Welcome to the Occupation

By Corey Hutchins
Wednesday, October 19, 2011


It’s noon on the State House steps in Columbia, and 23-year-old Travis Bland is surrounded by roughly 100 participants of Occupy Columbia — a satellite version of the now-global Occupy Wall Street movement.

While still in an embryonic stage, the prevailing sentiment of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to reduce income inequality in the United States and loosen the perceived control that large corporations have on government and public life.

On Oct. 15, roughly 75 people spent the night on the State House lawn in sleeping bags and blankets after a rally that drew perhaps 300 at its peak. As of press time four days later, people were still there.

Travis Bland, 23, helped organize the occupation of the State House grounds on Oct. 15. The occupation was still taking place as Free Times went to press on Oct. 18. Photo by Thomas Hammond.

Though relatively modest in numbers, the movement shows a remarkable shift from some other recent State House rallies where the grounds were covered in a sea of yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags waving in support of free-market capitalism as championed by the tea party movement.

Right now, Americans support the Occupy Wall Street movement by a two-to-one margin, while considerably fewer view the tea party in a positive light, according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. Other polls confirm that more Americans support the movement than revile it, according to the International Business Times.

In a Time magazine poll, 86 percent of respondents said they believe Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington, and 79 percent said the income gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. has grown too large.

So far, if OWS has any kind of slogan, it has been, “We are the 99 percent.” It’s a shot across the bow at the top-income earners in the country — the same group that many tea party libertarians and conservatives have argued create the most jobs and therefore deserve the most protection from the government.

Over the weekend of Oct. 15, the movement saw 20,000 occupying New York City with its nucleus in Zuccotti Park, a small chunk of privately owned land open to the public just off of Wall Street. In cities across the country and the world, other occupations also sprang up — some small, others drawing thousands of protesters. 

Occupying Columbia

In Columbia, wearing sunglasses, a newsboy cap, a plaid shirt and skinny jeans, Bland is leading Occupy Columbia’s first meeting of the day. There will be more of these — called general assemblies — that seek to find consensus among the movement’s participants. But for now Bland is standing in the center and teaching the crowd assembled around him how the public-speaking aspect of the demonstration will take place throughout the occupation.

“While these folks are speaking, if we want to agree with them … we’re going to go for spirit fingers,” he says. In another era he would be talking about jazz hands. You like what someone’s saying? Wiggle your fingers. If you’re on the fence, “We got level hands,” he says. If you don’t like something? “Downward hands.”

There are roughly 100 people occupying this general assembly now, watching on. If a tea party rally looks like a gun show without the guns, Occupy Columbia could be a punk rock show held at a Gamecock tailgate next to an Urban Outfitters. More people will come later. Roughly 75 will spend the night, when the temperature drops into the 40s, and sleeping bags will dot the manicured grass. Fixed-gear bikes will rest against lampposts, cardboard signs will be stacked in piles or leaning against the bases of statues.

Protesters taking part in Occupy Columbia on Saturday, Oct. 15. Photos by Thomas Hammond.

As the day goes on, the north side of the State House turns into a hub for demonstrators. A food and water table offers hot macaroni and cheese, bread, fruit and other fare donated by local groups. So many had donated by Oct. 16 that organizers were asking that people not bring certain things, such as bread and sweets. A medical station is set up. Legal observers keep an eye out for problems; a Richland County public defender has offered his services to anyone in need. A solar-powered media center built out of plywood, PVC and car batteries acts as a charging station for cell phones, laptops, walkie-talkies and other electronics. A table nearby is stacked with books — Gandhi: The Power of Passivity; No Gods, No Master: An Anthology of Anarchism; Howard Zinn’s A Peoples’ History of the United States.
Jessica Smith stands nearby. She brought her 12-year-old son.

“I home-school him, so this is his classroom for the week,” she says.

Back at the general assembly, someone in the crowd calls out: “Travis, let’s do some peoples’ mic.”

In Zuccotti Park, movement participants are not allowed to use bullhorns or public address systems. So they use the peoples’ microphone.

“That’s when you speak in short phrases,” Bland tells those around him, who immediately repeat it back to him, loudly and in unison. “And then everybody repeats it — and then everybody repeats it. So we can do things as a group — so we can do things as a group. And not just one person — and not just one person.”

That, it appears, boils down much of the essence of what’s taking place in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It is no longer about “me,” it is about “all of us.”

“We are — we are! The 99 percent!”

“Mic check!”

The Tea Party’s Mirror Image

Two years ago, conservatives were beginning their own movement, an amorphous blob of abstract anger that would come to be known as the tea party. It was the buildup to an election-year wave that pushed Republicans into power on the local and national level.

As the name suggested, the tea party movement came about in 2009 as a protest to taxation. Evoking the 1773 rebellion by American colonists against the British government for taxing their tea, the modern-day tea party movement emerged as a headline-grabbing clarion call for limiting government and lowering taxes.

In its nascent stage, the tea party didn’t appear to have any rigid set of policy goals. Sympathizers largely saw that as positive and argued that it only proved the movement was grassroots, organic and devoid of party labels. But the tea party’s message resonated with traditional GOP conservatism, and Republicans were quick to capitalize on the movement and steer the anger and excitement into votes on Election Day.

Locally, the man who started the Columbia TEA Party in 2009, Allen Olson, recently resigned as chairman and is now working for Republican Newt Gingrich as the former House speaker runs for president.

Two years later, the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly whiplashed the narrative of American political discourse. Though still a major force in GOP politics, the tea party seems to be fading as quickly among the mainstream electorate as Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck.

For University of South Carolina historian Larry Glickman, who specializes in American consumer history and the history of the public protest, the tea party movement and Occupy Wall Street are almost mirror images of each other.

“I think the difference is that Occupy Wall Street seems to be kind of challenging a lot of prevailing conventional wisdom of politics, while I think the tea party wound up basically re-enforcing and endorsing fairly standard beliefs about the role of government, taxes, and about political economy in general,” Glickman says. “And I think that’s one of the reasons they assimilated very easily to the Republican Party after a time.”

While some Democratic members of Congress have shown their support for the movement, President Barack Obama hasn’t been too specific about it.

At an Oct. 16 dedication of a monument for Martin Luther King Jr., however, Obama said that the civil rights leader “would want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there,” according to the Associated Press.

Closer to home, the South Carolina Democratic Party is not involved in any of the occupation’s activities in the state, according to the party’s interim executive director Amanda Loveday. She did, however, use the occasion to lay blame on the majority party here.

“It’s not surprising people from all over South Carolina are fed up with the Republican leaders and their choice to help their own and leave the rest of our state unemployed,” Loveday wrote in a statement to Free Times. 

For their part, Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have clearly been self-conscious about being glommed on to any party label. That sentiment was on display in Columbia around noon, toward the end of the first general assembly.

A young man named David had launched into a speech, using the peoples’ microphone. He was opining on the dangers of unfettered, unregulated free-market capitalism and explaining economist Milton Friedman’s 1970s involvement in Latin America. It was then that a burly man with a big white beard and star-spangled suspenders cut him off.

“Party politics will split up your system,” the man cautioned in a loud Boston accent.
“You’re spouting party politics.”

“How am I spouting party politics?” David asked. The peoples’ microphone had stopped working. It had turned into a patch cable.

“Unfettered capitalism is not gonna work,” the big man said.

“I haven’t said that,” David replied. People looked on.

“You already said that.”

“No, no, no.”

“OK, all right.”

Travis Bland stepped in.

“Hey, we forgot one hand signal,” Bland said, smiling, disarming. He rolled his hands in a circular motion. The signal meant, “Wrap it up.”

People laughed and things went back to normal.

Mic check!

The peoples’ mic was now back on.

“My name is Frank — my name is Frank. Got one thing to say —got one thing to say. We — we. Are 99 percent sure — are 99 percent sure. We are being screwed — WE ARE BEING SCREWED.”

In the Beginning

Travis Bland first heard about the Occupy Wall Street movement after videos depicting violence by police in New York City started showing up online. A young woman screaming on the sidewalk, pepper spray streaming down her face. Hundreds handcuffed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Officers slamming a young man’s head into a car.

“I’ve always been a politically leaning person, or at least I’ve considered myself a person who wants equality and justice,” Bland said last week in a Free Times interview before the Oct. 15 State House occupation. (Disclosure: Bland delivers papers for Free Times.) He was still organizing the event at the time. “I’ve always just been sort of politically minded, ever since I got into punk rock in middle school.”

For Bland, a musician and USC graduate, things really came to a head after the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case that political spending is protected free speech that can be practiced by corporations, not just individuals, therefore giving corporations the right to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of a candidate or politician.

“I just thought that is a complete bastardization of anything fair in our democracy,” Bland said, adding that he sees a direct correlation between the case and the rise of the OWS movement. 

Limestone College political science professor John Crangle, who has run the state chapter of Common Cause for 25 years, is monitoring the movement here in South Carolina. The nonpartisan, nonprofit advocacy and watchdog group has long been involved in putting the voices of citizens over special interests. 

Crangle, who dropped in on Occupy Columbia, says he gets a sense that those in the movement likely realize that giant corporations basically control the federal and state government.

“They feel that the government needs to get the upper hand on these big business and financial interests,” he says. “Because right now you have what I call ‘inverse fascism,’ and that is, in a fascist system, the government controls the big corporations: it administers the corporations and tells them what to do. That’s what you had in Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. But what you have in America is big corporations tell the government what to do.”

Another factor that the Occupy Wall Street movement might reflect is a substantial disillusionment with Obama and the way he dealt with the economic crisis.

“I think people felt he would be more progressive than he has been … but he didn’t nationalize the banks … right now big banks are like a rogue elephant, they do what they want,” Crangle says. “They use campaign money to basically buy the government.”

Meanwhile, Crangle feels that the Citizens United decision and the economic crisis have shown that not only is Congress controlled by big money, but the Supreme Court is, too. Furthermore, Obama went back on his promise to finance his 2008 general election bid through the public campaign financing system, choosing instead to bypass the system and raise hundreds of millions of dollars privately.

“[President Obama] is one of the most culpable people, in my opinion, about submitting to the influence of big money in politics,” Crangle says.

We Are the 99 Percent

At 10 a.m. on Oct. 15, Donna Slice is standing in a line of about 75 on Gervais Street with the State House at her back, carrying a sign that reads, “We are the 99%.” She is middle-aged, and an American flag bandana covers her hair. She’s traveled from Ridgeway, S.C., with Matt Sharpe, who sports a long graying beard and stands next to her holding a sign reading, “We are the people.” They wouldn’t look out of place together on a Harley.

When Slice talks about being part of the 99 percent, she means the bottom 99 percentage of wage earners.

“The underclass, if you will,” she says. She hopes, if anything, that politicians will start noticing that she’s noticed that corporations have taken over the government.

For Sharpe, whose faded blue shirt declares that he is “100% American,” the movement he’s a part of today is “anti-greed, from the corporations to the politicians to Wall Street.” The two of them keep up with politics enough and “shout at the TV on Sunday morning,” but aren’t active in any political party. They both self-identify as “at best, Libertarian.” The biggest thing they’d want to see changed — if this movement could do it — would be less government. They have not attended tea party rallies.

“I think this movement is a little more about social justice other than ‘me,’ where that was the tea party,” Slice says. “There was a fundamentalist vibe that you’re not going to find here.”

Down the line of sign-wavers are Zach, 24, (“We are the 99%”) and Christie, 23, (“And so are you”).

“The American Dream is dead,” says Zach, who manages a sub shop.

Christie says there aren’t any opportunities anymore. She’s an administrative assistant at a county chamber of commerce. It’s her first protest ever.

“Our politicians and legislators are looking out for big business and not for us,” she says. “I think it’s time we finally stood up. We’re waking up now, and that’s good.”

Zach has been saving up money — or trying to — but he believes what’s more important is setting up a system for future generations. He feels he lives in a “crumbling capitalism, an unfair capitalism.” It all dawned on him a couple of days ago. This country, he says, usually looks out for and protects minorities. But when the minority — the 1 percent — is something that’s so powerful and has hands that are creeping all over the globe, it’s pushing down the other 99.

Part of the pushed down is Connie Hudson, 65, from Columbia, who holds a cardboard sign on a small pole reading, simply, “99%.”

For her, that means, “Income inequality and corporate influence in elections, where all our politicians are being bought off by a few people and everyone on the bottom is going down hill.”

Larry Glickman, the USC historian, says what has piqued his interest most in the seemingly unfocused Occupy Wall Street Movement, is this meme of the 99 percent.

“I think some things are emerging despite the decentralization and I’m not exactly sure where they’ll go yet, but I think this 99 percent is the thing that has captured the attention the most,” Glickman says. “What I’m seeing from that is just this idea that we can’t really have a functioning democracy where 1 percent are accruing that vast majority of the benefits and the 99 percent aren’t — and I’m not saying that’s accurate — but I’m just saying that if you hold to that position of the 99 percent being screwed then I think it does raise questions about our political system.”

For a long time there has been a belief in America, almost across the board, that the economic realm is separate from the political realm and that a democracy could exist no matter what the distribution of wealth or tax policy is, according to Glickman.

“I think this may — and I use the word ‘may’ very strongly here — but I think it may mark something of a turning point in the way we think about the relationship between economics and politics,” he says. “Because I think what this 99 percent meme seems to be suggesting is that we really can’t have a functioning democracy if we have tremendous inequality of wealth, of opportunity, of benefits being accrued upon some by government but not by others, and I think that’s a pretty interesting movement.”

Meanwhile, those who are attending the Occupy Wall Street movement who have come of age during the past 20 years might be looking to change their frame of reference when it comes to politics and the economy, Glickmann says. For the past 20 years, they might have accepted as the norm that the current problems they’re facing are just the way it is and that’s that.

Glickman sees the opportunity for that narrative to shift.

“These frames of reference sometimes change, and sometimes they change rather quickly,” he says. “To me, that’s what might come out of this 99 percent idea. Maybe a different frame of reference of what justice is, what freedom means in our modern political economy.”

But to do that, there needs to be more than just decentralized abstract anger against corporations. 

“The critics say these are anti-capitalists, anti-corporate — I think a lot of it is about how to make capitalism work better and that’s kind of what I seem to be seeing in the parts of the protests I’ve been able to look in on,” Glickman says. “And of course there’s no unanimity there because you can find people who want to smash windows, too.”

“Get a Job, Hippies!”

At 10:30 p.m., Oct. 15, Scott West, co-chair of the South Carolina Green Party, has just counted 83 people still occupying Columbia. He and Scott Biddle are talking near the food table as occupiers stop by for cups of water or a bowl of mac and cheese. No tents or structures are allowed, but coolers, boxes, sleeping bags, blankets and signs are strewn across the lawn, making the State House grounds look like something of a bum park.

At 2 a.m., about that many will stay, bedding down for the night as the temperature drops. A handful of State House Capitol Police officers stand watch from the steps next to a statue of George Washington.

A punk rocker with spiked hair sleeps alone under a blanket next to a sign that read, “End the Fed” at the base of a Confederate memorial. A dozen crust punks bed down close to each other in a cluster under the shadow of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, a politician whose racism and savagery has earned him a statuesque memorial.

A handful of occupiers stand around drinking water and trying to remember the last time protesters spent the night at the State House. No one can recall. 

A car full of college-aged kids drives past, coming from the Vista on Gervais Street.

“Get a job, hippies!” one of them yells out an open window. They are “the drunk percent,” someone will observe later.

A block away, Harold, 58, doesn’t know a thing about Occupy Columbia. He’s homeless and has been occupying the covered bus stop on Sumter Street every night for the past two months. This night he sleeps upright with a thin blanket covering him from head to toe.

“I haven’t heard about this,” he says, adding that it’s seldom he reads or watches the news. A school custodian who lost his job, he’s been homeless for three years.
Harold won’t be checking out Occupy Columbia.

“I’m all right, right here,” he says. “I think it’s wonderful that it’s happening, but I really just like to be by myself.” 

The View from New York

Trip To Zuccotti Park Yields Guarded Optimism on Protest Movement

By Chris Bickel

Chris Bickel at OWS demonstration. Photo courtesy Chris Bickel.

When I first heard about the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, I supported the actions of the participants but cynically believed that this protest would end as ineffectually as any other. I followed news of the demonstration not through mainstream media outlets — because at first there was a total coverage blackout — but through posts on message boards, YouTube and Facebook.

As I saw more and more footage, I felt anger at both the NYPD’s mistreatment of peaceful protesters and at the mainstream media for choosing to not report on the movement at all. It was as if there was a total disconnect from reality on the part of the MSM. The more tidbits that flowed out of social media, the more inspired I felt by the determination of these individuals who were willing to face arrest and adverse living conditions in order to make their point. My cynicism began to erode in much the same way as it did for thousands of other people. I soon decided that I wanted to add an extra warm body to their gathering, feeling that if it didn’t end up being a transformative event in American politics, it would at the very least be a transformative event in my own life — the rejection of an ugly cynicism that had taken root for too long.

That cynicism had already begun to subside as soon as I fully considered the influence of the tea party in the last elections. If small, hour-long tea party rallies could affect political discourse, then surely OWS could as well. Investigating the demands of OWS, I was impressed with how utterly sensible they were. If you were to believe the media narrative, you’d expect the OWS demands to be “dismantle capitalism, mandate 24-hour drum circles and legalize pooping in the street.” In reality, the demands mostly involve getting corporate influence (money speech) out of government and returning banking regulations to the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act, which was established to combat the banking excesses that led to the Great Depression and was repealed in 1999. Essentially, the OWS movement aims to reel in the system-gaming that the richest men in the world have perpetrated for the last 20 years, behavior that caused the economic meltdown and the income disparity we see today.

Arriving at Zuccotti Park on Saturday morning, I was able to see the core occupants who had created a miniature city in the small park. They had set up an efficient kitchen serving meals to the protesters, as well as dishwashing and clothes washing stations and areas for sanitation and first aid. There was even a legal station, a library and a press station. Tarps were arranged neatly on the grounds for individuals committed to staying in the park. As the day wore on, more and more people showed up. The police had a difficult time keeping the people from spilling out of the barricaded park and into the streets. Most of the people supporting the 99 percent movement were on the same page, but there were a variety of individuals championing their own pet agendas — including a few Ron Paul types and at least one or two borderline anti-Semites, all of whom were marginalized on the edges of the park, as their presence was frowned upon by the OWS supporters.

Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City. Photo courtesy Chris Bickel.

An at OWS gathering at Times Square later in the afternoon, the scene was peaceful and incredibly positive. Despite the anger toward Wall Street, there was a palpable feeling of positivity — the feeling that these people were part of something bigger than themselves and that their voices were finally being heard. There were thousands of people pressed into police barricades on every block for several blocks, with still more spilling out onto the sidewalks and side streets. The Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post reported that there were 5,000 protesters in Times Square. The actual number was at least triple that, if not closer to 20,000. Seems like they just used the standard Fox formula for counting tea party numbers, but reversed. The sheer number of police on the scene at Times Square was astounding. One New Yorker told me that cops had been brought in from other parts of the state to control the situation.

Overall, I was struck by two things. The first was that this movement feels very positive. There were surprisingly fewer fringe, ideologue whack-a-doodles than I had expected. That’s not to say they weren’t there, but every movement or party has its share. The second most striking thing was something I had already been aware of but which was driven home hard — the complete and utter media disconnect from the reality of the Occupy movement. I saw a highly motivated and organized group of people of all ages and backgrounds in far greater numbers than the public has been led to believe. I mean, I’ve always known the MSM was full of s#!t, but to see it so glaringly displayed in person was a real eye-opener.

My experience has only strengthened my respect for the people involved in this movement. It is still in its infancy and coalescing, but I have sincere high hopes for it. I’m hopeful that I will be able to get back to New York City again soon to see how it is progressing. So far, I like where it’s going. It’s the side of the fence I want to be on.

Chris Bickel is a local musician and activist. This article is an edited version of a note first posted on Facebook.

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