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From Wall Street to Lee Park: behind the Occupy Charlottesville movement

City officials allow protesters to continue occupation of neighborhood park

Occupy Charlottesville activists may stay in Lee Park indefinitely until another location can be found, Charlottesville officials announced last Tuesday.

Previously, the City had imposed a deadline of Thanksgiving for the group's occupation of the park, but the City extended the movement's permit last Tuesday.

The continuation is the latest part of the Occupy Charlottesville saga, which traces its beginnings to September in New York City.

How 'Occupy Wall Street' spread\nA group of activists began to protest Sept. 17 in New York City's financial district against corporate greed, economic inequality and the influence of corporations in government. These protestors were the architects of what is now known as Occupy Wall Street.

The New York protesters' encampment in Zuccotti Park launched a nationwide movement during the next month, as similar demonstrations popped up in cities across the country.

In its declaration, the Occupy Wall Street movement urged communities to "take action of and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy." Specifically, the declaration encouraged people to "exercise [their] right[s] to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face; and generate solutions accessible to everyone."

Charlottesville answered this call to action, and the Occupy movement spread to the City in early October.

"What happened in New York City resonated all across the country, and it resonated in Charlottesville," Occupy Charlottesville member Stuart Squire said. "We saw this as the moment we've been waiting for to step out against what we've been frustrated with."

The group held its first general assembly meeting in the nTelos Wireless Pavilion Oct. 12. Nearly 100 people gathered to agree upon its location for encampment and to develop the group's core values and goals. Occupy Charlottesville's core values, as stated on its website, emphasize inclusion, mutual respect, equality and providing help to each other, "whether it is materially, financially, or spiritually."

The movement's dedication to equality manifests itself in the group's lack of a single leader. Instead, the voice of each individual participant is honored through the consensus process. "The consensus process means that everyone agrees to the major group decisions and every person has the ability to halt the group ... if they feel that that decision would go against the core values we've set forth," said Megan Renfro, a fourth-year College student and Occupy Charlottesville member.

Occupy Charlottesville gained momentum Oct. 15 when about 40 of its members rallied against University President Teresa A. Sullivan's luncheon for corporate sponsors. The participants marched from McGuffey Park to Sullivan's house on Carr's Hill to protest against corporate greed, unemployment and financial inequality.

Two days later, Charlottesville City Council officially acknowledged Occupy Charlottesville during its bimonthly meeting. Mayor Dave Norris expressed support for the movement and thanked the group for standing up for the 99 percent.

The group eventually gained a permit to stay in Lee Park up until Thanksgiving.

The people and their message\n"Lee Park is a microcosm of the greater Charlottesville community as a whole," Occupy Charlottesville member Jordan McNeish said. "The issues in the park reflect the issues of the larger community."

Mike Sloan, a homeless member of Occupy Charlottesville, stressed how the participants of Occupy Charlottesville and members of the homeless community have united in Lee Park around their desire to effect change and make a political statement. "We have a common cause," he said.

This emphasis on diversity and inclusion makes it challenging for Occupy Charlottesville to focus on a single goal. This pluralism becomes evident during the movement's general assembly meetings, when members come together to make decisions regarding the movement's direction.

Occupy Charlottesville member Flora Baily emphasized the difficulty of agreeing on a single message while trying to represent the "99 percent."

"We're really fragmented and all of the issues that we've discussed really reflect that," Baily said.

Although Occupy Charlottesville has been unable to create a list of specific goals, the group wants its presence to send a message.

"We're not just camping," said Tiffany Fowler, a University graduate from the class of 2010 and Occupy member. "I personally like to think of my tent as a type of protest sign. It's my form of expression. It's my way of drawing attention."

Occupy Charlottesville expressed this sentiment at the Nov. 21 City Council meeting. The entire group recited the following to Council: "This is not a camping trip. We are here to express ourselves politically and to try to build a better life for us all. And we're sorry if there's been an inconvenience. We're trying to change the world."

Other cities, other movements\nWhile broadly the movement wishes to draw attention to economic inequality, "every local manifestation is going to have its own particular issues it's focused on," said Thad Williamson, an associate professor of leadership studies and philosophy, politics, economics and law at the University of Richmond, who has been involved in Occupy Richmond. Locally, Occupy Charlottesville is concerned with homelessness, the movement for a living wage at the University and the use of public land for assembly and voicing grievances. These local goals differentiate Occupy Charlottesville from other movements, including those in Richmond and Blacksburg.

The Richmond movement is immediately focused on working with the city's government to create a space for protests.

Kyle Gardiner, a senior at Virginia Tech and member of Occupy Blacksburg, said the movement in Blacksburg has a different dynamic than the movements in Richmond and Charlottesville.

"More of the raw concern and frustration is going to be emphasized in an Occupy Richmond, where you have people who are a lot more negatively affected by our current policies than [in] Blacksburg, which is a relatively insular community," Gardiner said.

Diversity as a means for achieving greater equality is valued both within and between local movements. "Every occupation is different, but diversity makes it beautiful. [It] connects [Occupy Charlottesville] to bigger issues," Baily said.

Will the movement last?\n"Protest movements are not a new thing," History Prof. Sophia Rosenfeld said. "Protest movements predate democracy." They occurred when "people took to the streets and made themselves visible when they didn't think they had other mechanisms to make themselves heard, which is basically what Occupy Wall Street is doing."

Rosenfeld noted that many of these smaller movements don't turn into larger scale movements. In her opinion, it is still too early to tell whether the national Occupy movement "is a protest that will be ephemeral or a protest that will have lasting political consequences."

Since the Occupy movement's inception in mid-September, it has drawn attention to economic inequality and its negative effects. "They have already succeeded to a certain extent in that they've changed the conversation with the idea that 'we are the 99 percent,'" Rosenfeld said.

Williamson believes that another one of the movement's successes is that "it is creating many more conversations on college campuses about inequality, democracy and the future of American society."

Locally, the Occupy Charlottesville movement faced a test last week as it approached its permit deadline. A conflict stemmed from trying to balance the competing rights of the First Amendment with the "right to feel safe in your neighborhood," Szakos said.

"If you're talking about extending [the permit] on a long-term basis, more than 30 days, then you're talking about really changing the very nature of Lee Park from a neighborhood park which had a curfew because of illicit activities that were occurring there in the evening hours," Norris said. "You're talking about changing that to a 24/7 free speech zone, and that needs to be a community decision about whether that's what Lee Park should be. [It's not a] decision that City Council can make without hearing from the community."

At the Nov. 21 Council meeting, more than 50 people spoke in a public forum about whether the permit should be extended. Dressed in red for solidarity, the members of Occupy Charlottesville inundated Council for nearly three hours with testimonials as to why their First Amendment rights to free speech, assembly and ability to petition the government for redress of grievances necessitated a change in the curfew ordinance.

Only a handful of people spoke out against the renewal of the permit. Those few people expressed concerns regarding sanitation, substance abuse and homelessness. Elizabeth Breeden, speaking on behalf of the PACEM homeless shelter, expressed concern that Occupy Charlottesville did not have the resources necessary to take care of the emerging homeless population in Lee Park, and that the group will be "left with [the] unintended consequences of running something [that] they're not prepared to do."

After hearing from the community, Council was unable to arrive at an immediate decision. The following morning, City staff agreed to extend Occupy Charlottesville's permit until another location could be found. This decision will placate both members of the community who want to use the park as a public space and members of Occupy Charlottesville who will be allowed to continue their encampment.

"The key issue for the whole movement in Charlottesville and everywhere else will be: Once it gets too cold and cities start closing down tents, how does it progress?" Rosenfeld said. "It can't indefinitely be a movement about encampments."

The Occupy movement is currently built upon a moral and ethical message. For this movement to last, Rosenfeld said it must develop an explicit political platform. "I would hope that those same people will be able to take their moral commitments and passion about changing the political landscape ... [to] becoming active politically in ways that will shape local politics, maybe state politics, maybe national politics," she said.

Williamson would like to eventually see "the Occupy movements throughout Virginia link up and try to make some sort of impact on the state's General Assembly."

Baily acknowledges that the "group has a long way to go," but she insists that "this movement lives in the hearts of everyone who's here and been involved. Even if we can't stay here [at Lee Park] that's not going to stop us"


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