Is This What Democracy Looks Like?
The tents were covered with a thin layer of chilled condensation. It was an early October morning, the bare beginning of autumn in South Carolina, but the night had gotten cold. The air was snappy, the frosted grass crunchy underfoot. Bodies bundled in thermal and wool gathered for the first cigarette of the day, muted recaps of the night before floating through the campsite.
I shook away the sticky muck of sleep and stepped out of my tent. It was October 22, 2011, one week after the Occupy Movement had gone worldwide. I was “occupying” the city of Charleston with about thirty others as the “99%”1 of Charleston took a stand against corporate greed. And politicians. And money, sort of; or at least the overabundant use of it, or the making of it at the expense of others. But it’s hard to say what else. In fact, despite the accord I’d witnessed at a parade in Seattle the week before, it was hard to say anything in particular regarding what the 99% of Charleston, represented by probably about 1% of Charleston, stood “in solidarity” against, or for, or whatever.
The #OccupyCharleston2 website, when I first saw it the week before, advertised a “99 Hour Occupation” at Brittlebank Park, which had conjured images of tents dwarfed by a financial district, a park in the center of a multitude of banks and businesses. The occupiers would have a permit to occupy a park in Charleston for roughly four days, five nights: 99 hours. An excellent length of time if one doesn’t have a job. Food would be provided, as well as music, teach-ins, and marches to local banks.
This meant that New York’s frenzied rebellion, which had spilled into over a thousand cities worldwide since it began a little over a month ago, was coming to Charleston. I’d moved to South Carolina three years ago to study philosophy at Coastal Carolina University, and I had come to know Charleston as a town of staunch Republicans and the old-fashioned snobbery of the Southern upper crust, where customs are held in high esteem second only to old money. The rift between the north and south hasn’t been fully mended since the civil war; the two sides disagree on everything from liquor laws and civil rights to breakfast foods and barbeque. But now this odd new movement had hugged the disgruntled masses into a huddle.
I’d been in Seattle the week before, the day OWS had encouraged a worldwide occupation and the movement erupted throughout the globe. The sounds of the Pike Place Farmers Market3 spun out of my ears as Mike, the friend I was visiting, pushed our way through the crowd to the outside stands and stood still for a moment, sucking in the cool harbor breeze. Then, without knowing why, the loosely packed crowd tightened, jostling me back against Mike. We barely had time to wonder at the movement when we realized the unmistakable sound of conga drums and spirited, chanting voices.
The people in the streets had moved to make way for a swarm of what looked to be backpackers and art students who poured into the cobblestone street, carrying cardboard and poster-board and banners. They were chanting, “WE! ARE! THE NINETY-NINE PERCENT (AND SO ARE YOU)!” Mike and I had seen a few flyers stapled to telephone poles that advertised a march and something called an occupation, which I didn’t understand at the time. The flyers explained that the Wall Street protests had spread and groups in all cities were being called to participate in a worldwide day of protesting.
I hadn’t realized exactly what that meant when I first saw it, and I still wasn’t sure what was happening. I had paid even less attention to the news then usual, caught up in the process of applying to grad schools, waiting tables, the assignments of the semester, and tutoring for philosophy and at my university’s writing center. But I gleaned the general meaning from the posters, boards and banners in the air as I snapped photos of each wave of protesters: “Corporate greed is killing the American dream;” “Corporations are not people. Money is not speech;” “No public $ for private lobbying;” “The Federal Reserve IS taxation without representation;” “Human need not corporate greed.”
An overwhelming sense of unity pervaded the street; the feeling the protesters had managed to convey was that they were doing this for all of us, that we were a part of it too, that we didn’t necessarily have to know very much about what was going on in order to feel like something was wrong and something should be done about it. There was no fear of harm; the protesters weren’t even hinting at violence4. The market crowd had stopped emptying their wallets and were watching, smiling, cheering, chanting; people marching were inviting us to join the march, even if only for a few blocks, just to show solidarity. Solidarity. I would later discover this word to be the cohesive rally cry of the movement.
With the fresh images of Seattle and vivid news reports on OWS on my mind, I had anticipated driving up to a park in the midst of sweltering action; but that wasn’t at all what Brittlebank Park was like when I’d arrived yesterday. Brittlebank was on the outskirts of the city, far from the lavish retailing on King Street where all the locals and tourists wander in search of shopping, culture, drinks, and food; far from any banks or lawyers’ offices or politicians or media. The park was on the edge of the peninsula of Charleston, on a strip of land between the harbor and the bypass.
And the crowd was... quiet. The grass between the two large tents was speckled with resting protest posters and canvas murals-in-progress; college-aged kids in layers of threadbare thrift store attire; bearded older men in sweatshirts and Army surplus coats; chubby women wearing sunglasses and drinking cups of coffee; a few distant, observant cops; and a news camera on a tripod. Children played on a swing-set in the distance. The food tent was overstocked. Most of the people were under the other tent, where a main speaker was standing on an egg crate while listeners asked questions from white plastic chairs.
I had expected the bristling energy that had permeated the scene at Pike Place, but it was strangely vacant. I was disappointed; I wanted action. I couldn’t see any from my car when I pulled into the gravel-spewed parking yesterday. Only middle-aged housewives in sweatpants and earmuffs standing in a group by the food tent, puffs of steam hovering over their paper cups of coffee, listening intently to a red-haired girl wearing a 99% button and a green lace dress with a faded corduroy overcoat and scuffed cowboy boots.
I walked over to the group as the housewives dispersed, leaving me alone with the redhaired girl. I introduced myself. She told me that her name was Wendy and that she was 22, and said something about the College of Charleston, I think; a sudden rise of about twenty voices calling, “mic check!” in unison had drowned her out. Her smile was wide but tight as she explained, probably for the two hundredth time, why she and the other “99 percent-ers” were there:
“We’re mostly trying to help people understand what’s going on around here, what we’re trying to do, how they can help. Mostly we really want to show that we stand in solidarity” -that word again- “with Occupy Wall Street, that we’re behind what they’re saying, and that we want to bring that message to the people in Charleston.” I confessed that I didn’t understand much about politics, and asked her to explain to me what the message was.
“Oh, that’s ok! I didn’t know anything at all about politics two weeks ago! I’ve learned so much by becoming a part of this movement. Here’s a copy of our ACE plan, it explains a lot...” she handed me a sheet of paper with an outline on it that looked much like a usual political outline of agenda, with a few sentences and a lot of “whereas” clauses that followed, and then waved to a wayward gaggle of bearded guys and girls with bandanas gathering under the teachin tent. “I have to go now though, it was nice talking to you!” She scampered under the tent and started to fiddle with a microphone and some sheets of paper.
I looked over the paper Wendy had given me. It called for the government to “redress” accountability, corruption, and equitability5. There were issues raised beneath each of those headings along with the movement’s ideal solutions, some of which were: “reinstate the Glass- Steagall Act that creates the necessary separation between banking, insurance and investment to prevent another economic crisis”; and “return the Federal Reserve to the public sector.” Very explanatory and clear to someone who has no idea what any of those things mean.
I looked around for someone else to chat with. A very old man strolled by in a tiedyed shirt and paint-splattered canvas coveralls, his yellowed hair was twisted into dreadlocks. He lit a stick of nag champa, pushed it into the ground, and walked off. A bedraggled twenty- something with a long beard and black top-knot came up to me and began talking in earnest about a resource-based economy. I was interested until he started talking about gathering a group of a few hundred people and moving to an island together. The cult-leader gleam in his eye had me quickly scampering to the other edge of the crowd.
That was when I saw the Sweet Potato Lady. The sweet potato6 caught my eye before the woman holding it. It was real, which, given its size, was hard to believe. It was about three times the size of a human head, with large neat letters written on it. I could make out the words “fuel ethanol,” “CAREnergy,” and “no GMO’s7.” The short old woman behind the sweet potato had feisty curls, a loud voice, and a fanny pack. She was rattling off the reasons why sweet potatoes can save the world (only one of which included ingestion), a rapt audience of one very attentive student of environmental studies nodding rapidly at each new point. They spat the word “Monsanto8” as if it were the symbol of all that is evil and corrupt in the world (which, to be fair, might actually be the case) and discussed ways to convert the abundant carbohydrates of sweet potatoes into fuel ethanol so that we could save the environment. The woman hoped that, if people became more aware and politicians became less obsessed with money and more concerned with how to protect the world they and their people live on, that sweet potatoes would become the new corn and thus undermine Monsanto completely, thereby disabling their ability to prevent scientists from performing research on the effects of GMOs on humans.
A group of men ambled toward me, one of them—early 50’s, gray-white hair, and what my Italian grandfather used to call a “starter belly”—wearing a leather taxi driver cap and a Tshirt with a picture of George Dubya, a banana, and the words, “Bad president. No banana!” His friendly chortle and beaming face welcomed conversation, and we had the first productive talk I'd had since arriving. His name was Dave. He was friendly and inclusive, and didn’t have long, convoluted answers or pamphlets. He was just trying to lend a helping hand, happy to be “a part of history” and relieved that something had finally started that coincided with what had been brewing in his growing gut since the protests in the 60’s, a sentiment I shared along with the rest of my generation; we were dying for something to fight for, or fight against—we just wanted a fight, a good one, and we'd finally gotten an excuse to become a part of one.
He’d been skeptical when he’d first arrived a few days before, but his interactions thus far had almost entirely converted him: “I was talking to Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives and a good smattering of Libertarians. And I was seeing consensus! Everybody was pissed, and, like myself, they were looking at the Occupy movement as a means of expressing it.” Maybe that was what this whole thing was about: people from all different backgrounds coming together to believe in one thing, somehow, like wayward Unitarians. Maybe, with just a little more conversation, I could catch a firm grip on the slippery proclamations of this movement that eluded exact definition.
Just then we were interrupted by Wendy, who, standing on the egg crate and cupping her hands around her mouth, had shouted, “mic check!” Without hesitation she was echoed by anyone who had heard her: “MIC CHECK!” Apparently the group couldn’t get the microphone to work. That, or they wanted to feel more authentic by doing it the OWS way, which I learned before my arrival thanks to The Daily Show’s tenderly sarcastic and amusingly accurate portrayal of the movement in New York. The proclamation that a General Assembly meeting was about to begin was delivered, half-sentence by painstaking half-sentence, in this fashion. It took about two minutes to announce the meeting’s relevant and obvious details, like its time (right then) and its place (right there).
The main leaders of the leaderless group began the G.A. by telling everyone the format of the meeting. They began their explanation by explaining that first they would explain the rules and order; that they would then take suggestions on what they should cover in this meeting (a nomination and one “seconded!” would be enough, no need to vote); then they would discuss what to discuss next time; and then they would wrap things up.
Then they launched into a “quick” tutorial on the preferred hand signals. “Jazz hands9,” a quick wiggling of upward-pointing fingers, were to be used in lieu of applause, because applause was considered too loud and interrupting (since they didn’t have a microphone, or at least, we weren’t using a microphone). Similarly, downward-wiggling fingers were used instead of booing to express dissent. One could also cross his or her arms over his or her head to express dissent. A triangle formed with thumbs and pointer fingers meant, I think, that the symbolmaker had a point of interruption; some other hand signal meant point of process10. By the end of the tutorial all I could remember were the jazz hands, so I was very agreeable throughout the meeting.
I began to notice a divide in the group. Some of these people were very sincere, kind, inclusive, truly embracing every person’s ideas in a way that discovered the heart of the matters that they agreed on. But others were angry, and they wanted to prove it. They directly insulted the Democrats who tried to give advice; they complained that they weren’t being taken seriously; they bitched about the presence of the cops, who were completely cooperative and even friendly. The problem with these dissenters was that they weren’t really arguing; they were whining. It was as if they’d missed out on the emo boat and so had decided to climb aboard this one, where they could whine while looking tough at the same time, which was eminently cooler.
I discovered this especially after the meeting had ended. Holding a plateful of free biscuits and salad, I walked over to a group that Wendy was sitting on the grass with. They were all twenty-somethings, clad in dusty layers of flannel and thermal, torn T-shirts wrapped around their heads as bandanas. With a large smile, I asked, “Mind if I sit with you happy people?” A tense, bearded guy in a withered fedora immediately barked, “We’re not happy. We’re angry.” Whoa, dude. The sign at your feet has the words “unity” and “solidarity” on it. I’m not one of the politicians or billionaires. Why the hostility?
I meandered, chatted, was included and politely brushed off by a number of miniature cliques of vegetarians, feminists, anarchists, etc. They were advocating stricter bank laws and criminal codes against corporate moguls; lower taxes to relieve taxpayers’ debt; higher taxes to support more widespread welfare programs; the abolition of capitalism, the abolition of jobs, the abolition of meat and money and many things that most people in this country don’t really want to give up, which was a little scary. This small group wasn't representing the 99%; they were representing themselves. It was an excuse for any liberal agenda to come and try to recreate the world.
Campfires began to spring up as dusk nestled its way into the harbor. I heard the fluid metal sound of alcohol in flasks11. I wandered up to one of the fires. A preppy guy with a sheepish smile and shaggy hair offered me a few swigs of his Woodford Reserve. The guy, Steven, had just moved to Charleston from D.C., where the movement was strong and flourishing. He, like most of the other younger people I’d spoken with, had recently graduated but hadn’t gotten a job yet. He had no occupation.
Oh, idle hands. Without occupations, the jobless graduates had gone looking for something to occupy. They found it, and brought the rest of the unemployed populace into the fold; and then the working poor; and then the working middle class; and, why stop there? The (supposedly) all-inclusive movement had become a venue for any semi-political soapbox diatribe. Vegans, environmentalists, socialists, communists, Zeitgeist disciples and Venus Project advocates all showed up to the party. And all of them were loud. It’s hard to figure out where they will draw the lines. How would one clear voice emerge from that cacophony?
My conversation with Steven was interrupted, as usual, with the now familiar “mic check!” call. Another G.A. meeting began, the one that decided what, exactly, the Occupy Charleston Autonomy Statement12 would say. For thirty minutes the group argued using hand symbols, vented frustrations and ideas, proposed motions, seconded motions, voted, used more hand symbols, declared more statements for or against a specific word, more motions, more voting... Eventually it came down to a single word: only. They argued. They cajoled. They voted. They agreed. The statement was posted.
The next morning, after lukewarm black coffee and heaping piles of eggs, more biscuits, and grits (all of which everybody pitched in to make or clean up after), the group began to clean the park together, pulling down tents, packing away food, and scouring the grass for cigarette butts. Dave was breaking down the voting tent. I went over to say good-bye and he hugged me and promised to keep in touch, putting my number in his phone. “You know,” he said, “I called my sister today. I told her about what I'd been doing and she told me about going to Tea Party meetings. If we two could have a reasonable dialog, then maybe there's hope.” Dave’s sentiment reached close to the tickle at the back of my mind, like he had yesterday. Then I realized what it was.
People from completely different backgrounds, espousing completely different ideals, were still finding a way to come together and fight against something they didn’t believe in. They didn’t have to agree on everything else, as long as they agreed on something. The “something” had been blatantly staring me in the face this whole time: democracy. Or, at least, the first amendment. It was just that simple. They agreed that if enough voices were raised, someone would listen. They believed that their voices, collectively, as one voice, could change things. It was a voice so strong that it had started in one of the greatest cities in the world and had crossed not merely the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but the Mason-Dixon line, connecting two halves of the eastern coast that hadn’t had solidarity for over a century.
At the time, I was eager to see how this movement would affect our country and the world as it continued. I remember thinking that maybe it could hold us together, but, with all the different agendas and proclamations and attitudes, it may lose its focus and drive itself into pieces. The solidarity it prized itself on would have to grow into an indestructible adhesive in order for this haphazard yet ardent movement to last; within months, the movement fizzled into the recesses of our minds, in typical Millennial A.D.D. fashion. I began to lose faith in my generation’s ability to ever form a cohesive, lasting stand.
As I left Brittlebank, I passed the banner that the group would be carrying through the town in a few hours. It had been lying on the ground surrounded by multi-colored Sharpies throughout the occupation so that the occupiers could write the usual slogans: “Take $ out of politics,” “Dis-mantle corporate personhood,” etc. The phrases had already become familiar to the point of sounding trite, the new platitudes oddly archaic. I wanted to add something to the banner that would remind everyone of the most important cornerstone of the movement without using a tired phrase. The word solidarity13 was now so common that people barely paid attention to it, as the angry dusty-bandana guy had shown me, but there was a fresher synonym: unity.
I bent over the banner, struggling to use a marker on the dew-slimed canvas, and eventually I got the word on there in large, bold letters—U N I T Y. The red ink seeped into the moist cracks of the banner, spreading outward, diluting and smearing into the other words. As I walked away, I worried that the word would blur beyond recognition. I looked back. The damp, seeping letters had already begun to fade.
1. ^ One of the preferred nicknames of those involved with the Occupy Wall Street movement, understood to mean “the 99% of Americans who aren’t rich or politicians,” which implies that the entirety of the supposed “99%” of Americans who aren’t rich or politicians are also protesting, even if they aren’t.
2. ^ The number sign, also known as a hashtag, is popular within the movment due to their use of Twitter as a communication forum.
3. ^ Wedged between the edge of downtown Seattle and the Puget Sound, crowded with both locals and visitors from New York, Canada, Asia, California, Washington, and at least one from South Carolina.
4. ^ I would find out later that the movement actually strives to remain peaceful, the protesters in New York pleading with their ensuing followers to do the same.
5. ^ Which, technically, isn’t a word.
6. ^ Specifically, an “eTuber™” sweet potato (patent pending), which are, according to the CAREnergy website, known to be “oversized bowling balls of energy able to yield 5-6 more tons per acre than corn for fuel-ethanol.
7. ^ Genetically modified organisms.
8. ^ As per the Wiki gods: Monsanto’s development and marketing of genetically engineered seed and bovine growth hormone, as well as its aggressive litigation, political lobbying practices, seed commercialization practices and "strong-arming" of the seed industry have made the company controversial around the world and a primary target of the alter-globalization movement and environmental activists.
9. ^ Also known as “spirit fingers.”
10. ^ When someone is violating the democratic method, i.e., speaking out of turn.
11. ^ Signs stipulating park rules listed, as Rule Number One, that “no alcohol, drugs, or any other substances”—?—“may be consumed during this occupation!”
12. ^ The #OccupyCharleston website still proclaims the statement that was voted on that night: "Occupy Charleston hereby declares itself autonomous from the political establishment. We do not endorse any political parties and will reject any endorsement from them. We stand in solidarity only with Occupy Movements."
13. ^ I have circled the word in a book that was published (This Changes Everything, a collection of writings edited by yes! magazine) only a month after the first protest. I am 47 pages deep. I’ve made 22 circles.