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Greetings, faithful readers. The Hat’s been away and missing you. Much to catch up on, including events most interesting from the past weekend.
After disembarking, I was turning a corner past a branch of Call Federal Credit Union, where a television screen in their ATM vestible broadcast news and sports highlights. The first thing up? Occupy Wall Street protesters preparing to march on Union Square in New York City. While meandering to Kanawha Plaza, I apparently missed a 10-minute stemwinder by City Councilman Marty Jewell. The speech was later broadcast on WRIR at 12:30 p.m. today. (If you're interested, keep checking that link to see if they archive the show.)
He’s proposing tonight before City Council a resolution to allow Occupy Richmond's tent village to remain. This following the news that protests in Chicago were dispersed, while the activity continues in other localities in this country and abroad. Jewell contends that while it's the police's job to enforce the law, it's Council's job to change the laws. In recent days, Cleveland and Cincinnati authorities also sent Occupiers packing.
After ambling past Wells Fargo, Merrill Lynch and the ongoing renovation of the Hotel John Marshall (which opened the Wednesday after the ’29 Crash), I was coming down Eighth Street when I was surprised by the rainbow colors and curved roofs of tents. Signs and banners were everywhere. Once inside, the atmosphere was a mix of sensations: a party, a concert, a gathering of tribes.
But an ongoing protest in the middle of Richmond? There hasn't been anything like this since the civil rights era, though one might have to look before. I thought of 1870, when Richmond’s officialdom split between two governments, and despite riots, gunfire and several deaths, most of the city blithely went along with the business of getting on with their business. It wasn’t the Paris Commune, which went on at about the same time and, while idealistic (they took votes on everything), was crushed by the French army, which slaughtered some 60,000 people while ruthlessly crushing the movement.
I observed people hauling coolers and supplies, musicians, chess contests, and an informal game of soccer in the dormant plaza fountain that also serves as an amphitheater for the Occupiers' direct-democracy General Assembly. In this manner, they make their decisions.
A cylinder that once told of the history of the plaza is now covered by information for newcomers, teach-in announcements and advice on what to do when approached by police.
The “indigenous population,” as the Occupiers call those who resided in this park long before it was occupied, slept on benches. Some of them have joined the group to assist, though as one Occupier wryly told me, “They’ve been here for years and never needed a meeting.” While wandering around I caught the eye of a scruffy fellow in a billed cap and jeans who’d taken out a walkie-talkie to make some number-code report. The sunglasses at dusk were a dead giveaway.
I spoke with Alan Schintzius, who is active in the movement, and he summed up its purpose thusly, “If here in a city that perfected a war to support slavery, we can make this movement work, then the world will take notice.” He is a liaison between the Occupiers and City Hall. Right now, the city is trying to understand how to contend with a potentially messy situation in the middle of its downtown.
Under a tree on a bench, I chatted with Alane Cameron Miles, a Universal Unitarian minister and blogger. She visited on Wednesday of last week and moved in on Thursday. Another Occupier dissuaded her from the first location of her tent, asking her, “Sugar, do you really want to do that?” Unbeknownst to Miles, she’d settled in a nest of anarchists. “We have definite neighborhoods here,” she said, laughing. She’s now living in what she calls “The Westminster-Canterbury Neighborhood” of tents.Miles went off-site to officiate a wedding and attend a funeral and a memorial service. But she’s staying. Following some disruptive life events, and not wanting to remain in friend’s guest rooms as she’s done the past few months, she chose a purpose. Or it chose her. “I thought they could probably use a den mother," she jokes.
She says she’d not have come here without the experience of spending seven weeks assisting with Gulf Coast rebuilding following Katrina, if she’d not worked in group homes or if she didn't "understand the dynamics of fear. My personal goal is to have some peace of mind while living in community.” But she’s been here before and well knows the pitfalls alongside the promises. She may not agree politically on every point, but she’s here to support those willing to persist.
I stayed for the evening convening of the General Assembly. Some residents wrapped in blankets hunched on the steps. Here — as in New York City — a ban on amplification has led to the ingenious "human microphone," where speeches are repeated by those in attendance to assure understanding. (Wonder if the Sermon on the Mount could’ve been preached this way?)
For newcomers, the conveners explained an array of hand signals to indicate favor, disfavor, speed up your talk and block. The latter, arms bent across the chest, means the person may leave the movement if the subject continues. No blocks occurred this session, but proposals weren't on the floor for vote.
The working groups reported. Here the administration of a small collection of people in a fluid situation reveals its complexities. There’s a solar shower, but it must be maintained. There’s a task force for foraging. There’s a medical tent and a counseling tent, and at least two Occupiers have complained of sexual harassment. There’s a need for volunteers in the kitchen. A call went out for pickup trucks for hauling maerials. An Occupy Richmond zine is starting. There are Occupy Richmond patches fresh off the press. The legal representative noted that some individuals that day had built a structure like a loft, and this is a dealbreaker with the city. "The police will be here tomorrow morning, and they'll be very upset if those structures are still there," she emphasized, advising that they be dismantled.
And while there are portable toilets, there’s also the need to empty them. At one point, a facilitator, Claire, urged everyone to sanitize their hands before eating, because although many Occupiers believe they have indestructible immune systems, some of them have autoimmune deficiencies. “Stay warm," she advised. "Keep your shoes on."
Words to live by, whether or not you’re camped in Kanawha Plaza, because the world can be a very cold place.