The first evening I spent with the occupiers, they were 80 strong and crammed into the fellowship hall at the Unitarian Church of Charleston. Before the group got down to business, Jenna Lyles rose to face the crowd and the small pack of reporters at the back of the room. She volunteered to moderate the meeting, and then she asked for everyone to do a one-minute meditation on “what kind of world we all want to live in.”
It was Oct. 6, and Occupy Charleston was wild-eyed in its infancy.
The last evening I spent with the occupiers, they kicked me out. It was Dec. 1, and they had gathered in a circle inside a conference room at the Charleston County Main Library for a General Assembly meeting.
Before the meeting had properly begun, Courtney Faller raised a point of order: Occupy Charleston does not allow reporters or police officers into closed-door General Assemblies, which are otherwise broadly advertised and open to the public, without prior consent from the group. I was beyond the point of pretending I was just another occupier; they knew who I was and why I was there. At least half of the roughly 30 people in the room recognized me as a reporter from previous Occupy events, from the meager occupation of Brittlebank Park to the anxious first night of the illegal occupation of Marion Square.
There was some dispute over whether to enforce the no-reporters rule, which went into effect during the Brittlebank occupation. One member suggested that they put me to the test by asking if I identified myself as one of the 99 Percent. Someone else pointed out how difficult it would be to identify members of the press once the group started growing beyond its current size. Nick Rubin, the meeting moderator, asked for a show-of-hands vote on whether to overturn the rule in my favor for just one night. I got only six votes, and they asked me to leave.
As I exited through the lobby, library media manager Kevin Crothers stopped me and asked, “Are you the press?” I said I was, and he said, “They can’t throw you out of a meeting here.” Crothers told me it was the library’s policy that anyone who uses the conference room has to keep it totally open to the public.
He offered to escort me back into the meeting, but I declined. On a certain level, I understood the anti-media sentiment. For being such a small group of people, Occupy Charleston has been the subject of an incredible amount of public scrutiny. As with the oft-maligned Occupy Wall Street movement, columnists, pundits, and armchair politicos have posited all sorts of theories about Occupy Charleston: They just want handouts. They are merely the Democratic Party’s answer to the Republicans’ Tea Party. They lack focus. They are heroes, losers, martyrs, bums.
After the meeting, Faller assured me he had meant no personal insult by bringing up the no-reporters rule — in fact, he had voted to allow me to stay.
“There’s a trust issue that we have with the media right now,” Faller said. “We know there’s certain outlets that will be sympathetic to us, but in general I think there are a lot of people in the media that are just itching for us to fail.” For someone looking to eviscerate the movement, a sometimes-contentious meeting of the General Assembly is ripe with opportunities to mock. “There’s plenty of ammunition if someone is so inclined,” he said.
I confessed to him that my goal that evening was not a flattering one for the movement: I wanted to know if Occupy Charleston was dead. Nearly two months after their first meeting, the occupiers had mustered only a 99-hour occupation of out-of-the-way Brittlebank Park and a two-night stay at Marion Square — abruptly ended by a police raid that yielded 10 arrests. Was Occupy Charleston ever going to pick up momentum?
“I know there are a lot of people who think that this is going to go away in a month, that this is a fad, this is a flash in the pan,” Faller said. “We’re not. This is going to be here for years. It’s OK if there are a few hiccups at first.”
Kendra Stewart, an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston, says she has been following the news from Occupy Columbia closely. Occupiers there have had a presence on the Statehouse lawn since Oct. 15, with their ranks sometimes swelling beyond 200, and an arrest edict last month from Gov. Nikki Haley led to 19 arrests, a legal clash, and a small public outcry. But Stewart hasn’t kept up with developments from Occupy Charleston, which has had smaller turnouts and lower-profile conflicts.
Stewart says the lack-of-focus critique is a common one for new movements; she remembers it well from the Tea Party’s primordial days. That’s not what worries her about Occupy Charleston or about the Occupy movement in general. She sees a mismatch between message and medium. Picket protests and sit-ins have historically worked well for addressing social issues from women’s rights to civil rights, she says, but they don’t work well if you’re targeting banks or Congress. In other words, if you’re going to call for regulation of the sale of mortgage-backed securities, camping out in a park might not be the most effective way to do it.
“Is it the political aspect, is it the economic aspect, or is it the social aspect? And are they using the right tactics to do that?” she asks. “It seems they’re using social tactics to address political and economic issues.”
“If Occupy Charleston’s main mode of protest ends up being these traditional models of protest where they occupy something, they really in the end won’t have much effect unless they mobilize in ways that can influence the political and economic system in this area and the state,” Stewart adds.
Still, she says, the well-publicized arrest of 10 Marion Square occupiers on the eve of Thanksgiving could be a catalyst for growth. “It does raise public attention and public awareness, which can create public sympathy,” she says. That’s what seems to have happened with Occupy Columbia.
Tim Liszewski, a sometime political organizer who was one of the 19 arrested on the Statehouse grounds on Nov. 16, says last month’s crackdown has proven to be a boon for occupiers in the capital city. “Nikki Haley, in some respects, has been our best booster,” he says.
There was at least one significant difference between the Nov. 16 arrests in Columbia and the Nov. 23 arrests in Charleston: The battle lines were drawn differently. In Charleston, the occupiers had sought approval from Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who, by their own accounts, heartily opposed all of their occupation plans and warned them not to be in Marion Square after 11 p.m. In Columbia, although Haley ordered the protesters off her lawn by 6 p.m., Occupy Columbia had already gotten the backing of Police Chief Randy Scott and Mayor Steve Benjamin. After Haley sicced the Bureau of Protective Services on the occupiers and had them arrested at the foot of the Confederate soldier statue, there was a problem: City police refused to send a paddy wagon to the scene of the arrests. The officers had to wait on a bus to arrive from 15 minutes away at the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center, and they held the handcuffed occupiers in a parking garage in the meantime.
It also helped that a violent thunderstorm swept over the Statehouse during the arrests, adding portent and pathos to the entire scene. “It was almost Biblical,” Liszewski says. His case, along with those of the 18 others who had been arrested, was dropped on Nov. 30 by a court solicitor who found no legal basis for the charge of unauthorized use of Statehouse grounds. Attorney Joe McCullough, who represents the Columbia occupiers on civil matters, says they are not prohibited from pitching tents by the city’s urban camping laws. He says a distinction was drawn between simply sleeping on the Statehouse grounds (as a side note, homeless people have done this for years) and using the camp-out as a means of political expression. Spending the night is protected speech under the First Amendment, he says.
Liszewski’s advice to the Charleston occupiers is to stay the course and maintain a physical public presence.
“If they’re not allowed to sleep [in Marion Square], draw up a schedule and have people be on the sidewalk there with signs and have two-hour shifts and keep it continuous,” Liszewski says. “There’s a way to make it work. You’ve just got to work within whatever constraints are thrust upon you.”
But on Thursday, even after Occupy Charleston attorney Christopher Inglese got the group permission to re-enter Marion Square during daylight hours, nobody went to the park. The group of five occupiers who huddled together on the steps of the municipal court after Judge Joseph Mendelsohn had amended the terms of their bond were tight-lipped around reporters, and the mood could hardly be called triumphant. Faller said later that the occupation of Marion Square was on the back burner for the time being.
“It’s not like we’re giving up on that,” Faller said. “It’s that right now we can’t afford to have 40 or 50 cops show up and arrest the rest of us.”
I have sometimes had reservations about the amount of coverage I give to Occupy Charleston, since it is an undeniably small group of people most days. At one point at Brittlebank Park, the reporters nearly outnumbered the occupiers.
But Occupy is my generation’s first major protest movement. And besides, everyone likes to talk about it. Stories about the occupiers, however minor, are often City Paper‘s most popular stories online, and they generate no shortage of buzz in the comments section, on blogs, and in community spaces from barbershops to bars.
The Charleston Police Department estimates that it has spent $17,750 in overtime pay for officers responding to Occupy demonstrations so far, a figure roughly equivalent to the $17,000 that Gov. Haley said had gone toward police overtime and other expenses over the course of a month in Columbia (“How much food would $17,000 buy on America Street?” asks occupier Brandon Fish). Nationwide, the Associated Press has estimated that the total taxpayer cost for police overtime and municipal services related to occupations is at least $13 million. Last week, many Occupy movements nationwide were booted from their strongholds, with a fallout that included 300 arrests in Los Angeles and 50 arrests in Philadelphia.
The Charleston occupiers still face trespassing charges, and their court date is set for Jan. 3. In the meantime, they have turned their attention to other pursuits, Faller says. They hosted their first potluck dinner in Mall Park on Nov. 27, and Faller says the group intends to hold regular potlucks on Sundays from now on. Dylan O’Dell, a former employee of several Charleston-area restaurants who helped organize the first event, says about 80 people showed up to feast on turkey, succotash, tabbouleh, and gumbo. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. You show up, you get a plate,” he says.
Faller says Occupy Charleston is also devising a plan for “foreclosure assistance,” although he refuses to give details of how that will work. He says they intend to act on their plan by the end of the year. “Our next big push is doing good works in the community — feed the hungry and rescue homeowners,” he says.
The members of Occupy Charleston still have not announced what their movement stands for. There are still talks, as there were at the Unitarian Church meeting, of “what kind of world we all want to live in.” Speaking to occupiers, a recurring thread is the call for a reversal of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a 2010 Supreme Court case that expanded the rights of corporations in campaign politics. Members have also called for public funding of elections, stricter regulation of hedge fund trading, and, in general, a redistribution of wealth in America.
Faller still speaks fondly of the way a contingent of 30 occupiers interrupted Michele Bachmann’s foreign policy speech on the U.S.S. Yorktown on Nov. 10. For a moment, they gained the national spotlight as they shouted slogans and criticisms in unison. A planned repeat of that performance fell flat during Newt Gingrich’s Sottile Theatre appearance last Monday when protesters showed up too late and were turned away at the door. But the Bachmann event was gold for the movement, Faller says.
“It announced to the political and financial community at large and the elites, ‘You’re not safe,'” Faller says. “Even deep in South Carolina, there are occupiers and there are people that are ready to hold you accountable for your actions. Occupy is everywhere, and you should expect us.”