resolution divesting city money from Bank of America, and in Montana, Occupy Missoula helped organize protests against the privatization of the local water supply. Faraone says another important outcome has been the discovery that certain supposedly public places were actually on private land — as Occupy Charleston learned when Mitt Romney’s staff gave them the boot from a rally at Charles Towne Landing, or when they found out a city ordinance still technically reserves the use of Marion Square for the Sumter Guards and the Washington Light Infantry militia group.
Faraone says the lasting legacy of the dwindling Occupy movements is that many members have moved on to other forms of activism and political involvement. “Every generation needs something to stimulate people into giving a fuck,” says Faraone, never one to mince words. “Whether it was the anti-nuclear proliferation movement in the ’80s, the anti-war movement in the late ’60s and ’70s, you name it, it was Occupy for this generation.”
Kathi Regalbuto, one of the Charleston Occupiers who still helps out at the weekly potlucks, describes Occupy as a wake-up call for many people who, like her, had been politically active in the 1960s. “A lot of us had kind of settled into our little complacent lives and not done anything. It got me back into it,” Regalbuto says. Today, she is involved in advocacy for students and is in the planning stages for establishing a city-recognized homeless encampment modeled after the Dignity Village of Portland, Ore.
Former Occupier Dave Crossley describes Occupy as “a pleasant memory.” He says that what he had expected to be just another gathering of fellow liberals turned out to be a crossroads of anarchist, communist, Democratic, Green, and libertarian politics, and the people he met helped re-shape his politics. He was troubled to see tension between the over-30 and under-30 crowds within Occupy, and he was saddened when young people started leaving the group, but he still calls Occupy Charleston one of the best things that ever happened to him. “We were on the right side of history. For one brief, shining moment, it seemed as if the American ship was going to right itself,” Crossley says.
Not all of the Occupiers have found new outlets for their activism. Courtney Faller, who at one point served as a spokesman for Occupy Charleston, says he left the movement about a year ago and has not gotten involved with another movement since. “I’m very cynical about the political process,” Faller says. “The Occupy movement did stir a little bit of hope in me, but I’m back to being a very cynical person about politics, so I tend to stay out of it except for voting.”
Bill Saunders knows about discouragement. He felt it upon returning home wounded from the Korean War, when a cop at a Greyhound station told him that colored men weren’t allowed on the white bus — and white soldiers who had fought alongside him didn’t lift a finger in opposition. He felt it during the hospital strike, when he says S.C. Gov. Robert McNair called on the phone and asked him to announce in church that the governor was going to bring about a resolution to the strike — a promise that turned out to be false after mass arrests began that night in Charleston. And he felt it in 1980 when he ran for the state senate against Republican Glenn McConnell. The now-lieutenant governor won after repeatedly pointing out that Saunders had once welcomed the Black Panther Stokely Carmichael into his Johns Island home. “He called me a communist,” Saunders says. “I was wounded fighting communism.”
Saunders never expected to live this long. What he did expect was opposition. “I am a real follower of Jesus,” Saunders says. “Jesus stood up to the government, you know, and the government killed him, but he stood up against the government. That’s what the Occupy folks have been trying to do.”
According to Saunders, even the 12 nurses who were reinstated at Medical College Hospital faced opposition when they returned to the workplace. “I tell young people, if you’re out doing the right thing and trying to help people, you’re the one that’s going to suffer. There’s nothing for people who do good … if they are not looking for some peace and joy within their own souls.”