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Local Occupy group moves forward (video)

Shelly Davidov
An Occupy Charleston sign is displayed at the protesters' most recent encampment at the AFL-CIO Unity lot in downtown Charleston. Participants closed down the camp on Dec. 27.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like lots of people around the country, Charleston Mayor Danny Jones says he doesn't understand the Occupy movement.

"I'm not sure what their mission is," Jones said of Occupy Charleston. "I'm not going to concern myself with it. I have a city to run. I'm not into their politics."

Local participants in the movement are accustomed to such dismissal. Since taking to the streets on Oct. 15, Occupy Charleston has faced some hurdles, including getting evicted from its camps at Haddad Park and Davis Park.

The group disbanded its most recent encampment at the AFL-CIO Unity lot Dec. 27. Occupy members say it was overrun by local homeless people and drug addicts.

James Files, 59, of Poca, said, though, that the "movement is not dead." The Union Carbide retiree said the Occupy movement gives him hope.

"I'm too old to get out here in the cold, but I'm not too old to bring food and supplies. I'll continue to do so when they reorganize," Files said. "I'll be there to support them."

Occupy Charleston isn't alone in its struggles. Occupy Huntington was evicted from its camp in front of a downtown bank in early December. With scores of city evictions uprooting protesters from encampments across the United States, many observers believe the three months of protest against economic inequality to be over.

As winter settles in, though, Occupy protesters say they're refocusing their efforts, using a new website, InterOccupy.org, to tighten the reins on the widespread and fractured movement.

"We at InterOccupy seek to foster communication between individuals, Working Groups and local General Assemblies, across the movement," reads the site's mission. "We do this in the spirit of the Occupy Movement and general assemblies which use direct democratic and horizontal decision-making processes in service to the interests of the 99%."

InterOccupy uses topic-themed conference calls to connect with others, keeps meeting minutes and uploads the latest happenings within the Occupy movement.

The Charleston group might have left the AFL-CIO building, but Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said the union organization fully supports the Occupy movement.

For many people in this country, including veterans, "there's no jobs, there's no place to live. They're somewhat abandoned," Matheney said. "There's a very large community in Charleston suffering deeply as a result of this economy, in the sense that the wealthiest 1 percent in the country have only one concern -- and that is growing the wealth of that 1 percent."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 46.2 million people were in poverty in 2010, up from 43.6 million in 2009 -- the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty. The October 2011 unemployment rate for veterans who left the military after 2001 was 12.1 percent, leaving about 240,000 veterans out of work, according to the White House.

Occupy Charleston participant and U.S. Army veteran Rue Fitzpatrick started protesting in Occupy New Haven, Conn. After a month, he started traveling to other Occupy camps. He sees Charleston as an area that is in "desperate need of help."

"I'd been in the Army for four and a half years. I got out and there were no jobs for soldiers at all," Fitzpatrick said. "It hurts to see that. I really wanted to do something about it."

While the holidays pulled some participants back to their homes, Charleston occupiers say they will be back in public view soon. They haven't decided on a future encampment location, but the group is planning daytime protests and marches near Kanawha Boulevard and Davis and Haddad parks.

Mayor Jones maintains that occupiers are "not going to move into one of our parks. They're not going to have any tents. That's not what the parks are for."

Matheney said he hopes the mayor will recognize the protesters' right to assemble.

"I think Occupy Charleston would be no more than exercising their right as a citizen of this country, to stay wherever they might on property that is not only supported by, but provided by, our tax dollars," he said. ". . . Those of us at West Virginia AFL-CIO support Occupy Charleston, but we support the Constitution and feel that those who speak out are the greatest patriots."

A general assembly meeting for Occupy Charleston was held Saturday in Davis Park, but was closed to the news media. The most recent event scheduled for local protesters is the Occupy the Court rally on Jan. 20. From noon to 5 p.m., participants will gather at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Building to "protest the Supreme Court's decision to treat corporate money as " 'free speech,' " according to the rally's Facebook page.

Hedda Haning, one of the event's organizers, said the rally is one of many to take place nationally, including protests in Clarksburg, Martinsburg, Morgantown and Fairmont. Hanning said the group invited delegates and senators, and hopes to talk to Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., about the Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case, which allows corporations and labor unions to fund political advertisements on the same basis as individuals.

According to news reports, the Occupy movement is organizing a massive general assembly for July 4 in Philadelphia. The plans are found in a document posted online by an "Occupy Wall Street" working group, titled "The 99 Percent Declaration." The proposal says the assembly would operate similarly to the original "Committees of Correspondence" -- the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia prior to what the group refers to as "the first American Revolution."

Trevor Payne of Occupy Charleston said the group will be actively protesting at least until that date.

"It's the only real chance for change," Payne said, "and I won't give it up for anybody."

Reach Shelly Davidov at shellyd@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4882.


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