Reminiscing the Physical Occupation

Jan 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Feature

Occupy Greensboro origami artAn origami snowstorm overtook several trees near Festival Park on Davie Street last week. I knew right away. Occupy. My people, I thought as I held one of the tender paper swans in my palms. Sure enough, the swan had OCCUPY WEIRD tattooed across its wingspan, confirming my endeared suspicion.

The weeks leading up to the October 15th march were a blur of Occupy Greensboro planning meetings called General Assemblies in a bookshop garage – Al’s, commonly known as Glenwood Coffee and Books – where the likes of some 200+ Greensboro citizens gave enough of a damn to learn the language of Occupy. The language of hand signals and consensus, the language of a diverse unification. We mostly understood each other, although there were occasional glaring voices of dissent.

To be clear, by “dissent”, I don’t simply mean political discourse. The contrast within conversations are what make movements like Occupy beautiful and engaging. 

YWCA Occupy Kitchen in Greensboro

Occupy Greensboro's Kitchen. The chalk heart can still be seen at the YWCA.

To some of my fellow occupiers, the movement in Greensboro couldn’t actually be called an occupation with clear conscience; after all, we chose to rent the space instead of storming the park with tents and picket signs in hand. I was on the fence and reluctantly consensed to use our scant resources to pay for permission to stay at the YWCA before I knew what a saving grace it eventually proved to be. The idea of “Occupy Greensboro” was likened to “Rent Greensboro” on more than a single occasion through gritted teeth, though. You see, arguing semantics is something Occupy Greensboro loves to do. Or discussing semantics. Oh look, it shows.

And oh, the irony of the non-word consensed

The first three or four nights in the encampment are idyllic memories of mine. The occupation afforded me the opportunity to commune with total strangers with which deep notes of personal and political accord resonated within me. Guests brought gifts of muffins and music, strummed gently from seats of rice sacks. When news teams rolled up, we’d do push-ups and jumping jacks in the background of the shot. “To show them we’re training,” one girl hilariously suggested with deadpan delivery.

We talked about movies from our childhoods, pointed out the stars and planets, painted protest signs, and smoked cigarettes with the next door neighbors (or is it next tent flap?) I fell asleep overhearing a neighboring tent’s Occupy radio station, delivering news of the movement from far corners of the country and of the world.

Goodnight, polyethylene battlement.

After a week or two of occupational bliss, tiptoeing in PJ’s all full of shivers to the toilets in the dead of night, bean-eating, and waking to the bright sounds of saucepot gongs and “RISE AND SHINE, IT’S BREAKFAST TIME”, we found ourselves operating under the consensus of a strange and seemingly indifferent majority – a majority that didn’t go to General Assemblies, rallies, or marches. Almost immediately upon moving from the YWCA parking lot into the playground ten yards away, dysfunction descended upon the camp. Occupy Greensboro started feeling a little like the movie The Beach.

Tarp City in Tent City

Tarp City : My Communal Living Room in Greensboro's Occupy Encampment

In other words, the new majority of Greensboro’s Occupy encampment was homeless. The flip side of that reality was that the General Assembly attendants and those actually camping out in our tent city were two completely different crowds of people. It was extremely disheartening how few occupiers were actually camping. These were people I respect and admire, people I had looked forward to communing with. How I would have picked their brains!

Although I enjoy discourse, many of my new neighbors weren’t even in favor of Occupy. One memorable political conversation I shared with a homeless man, a caucasian twentysomething with red hair and dilated pupils, confused the hell out of me. He argued in favor of corporations and lowering taxes. Why did this person stay in the encampment anyway?

It was never supposed to be this way. The idea of “us vs. them”. We treaded oh so lightly upon the issue in polite but camouflaged conversation at General Assemblies. What did we have on our hands? Who were the “we” anyways? It was a tiresome conversation, you might imagine. When we wanted to empower people, it almost always meant undermining or alienating others. Sometimes there just wasn’t any consensus taken about these things.

Occupy Tarp City Cheshire CatWeeks in, one of my Tent City housemates, Mat Masterson, ran up to Matty Sheets (a fellow occupier) and me at the Flat Iron after a “Camp Meeting” arranged and facilitated entirely by the new majority. Flustered, woeful and entirely confused, he uncomfortably recounted the scenario in which “camp management” (the existence of which I took great personal offense to) ejected a highly abrasive visitor.

“One of the things is to assume that everyone comes with good intention,” says Masterson, “I don’t think that assumption was held in that situation.”

If you ask Mat, the homeless weren’t a nuisance “as much as legitimate mental issues.”

The “occupation” had reduced like broth into a shelter for the politically dispassionate who were making decisions about our encampment in the language of the 99%; they were taking strange consensuses that didn‘t really make a whole lot of sense, and seemed a tad overbearing and off-color.

Maybe we deserved it. It was their stomping ground first, after all.

Prior to Occupy Greensboro’s parking lot of wonders campground, the Greensboro police cleared out the space they anticipated us to use. That clearing, however, meant evicting the homeless who lived there, which lead to one arrest. None of us knew the police were doing so and it was mentioned at a General Assembly (GA) that perhaps we should either move camp or set up a fund for the release of the arrested party. I don’t know if anything ever came of the latter.

Occupy Greensboro Iconic LegsIf you’re registered to vote, you’ve undoubtedly seen the large, blank square in which one can draw one’s residence in freeform; this space is used for homeless citizens who, lacking a quantitative physical address, can qualitatively express the location they rest their heads. Perhaps it’s an overactive imagination that leads me to believe that the YWCA parking lot and playground have been explicated by dozens of voters in that space over the years.

None of us thought the physical occupation was amaranthine. Surely the cold weather would be the end of the camp. The numbers that the occupation would have dwindled down to at the point of 30 degrees Fahrenheit couldn’t logically justify the expense of waste management.

Did you know how expensive it is to arrange porta-potties for proper shit-taking in an activist camp?

Entrance to Tarp CityFor petty reasons I have not been to a GA since before Thanksgiving. For one thing, my weekends with my soon-to-be 4 year old are too precious and fleeting for 3 hour meetings, even if she is the world’s most patient toddler. Also, Al’s might be a placid and artistic melting pot for creatives and progressive minds; however, it’s also a long walk – a really, really long walk that, like camping, is frankly illogical in nearly freezing temperatures.

What signaled the end, for me, was when a woman at a GA stubbornly pulled the ole’ If you look up the word ‘occupy’ in a dictionary, there’s more than one definition trick, when the vote to end the physical occupation was upon us.

Really, genius?

I was out.

I didn’t take part because I enjoyed waking up with the feeling that my hip bones had been replaced with cement and my neckbones, concrete. Not because I enjoyed eating three squares of lukewarm bean-and-grain mixtures. Not because I enjoyed the mad season that was 4am, when an entirely unpleasant fellow occupier decided to blast Greensboro’s shallowest radio stations and yell incoherently.

I had grown into all of that. The food started tasting delicious and I was getting more exercise than usual to work out those kinks. And well, that belligerent camper is probably still a pain in their asses.

We, the body of Occupy Greensboro in attendance at one specific General Assembly, chose to end the “bedraggled” campground by consensus, some of us begrudgingly. The work was more important: the actions, the protests, the culture of our discontent. But I had checked out as soon as all those consenting thumbs flew into the cold air that night, including mine. I consented that this was the end of Occupy Greensboro for me.

The aggressive microscope that Occupy Greensboro takes to language, too, was a source of constant exhaustion. Assuming good intent is a ground rule, not to mention that the “microscope” reeks of pith and censorship.

I have yet to fully distance myself from the movement; yet to deactivate the Google alert I’d set up for exact matches of the term “Occupy Greensboro”; yet to leave the Facebook group. I rejoice when I hear about their actions, such as the group of Greensboro occupiers that bused to the capitol. I happily laughed and cheered when I saw that MSNBC took a keen interest in following Jim Davies and other Greensboro occupiers around during their visit. The movement is young! None of us know what we’re capable of; Occupy Greensboro is starting to come into its own, though, and I applaud their every step.

It’s only been a couple of months since the YWCA playground was cleaned by Occupy Greensboro to a T, all of its tents dismantled, all cardboard signs plucked from the spires of the fence, all abandoned sleeping bags and clothing piles carted off to the IRC.

Occupy Origami Swans at the YWCAIn their place still tonight, peaceful paper birds flutter like white flags. Enough already, they seem to say to the 1%.

At least that’s the metaphor I would have tarted up here, were I still a familiar face at General Assemblies.

Now all I have left is to wonder if they reminisce the physical occupation as much as I do. 


Note: Apologies to those in Occupy Greensboro who will object to the language here. The use of the word “we” comes from a feeling of unity and that doesn’t denote such a terrible thing, in my humble opinion. However, I speak for no one but myself.

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2 Comments to “Reminiscing the Physical Occupation”

  1. Julie Joyce says:

    I have to say that this is the best piece I've read on Occupy Greensboro, mainly because I think you perfectly sum up all of the divisiveness of the movement, both from inside and outside. I'll read it again. It's worth it. Very well done Rae.

  2. Rae Alton says:

    What a sweet thing to say, Julie! Thank you. I hope to see more and more personal histories of Occupy Greensboro pop up on the web.

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