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Despite lower turnout, protesters tout success

Though they were outnumbered by police, demonstrators say the public heard their voices during the DNC.

By Ames Alexander, Ely Portillo and Bruce Henderson
aalexander@charlotteobserver.com

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    In its contract with the city and the host committee, Democrats required Charlotte to create a “free speech zone” where speakers could air their views.

    The city used an empty lot across Stonewall Street from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. About two-thirds of the people who signed up to use it delivered their speeches, the city said, but usually had no audience.

    The city also created a protest parade route. No one used it.

    Before the convention, city attorney Bob Hagemann stressed that the entire city – not including the security envelope around the Time Warner Cable Arena – was a “free-speech zone.”

    People had the right to picket or protest on sidewalks and other public areas with a permit, so long as they didn’t block traffic. For the convention, the city also removed a requirement that people get a permit before using a bullhorn.

    The prediction that the entire city would be a “free-speech zone” mostly came true.

    Many sidewalks and street corners became bully pulpits: Anti-abortion protesters, using bullhorns and large graphic photographs of fetuses, at Stonewall and College; the Human Rights Campaign collecting signatures for a gay-rights petition along Tryon Street.

    “I feel pretty good that that ordinance didn’t have a chilling effect on peaceful free-speech activity,” Hagemann said. “I hope it had a chilling effect on those who would have considered violent and dangerous acts.”

    Steve Harrison



CHARLOTTE, N.C. Their numbers never approached the 2,000 to 10,000 for which authorities braced. Waves of police officers, on bikes and behind batons, were felt to have stifled dissent. Rain soaked their events as it did the Democratic convention itself.

But leaders among the protesters who shared Charlotte’s biggest stage also declared victory in getting their messages out.

Protesters reached a détente with police, who heavily outnumbered them but allowed demonstrators to march with relative freedom. And while Charlotte’s banks and Duke Energy were consistent targets, the 90 groups represented were able to vent on a vast array of other issues, from corporate influence on politics to warfare to abortion.

Organizers insist that far more people took part in Sunday’s March on Wall Street South than the 800 police estimated. Some say lines of police prevented spectators from joining the parade.

“It was a great showing of people from all walks of life coming out to express their grievances,” said Michael Zytkow, 26, an Occupy Charlotte organizer.

While Charlotte recently enacted an “extraordinary events” ordinance to handle such demonstrations, he said, “my goal is to make protests like this an ordinary event in Charlotte.” The former high school history teacher thinks the past week brought local activists closer to achieving that goal.

“From the beginning, Mecklenburg has shown a strong rebellious streak,” Zytkow said, referring to Charlotte’s Revolutionary War history as a rebellious “hornet’s nest.” “We need to embrace this legacy and draw inspiration from it.”

Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin, author of a book on the Occupy movement, said it’s clear that college students today are not as likely to join protest movements as those of the ’60s and ’70s. Thanks in large part to the fragile economy, students now are much more worried about their careers and “more accepting of the way things are,” he said.

Social media has also become a popular tool for social activism. Still, Gitlin said he expects marches and other forms of ’60s-style activism will continue long into the future.

“The ’60s made that part of the landscape,” he said.

Making their point

Asheville activist John Penley, who was arrested Tuesday for crossing a police line on uptown streets, called the demonstrations a success.

“I really feel like we did a great job,” Penley said.

The Vietnam-era veteran demonstrated in support of Bradley Manning, a U.S. Army soldier who has been imprisoned since May 2012 and is accused of leaking documents to WikiLeaks. Penley said he thinks his own arrest and approximately 36 hours spent in Mecklenburg County jail helped show how serious he and other activists were.

Greenpeace hammered Duke Energy all week to cut its support for the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, a corporate-funded group that writes model legislation. Charlotte-based organizer Monica Embrey said Greenpeace was able to confront Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers and get a direct response – “he said he’s hearing us loud and clear.”

“I feel really great that we were able to stand in connection with a lot of groups who were mostly focused on banks,” she said.

“A lot of people from out of town were unfamiliar with Duke. People know Bank of America. They know Wells Fargo. They understand bailing out banks and foreclosures. I don’t think there is a ton of attention outside (Duke’s) local communities to their impact on communities and on global climate.”

A show of force

Police ranks swelled to nearly 4,000 for the week, with more than half the officers coming from out-of-town departments. They made 25 arrests in five days of protests.

Separately, a Charlotte man charged with a traffic violation had his bond set at $10,000 after a police officer identified him as being on a terrorist watch list. The man, who claimed police were trying to silence him during the convention, was released when a judge reduced bond to $2,500.

Prominent liberal journalist Amy Goodman said the large law enforcement presence at Sunday’s march, which she attended, squelches participation.

“It frightens people from coming out” to protest rallies, she said. “Protests have made this country great. We shouldn’t let ourselves be bullied by the militarization of police.”

Goodman told the Observer the protesters’ numbers were significant because their views represent the opinions of many Americans. “In some way, people feel they’re not a part of either party,” she said. “It’s not a fringe minority.”

Members of the American Civil Liberties Union were in Charlotte this week to monitor how police handle the demonstrators and educate protesters about their rights.

“The overwhelming force authorities used to control demonstrators was questionable, but we were pleased to see police allow demonstrators with many different messages to march and speak so close to their intended audience of convention goers,” said Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

Gary L. Wright and Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.

Alexander: 704-358-5060
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