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Occupy Greensboro hunkers down

by Eric Ginsburg

It may not be as flashy as a protest or as visible as an encampment, but Occupy Greensboro is hunkering down to fight a prolonged struggle. With a combination of veteran organizers and freshly minted activists, the eight-month-old group has dug its heels into its regular meeting space at Glenwood Coffee & Books to take on a spread of causes, especially around energy production and housing foreclosures.

The initial occupation at Festival Park last October brought people together, participant Emiley Joyce said, and now they are thinking strategically about how to effectively make change. There’s been a lot of internal conversation about the changing nature of Occupy Greensboro, foreclosure working group member Marnie Thompson said.

“I am all for protests and the politics of confrontation of the machine and the system if it’s tied to a bigger goal,” Thompson said. “There’s a huge protest component to this story… but we’re in this for the long haul and that means really doing your homework and your research. We’ve got to be part of developing what comes next.”

The protests haven’t stopped entirely, but the group’s focus has shifted. In some ways, Occupy Greensboro is looking more like a nonprofit, with plans for a summer internship program, a focus on research and legislative action, training and canvassing.

The changes have meant an overall decrease in visibility, but core participation hasn’t waned.

Working groups are focused on a variety of issues, and the foreclosure group is one of Occupy’s powerhouses. The March premiere of “Let’s Lose Our House,” a short film about foreclosure, drew nearly as many as the initial Occupy Greensboro march in October as well as attention from national media like the “Rachel Maddow” show.

Operating with a variety of components, including a support system for people experiencing foreclosure, the working group has a multi-pronged approach to tackling the foreclosure crisis in the county. Two members were arrested in a foreclosure home defense in Raleigh recently, in which people took over a home alongside the family who had lived there.

A similar occupation has yet to happen here, but the occupiers are discussing it and engaging in other actions in the meantime.

Christina Stone recently tried to film a foreclosure sale in a public area by the courthouse and was stopped by security. As of press time, Stone was told she would be allowed to film the sale of 28 homes on Tuesday, and other occupiers planned to come and bear witness.

Besides filming the foreclosure sales, Stone wants the public to push for warrants against fraudulent foreclosures, and to reduce or eliminate the cost homeowners pay for a judicial review, which is their only recourse for speaking out against fraud, she said.

The work doesn’t stop there. Thompson said 50 people signed up after the premiere to act as volunteer mortgage-fraud detectors, undergoing a training process to scour local foreclosure documents for signs of fraud.

The research aims to uncover the scale of the problem, who is committing and benefiting from the foreclosures, who is being impacted and the nature of the loans, Thompson said.

They’re building a large database with the results from the scientific sample, filling out 10-page forms for each case, searching for robo-signing and other indicators of fraud.

Meanwhile the energy group is regularly canvassing the Glenwood neighborhood, preparing for a summer internship program and developing a radio drama. Like other components of Occupy Greensboro, the energy occupiers are paying attention to the NC General Assembly, particularly the Construction Work in Progress bill.

The bill would allow Duke Energy, which has already raised rates by 20 percent in two years, to raise rates without going through the utility commission in order to fund new nuclear power plants.

“There is very little accountability [with the bill],” energy working group member Valerie Warren said. “It’s basically a blank check. We see it as a direct transfer of wealth to the 1 percent. They are keeping it as quiet as possible and trying to remove accountability and community input. We’re expected to foot the bill for this for a company that is extremely profitable.”

Similar bills in other states such as Florida have led to a nearly 80 percent increase in rates for customers, she said, which means privatizing profit while socializing risk.

The foreclosure and energy groups have partnered with other organizations to take on these battles, providing them with valuable information and resources. The NC Waste Awareness & Reduction Network and the NC Justice Center have been key partners for the energy and foreclosure groups respectively, and the larger group has participated in state and nationwide networks that include other occupy groups and established nonprofits.

More than 35 people from across the state met on Sunday in Greensboro to discuss the successes and weaknesses of a massive protest at Bank of America’s May 9 shareholders’ meeting in Charlotte. Occupy groups across the state, including Greensboro, provided much of the infrastructure and people for the action, which participants said was largely a success. Greensboro City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who has attended various occupy events since the beginning, was one of the participants at the meeting and the march.

At the nearly four-hour debrief and discussion on Sunday, people also offered up ideas for future projects to work on together including protests at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte in September. Participants also briefly outlined some of the issues facing the state, and mapped out which groups are actively engaged in the issues so they could analyze where they could fit in most effectively.

The level of planning, research and strategic action wasn’t entirely absent at the beginning of Occupy Greensboro, but there is a markedly different feel and approach to the work. Not only has the organization changed, but the people in it have too.

“I just finished reading an environmental law almanac,” said Joyce, who is 27. “Ten years ago you couldn’t have gotten me to pick up a book. It’s kind of given me hope for future avenues.”

Joyce said Occupy has increased her confidence, and that she would not have imagined herself speaking out at a utility commission meeting before. Now the full-time cosmetologist is considering going to college.

The component of self teaching and a type of popular education is common throughout Occupy Greensboro, and working groups are designed so new people can easily plug in.

Warren said the meetings for the collaborative radio drama are set up so people can come once and offer input, and Thompson said there are many people who just participate in a working group and aren’t directly connected to the larger movement.

The combination of long term research, strategizing and action with regular outreach and ways for new people to plug in indicates Occupy’s staying power, in part because people are strongly committed to it.

“When Occupy came around it was kind of like the jackpot,” said Joyce, who was happy there was a group that could address a dozen issues she cared about rather than needing to join a dozen groups.

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