Occupy Winston-Salem charts quiet course, away from electoral politics

by Jordan Green


Tom Garner neglected his breaded tilapia and cucumber salad for a moment as he launched into a rebuke as part of an imagined confrontation with a political authority figure during meal at North Point Grill in Winston-Salem.

“Mr. President, you work for me, sir,” he said, “not for the corporations. That’s what our Constitution says. And if you want to change the Constitution, I have a problem with that.”

A middle-aged woman seated across the room in a booth nodded and a young, pregnant woman smiled.

“Can I get an amen?” Garner asked. “Amen,” the older woman said. The young woman lifted her shirt and patted her full-term belly.

“You’re worried about your little one’s future,” Garner said. “Is that it, mama?” Garner told the women he was with the occupy movement, and encouraged them to join.

Haltingly, as if the words were somewhat foreign, the young, pregnant woman spoke. “We need to all hold hands,” she said, “and march together to Washington.”

Garner told them he was a pastor. “Oh, where do you pastor?” the older woman asked.

“Right where I am,” Garner replied, “whenever I need to.” Garner, 55, is one of a dozen or so core activists involved with Occupy Winston-Salem who have been in a constant flurry of motion, but have receded from visibility as media attention has dropped and political energy has shifted to the presidential contest this year.

Occupy Winston-Salem fended off an attempt by city leaders to rewrite the open-air meetings ordinance earlier this year at a time when other occupy movements across the country were abandoning encampments as a result of withering police crackdowns. The occupiers in Winston-Salem disengaged from the public fight with the city and dug in for the long haul. They have organized pickets to protest layoffs by Reynolds American and Novant Health, rallied to keep a post office open in the Waughtown neighborhood and participated in a largescale protest against Bank of America in Charlotte, but also lent their bodies and voices to innumerable demonstrations that are part of a broad progressive coalition.

Those include a speak-out against the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin at Winston-Salem State University, a protest against the Ku Klux Klan in Iredell County, a march by immigrant farm workers against Reynolds, a phone bank to mobilize voters against the marriage amendment, a forum held by undocumented young people at Forsyth Tech, the annual HK on J rally led by the NC NAACP in Raleigh and a recent demonstration outside the governor’s mansion to urge Gov. Bev Perdue to veto a Republican fracking bill.

“There’s no need for us to have a physical space,” Garner said. “I’m going to show up where I can in the system and make noise. That’s what I see a lot of people doing. We have thousands of ‘me’s in cities across the country.”

Garner became ordained as an evangelical nondenominational pastor about a year ago although he expresses disdain for the judgmental nature of many Christians and discomfort with organized religion. He has held the title unofficially for almost two decades.

“People called me ‘pastor,’” Garner recalled. “I said, ‘I’m not a pastor; I’m just a crazy old sober-drunk saved by grace.’” Garner took note when Occupy Wall Street sprung up in Zuccotti Park in New York City’s financial district last September. By December he was ready to join Occupy Winston-Salem. A disabled carpenter, his reasons for signing on were fairly simple. He characterizes his personal healthcare challenges and struggle to obtain disability assistance as “the icing on the cake.”

“I was poor, uninsured, and I got sick,” he said. “It took five years to find a doctor who could diagnose what I had. By the time I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, I couldn’t brush my teeth, I couldn’t shave and I eventually ended up homeless. I was stuck between living in the streets and a res cue mission. It took 11 years from the time I got sick to when I qualified for disability. That’s outrageous. There’s no reason for me to have to become homeless to get some assistance.”

In addition to striking up conversations with strangers in restaurants or wherever else he might find them, Garner uses Facebook to instigate dialogue about inequality, corporate power and public policy.

“I put out fires,” he said. “I play whack-a-mole with whatever is hot, whatever people are talking about. I pray about it and try to really give it some thought. I try to offer solutions.”

Tony Ndege, 34, had about two decades of progressive activism under his belt before he joined Occupy Winston- Salem.

He had been frustrated by the failure of a massive anti-war mobilization to prevent the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“That was a demoralizing period,” he said. “When occupy began, that was a relief. I was wondering how much further are we going to move into a police-state frame of mind.”

Born in Uganda, Ndege moved from Washington DC to Greensboro as a child when his mother got a job at NC A&T University. He moved to Winston- Salem to attend high school and then college at UNC School of the Arts. Initially, Ndege participated in Occupy Greensboro because he was studying at UNCG, but decided to get involved with Occupy Winston-Salem, partly to avoid gas costs.

“I thought Winston-Salem might need some help with organization,” Ndege said. “I really think Winston- Salem needed an activist scene. It’s a little bit of a divide, not only class wise, but a cultural divide. It’s not a deep racial divide, but deeper than Greensboro. There’s been an influx of people from outside Winston-Salem and also people from Winston-Salem who have gotten educated and are more global in their thinking. You have an arts community, a corporate community, the African-American and Latino communities, and to some extent a gay and lesbian community. They weren’t really working together. That’s how the 1 percent rules.”

Like most of their counterparts across the country, Occupy Winston- Salem has resisted the temptation to engage in electoral politics by endorsing candidates. Most members, including some who are active in political campaigns, believe that to do so would rob the movement of its vitality and threat.

“When people are like, ‘Why don’t you enter electoral politics like the tea party has?’ I say, ‘Not only has the tea party had a lot of corporate support from the Koch brothers, but really the tea party is not that different from either party,” Ndege said. “The things occupy is asking for fall outside of the two major parties: money for education, not for war, healthcare access, ending corporate personhood. Occupy has supported unions that have felt betrayed by both parties.”

Voting is a matter of personal preference within the movement and not a point of unity. Garner, for example, said he expects to vote for the Green Party’s candidate for president.

“A lot of people in occupy are choosing not to vote at all,” he said. “Some occupiers are fully Democratic Party. I can tell you I am not a fan of Obama.”

Ndege noted that Occupy Winston- Salem has endorsed the March on Wall Street South, a protest in Charlotte scheduled to take place during the Democratic National Convention.

Kim Porter, who is known within the Winston-Salem group as “OccuMom,” campaigned for Obama in 2008 because, she said, “I thought it was important to have an African- American male elected president.” She emphasized that occupy members as individuals might support candidates, but as a group they couldn’t make endorsements because a candidate might change course once elected or take the right stance on one issue and the wrong one on another.

“Looking at things that have really made a difference, it hasn’t been electoral politics,” she said. “The biggest changes have come from boycotts and protests — things like the eight-hour workday and ending child labor…. Politicians won’t do the right thing unless they get pressure from the public at large. We support politicians when they support issues that matter.”

Porter said she thinks the effort to reelect Obama has drawn energy away from occupy, and she predicted that after the election the movement’s numbers will swell again.

Like Ndege and Garner, Porter came to occupy as a seasoned activist. Her parents took her to Vietnam war protests as a baby in a stroller. Porter met her husband, Will Cox, at Appalachian State University in the 1980s when they attempted to get the university to divest from South Africa and demon strated to free Nelson Mandela. They protested the presence of the CIA on campus and participated in the first Take Back the Night vigil. The couple has been active over the years in the successful struggle to free Darryl Hunt, the effort by African-American K-Mart workers in Greensboro to obtain equal wages and the boycott of Mount Olive pickles that led to a union contract for immigrant farmworkers.

The couple’s daughters, 24-year-old Amanda and 21-year-old Kayla, are fixtures at the protests. Both attend Salem College. Amanda is a graduate student working towards her teaching license. Kayla is an undergraduate. During a recent protest across the street from Novant-owned Forsyth Medical Center, Amanda eagerly announced Occupy Winston-Salem’s plans to travel to Raleigh for two back-to-back protests, the first calling for repeal of the marriage amendment and the second to denounce discrimination and harassment alleged by racial minorities against a sports bar and other downtown establishments.

Honks came from one car after another in response to the protesters’ signs denouncing layoffs at the hospital. The occupiers didn’t care that the protest wasn’t receiving significant attention from local media; they were gratified to be making an emotional connection with the healthcare workers.

The shift manager at the nearby Wilco Hess No. 1122 had told the occupiers they were not allowed to stand on the grass, and Porter was performing damage control. After a tense negotiation with the manager that involved two Winston-Salem police officers, Porter received verbal confirmation that picketers could come in the store to make purchases as long as they left their signs outside.

She emerged with a 16-pack of Diet Mountain Dew under her arm.

“Are you going to start handing out those high-fructose sugar and caffeine drinks?” asked Chad Nance, a journalist friendly with occupy.

“I was just going in to prove that we can be there,” Porter replied. “I picked up the first thing I saw. My kids are not drinking this.”

She turned to Nance’s pre-teen son, Elijah: “You’re not drinking this.”

“I had to clarify,” Porter said. “I don’t want us to be arrested when we go in there.”