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CHARLOTTE–If not for the looming shadows of Bank of America Stadium, where President Barack Obama will accept his party’s nomination on Thursday, Sunday’s “March on Wall Street South” would have been hard to distinguish from a standard Labor Day parade. In fact, if you squinted hard enough, you could have mistaken the streets of Charlotte for those of another famous, albeit fictional, North Carolina locale–Andy Griffith’s Mayberry.
The Occupy movement’s attempt to seize the spotlight the day before the Democratic National Convention kicks off felt at times like a jobs fair without jobs, with an atmosphere closer to a Relay for Life than a March on Washington.
For a movement that prides itself on challenging order, Occupy’s setup in Marshall Park had little in the way of spontaneity. Each of the major players–including unions, anti-war groups, bands of anarchists, communist revolutionaries, and gay-rights groups, among others–had a table or booth, and most came wearing matching T-shirts, carrying professionally made, mass-produced signs.
There was little interaction between the groups, which confined themselves to their designated corners of the park. Occupy organizers had set up a stage, and took turns passing the bullhorn from union steward to peace activist to anarchist, but it didn’t seem as if anyone in attendance was listening. Children played in the park as 20-year veterans of the protest scene handed out professionally prepared literature on the need for a revolution to “sweep out capitalism and imperialism.”
At 1 PM, the preordained time spread by movement leaders through social media, the various interest groups packed up their booths and took their places in the parade. Despite the proclaimed “organic, spontaneous” essence of Occupy, everyone in attendence seemed to know where to stand and when to move. Throngs of media and hundreds of police officers waited on Trade Street to escort this well-formed line into Uptown.
By this point, all that was missing from the quintessential American Main Street parade were the antique fire truck and the ’61 Impala carrying the Mayor.
The procession was led by a shiny police SUV, maintaining a speed of 3-4 miles per hour as officers flanked either side of the vehicle on foot. In place of the traditional bagpipes, they carried billy clubs.
Behind the police escort was a flatbed truck–although instead of carrying beaming Little Leaguers tossing candy to spectators, it carried at least a dozen credentialed media with cameras pointed back, clicking furiously as each tried to capture a unique shot of a scene that was anything but novel.
The parade itself was well-segregated into elements, each led by organizers who carried a street-length banner. As with all Labor Day events, unions took center stage. UNITE HERE and a local postal carriers’ guild each marched behind their union’s banner, smiling and waving for photographers. The familiar “What do we want? When do we want it?” chant rang out, although it competed for airspace with chants from the groups behind, who seemed disinterested in union issues.
As in many parades, a local women’s advocacy group participated, but in this case it was Code Pink, fresh of their literal invasion of last week’s RNC. These mostly older women in matching pink shirts were a far cry from the familiar suffragette re-enactors, as they carried signs in the shape of bosoms, reading “Bust Up Drone Strikes.”
Immigrants made up the next segment of the parade, carrying matching orange butterfly signs and chanting, “Hey, Obama, Don’t Deport My Mama!” Behind them marched volunteers from The Socialist Worker, the gay-advocacy Human Rights Campaign, and a smattering of anarchists, clad in varying amounts of clothing and carrying signs with messages of varying degrees of clarity.
There may not have been a Little League team, but children were indeed featured prominently in the parade. A group of about 30 young girls, aged from about 5 to about 14, marched in formation in bright green cheerleaders’ uniforms, complete with pompoms. The beaming members of the Greier Heights Community Steppers danced as they chanted along with the Occupiers, singing in squeaky voices about “fighting back” and ending capitalism.
It wouldn’t be a Labor Day parade without the police, but on this occasion, they eschewed dress blues for partial riot gear. Dozens of officers marched single-file on either flank of the parade, with hundreds more waiting on each corner, and circling the area on bicycles, motorcycles, and in cruisers.
These officers were bused in from across North Carolina and from as far away as Washington, DC, in theory to protect the city in case the protesters stepped out of line. But on this day, the police were escorting the protesters, and many officers appeared bored doing so.
In equal number to the police were media, scrambling to photograph each sign and jot down the words to each chant. Journalists appeared visibly frustrated, waiting for a story that simply wasn’t coming.
One local reporter estimated the crowd at about 2000: 800 protesters, and 1200 police, media, and onlookers.
The bystanders, many observing from their front porches as the parade slowly passed, watched with furrowed brows and apathetic expressions. As the trailing police SUV passed their condominium, a man looked at his wife and remarked, “That was it?”
Occupy earned a reputation as a combative activist movement, literally fighting battles for “the 99%.” Yet the Charlotte protesters appeared without vigor or spontaneity, with most bused into town by a larger organization with a unique agenda, expressing little interest in any larger goal, or in cooperating to achieve the “radical change” that nearly every Occupier spoke of.
The media, police, and city were hinging on pre-convention excitement, but this ragtag cross-section of America’s extreme left had more in common with Little Leaguers than Arab Springers: they just wanted an afternoon where they could be the center of attention.
If only out of kindness to the media, they could have at least put on a better show.
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