Occupy Winston-Salem, Greensboro groups hit the streets

by Keith Barber

About 200 members of Occupy Winston-Salem picketed oustide a local Bank of America branch on Sunday.

William Place, a second-grader at Sherwood Forest Elementary, enthusiastically blew a whistle and held up a sign that read, “The future of the 99% is my future,” outside a Bank of America branch in Winston-Salem Sunday. William was one of an estimated 100 to 150 people participating in Occupy Winston-Salem’s first direct-action event.

“I’m just a part of Occupy Winston-Salem, and this is my future,” William said. “If the government stops doing what they’re doing, [making] budget cuts to education, it’s going to be better for me.”

Members of Occupy Winston-Salem, an independent, nonviolent, leaderless movement, said they targeted Bank of America because it was the second largest recipient of federal bailout money during the 2008 financial crisis. In 2009, the Charlotte-based bank paid its executives more than $1 billion in bonuses. Earlier this year, Bank of America announced it was planning to lay off more than 30,000 employees.

William’s mother, Laurel Caldwell, spoke to a motorist stopped at the intersection of South Stratford Road and Knollwood Street and encouraged him to attend the Occupy Winston-Salem general assembly meeting at Miller Park Amphitheater later in the day. As a child, Caldwell participated in Equal Rights Amendment marches with her mother. William is a third-generation activist, she said.

“It’s been very important to me that he understand what’s going on in the United States and how it’s going to affect our children,” she said.

A registered nurse, Caldwell said she’s also very concerned about budget cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.

“I have patients who are dying and they are concerned about how their families will pay off their medical bills,” she said.

As Caldwell spoke, a number of motorists honked their horns and shouted words of encouragement to the demonstrators. Not all of the feedback from passersby was positive, however.

One elderly lady stopped at the intersection told the demonstrators to “go to work.”

Terry Smith replied, “We will go to work, tomorrow.” Smith, head of the sociology department at Salem College, said she joined Sunday’s demonstration to speak out against economic injustice.

“It breaks my heart to see what the country has come to and my children face a world with less than hope than I faced when I was their age,” she said.

She held up a pizza box with the words, “I care about you” on one side and “Separation of Corporation and State” on the other. Other signs held by demonstrators read, “Everything is fine, just keep shopping,” “No more corporate welfare” and, “I bailed out a bank and all I got was a debit card charge.”

One Occupy Winston-Salem member held aloft an American flag that had corporate logos in place of the 50 stars while another picketer had revised the Bank of America corporate logo to read, “Ripoff America.”

During the three-hour rally, Occupy Winston-Salem members chanted slogans, such as “We are the 99 percent!” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go!” The Occupy Winston-Salem on Sunday followed the Occupy Greensboro march and rally held Oct. 15. Several hundred demonstrators assembled around 3 p.m. at the government plaza and marched to Festival Park. Susan Danielsen, a spokesperson for the Greensboro Police Department, put the official count of participants in Occupy Greensboro event somewhere between 700 and 750 people.

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a self-described “child of the sixties” and atlarge Greensboro City Council candidate, served as one of the parade marshals. Todd Warren, a member of Occupy Greensboro, said about 50 people attended the group’s first organizing meeting, and between 100 to 200 people have shown up at subsequent meetings. “Everybody agrees that what we’re doing isn’t working,” said Billy Jones, an Occupy Greensboro member. “We agree that we don’t want to be co-opted by the Democratic Party, despite what the party will tell you.” Sharp Hall took photographs and inter- viewed people during Saturday’s event in downtown Greensboro. “I think the point is to be out here together,” Hall said. “I’m not sure we can be united other than we are the 99 percent. I think that in itself is powerful.” Michael Speedling, assistant city manager, said Occupy Greensboro had permits to gather in Festival Park on Saturday and Sunday. The city discounted rent to make it affordable, Speedling said, and the YWCA gave permission for the demonstrators to camp in their parking lot adja cent to Festival Park through Friday.

“They’re one of the best groups I’ve worked with, so far,” Speedling said. “It’s been a good collaboration.” On Monday morning, approximately 25 tents were pitched in the parking lot of the YWCA between Davie and Church streets, and there were knots of people sitting on sidewalks outside talking and drinking coffee. After wrapping up their demonstration around 2 p.m. on Sunday, the Occupy Winston-Salem demonstrators gathered at Miller Park for their general assembly meeting. Ethan Smith moderated the meeting. The first part of the meeting gathered feedback on the Bank of America demonstration. Smith then identified 10 working groups, and members broke out into sub-groups. In the research, education and issues group, Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education member Elisabeth Motsinger spoke first. She held up a graphic of an iceberg model used in systems thinking. Motsinger pointed out that 90 percent of an iceberg is below the surface. In the paradigm, societal problems and issues represent the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water’s surface. Motsinger explained that systems thinking teaches that addressing problems directly will not solve the underlying structure that’s creating the problem.

“The ideal place for this group to work is at the structural level,” she said.

Members of the group agreed to narrow a broad spectrum of economic and social justice issues down to just three they would tackle. Group members then threw out issues of concern, including taking money out of politics, corporate personhood, transparency, stopping foreclosures, environmental protection, corporate greed,

American jobs, bringing military service mem- bers home and stopping illegal wars.

A lengthy discussion about dividing into sub-groups to address specific issues absorbed much of the group’s time. Motsinger suggested the group focus on the process rather than the content. A speaker who identified himself as Earl said Occupy Winston-Salem needs to achieve something tangible and concrete for the group to expand its membership. “There is a tendency for us to be academic and not from the gut,” Earl said. When it came to the question of “What does Occupy Winston-Salem want?,” Motsinger replied that the group wants to become a voice for economic justice on a local, state and national level. Ashaya Hammond said it’s not easy to formu- late an answer to that question because there are so many issues of concern to Occupy Winston- Salem’s members. Hammond said one thing all members could agree upon is they want to raise awareness about social and economic injustice on a local level. The general assembly reconvened and Hammond spoke for the direct action group, out-lining a series of upcoming demonstrations. At an event on Saturday, the group is planning to picket a Wells Fargo branch at Thruway Shopping Center from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. On Oct. 27, the group is planning a demonstration outside High Point City Hall during a public hearing by the NC Public Utilities Commission on Duke Energy’s proposed 17-percent rate increase. During the meeting, Marcus Hodges explained the process for consensus building. Hodges said a hand up means you agree with the proposal, a horizontal arm means you are indifferent and arms crossed in the shape of an X is a block.

Hodges said each person who blocks will have an opportunity to explain the reason for their opposition. “It can take a while to figure out specific demands because everybody gets to be heard,” she said. “It’s very important not to overlook how important consensus is. It’s radical in the sense that we haven’t had groups or govern- ments practicing true democracy in many, many years.”

Hammond expressed optimism about the group’s long-term sustainability.

“We’re in agreement with all Occupy groups that we’re in this for the long haul,” she said. “Something really important about our group is we really want to bring a focus to more local issues, and really become involved in the com- munity. Jordan Green contributed to this article.