[Editor’s note: The Occupy movement’s unusual nature makes it hard to generalize about the group’s aims, beliefs and even actions. In developing this story, Xpress spent months talking with a variety of folks both inside and outside the movement. Nonetheless, there are doubtless other participants whose views differ from those presented here.]
In Asheville, a line of protesters marching down the sidewalk carrying signs is a familiar sight. Over the last five months, however, the Occupy Asheville movement has sparked major changes in the local activist community.
For the first time since the anti-war demonstrations in the early 2000s, protest groups that often focus on disparate specific causes came together in a much broader, if sometimes unruly, coalition. In the past, such alliances tended to be more issue-oriented; now, representatives from a wide array of local groups are meeting regularly. more people are turning out for protests, more groups are involved, and they’re embracing a wider range of goals.
But the fresh faces Occupy Asheville has pulled into the city's protest culture have also spawned new conflicts.
On Oct. 1, 2011, about 100 people, ranging from political newbies to longtime activists, gathered in Pritchard Park for Occupy Asheville's first general assembly (see sidebar, “Nuts and Bolts,” and “An Occupy Timeline”). Some demanded higher taxes on the wealthy; others voiced broader opposition to the current economic and political system.
"I'm a news junkie. I'd heard the Internet rumblings throughout the year," local waiter Martin Ramsey explains. "When the nation started to mobilize itself, I said I want to be a part of that and went down to see what was going on."
Ramsey showed up the first day wearing a suit, along with other members of an informal "anti-capitalist caucus." Some carried furled black flags.
Lindsey Miguelez, a 36-year-old student and stay-at-home mom, had no political experience, but she tagged along with a friend and has been involved ever since.
“I feel people have some misguided ideas about what it's all about,” she says. “It's a diverse crowd in ages, backgrounds and viewpoints. I think a lot of the things Occupy is focusing on are things everyone can get behind, especially getting a vision of equality back.”
Prominent local peace activist Clare Hanrahan was also there; she would later serve as a legal observer (nonparticipants who accompany demonstrations so they can serve as witnesses if needed later). And Lisa Landis (aka "GLoLady"), a familiar presence at local government meetings, drew cheers when she appeared.
Attorney Jennifer Foster, a longtime hemp and social justice activist, sent out the group’s initial press release and briefed the protesters on the legalities of marching.
And as more people turned up over the next few days to see what Occupy Asheville was all about, working groups began to coalesce.
Victor Ochoa, a landscaper with little political experience, attended the second general assembly, in Pack Square Park.
"For a long time, I've known there was a lot of corruption in society, and I was excited to finally see some organized effort against it," he explains. “These days, money makes right: If you have money, you're not getting more than a slap on the wrist. The rich make the laws.”
Local musician Kayvon Kazemini showed up the second week. Having read extensively about the Federal Reserve System and economic issues in general, he "felt Occupy was a good way to soapbox those ideas and feel where other people are at."
Other participants brought more experience. “I've been a Wobbly for 47 years,” says 74-year-old retired social worker John Spitzberg, pulling up his sleeve to reveal an Industrial Workers of the World tattoo. “I believe in nonviolence, in organization.”
Spitzberg, who serves as both president of the local Veterans For Peace chapter and treasurer of the Asheville Homeless Network, got involved when some in Occupy Asheville sought his help organizing their camp. “You have senior citizens, you have young'uns, you have people from every walk of life,” he notes.
And professional activist Naomi Archer reports, “I've seen people that may have been sitting behind their computers before who are now in the street. They're reclaiming their power.”
Over the coming months, all of these people would continue their involvement with Occupy Asheville in diverse ways. Archer and Ramsey became key spokespeople; Spitzberg helped organize logistics and relations with the homeless community. Kazemini and Ochoa were active in protests and working groups. Miguelez worked with the protesters' media, financial and social justice efforts.
Finding common ground
As October wore on, Occupy Asheville shifted tactics from regular sidewalk marches to forging alliances with other groups, seeking to beef up its overall presence and/or undertake higher-profile civil disobedience.
On Oct. 18, four protesters (including Ramsey) began cleaning windows and picking up trash near the Merrill Lynch building downtown. They said they wanted to highlight the fact that despite receiving federal bailout funds, the company couldn't keep its own public space clean. Wielding a megaphone, Ochoa broadcast the protesters' message. The four were arrested, though Ochoa and others weren’t.
More arrests followed after City Council rejected Occupy Asheville’s request for indefinite use of a piece of public parkland adjacent to Pack Square Park.
At this writing, only Ramsey has had his day in court: He was released for time served, with no additional penalties.
The biggest turnout to date was the 300-plus people — roughly double the usual number — who showed up for the Southeast Student Renewable Energy Conference’s Nov. 6 march protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Not all of them were from Occupy Asheville, of course, but more than one protester said they considered this the movement’s greatest accomplishment so far, demonstrating its ability to ally with other groups and bolster their numbers. And on Jan. 20, Occupy Asheville and Move to Amend mustered 250 people to protest corporate personhood.
“We've brought a lot of issues to the attention of a lot of people,” says Miguelez, noting that efforts like the Move Your Money campaign have persuaded area residents to shift their money to local banks and credit unions. “It's brought to light a conversation that was not being had about corporate mishandling of funds and other issues,” she maintains.
But even while striving to maintain a united front, Occupy Asheville has had its share of internal struggles.
At the Buncombe County commissioners’ Oct. 4 meeting, Landis — who was cheered on her initial appearance at Occupy — took the lectern to present a statement from the general assembly.
Her rambling remarks touched on pollution, the economy, justice system corruption, the medical-cannabis and industrial-hemp industries, police corruption, public-access television, homelessness and energy, among other topics. All of these, she maintained, were related to Hopi prophecies and the Book of Revelation. Landis spoke at such length that she could read only part of Occupy Asheville's statement; another speaker had to complete it.
That changed Landis' standing drastically. Four days later, the media working group issued a statement saying Landis had been speaking solely for herself, not for Occupy Asheville.
"If you're charged with delivering a message to a body and you go and do something else, we're not going to give you that responsibility anymore," says Ramsey, who crafted the statement. Landis has remained involved in the movement but is no longer a spokesperson.
Foster, too, saw her fortunes in the group decline dramatically. After serving as the public face of Occupy Asheville and handling early negotiations with the city, she faced opposition from members objecting to how much power they felt she claimed and how she used it.
According to Ramsey, Occupy Asheville sought to create a legal team, and Foster didn't want any part of it. "Foster, frankly, made some claims of ownership,” he explains. “We castigated her for it, and she dropped her participation. We don't allow single individuals to create chokepoints."
Ochoa, meanwhile, had this to say on Facebook: "The reasons for us not wanting to associate with Jen Foster are very simple. Jen hasn't been to a [general assembly] in over a month nor contributed anything during that duration. … How can we possibly hold the government accountable for its wrongdoings when we can't even hold each other accountable?”
In December, after Occupy Asheville declined to back Foster in fighting a contempt-of-court charge, she blamed her fate on “all these factions, and they're just attacking the hell out of me.” Citing “youthful stupidity,” Foster joked about suing them for defamation.
Personality conflicts and power struggles aside, a lot of folks, notes Spitzberg, simply grew disillusioned. "Many people came and tried — oh, how they tried — before they gave up,” he says with a chuckle.
Ochoa, too, says he’s seen too many “weekend warriors” in Occupy Asheville, asserting, “Occupy requires much more than that.”
Looking back, Miguelez observes, “There were some times when I don't think we could have known what was coming. Hindsight's 20/20: Perhaps we could have planned a little better, especially with regard to the people that got involved with the camps.”
And Kazemini says the very differences that he sees as one of Occupy Asheville's strengths can also lead to friction. "I think, at some point, we'll be able to get over that," he predicts. "We all know we want to deal with the same issues in a peaceful way: the Gandhi way."
One common criticism of Occupy movements across the country has been the lack of definite goals. And indeed, Occupy Asheville's original announcement cited grievances ranging from corporate malfeasance to local corruption and hemp production.
At the first general assembly, activist Luna Scarano says she saw local working groups forming to tackle such diverse issues as police and prisons, boycotts, food safety, gender and capitalism, among others. “So we're here for a lot of reasons," she noted at the time.
And in an official statement several weeks later, Ramsey summed up Occupy Asheville's ideals as "broadly criticizing government corruption and corporate domination." Despite the occasional disputes, he says now, Occupy members generally have a “sense that we're all on the same team.”
Kazemini, meanwhile, believes one of Occupy Asheville’s chief achievements has been linking the existing activist subcultures into a larger movement that’s remained intact amid sometimes fierce debates. "The issues we're dealing with here are national, global," he points out.
Ochoa concurs, saying, “We've stayed cohesive through some trying times.”
Spitzberg, too, believes that while Occupy “desperately needs” more participation from Asheville's minority community, it has enabled people from the lowest rungs of society to find a level of purpose they were missing before.
On Feb. 17, protesters gathered to witness the end of what at that point was one of the last remaining public Occupy encampments in the country. Some likened the APD to Nazis; others shot back that they were "just human beings trying to survive.”
Yet despite internal disagreements, occasional arrests and a months-long battle with the city over camping, Occupy Asheville remains active. About 50 people typically attend the weekly coordinating council meetings at various locations.
“We've re-energized local protest,” says Archer. It's given people a voice.” Since the anti-war movement faded, she believes, many people have been disenchanted with the political process. “This is helping to energize the grass roots of the country, even the world.”
And with spring looming, Miguelez expects Occupy Asheville to regroup and begin tackling local issues. On Feb. 20, for example, Occupy protesters showed up to support local unions decrying Postal Service cuts.
Others, however, see a long road ahead.
"We have to do a lot more to take Occupy from the streets and into people's lives," says Ochoa. "We can't just wave signs: We have to fight. Let's go help people who are getting foreclosed on. We need to act.”
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.