#OccupyCharleston, the grassroots movement that has recently sprung up in the wake of the ongoing Wall Street protests in New York, held its first general assembly Thursday evening.
Nearly 80 people crowded into Gage Hall, Charleston’s Unitarian church, to structure, organize and discuss future plans for the movement.
Occupy Wall St. is an ongoing series of demonstrations in New York City originally called for by the activist group Adbusters. The participants of the event, though diverse in backgrounds and beliefs, are mainly protesting against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government, among other concerns.
Charleston is just one of over 800 cities listed on OccupyTogether.org, the unofficial hub for all the events springing up across the country in solidarity with Occupy Wall St.
Many attendees of the Gage Hall event were reluctant to discuss their personal views and said they were there mainly to observe. Those more directly involved refused to talk to the media, including two TV news crews present, until after the meeting was over. They referred to instructions on the #OccupyCharleston Facebook page to avoid media contact altogether until “after things from Thursday are settled.”
“It’s about solidarity,” said one member of the movement. “We should be together, not divided and letting out sound bytes. This is important.”
Jenna Lyles, an experienced activist in Charleston, was nominated to lead the discussion and keep it on track. Although a great deal of time was spent setting up rules of conduct and creating various committees and sub-committees for the movement, the meat and potatoes of the meeting was the three-point plan drafted in previous days by members of #OccupyCharleston. In the form of a Google document displayed by a projector, the plan outlined the movement’s key goals and demands.
The three points called for corporate accountability, the end of legitimized corruption, and equitability. Underneath each point, more specific demands were made, including the following:
- Corporations and their leaders held accountable for their actions and tried in federal court for crimes, including outsourcing to sweatshops in other countries
- The Federal Reserve made public
- An end to all private funding of elections
- Minimum standard of living pay and affordable health care for all workers
- Equal pay by all into Social Security and Medicare
- Upholding the right of collective bargaining by workers
The official document is still in the works and will not be ready until sometime next week, according to media liaison Lauren Costello. In the meantime, anyone who wants to be active in the editing and fine-tuning of the manifesto can contact #OccupyCharleston and have the Google document shared with them. Although the actual document is apparently much more in-depth, the released version that was previewed at Thursday’s meeting will be the “simple, media-ready version.”
Speakers also stressed the importance of connecting with local organizations, businesses, and churches and getting them involved. Erin McKee, President of the Charleston Central Labor Council, voiced her and her organization’s support of the movement.
“We want unions and labor movements to play a very strong and positive role,” said McKee. “We have union halls where you can meet. We’ll support you in any way we can.”
Phil Noble of the South Carolina New Democrats said he also is a supporter.
The group decided to have regular general assembly meetings on Thursdays from 6 to 8 p.m. It will also hold a special “meeting about actual action” on Sunday at 6 p.m. to discuss plans for an occupation of some sort similar to the one on Wall Street.
Some have already begun forms of direct action. One man claimed to have sat in front of Bank of America for two hours until they kicked him out, and plans to sit in Marion Square in the near future in a show of solidarity. Despite his and others’ optimism about the movement, not everyone was on the same page. One member of the audience walked out of the meeting, calling the group “ineffectual liberal jerkoffs” after they expressed virtually unanimous approval that the movement be non-violent.
“Non-violence takes the bite out of the whole momentum of the movement,” he later said. “You’re doing the government’s will by being passive and pacifists.”
Two members of the International Communist League, unaffiliated with #OccupyCharleston, stood outside Gage Hall to promote their ideas and hand out their organization’s newspaper. Though they voiced support of the movement’s overall efforts, they also took issue with how it was being carried out.
“They’re trying to resolve problems that are endemic to capitalism from within the framework of capitalism, and that’s why they’re coming up against so many contradictions. These kids out here tonight and up on Wall Street really do hate the fact that corporations are sucking massive amounts of profit from the working class. But they have no real political program to explain why that happens or what to do about it, so it kind of keeps people running in circles.”
In the face of criticism, #OccupyCharleston has garnered a great deal of support from community members, regional organizations, and especially College of Charleston students. William Hamilton, a Charleston lawyer, has thrown his full support behind the movement and is currently attempting to assemble a legal team.
“I cannot prepare for everything that can happen between the possible limits of armed global revolution and a smiling person with a clipboard on Meeting Street,” Hamilton said. “You have to know what you want to do before you can prepare for it.” Referencing #OccupyChicago, one of the major spin-offs of the Wall Street protests: “They went off half-cocked at Chicago, they hit the wall and fell apart. They did not go off half-cocked on Wall Street. They took calculated risks, lawyered up early, got organized, and got things done.”