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Occupy The Conventions: Where Are The Protesters At The DNC, RNC?

A group of roughly 100 Occupy protestors took to the streets in Charlotte on Wednesday. Occupiers marched relatively peacefully down Tryon St. a few blocks away from the Time Warner Cable Arena.
Becky Lettenberger
A group of roughly 100 Occupy protestors took to the streets in Charlotte on Wednesday. Occupiers marched relatively peacefully down Tryon St. a few blocks away from the Time Warner Cable Arena.

These days, Tryon Street here in Charlotte has felt a bit like a carnival. It has some to do with the many temporary structures that have popped up every few blocks and certainly some to do with the street vendors hawking T-shirts and hats and pins and mugs.

But a lot of that atmosphere has to do with the protesters. The city isn't overrun with them, not at all. But every few city blocks, you'll find a smattering of them. Most are anti-abortion activists, who held huge pictures of aborted fetuses. In between, you find Occupy activists, railing against banks and the tyranny of the 1 percent.

Throughout the week, Occupy has planned many protests. The largest one happened Sunday but drew only a few hundred protesters. That same night Occupy the DNC, planned a "Free Bradley Manning Party," at a big park on the outskirts of town. At about 10 p.m., there were at least 30 police officers but no protesters.

It was the same scene in Tampa a week ago for the Republican National Convention, and it has left many wondering what happened to the grassroots movement that emerged last fall and many thought would have a political reawakening and impact after the winter and into the election cycle.

Andrew Sabl, a professor of political science at University of California, Los Angeles who has followed the Occupy movement, said we really shouldn't be surprised.

"Occupy did its best to not become institutionalized and to avoid a membership," he said. "It's amazing that anything called 'Occupy' has survived."

Members of Code Pink dressed as members of the 1 percent to protest.
Becky Lettenberger / NPR
Members of Code Pink dressed as members of the 1 percent to protest.

Part of what caught my attention was that many of the speeches we've heard at the convention echo the message that Occupiers addressed when they first started marching in New York City.

Elizabeth Warren for example railed against the banks and special interests on Thursday.

"People feel like the system is rigged against them," she said. "And here's the painful part: they're right. The system is rigged. Look around. Oil companies guzzle down billions in subsidies. Billionaires pay lower tax rates than their secretaries. Wall Street CEOs — the same ones who wrecked our economy and destroyed millions of jobs — still strut around Congress, no shame, demanding favors, and acting like we should thank them."

In a lot of ways, during her rousing speech, Michelle Obama delivered the same kind populist speech, granted in a more personal way and using a more hushed language.

Sabl said that in that way, Occupy has already been successful. He said that they gave the Democrats permission to talk about the 1 percent vs the 99 percent.

"Republicans have always called it class warfare," said Sable. "But what Occupy Wall Street showed is that a huge portion of the population found a certain criticism of the 1 percent very likable."

Sabl said he was a bit surprised there wasn't much of an Occupy presence in Tampa, because he calls the GOP's Mitt Romney, "the perfect candidate to run against Occupy."

"He has a target on his chest with a dollar sign," he said. One simple explanation, he said, is that Occupy is a more local movement than we thought. While there may be a large Occupy contingent in New York, there may not be one in Charlotte.

Occupy protesters have set up a  camp in Charlotte.
Becky Lettenberger / NPR
Occupy protesters have set up a camp in Charlotte.

Wednesday afternoon at the corner of the convention center, I found 50-year-old Eric Verlo. He had made his way to Charlotte from Colorado Springs, Colo. with a drum and a flag that read "99 percent."

Over the past week, that corner has become a meeting place for protesters. The anti-abortion ones and the Christian conservatives blast celestial music from their boom boxes, while Verlo and his crew try to overpower them with their drums and chants.

I asked Verlo if he had watched Michelle Obama's speech. He said he saw some of it. I asked him if he thought the fact that some of their themes had worked their way into the convention was a victory for Occupy.

"It's a false victory," he shot back. "It was the same thing President Obama was talking about four years ago and he's delivered more of the same thing. His excuses are wearing thin."

Suddenly, someone across the street screamed that Occupy protesters were marching down Tryon, which is Charlotte's main street. Verlo and another man with a drum took off.

They marched under the shadows of the high rises, through the streets, weaving through delegates and other protesters and eventually they met up with a group of maybe 80 others, who had undertaken a march without a permit.

Police officers from multiple agencies across the South walked with them, using bikes to keep them spilling over onto the side streets.

I asked Verlo why Occupy's presence has been so muted at these political conventions. He blamed the intense security measures and the fact that they need a permit to march.

I walked with the protest crowd from the east side of downtown to the west side of it. It was an aimless route. They said they would hit the headquarters of Bank of America, but that never happened.

But they marched and carried their signs. "Get money out of politics," one of them read. "I'm not on welfare, but my bank is," another one read.

Ben Carroll was at the march. He's 24 and a recent college graduate, the kind of constituent president Obama did incredibly well with in 2008.

"We really see both parties represent the same interests," Carroll said.

I talked to a bunch of the protesters and heard the same thing over and over. President Obama has disappointed them and they are disillusioned with the two party system, which serves as a surrogate for big banks and corporations.

Travis Cummins, 27, of the group Socialist Alternative, said that what Occupy did was point out the elephant in the room — the problem of income inequality and oversized corporate influence on politics.

"We woke up to the problem," he said. "But that's only the first step. Obama hasn't addressed a single issue. He hasn't addressed jobs; he hasn't addressed education or the injustice system."

The protest wound its way back through downtown and somehow ended up at the main security entrance of the Time Warner Cable Arena.

A police helicopter hovered above, as dark clouds rolled in. Former President Clinton was about to make a pitch that included a defense of Obama's record on the economy and of Obamacare and of the president's job protecting the 99 percent.

With the lights of the arena visible in the distance, the protesters grew louder.

"How do you fix the deficit?" they chanted. "Overthrow the government!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.