One week with Occupy Greensboro

by Eric Ginsburg

Festival Park manager Barbara McKenzie tells protesters that they must leave the power off. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

The initial action of Occupy Greensboro on Oct. 15 saw significant attendance, but many of the people demonstrating along Bryan Boulevard and Green Valley Road awaiting the president’s motorcade two days later were joining Occupy Greensboro for the first time.

“We can’t afford the rent! The 99 percent!” demonstrators chanted. “Drop student debt! Make the rich pay!” Katanja Joseph was homeless after her home in Cincinnati was foreclosed and moved to Greensboro after a friend told her about GTCC. She lives off of food stamps and the loans and aid for school, where she is studying human services.

When asked if she has a job or is looking for work, Joseph said, “There is no work.” She tried volunteering for a year and a half at the Women’s Hospital a few blocks from the protest hoping it would turn into a job opportunity.

“I couldn’t even get hired into the cafeteria,” Joseph said. “If you’re not rich, you’re poor. I am the 99 percent.”

The protest was the first action she’s taken with Occupy Greensboro, and despite her limited resources she donated money and supplies that day as well.

Like Joseph, American Postal Workers Union member Randy Dunbar brought donations to the encampment by Festival Park downtown and was participating in his first Occupy Greensboro action. Dunbar works full time and attends High Point University at night, working towards a degree in history.

“The history of this country is pretty much the ruling class trampling everyone else,” he said. “Enough is enough. People are starting to revolt against corporate greed and social inequality.”

A grandfather, Dunbar said he didn’t want future generations to deal with the same problems 40 years down the line.

The protesters were forced to move 60 feet from the intersection the motorcade would pass through, which according to Officer Hafkemeyer is Secret Service protocol. Soon after moving, the protesters were told that the surrounding property owners had threatened to tow any cars without a permit, causing some to rush to park further away and some to go home.

Nicole Davis, a communications major at UNCG, was also participating for the first time although she had been to Occupy Wilmington. She plans to travel to Wall Street with her father soon and said one of her main issues is the gap between the rich and poor.

“I’m still an Obama supporter,” Davis said. “I’m just sick of student debt.”

After waiting for the president’s motorcade for hours, the protesters’ enthusiasm seemed to wane a little, but when it was clear the motorcade was approaching the chants picked up steam again.“Fight! Fight! Fight! ‘Cause housing is a human right!” they chanted. “Hey Obama, I’m no fool! I know you’re a corporate tool!” Jessica Mashburn showed up with her boyfriend, Evan Olson, and his two kids, ages 9 and 10, on their bikes not long before the motorcade passed by. She said they participated in the kickoff march on Oct. 15.

“We’re just really inspired by what they’re doing,” Mashburn said. “I hope some sort of regulation comes about to take money out of politics. There needs to be a line between democracy and capitalism.”

Mashburn said the issue isn’t a political one between Democrats and Republicans, but comes down to class.

Other events have been organized throughout the week, including a picket outside of Bank of America downtown on Tuesday that drew approximately 40 people holding signs and passing out flyers.

With the grand opening of Obama’s reelection campaign office in Greensboro Thursday, some chanted across the street while other occupiers went inside the opening event and engaged Obama supporters in a dialogue about what changes the country needs.

Every day brings something new at the encampment. After a week, the occupiers were able to set up large speakers and blast Jimi Hendrix’s music during a sunny afternoon.

The newly formed Radical Historians Collective offered its first teach-ins on Saturday, focused on different popular uprisings in world history with an eye to what the occupiers can learn from them.

On Tuesday, Festival Park manager Barbara McKenzie arrived at the occupation flanked by two police officers and a security guard to let people know that the power for the park needed to remain off.

“These folks are easygoing,” McKenzie said, adding that there hadn’t been any problems and she was only there to communicate. She also told them any tents and tables on the grass would need to be moved Thursday morning so the grass could be mowed.

The relationship between the occupiers and the property owners, the YWCA, has also been cordial; the YWCA recently agreed to allow the campers to remain until Nov. 11 as long as they moved from one side of the building to another on Friday because the parking lot was already reserved.

Occupy Greensboro readily acquiesced and is now set up in a more secure area, making some occupiers feel safer because of the fence running around the encampment and a slight decrease in police presence. Prior to the move, Greensboro police were stationed on opposite sides of the occupation 24 hours a day, sometimes in various undercover cars.

Occupiers took turns keeping watch over the camp at night, as pairs switch every couple of hours.

While run-ins with the police have been minimal, some complain that police have attempted to restrict who accesses the encampment and have sought to divide political occupiers from homeless campers.

Zack Sadeq, who has actively participated since the first meeting and has been camped out all week, said Greensboro police detained him. After leaving the occupation around 12:45 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Sadeq said a police cruiser followed behind him as he walked to Jimmy Johns before stopping him on his way back at the corner of Friendly and Elm. Sadeq said Officer Muldowney asked him if he was homeless and why he was participating in the occupation, and upon seeing his Che Guevara shirt asked if Sadeq knew Guevara was a mass murderer. After waiting while Muldowney sat in his car for roughly 10 minutes, Sadeq said he asked if he was free to go and was told he could leave. When he asked why the officer stopped him, Sadeq said he was told that there had been a string of car break-ins and that he fit the profile of a car burglar.

Sadeq, who is from Greensboro, quit his job at Papa John’s after six years this summer and is taking a basic math class, paying out of his own pocket. For him, much of what the occupy movement is about is capitalism.

“I think that creating demands is completely necessary,” Sadeq said, “but we have to be careful about what kind of demands we make and think about if they really challenge the systems that oppress us.”

The number of people sleeping overnight has dwindled, to the extent that the majority of the Friday general assembly meeting was devoted to considering whether the occupation should only be carried out on the weekend with other ongoing actions, a proposal on which participants could not reach consensus.

During the day many people leave the encampment for work but a core of at least a dozen seem to be on site at all times. The occupation swells each night around dinner and the general assembly, tapering off as the evening wears on.

The assemblies regularly draw about 60 people though the participants change, and each meeting new things are discussed and sometimes agreed upon. On Oct. 18, for example, the general assembly approved a new communication structure between working groups that emphasizes rotating leadership, as many felt the working groups were not functioning well and needed a more coherent process.

Impromptu meetings are held as well. More than a dozen people clustered together on Friday and planned an outreach effort that would take their message door to door.

Despite harsh wind and strong rain in the middle of the week, the occupiers stayed put. Even without really soliciting donations, they estimate they have enough food to continue serving three meals a day for at least a week, but new donations are coming in all the time. One day, nine large boxes of “veggie snacks” were dropped off, and the dinner options ranged from chicken and tuna to salad and potatoes.

New ideas are constantly arising too, some taken from the broader movement and some originating here. One UNCG student wants to curate an art show using people’s signs from Occupy Greensboro.

Someone else suggested occupying homes to stop banks from foreclosing on them, which was recently carried out successfully by Occupy LA. And, in conjunction with the national call for people to withdraw their money from large banks and put it in credit unions on Nov. 5, some occupiers want to plan a week of withdrawals and protest actions at big banks.