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DNC protesters try to recruit Charlotte's poor, face some challenges

By Ely Portillo and Fred Clasen-Kelly
elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Protesters went door-to-door in a low-income west Charlotte neighborhood on Tuesday to face one of their biggest challenges: Convincing the poor to join street demonstrations meant to highlight their struggles.

For weeks, organizers have knocked on doors, visited African-American churches and chatted up bus riders in neighborhoods such as Grier Heights and Hidden Valley to recruit seemingly natural allies to join protests during the Democratic National Convention.

“We’re trying to build a movement,” said Scottie Wingfield, a member of Occupy Charlotte.

But if Tuesday’s recruiting trip were any indication, organizers face some barriers.

Walking up to an African-American woman outside of one townhouse, a white protester called out, “Hey, sister.”

“Sister?” she asked. “It’s ma’am to you.”

The protester apologized, and invited her to Sunday’s March on Wall Street South. When she said she couldn’t walk or stand for long, he invited her to a rally before the march.

One man said he was upset that President Barack Obama may stay in suburban Ballantyne when he visits Charlotte.

“The way the world is now, ain’t nobody helping us,” said Tommy Thomas, 19, a senior at West Mecklenburg High School. “No matter how many people vote, money conquers all. It’s a brainwash to the people, thinking their votes count.”

Thomas said he was glad to see organizers out in his neighborhood, however. “People should have been doing this sooner,” he said.

Grass-roots campaigns struggle to recruit new members from any background, but swaying the poor is especially vexing, experts said.

Some have no faith in the political system. Others must work and have no time for participation. And still others are simply apathetic.

The issue is important because minorities, the homeless, unemployed and others can lend credibility to protest groups sometimes led by college students and people with middle-class backgrounds.

A strong turnout from the poor could also boost participation for Sunday’s march, which is expected to bring 2,000 to 10,000 protesters to uptown Charlotte.

At the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the major protest rally Monday drew between 250 and 500 protesters, organizers said, far fewer than the 5,000 they had expected. Organizers blamed bad weather caused by Hurricane Isaac.

Social activism in the South

Protesters in Charlotte face an added test because the city and surrounding areas have relatively little social activism, said Thomas Hanchett, a historian at the Levine Museum of the New South.

“This is an area that has much less of a protest infrastructure than other parts of the country,” Hanchett said.

Textile workers in the region went on strike to protest working hours and conditions in the 1920s and 1930s. Law enforcement and business owners used arrests and violence to quell the unrest. Since then residents have been more hesitant than those in other parts of the country to join protest movements, Hanchett said.

Cathy Schneider, an American University professor who studies protest movements, said the poor are often skeptical that politicians will pay attention to their demands. “There’s a depressive syndrome,” said Schneider.

She noted that neither Obama nor Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have made poverty a major theme during the campaign.

And some African-Americans hesitate to criticize the nation’s first black president, she said.

“It’s hard for African-American activists to say anything about Obama,” she said. “They find excuses. They say it’s the Republicans.”

‘People are exhausted’

DNC protest organizers want local residents to march in contingents that would include the unemployed, victims of foreclosures and workers trying to unionize. The local residents would march alongside college students and demonstrators from around the country, many of whom are taking buses to Charlotte for the convention.

“We’ve been canvassing through many neighborhoods, mostly working class neighborhoods, where people who are struggling through the effects of the economic downturn live,” said Dante Strobino, a field organizer who’s helping with the March on Wall Street South.

Strobino lives in Durham, but grew up in Charlotte, graduating from the Northwest School of the Arts. He said he’s hopeful the DNC protests will draw the working poor.

“People are working longer and longer hours, people are exhausted, people are worn down,” he said. “Coming out is more difficult now than ever.”

On Tuesday, three organizers canvassed houses and apartments along Cemetery Street, off Beatties Ford Road just west of uptown. They handed out fliers about Sunday’s march and tried to sign people up, collecting phone numbers and contact information.

The evening had a few awkward moments.

At the sight of approaching organizers and media members, some young people sitting and standing outside one house walked inside.

“We want to bring our voices and make sure our voices are heard,” Richard Kossally told those who remained.

An organizer from Brooklyn who’s in Charlotte for two weeks helping with the protests, Kossally told resident Barbara Robertson that the groups are working on their behalf. “We’re just fighting for decent jobs, healthcare. We’re just trying to get the word out, and we’re sorry again for rolling up on you like this.”

Many were receptive to the organizers’ message. They said they felt cut off by American politics and the economy.

One neighbor said she’d seen information about the protests on television, and she’d like to attend the Sunday rally.

Tommy Thomas, the West Meck senior, signed up for more information about the protest, and said he might attend the march. “I wouldn’t mind,” he said. “If you asked me, I’d be the head leader.”

Walking away, Kossally smiled. “He might change the world,” Kossally said.

Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027 Portillo: 704-358-5041
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