by Jonathan Michels, photo illustrations by Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez
“We are the 99 percent!”
“And so are you!”
For the men and women in suits and ties leaving the annual meeting of the Chamber of Commerce, the scene was anything but business as usual. Protesters with signs and banners chanted boisterously from across the street. Several passersby joined in the ruckus.
“Banks got bailed out!”
“We got sold out!”
This wasn’t Wall Street.
This was Fifth Street in Winston-Salem and it was just one of many actions that residents organized since they stood together as an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement three years ago in October 2011.
The movement was born when thousands of people occupied a small park in New York City with tents and sleeping bags and demanded a more just society. They wanted to remove corporate money in political elections and to close the growing economic gap between the richest Americans and the poorest. They called it “Occupy Wall Street.”
A recent graduate from journalism school, this was my first introduction to a demonstration. Like many journalists, I was fascinated by this new protest movement. I attended an Occupy Winston-Salem meeting to ask permission to film the group for a documentary about the movement’s incursion into North Carolina. Although I’m no longer filming, I have continued to cover the group as well as other growing protest movements around the state.
At various points, I flew to New York City to see firsthand the movement in Wall Street. I was looking forward to seeing Winston members who were in Zuccotti Park. A lot of the demonstrators seemed to focus on what the future held for Occupy and the experience of the movement itself. Winston-Salem members happily took part but I quickly saw the differences between the two groups.
In Winston-Salem, it wasn’t nearly as much about the experiences of Occupy but about utilizing the political space that Occupy opened up to bring about change in their community.
Today, millions of corporate dollars still flow into political elections and the economic gap between the poorest Americans, or the 99 percent and the richest 1 percent continues to widen. The Occupy encampment at Zuccotti Park, briefly renamed Liberty Square, has long since been shut down.
In North Carolina, the prevailing perception is that when the tents disappeared in cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Chapel Hill, so did Occupy.
The reality in Winston-Salem is very different. In a shift from the tactics of many state and national chapters, Occupy Winston-Salem members decided not to occupy a physical space and instead focused on nonviolent direct action, enabling it to become one of the most tireless and strategic grassroots groups at the center of the state’s recent political upsurge.
Years after police tore down the tents in neighboring cities, Occupy Winston-Salem members continue to help organize local and statewide actions. Most recently, group members organized demonstrations against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza and Duke Energy’s massive coal-ash spill in the Dan River, in addition to coordinating a meeting with community members to talk about the dangers of market-driven healthcare.
They might not be drawing the amount of people or the media attention that they did at the height of the national movement, but local Occupy members say their work continues to fill a void.
Longtime Occupy Winston-Salem member, Tony Ndege, put it this way: “In a lot of these smaller cities, Occupy is all there is.”
Only weeks after protesters in New York City occupied Zuccotti Park and renamed it Liberty Square, almost a hundred Occupy groups sprang up across the United States.
“We would be sitting there in Liberty Square and we’d be seeing the map just light up,” said Nathan Schneider, New York City-based journalist and one of the first to cover Occupy Wall Street.
“One occupation after another,” he said.
Winston-Salem was among the places to light up on the map.
In early October 2011, a group of people poured into an empty lot behind Krankies Coffee. This was Occupy Winston-Salem’s first mass meeting, or general assembly. For veteran activist Anne Paisley, it was a Who’s Who of the local political scene.
“Everybody I ever knew in my life,” Paisley said. “All the activists, of all ages were there. It was really exciting.”
The crowd in Occupy Winston-Salem’s early days were a microcosm of the one in Zuccotti Park: diverse. Some were older, some younger. There were small business owners, professors and students. Political persuasions ranged from socialism to libertarianism with all points in between. What united all of them was the feeling that the system was broken and it needed fixing.
“It was a spirited group, a diverse group,” recalled McGuire, a social worker at the Children’s Home of Winston-Salem, who found dozens of people with plenty of angst. “No idea what we were into or where we were going.”
Occupy was like a blank canvas. Within the boundaries of social and economic justice, anyone and everyone was free to project their own experiences and hopes onto the movement. It was what made the movement unique and challenging — part of what drew people toward Occupy and later, turned them away.
“We all had our own individual agenda going into it,” said Andrew Hobbes, a college student at Appalachian State University who’d recently moved back home.
One person warned the group against the meddling influence of labor unions and politicians. Another Occupy member urged people to withdraw their money from the banks responsible for the financial crisis. Addressing the encroachment on civil liberties seemed to be the answer for another speaker.
“We all had this idea of what we were going to do and this was going to change everything,” Hobbes said. “The start of something beautiful.”
Experienced activists like Tony Ndege, who had been involved in politics since he was a teenager, viewed the meetings as an opportunity. In 2003, the anti-war movement mobilized against the United States’ second Iraq war drew hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of cities and towns across the country, only to dissolve during the 2004 elections. For years afterwards, Ndege remained disillusioned with the American left and retreated from activism.
For him, Occupy represented a sea change, an opportunity to jump back into the fight. Now wasn’t the time to dampen the enthusiasm of potential activists, not if there was going to be a movement.
“Even though it came out of the far left, it was important that Occupy wasn’t trying to address one specific group because that’s not what we need right now,” Ndege said.
“We need to wake people up.”
Mike McGuire couldn’t sleep.
Since the movement began on Wall Street Sept. 17, McGuire spent hours on the Internet researching one of the group’s principal demands: narrowing the growing economic gap between the majority of Americans who controlled a small portion of the wealth and the fraction of the population who controlled the majority of the wealth.
At the time, McGuire was a social worker at the Children’s Home with at-risk teenagers. Economic hardships as a result of the 2008 financial crisis made it increasingly difficult for him to assure teenagers in his program that if they worked hard and followed the rules, everything would be okay.
“All around me, things were falling apart with people who were doing just that very thing,” McGuire recalled. “But their homes were being taken away. They had less and less of a political voice.”
“The kids started looking at me cross-eyed when I tried to talk about hope,” he said.
Dismayed but eager to put his anger into something constructive, McGuire attended a meeting organized by Occupy Winston-Salem. Over coffee and PBRs at Krankies, group members debated the big decisions before them, including whether they should camp out or not.
For people like McGuire who felt increasingly disengaged with the political system, these tentative first steps were the first in reclaiming their voices.
Later, as he lay restlessly in bed, McGuire tried to make sense of why Occupy’s simple arithmetic — 99 percent and 1 percent — resonated so powerfully within him. His mind chewed on the big questions facing the budding local movement and then he had an epiphany.
You know what? he asked himself. I’m just going to go throw a tent up and I’m going to see how the police react.
“That seems like a worthy endeavor,” McGuire decided. “A little bit of my own protest.”
That evening, on a sloping patch of grass on the lawn of the Winston-Salem City Hall, McGuire pitched a tent. It is little known, but McGuire’s one-man sleepover was the city’s only encampment during the course of the group’s three-year history. The only proof is a crude, grainy photograph that McGuire took on the morning after the occupation.
McGuire’s occupation, uneventful despite several passing police patrols, proved that camping out was a feasible option if that was the strategy the group wanted to pursue. The encampments were a powerful symbol for the movement’s goal of reclaiming political power from what it considered a corrupt and broken system. The occupation of public property was at the center of multiple Occupy protests from Wall Street to Oakland to Charlotte.
As far as Occupy Winston-Salem was concerned, with such a large task as confronting economic and social inequality, was pitching a tent the answer?
From the beginning, Occupy Winston-Salem jumped into action with major protests outside of Bank of America and Wells Fargo with hundreds of participants lining the sidewalk on Stratford Road.
At the annual meeting of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, local business and banking leaders leaving the meeting were met with boisterous chanting, the driving percussion of the radical drum corps Cakalak Thunder from Greensboro, and a giant banner that read, “We are the 99%.”
“Banks got bailed out!”
“We got sold out!”
Conversely, protesters faced police officers taking video of the demonstration from the rooftop of the convention center, indignant expressions from business leaders and demands such as, “Get a job!”
Occupy Winston-Salem organized the protest to call attention to the exorbitant salary of keynote speaker and Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf. It was the perfect opportunity for representatives of the local 99 percent to literally confront the city’s 1 percent.
After the replica of the Wells Fargo stagecoach was carefully stowed into its trailer, group members convened to a meeting room at the central library for pizza and planning. Amidst a loose circle of occupiers taking notes and eating pizza, McGuire expressed his concerns about camping out.
He pointed out that if the group even talked about camping out, they were “quickly and unfairly portrayed as a group of vagabonds.” Occupy members were already spending a good deal of time negotiating with the city council about where the occupation could pitch its tents. The city’s proposal for the group to camp out next to the police station was immediately dismissed.
The proposal was “laughable in its absurdity,” according to Scott Sexton, a columnist at the Winston-Salem Journal. In his article, “City too buttoned down for protests,” Sexton describes the political environment, wrapped up in Southern civility, that Occupy members navigated during the early months of their existence.
“In a town known for buttoned-down banking… the sometimes nasty business of public protest is just not proper,” Sexton wrote. “Unseemly, even.”
Highlighting this point, Sexton wrote that “the city would really just prefer that the Occupy movement take place elsewhere.”
Many of the experienced activists in the group feared that Occupy’s message about social and economic equality would be lost in the pushback that the group could expect to receive from city officials.
“I knew I wasn’t going to occupy,” said Debra Demske. “A lot of people agreed with [Occupy Winston-Salem] but they didn’t want the occupation.”
One younger activist reminded his cohorts that they could expect resistance from the authorities whether they camped out or not, something one only needed to look at history to understand.
These were the tough decisions facing Occupy members across the country, and they were a reflection of how protesters had to reshape the Occupy Wall Street model to fit their cities and towns. Winston-Salem’s Occupy, for example, would have to reckon with the city’s history of being a company town defined by its economic and racial inequality.
Eventually, group members decided against the occupation.
“This isn’t New York or Oakland. It’s not even Charlotte or Chapel Hill,” Sexton summarized in his article. “And like a kid having a tantrum, eventually the protesters will tire themselves out and drowsy old Winston-Salem will nod back off.”
Part of what Sexton wrote is true. Winston-Salem is not New York.
But in Winston-Salem’s Occupy, there was no time for sleep.
On a cold December evening, frozen in a cloudless sky, the Wells Fargo building shone brightly upon the occupiers gathered across the street on City Hall lawn. Occupy members settled into an evening of spoken word and protest songs, clustered together in thick coats and mittens beneath a sprawling magnolia tree. It could have been a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting if it weren’t for the sense of foreboding beneath the surface.
More than a month after police swept protesters out of Zuccotti Park, Winston-Salem occupiers wondered how they could continue to get their message out into the public, despite the uncertainty of the national movement.
“How do we really tap into what was a growing movement of frustration with the political system and what’s happening financially?” questioned Mike McGuire. “A 24-hour vigil or political protest made infinite sense.”
Winston occupiers had seen the stories of the police corralling protesters in orange netting and washing them down with pepper spray. They were well aware from the strife in New York City and Oakland that any fight for political and financial equality would begin with claiming the right to free speech and assembly. Having these rights, they knew, is one thing. Exercising them could elicit painful repercussions. The 24-hour People’s Assembly at City Hall was Occupy Winston-Salem’s way of publicly asking those in power, “Which side are you on?”
The group knew there’d be no sleeping. In everyone’s pocket was a copy of the city ordinance governing open-air meetings. Despite these precautions, protesters fended off multiple confrontations with police officers and city officials throughout the night.
At one point, early in the meeting, Thomas Leinbach, facing a handful of police officers, held up a crumpled copy of the city ordinance for scrutiny. Winston-Salem City Manager Lee Garrity listened intently.
“It is our right to be here, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to go back up there and stand,” Leinbach said. “If you do want to arrest me, that’s determinable to you guys.”
“What part of the law am I wrong about?” Leinbach asked.
“Camping is not allowed,” Garrity said.
“We’re not camping,” Leinbach replied.
“It’s trespassing,” Garrity shot back. “State law.”
Even after successful negotiations with the city attorney, the group continued to rebuff eviction attempts until the next morning when police finally threatened them with arrest. Despite the stress, group members considered the 24-hour meeting a success. They had gotten their message out to reporters at the Winston-Salem Journal and avoided arrest.
The next day, Occupy members were shocked to find city hall lawn roped off from the public.
“It kind of looked like a crime scene,” Cox said.
“At that point, it was like, this has now become a free-speech issue,” he said. “People decided, ‘Okay, we’ll do another 24-hour forum.’”
The group returned to City Hall the next evening with poster-sized copies of the city ordinance for open-air meetings. Amid sing-alongs and political speeches, confrontations with the police continued. Several shifts of officers invaded the group continuously throughout the night and made various demands without providing legal grounds for doing so. At one point during the night, police officers confiscated the “Occupy Winston-Salem” banner.
“Sir, we respect you,” Kim Porter told the officer who stuffed the folded banner beneath his arm.
“It’s a gift,” she said. “As long as ya’ll put it up at the police department, so you can look at it.”
After the sun came up, Chief Scott Cunningham directed officers to remove the sleepless protesters from City Hall lawn. The group’s only arrest occurred after the group had dispersed at the police’s insistence. As he walked away, Will Bridge shouted angry expletives at a police officer. Several officers tackled the young protester to the ground, pinned him against a wall and charged him with disorderly conduct and resisting a public officer. Images and video of the arrest were prevalent in the news, which group members say painted an inaccurate picture, especially since the same media outlets were absent throughout the entire 24-hour forum missing repeated attempts by the police to remove protesters.
“People who would say that Occupy Winston-Salem is being obstinate or trying to be negative, I believe that they don’t have the full picture,” said Carol Hermann. “People can have their opinions but the truth was that this was a peaceful assembly that was dismantled through force.”
Instead of causing Occupy members to retreat, the police response during the 24-hour people’s forums only emboldened the group. Holding a protest forum on City Hall lawn was an exercise in constitutional rights. The next fight, however, was an occupation of the city council itself, which attempted to pass an ordinance that would restrict unsanctioned speech and assembly at City Hall.
That Monday, the city council considered temporarily changing the 24-hour open-air meeting ordinance that specified how and when people could meet and speak on City Hall lawn and whether they should restrict people from meeting there at all. They did it without informing the public and without public input.
Occupy came out in force. This was the first of several instances when additional chambers had to be opened to accommodate the crowd. Although the ordinance wasn’t passed that Monday, in the following weeks, Occupy members presented their argument before city council meetings as well as various sub-committees. In addition to personally meeting with city council members, occupiers also initiated a community petition drive and with little encouragement, supporters, including local ministers, bombarded the council with phone calls and emails.
The result of this dogged campaign was that the proposed ordinance ended in defeat.
“Occupy Winston-Salem did one major thing for Winston-Salem and that was change the conversation about how and where people are allowed to protest their government,” said Laura Graff, a former Winston-Salem Journal reporter who wrote several stories about Occupy Winston-Salem.
As proof, Graff pointed to a sign that was subsequently erected at city hall that reads: “For open air public meeting restrictions go to www.cityofws.org.”
“People have the right and should question their government,” she said. “Occupy Winston-Salem made that a little bit easier.”
Many of the members agree that Occupy’s greatest accomplishment across the country was opening up political space for people in cities to exercise their freedom of speech and assembly.
“Before Occupy Wall Street started, there weren’t as many people who were coming out and speaking out and who felt comfortable doing that,” said Kim Porter. “What we saw through the Occupy movement is that hundreds and thousands of people became politicized and had a voice. It became acceptable to fight for our right to free speech and the right to assemble.”
Nowhere in Occupy Winston-Salem’s history is this better exemplified than the 24-hour people’s assembly. The long-term effects of this growing political space, however, extended well beyond a patch of grass at the Winston-Salem City Hall as thousands of North Carolinians would soon discover.
When the tents came down in occupations across the country and membership waned, much of the media disappeared, too. But as many Occupy groups wound down, Occupy Winston-Salem ramped up, springing into action around an array of issues.
During the past three years, Occupy’s actions have included a picket against layoffs at Novant Health, a rally to save the Waughtown Post Office from closing, counter-protests against the Ku Klux Klan, Christmas caroling in Wal-Mart to raise awareness about the company’s labor practices and dozens of others.
“It was never about sitting around and trying to figure out something to do,” said Debra Demske. “In fact, when we were doing activities every week and every two weeks, it was more about how can we fit this in when we have this, this and this?”
Taking up the banner of so many different causes came with a price. From the very beginning, the Occupy movement faced criticism about taking on too many issues and not having a clear message.
“What are we?” asked an Occupy Winston-Salem member during a planning meeting.
“I craved a clear message,” McGuire remembered.
“Over time, if the goal was to continue a political process for change then the message needed to be condensed,” McGuire said. “Narrow down our focus and really push hard on maybe two or a half-dozen issues rather than literally hundreds of different issues.”
Other Occupy Winston-Salem members believe taking up the banner on such a diverse range of issues allowed them the opportunity to show people how problems like income inequality, lack of healthcare access and environmental pollution are connected by root causes like greed. Occupiers like Demske point to the success of the Moral Monday movement, which fused diverse groups of people around an array issues, as a validation of the tactic.
“If we focused on one thing then that defeats the purpose of everyone coming together,” Demske said. “[State NAACP leader] Reverend Barber picked right up on that. He knows you have to bring people together.”
In a tumultuous period in North Carolina’s history, occupiers said, there were too many injustices occurring in the city and around the state to ignore.
“I don’t think specialization would have been an asset,” said Anne Paisley.
“It was sort of like taking on whatever destructive thing was right in your face at the time,” she said. “Things were happening at the post office. The banks were foreclosing on a bunch of people. Occupy responded to those things.”
Throughout Occupy Winston-Salem’s tenure, much of their work has been forming alliances with others.
“Through our solidarity work with other organizations and other individuals and grassroots movements, not just the nonprofits, that’s where we make the most progress,” said Kim Porter.
One of the most tireless members of Occupy Winston-Salem, Porter took part in almost every major movement in North Carolina during the past three years from the campaign for marriage equality to Moral Mondays. Porter, a social worker, was there when protesters occupied Congress in Washington, DC, celebrated the first birthday of Occupy Wall Street in the streets of New York City, marched alongside more than a thousand people in downtown Charlotte against money in politics during the 2012 Democratic National Convention and exercised civil disobedience at the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh last year with the North Carolina NAACP as part of the Moral Monday movement.
Through these and many more actions, Winston members formed close ties with organizations as varied as Occupy Charlotte, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the NAACP, the Winston-Salem Ministers’ Conference and El Cambio, a Yadkinville-based organization devoted to strengthening immigrant and minorities’ rights. This is only a small sample of the individuals, groups and organizations that Occupy Winston-Salem has allied itself with.
These coalitions resulted in statewide actions like the energetic protest at the 2012 Bank of America shareholders meeting in Charlotte, where Ndege served as a proxy. Months later, Occupy Winston-Salem was out in force in Newton with more than 1,000 other North Carolinians in response to a local pastor’s suggestion that homosexuals should be rounded up and put behind an electrified fence until they eventually died. The protest was an example of the spirit of solidarity that Occupy Winston-Salem members showed for people around the state.
“I’m not really heavily invested in the LGBT movement,” said Debra Demske. “But doggone I’m right there if some preacher in some podunk town starts saying some crazy things about what should happen to homosexuals,” she said. “I will drive out there and stand with a sign.”
Locally, Occupy Winston-Salem’s influence extended beyond City Hall lawn and into the council’s chambers. The passage of a resolution against the Supreme Court’s Citizens’ United ruling, one of the group’s most significant accomplishments, was the result of building enduring working relationships with council members. The effort also highlighted the value of working with organizations like Democracy NC, which culminated in a petition drive gathering 1,400 in-person signatures for the resolution’s passage.
Nobody really knows how many people are still members of Occupy Winston-Salem. There’s no official roster. At last count, there are 2,688 likes on the Occupy Winston-Salem Facebook page, but these figures rarely translate into boots on the ground.
Overall, the numbers dwindled in Winston-Salem as they did on Wall Street as the “American Autumn” slipped into winter and encampments across the country were uprooted.
“As it dragged on and we kinda realized this is going to be a long process, we lost a lot of people,” said Andrew Hobbes.
Like most movements, there is a small group of committed people at the center of the action. Occupy’s core members sometimes organized or participated in four or five actions per week in addition to working full-time. That level of involvement can require tremendous sacrifice.
“It’s a volunteer army here,” said Debra Demske. “When progress isn’t made immediately, people lose interest and drop out.”
Early on, for a host of reasons, Mike McGuire scaled back his involvement in the Winston-Salem group. The Children’s Home, McGuire’s employer, faced increasing financial problems, ultimately cutting residential programs for kids and laying off 79 employees. As the number of people coming out to Occupy events began to drop, more work fell on the shoulders of the ones who were left. Compounding his stress from work, as membership in Occupy fell, so did McGuire’s endurance, he said. For the sake of his professional and personal lives, McGuire had to step back from activism.
“This is a very un-Occupy thing to do but I asked permission [from my supervisor] before I really started going out and holding signs and stuff,” said Demske, a software developer. “Just to be sure.”
For Carol Hermann, participation in groups like Occupy comes with a price.
“Sometimes things get a little chaotic at home because I didn’t plan a meal well,” said Hermann, a wife, a mother and a social-justice activist of more than 30 years. Like many other activists, Hermann alternates between periods of political participation and recuperation.
“Social action takes a lot of energy, a lot of time and commitment,” Hermann said. “It involves a lot of balance.”
Occupy Winston-Salem members spent thousands of dollars for various actions during the past three years. Ndege exhausted the majority of his modest retirement savings for the movement.
“People might look at you and say, ‘Why would you spend money on traveling and posters and printing? Just for activism?’” Ndege said. “No one questions anyone if they spend $3,000 on a Super Bowl ticket. It’s a statement on how anti-political the system is and how that is infused into our culture.
“I’m not saying that everyone has to be like that,” he added. “I’m saying that there’s always a few people who have to be like that.”
Part of the reason why Occupy Winston-Salem is still able to organize long after the national movement was declared dead are the strategic decisions and victories that helped them make a name for themselves in the city and around the state. Where utilizing the Occupy name might be detrimental for other activists trying to influence change in their communities, in Winston-Salem, it can be a benefit, occupiers say.
“We have enough legitimacy in this community to keep using the name,” Ndege said. “In fact, I think it gives us legitimacy.”
Since even before the advent of the Moral Monday movement and the burgeoning environmental movement, members have increasingly organized actions outside of the Occupy banner. Simultaneously, with group members utilizing the network of activists and supporters that Occupy has garnered during the last three years on social media, it can be difficult to determine what’s an Occupy event and what’s not.
These days, the number of official Occupy Winston-Salem events are fewer than what they were in 2012 and 2013. Attendance also varies.
A recent action organized by Occupy Winston-Salem members brought 70 people out against the bombardment of Gaza. However, a demonstration against United States’ air strikes in Syria and Iraq saw turnout in the single digits.
“The protest at Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in Texas was maybe in the thirties,” said Tony Ndege. “We got about 20 people for Bank of America local protests. For Winston-Salem versus a huge city in Texas, I think we’re doing pretty good.”
In cities like Winston-Salem, Occupy continues to fill a vacuum by offering people an outlet to make change outside of the two-party political system.
“There are several small cities, even Raleigh, that still have Occupy groups because there’s nothing else that we can totally fit in with,” Ndege said.
“You’re talking semantics,” Porter said. “Occupy is just a name. Whether you call it Occupy or whether it comes under a different name, it’s important for us to all band together around all kinds of issues where we’re all oppressed.”
Rather than focusing on sustaining actions under the Occupy banner, Winston-Salem members have chosen to continue carrying out actions in solidarity with the working-class and fighting against social and economic injustice.
In June 2012, Occupy members picketed outside of Forsyth Medical Center after its parent corporation, Novant Health, announced 289 layoffs. It wasn’t until a year later that Will Cox, a healthcare worker and a member of Occupy, overheard a group of women that seemed tired from work and upset about their working conditions. As they waited to punch the time-clock, one of the women brightened up.
“I remember when those people were out in front of the hospital when we had the layoffs,” she recalled. “They had a demonstration. They were raising cain out there and they were doing that for us.”
“Occupy,” Cox said with emotion. “That was us. Occupy is what you do for each other.”