Atlanta – As the Occupy Movement spreads like wildfire across the United States and around the world, protests in the U.S. South are facing unique challenges.
Occupy protests have sprouted up in countless cities across the U.S. South, including Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia; Columbia, South Carolina; Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Miami, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana, to name just a few.
In Atlanta, Georgia, the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, the city government has struggled with the question of how to respond to the Occupy protesters who have literally taken over downtown's Woodruff Park with tents and an encampment that has no end in sight.
On Monday, Mayor Kasim Reed issued a second extension for Occupy Atlanta to stay in the park for three more weeks.
“Civil disobedience is an appropriate form of expression, provided that it is peaceful, non-violent and lawful,” he said in a statement.
“As of today, the Occupy Atlanta protesters continue to assemble in a peaceful, non-violent fashion in Robert W. Woodruff Park. Therefore, I have extended the Executive Order allowing Occupy Atlanta to remain in Woodruff Park after the park closes… through the adjournment of the next Atlanta City Council meeting on November 7, 2011,” he said.
In contrast, other cities such as Boston, Massachusetts and New York have seen mass arrests of protesters.
However, this temporary resolution in Atlanta was not achieved through a smooth process.
Occupy Atlanta began its occupation of Woodruff Park on Friday, Oct. 7. The movement consists of several hundred activists, the majority of whom are young, disenchanted college-age activists who have little or no experience in progressive politics.
This came across when on Oct. 7, Democratic Congressman John Lewis, a hero of the Civil Rights Movement, visited Occupy Atlanta and the group would not allow him to address the crowd because they were in the middle of going over their processes and procedures. The group debated for nine minutes over whether to let Lewis speak only to reject him.
This did not sit well with many veteran activists, some who felt that they were not being consulted adequately in general.
“This is the South and we do things differently,” one blogger wrote on Blog for Democracy, a left-centre blog in Atlanta. “Ask any nonprofit organization in Atlanta how often a 'national model' has worked in Atlanta – probably only 5%. Why? Cause we do things differently.”
“First, we are a community. Like it or not we are. So if you want the community to stand with you, then you have to show some kind of leadership. This does not mean that there must be 1 leader, but there kinda has to be some people we kinda know. Some people we kinda know who have led a cause/movement for more than 5 minutes. You just aren’t going to get community folks to stand with you if no one knows who is leading them down the road.”
On Oct. 10, the city flexed its muscles. At around 11 pm, Atlanta's Parks Commissioner George Dusenbery passed out a sheet containing various sections of the Atlanta Code of Ordinances, a copy of which was obtained by IPS, noting that the park is closed at night and that damage to the grass is not allowed, among other things.
IPS asked Dusenbury whether he felt that the protesters should be allowed to express themselves during this time of economic crisis, but he did not respond. IPS also asked whether he cared about the protesters who had lost their jobs or their homes in foreclosure, but again, no response.
Around midnight, about 400 protesters were surrounded by Atlanta police, who said that those who did not want to be arrested should leave the park. Some temporarily left the park, while about 40 sat in the grass with their arms linked, prepared to be arrested.
One of those in the circle, Amy Barnes, 34, said, crying, “I have been out of work for nearly a year. I can't afford not to be here. I have to choose between whether to feed my children or electricity.”
However, instead of arresting those in the circle, the police then left, and all the activists returned to the park.
“There's so much wrong with the way things are in this country and in this world. Our needs are diverse and connected. Our movements have to be diverse and connected to create solutions. I feel like this is the beginning of a revolution,” said Misty Novitch, 24.
Since then, Occupy Atlanta has held marches and demonstrations on different days, highlighting the plight of the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, the disinvestment and abandonment of downtown Atlanta, and challenging Bank of America's alleged corporate greed on the steps of its downtown office tower.
IPS also visited the Occupy Augusta protest in the quaint southern town of Augusta, Georgia, where about 20 protesters have been gathering every day at the Augusta Common, a downtown park, holding signs, since Oct. 13.
The protesters obtained a permit to be in the park from 5pm to 9pm during weekdays, and from 3pm to 6pm on weekends. They say they aren't even thinking about staying overnight.
“We're trying to adapt and support Occupy in our community,” Maple Dynan, 22, told IPS. “We don't have the population size or support for grassroots movements in general. We've had a great cross-section come out.”
Yoni James, 23, said he was there “to encourage a solidarity and a feeling of oneness. Wedge issues keep us all polarised. That's not what we need. We need to be united.”