Occupy Wilmington

For the first five weeks, the Wilmington, North Carolina General Assembly met on benches under a pavilion in Greenfield Lake Park, a public property just south of downtown where signs warn passersby not to feed or tease the alligators. I’d heard that at least 100 people had attended the first GA on October 8, organized via Facebook by a man from Hampstead, a coastal town a half-hour drive northwest. But when I showed up on a Saturday afternoon in late October, there were only six or seven people present (no human mic needed). They seemed in good spirits, though, and more showed up as the meeting progressed. A few trial run marches against banks had gone well. Drummers had shown up. Earlier in the week the GA had voted to pitch camp somewhere by November 12, regardless of whether they’d reached an agreement with the city government or a private property owner. The three candidates were the lawn in front of City Hall; a grassy plot owned by a nearby liberal church; and, distant third, Hugh MacRae Park, which sits far from downtown, amid the traffic-clogged sprawl of car dealerships, fast food joints, and strip malls.

As the 12th approached, questions piled up at GA meetings. Most nights, the group was older than the crowd we saw on the Zuccotti Park livestream, and many of us worked long hours, sometimes at multiple jobs, or had children at home (one couple had seven). Plus it was getting colder, at least by North Carolina standards: more than once, in the poorly lit pavilion, the facilitator misread the rubbing together of cold palms as one of the Occupy movement’s hand signals. With winter approaching, how many people were truly willing to camp out, and for how long? Who was willing to be arrested, and for what? Did we have to rent a port-a-potty? What would happen when the homeless showed up? How, exactly, does a bail bond work? The police can hold you for how long? And, occasionally, wait, we’re camping? Since not everyone could attend every evening’s GA, and the minutes didn’t always get posted to the internet, showing up often meant learning about momentous-sounding decisions made in your absence.

Occasionally someone would tentatively voice concern that the group had attracted almost no black Wilmingtonians. One fifth of the city’s population (in total, just over 100,000 people) is black, but you wouldn’t know it from its Occupiers, just as you wouldn’t know it on the streets of its historic preservation district (one of the largest in the country), or on the campus of UNC-Wilmington. Put simply, the city is segregated. When I moved here, I used Craigslist to contact a young man who supplemented his income helping people unload trucks. I am white, and was moving into an apartment in the preservation district, but our phone connection was fuzzy, and he misheard my address. “Oh,” he said, clearly puzzled. “In Blacktown?”

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time Wilmington has been occupied by citizens fed up with the status quo and unsatisfied with electoral politics. At the end of the 19th century, the city was over half black and had a thriving black middle class.  African-American and white Republicans worked side by side in municipal government. This state of affairs was intolerable to the white Democratic elite, which in fall 1898 organized a campaign of violent intimidation designed to scare the sitting city government into resigning. The shooting started on November 10, in the then mixed race neighborhood of Brooklyn. By the time it ended scores of black men had died—conservative estimates say around twenty-five—and hundreds, maybe thousands, more had fled. Almost all Republicans resigned, and the city was governed by unelected white Democrats who straightaway instituted prohibitions on black voting, made it difficult for blacks to hold middle-class jobs, slashed funding for black schools, and most of all stood as a constant reminder of the violence white Wilmington was capable of inflicting.

My impression after living in Wilmington for sixteen months is that a significant proportion of white residents know little about the 1898 coup, let alone its deep connection to the current character of the city. At a GA the week before the encampment was supposed to start, someone raised the possibility of using the city’s one memorial to the massacre—a practically invisible monument in Brooklyn––as the starting point for the march on City Hall. (The liberal church had said no, and Hugh MacRae Park was never really a serious contender). The proposal was met with more than one blank stare. What monument? What’s 1898?

In the end, the march started at the federal courthouse. I missed it but walked to City Hall that night. I was greeted by as many Occupiers as I’d ever seen in one place—at least twenty!—standing on the sidewalk. The cops had come by in the afternoon and said they’d arrest anyone who pitched a tent on the lawn, so the Occupiers decided to attempt a continuous sidewalk picket. I stayed until late that night, drinking hot chocolate and listening to people tell stories about their mortgages (foreclosures have tripled in Wilmington since 2006, leading to drops in property value, drops in property tax revenue, and so drastic cuts in public services) and pay cuts; someone told a story about having to ask her son for two dollars so she could buy a gallon of gas to drive to work.

In the days that followed, Occupy Wilmington took on a new life. City Hall receives a decent amount of traffic, both by car and foot, and for the first time Occupiers began to talk about their grievances with people other than themselves. As time went on, the most dedicated campers got better at talking. Many of the pedestrian visitors were sympathetic, and some left money. Local business and community groups brought by water, coffee, and food, as did non-encamped Occupiers—and everyone who showed up as was able to eat well, including the homeless. Drivers were more of a mixed bag. Some honked and waved, some looked confused, some didn’t notice, and some shouted insults. One young man in the backseat of a blue BMW stuck his head and most of his torso out the window, pounded the roof of the car, and screamed, “GET A FUCKING JOB MOTHERFUCKERS!”

I don’t mean to suggest the City Hall encampment was sustainable. The same small group of people—sometimes just three of them—were sleeping in tents pitched on concrete most every night, and they were getting burnt out. The logistics working group drafted a field manual of best practices, but it was followed only sporadically. We’d agreed that a member of the de-escalation working group should be present at all times; this rarely came to pass. When the rain came, there was no plan to deal with it. No one knew who was supposed to watch the donation box, or where the cash was ultimately to go. Still, for a week it felt good to be having the conversation outside, good for the group to be looking after itself, and good to be holding open assemblies in the shadow of City Hall.

On the encampment’s sixth day, November 17, two days after Mayor Bloomberg’s eviction of Zuccotti Park, a policeman came by to deliver new rules from, in his words, “the very top”: no tents, no chairs, no information table, no furniture, no sidewalk chalk, and handheld signs only, no wider than twenty-four inches. A local lawyer working pro bono for the group filed an appeal, but the city, citing among other things “safety,” didn’t budge. This was disheartening, but also in a way felt convenient. The encampment almost surely would have petered out on its own. Getting shut down by the city renewed its sense of purpose. We’d learned to have a new sort of encounter, and we walked away excited to figure out how to keep having them.

GA is just three days a week now, in hopes of encouraging attendance and limiting burnout. It’s still held at City Hall, sometimes on the steps, sometimes on the lawn, and attendance hovers around a dozen people. On the agenda lately: whether to incorporate as a 501(c)3 for the purpose of handling donations; whether to move GA inside for the winter; how to support Shelby (a teenage occupier who got arrested for refusing to leave City Hall lawn after hours one night); and, always, how to draw in more people and more energy. At times it seems to me like the group is about to fade out––but it seemed that way to me some nights by Greenfield Lake, too, and I was wrong. Planning is underway for an anti-eviction occupation; often, when it comes up, someone says something like: “That’s something I’d go to jail for,” and a healthy proportion of the assembly wiggles its hands in assent.

Recently the GA was visited by a black union leader from Durham, Angaza Laughinghouse. He’d been working with both Occupy Durham and Occupy the Hood, and he was encouraging but blunt: You must reach out more to the black community, starting now. We were sitting by Thalian Hall, where 113 years prior Alfred Moore Waddell, a former Confederate officer and congressman who played a central role in Wilmington’s 1898 white supremacist coup, stood before a group of perhaps 1,000 white men and proclaimed, “Let them understand once and for all that we will have no more of the intolerable conditions under which we live. We are resolved to change them if we have to choke the current of the Cape Fear with carcasses.”  Sixteen days later Waddell addressed a similar gathering, this time at the courthouse, with seven resolutions now known as the White Declaration of Independence. By the end of the next day he was the mayor of Wilmington.

After Laughinghouse finished speaking, everyone’s hands went up in instant approval, the clearest such display I’d seen in my entire time with the group. Laughinghouse was telling us something I believe all have known from the start, but that can be hard to say and harder still to reckon with. Without more of our neighbors––more of America––involved, what’s the point? We may all be part of the 99 percent, but––in Wilmington as elsewhere––becoming We in any sense but the most abstract takes work, work that for all the effort expended has only just begun.

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