Jason Cherkis' and Sara Kenigsberg's latest entry in the 'Occupy Y'All Street' series that examines some of the lesser-known Occupy encampments is maybe the most important thing they've posted yet. It asks the question of what happens when the initial enthusiasm of the protests starts to wane. It asks, what happens next.
The article focuses on Occupy Charlotte member Vic Suter, a key organizer who has dedicated her life to the issues related to Occupy Wall Street and is going above and beyond the call of duty when it comes to making sure that Charlotte is occupied and that the rallies and marches in the city don't die.
A month earlier, the Occupy activists in Charlotte had drawn more than 500 to their first march uptown, a noisy success that included a stop at Bank of America's North Tryon Street headquarters, where the throngs chanted up its 60 stories. The building -- the tallest in the state and a dominant spear in the city's skyline -- had been a force for civic pride. But since the Great Recession, the bank has become one of the country's great villains. The Wall Street of the South now had its own potent occupation.
The early general assemblies could number in the hundreds. The meeting participants were drawn by growing income disparities, rising college tuition costs, the region's environmental decay. They were among the metro area's double-digit unemployment rate. They realized they were everybody.
Vic had joined on the first night and had been charged with welcoming newcomers and teaching them the movement's hand signals. Soon she began organizing three marches each day to one spot. This was her work week. Charlotte's downtown had grown rich with examples of injustice wrapped in glass and outfitted with bad public art. Vic filled up to-do lists with ideas for future marches.
For years, she had searched for her place. She tattooed "Restless" in black cursive script on her shoulder. But at Occupy, she thought she might have found her calling, and her very own tribe in the buckle of the bible belt. She fell hard. "When you're throwing yourself into something," she explained to us, "you don't have a lunch break. You don't have time off. You don't get a vacation from a long-term protest."
The movement proved it could inspire people like Vic to produce Pastebin manifestos, YouTube gotchas, and a working kitchen. But a month or so in, Occupy began facing an important dilemma that they have yet to resolve. How does a non-hierarchical movement avoid arguing itself into oblivion? How does it sustain the true believers? As the days got colder, and inertia seeped in, the general assemblies got smaller and so did the press stories. Even before the big city camps were razed, a lot of activists had already burned out. But Vic never did. The problem for Vic was that the chants never got old.
It is an amazing thing that we are at a time when the Vic Suter's of the world have been inspired to step up and fight for their fellow human beings no matter how hard it becomes and how many obstacles are thrown in their way. But it also raises several important questions. The first of which is what happens when the initial shine of the movement wears off. What happens when the big rallies and big assemblies die down? What does it mean for the movement and what does it mean for the important issues that have been brought up that the strength of the initial movement is dying off in many places?
I don't know the answers to those questions, but I can certainly understand why it's happening. When you have important issues come up and they inspire people to get up off their tails and do something and they show up and things get mired down in the details and too much time is spent arguing about what to do and not enough time is spent doing practical things that can actually make change happen, it's easy to see why people stop showing up. When people come out because they want to change the world and they realize that it's not an easy thing to do and it takes time to make real change, it's easy to see why people stop showing up. When people see a movement that is lead by people who don't know much about how to change the world when that's what they want to do, it's easy to see why people stay home.
But those explanations aren't good enough. We need to figure out how to harness the power of the many who want things to change but don't want to go to general assemblies and don't want to camp out and don't want to just wave signs and march to protests and rallies. Those things are important to raise visibility about the movement and the issues and they are important as a starting point, but they aren't enough. That anger and resentment towards the system needs to be captured and used to change the system. It won't happen without changes in the law and changes in the people running the system.
Now, how do we make that happen?