From the outside, Occupy looks like a dwindling movement that’s come to a standstill. On the inside, it’s a different story.
Seven months after the first protesters pitched tents in New York’s Zuccotti Park, participation in the group’s General Assembly meetings in Durham and Chapel Hill has shrunk from hundreds in the fall to a handfuls this spring – and sometimes, no one comes at all.
But look beyond the public GAs, and you see a core group of Occupiers connecting with each other, staying on top of current issues and reaching out for training from thought leaders and labor organizers. They are learning more and more about their individual passions, abilities and capacity in the movement. And they are gearing up for activism long-term.
The movement has been in a “thinktank” mode, as put by Matt Burawski, a 29-year-old self-employed tech worker.
“We’re getting to a point where we’re leaving meetings and we want to be able to say we’re going to do something,” Burawski said. “We’re going to get better as a group to document what we’re doing and how we do it.”
Occupy is trying to find its identity, said Sally Goerner, director of Integral Science Institute, a Chapel Hill nonprofit that researches sustainability and collaborative learning. Goerner has been speaking at recent teach-ins in Chapel Hill on potential transformations of capitalism and society at large.
“They’re struggling for that coherent narrative so they can become a coherent force,” Goerner said of Occupy. What is Occupy?
In deciphering the identity of Occupy, members of the movement have been taking individual approaches to sustain the movement in their own lives.
Burawski, for one, pledged to devote at least three hours a week to study the issues that interest him the most, such as the economy and education. He is also interested in applying the collaborative process used in open-source software development to Occupy’s potential to problem-solve locally and share knowledge nationally.
Ginnie Hench, 33, a member of Occupy Durham, has found her passion in health care reform and education issues, which grow out of her job as a biology instructor and communities program coordinator at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Katya Roytburd, 34, an Occupier in Chapel Hill, has taken on activism as a second job, and often works 18-hour days as a result. After her day job as an HIV researcher at UNC, Roytburd has done phone banking against Amendment One, worked with the Coalition to Protect All NC Families and helped to organize various Occupy events.
“On the outside, it might look like [it’s dwindling], but it’s more important for organizers to sustain their own passion currently than to look for things like, what kind of media coverage are we going to have,” Hench said.
These individualistic approaches have meant that some working groups and issues have been more active than others.
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro, many Occupiers have been working in the Carrboro Commune, which staged a “Guerilla Gardening” protest in March against plans for a CVS drugstore in Carrboro. The Solidarity Economy group has been hosting the teach-ins with Goerner, attracting 40 to 50 people at the weekly events.
In Durham, the Health Care and Education Working Group, which includes Hench and Roytburd, is still meeting regularly, but the Foreclosure and Evictions group has not been able to provide updates on their work, and the Process Working Group has disbanded. Beyond capitalism
Nationally, Occupy has come to encompass more than just railing against capitalism.
“The question is not so much ‘How do we fix civilization?’ but ‘How do we inspire, mobilize and empower people to bring forth what we already want and know?’” Goerner said at a teach-in.
Neal Caren, an assistant professor of sociology at UNC, said that online, the term ‘Occupy’ is now more prominent than ‘the 99 percent.’
“Every march, demonstration, vigil can be an occupation, and every organization or institution can be occupied. ‘The 99’ doesn’t have that sort of flexibility,” Caren wrote in an e-mail.
The movement also has characteristics similar to community building efforts that are already in place in Durham and Chapel Hill, in particular the optimism and long-term vision of the tech startups and social entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs talk about “creating a better world.” Occupiers talk about “making life better for everyone.”
“They are right about the inequality. There is too much inequality,” said Morris Gelblum, the 24-year-old founder of Chapel Hill-based Sweeps, a website that connects college students with part-time jobs.
“Though I’m not sure if ‘money’ is the right focus,” Gelblum added, remarking on Occupy’s debate over the most basic unit of capitalism.
For Roytburd, the meaning of progress within the context of Occupy is waking more people up.
“It’s about our corporate-owned consumer society, but it’s also about the way we connect with each other, or the way we don’t connect with each other,” she said.
For Burawski, Occupy is about the realization that everyone is interconnected, figuring out what issues are most important to the local community and working together to solve them.
“As far as stopping the system, we’re open to suggestions on how,” Burawski said. “The best way to stop the system is to realize that you’re the people making it. Corporations are just a bunch of people. Government is just a bunch of people. We’re already the powers that be.”