It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, a beautiful autumn afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia. Elsewhere in the city, crazed shoppers flocked to stores and malls, celebrating—and in many cases fighting for—their right to consume things they mostly don’t need. But downtown, Occupy Atlanta had decided to “Occupy Black Friday” in Woodruff Park—or Troy Davis Park, as the Occupiers call it—where their encampment was until the group was evicted by police just after midnight on October 26.
For Occupiers, Black Friday was a perfect occasion for action. The day is a symptom, a quite spectacular one too, of the capitalist system the movement critiques; a display of just how extreme consumerism has become in this country. As I entered Troy Davis Park on that day, I saw a piece of white cloth hung between two poles that read “Really Really Free! Market.” The “market” looked more like a crossbreed of a community yard sale and a family picnic: a mother, her teenage daughter and toddler son set up their shop under a tree; not far from them, dozens of people were arranging donated goods on a number of sheets spread out on the fallen leaves that covered the grass; a man with shoulder-long hair under a cap and a massive beard was playing the guitar, singing, his wheelchair parked nearby; a few kids were running around, kicking a small soccer ball back and forth among each other. It was hard to tell who were the venders and who were the customers, but as everyone told me, everything there was free—shirts, jeans, boots, dolls, stuffed ponies, diapers, toy trucks and food. “If you see something you like, take it,” they told me.
I spotted Tim Franzen in the crowd. Tall, slim, wearing a red knit cap, a washed-out denim jacket and an “Occupy Everywhere” button, Franzen looked exactly as I remembered him from a dozen YouTube videos and countless photos online. In this “leaderless” movement, Franzen has become an unofficial spokesperson, frequently speaking to the media. He told me that while the market was open for business, a group of Occupiers had paid a visit to Lenox Square Mall in Atlanta’s commercial center, Buckhead. They put fliers that read “Don’t Cry! Occupy!” on merchandise and replaced more than a thousand price tags with home-made tags with phrases like, “YOU DON’T NEED THIS,” “HOW MANY AMERICAN JOBS DID THIS ITEM COST?,” “FREE” and “DON’T BUY THIS.” The night before, Franzen and a group of Occupiers visited Target, Walmart and Best Buy stores in the city where eager shoppers had lined up camping out, waiting for the shopping extravaganza to begin at midnight. The Occupiers mic-checked, greeting the shoppers with “Happy Thanksgiving!” “We love Atlanta!” and “We love you!” Then they talked to the shoppers about the global economy and the consequences of their spending habits.
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For the Occupiers who had camped out in Troy Davis Park and had witnessed police brutality against their nonviolent demonstrations, the sight of shoppers camping outside these stores, protected by police, evoked an emotional reaction. “When we were camping in this park, you know, nonviolently, just to start conversations about economic injustice, we were like public enemy number one,” said Franzen. “I mean, it was like a Hollywood production.” He was referring to the night of November 5, when riot police in full gear and officers on motorcycles and horses were sent to crack down on Occupiers who were marching on Peachtree Street outside of Troy Davis Park. Twenty protesters were arrested that night. Two were injured and sent to the hospital.
* * *
Occupy Atlanta officially started on October 7, when a group of Atlantans, inspired by Occupy Wall Street in New York, occupied Woodruff Park in the heart of downtown Atlanta, where offices for SunTrust Bank and Bank of America and the headquarters of CNN and Coca Cola are all within a radius of just a few blocks. This is a group that takes pride in their city’s nonviolent civil rights tradition. “King’s home is literally in the backyard of the park, the Old Fourth Ward,” said Franzen.
But on October 24, nearly three weeks into the occupation of Troy Davis Park, Mayor Kasim Reed rescinded his executive order that had allowed the Occupiers to stay. He ordered the Atlanta Police Department to evict the group, citing safety concerns and accusing the occupiers—with no basis—of being “increasingly aggressive.” Fifty-three protesters were arrested in the process. Ironically, the eviction was only ten days after the Mayor had attended the MLK Memorial dedication in Washington, DC. Occupy Atlanta was the first occupation in a major city to be evicted.
Initially, the eviction and these first arrests stunned the movement. Chris Seidl, who works with the Radical Caucus, a group that represents communists, anarchists and other radical participants, told me that there was an initial lack of action after the eviction. Before the first arrests, he said, “we had anti-–police brutality marches, and marches on the banks and things like that happened on a daily basis.” After the eviction, “the occupation sort of lost focus,” Seidl explained. It became “attached to immediate survival.” He then added, “It’s difficult to strategize and do work while you’re being arrested and harassed by police.”
The setback eventually re-energized and refocused the group. Those who stayed in the movement were more committed to the cause and, as Seidl pointed out, had a few weeks of protest experience under their belts. The Occupiers quickly found a new location, the Metro Task Force for the Homeless shelter, known as the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, and set up the occupation’s new headquarters on the fourth floor of the building.
Located in downtown Atlanta, Peachtree-Pine shelter houses several hundred homeless people, almost all of them African Americans. Peachtree-Pine alleges that, for years, the city, along with Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business association, Emory University and other corporate allies, such as Cousins Properties and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, have tried to shut it down because of the property’s potential value and its being an “eyesore” in the tourist-glutted downtown. The shelter faced eviction on October 31, and as the deadline approached, Occupy Atlanta organized a march to the shelter on October 14. A week later, Judge Craig Schwall rescinded his initial order allowing the eviction; a hearing to determine the fate of the shelter has been pushed back to February.
Atlanta’s business community often boasts that the city has the fourth largest concentration of Fortune 500 headquarters in the country, and the busiest airport in the world. But Atlanta is also a city of great inequality. The business hub in the southeast has the highest income disparity among major US cities, and Atlanta is the poorest city in the United States for children, with nearly a quarter of all children living in poverty. Adding to this is Atlanta’s hostility to its homeless population—it ranks fourth among the worst cities in the United States in which to be homeless, according to a report co-authored by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty and the National Coalition for the Homeless in 2009. The City has an ordinance that prohibits panhandling, and because the ordinance does not provide clear notice of the conduct prohibited, it can be enforced in an arbitrary or discriminatory matter (PDF) to terrorize the homeless.
As the movement matures, “occupying” homelessness has become one of the main focuses of Occupy Atlanta. The group has reached out to the community, scouted churches and neighborhoods and helped the homeless to raise their voices by engaging in direct conversations. Now, living in the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter, Occupy Atlanta is standing firmly with the shelter to resist its closing down.
However, maintaining its momentum and getting things done after transitioning to a new location was not an easy task for the group. According to Occupiers who moved into the shelter, the lack of privacy and the close quarters made for an uncomfortable first two weeks. A few people were dismissed for being aggressive, violent or combative, and the Occupiers worked out plans and rules to create an organized and safe space for the residents. “There are several laws or rules [of the shelter] that we have to abide [by],” says Jonah, who would not reveal his last name. Jonah is a bottom-liner—that is, an active Occupier working in a committee or caucus—of the Logistics Committee and has been participating in Occupy Atlanta since before the movement took off in early October. “We have a curfew, women and men have to sleep in separate quarters.” He continued, “We’ve learned to cope with them, we’ve learned to adjust,” despite many Occupiers being “semi-antiauthority.”
Within a couple of weeks, the shelter had become a functioning headquarters. The sleeping area is not spotless or all that comfortable—it’s musty, doesn’t have a shower, and, yes, there is no privacy—but they also have a meeting room with a full kitchen, an entertainment area with a TV and a DVD player, a creative corner where banners and posters are made and a small workout area. There’s still a lot of space left for community meetings and gatherings. More importantly, the group managed to put most people to work on different committees and tasks, keep internal conflicts under control, enforce the rules of the shelter and devise a new interviewing process to help everyone get a “job” within the occupation.
While those who stay in the shelter overnight, such as Jonah, seem to be happy to stay there indefinitely, others, like Seidl, who camped out in the park the first week but decided not to spend nights in the shelter, look at it as a temporary solution, an “emergency fall-back.” Since the eviction, there have been repeated efforts to retake Troy Davis Park, and as of this writing, a group of occupiers have set up about ten tents on the sidewalks outside the park. Nevertheless, the divide has not become such an issue that it obstructs the group’s operation or consensus-driven decision-making process; nor have other disagreements for that matter. As Liliana Bakhtiari, a bottom-liner with the Outreach Committee and the Feminist Caucus, told me, “People understand, when we disagree, we talk about it.”
Like other Occupations, as Occupy Atlanta has grown, it has also developed into a more community-based movement that addresses a number of local issues. Of all the issues, Occupying foreclosures tops their agenda.
As millions of houses in America go underwater, Atlanta has had it worse than many other parts of the country. In the third quarter of this year, 34.5 percent of residential properties with a mortgage in the Atlanta metropolitan area were in negative equity, compared to 22.1 percent nationally, according to CoreLogic, a consumer, financial and property information provider based in Georgia. Meanwhile, home prices in metro Atlanta dropped 9.8 percent year-over-year in September, compared to a 3.9 percent fall on the national level. It should therefore come as no surprise that Atlanta was the first in the Occupy Wall Street movement to occupy foreclosed homes.
On November 7, occupiers camped outside of a foreclosed house in Snellville, a city northeast of Atlanta, in an attempt to help the Rorey family resist eviction. Later that month, the group organized a protest at Fannie Mae, the mortgage company that refused to restructure the Roreys’ loan. Their battle ended with the Roreys’ eviction, but this occupation helped to set off a nation-wide movement to occupy foreclosed homes. On December 6, the national “Day of Action” against foreclosures, 200 Occupiers protested at Atlanta’s Fulton County courthouse where an auction of foreclosed homes was taking place. The group called for protests at the courthouses of Georgia’s 159 counties on every first Tuesday of the month, when these auctions take place. On the same day, the group occupied two houses in Old Fourth Ward and Riverdale that had been foreclosed by Chase Bank. Three days later, on behalf of the residents of these houses, the Pittman family and Brigitte Walker, Occupiers protested at Chase Bank and delivered a letter for Frank Bisignano, chief administrative officer of Chase Bank and head of home lending. On December 19 Occupy Atlanta announced that Chase Bank had agreed to a loan modification for the Walkers’ home, marking the first major victory for Occupy Foreclosures in Atlanta.
Occupy Atlanta also addresses other local issues, such as police brutality. In late November, Occupy Atlanta organized a campaign protesting against “the reckless and wanton police murders of fellow Atlantans.” They cited the unintended deaths of three non-white Georgians at the hands of the police, and condemned the police’s irresponsible and violent actions.
Post-eviction, Occupy Atlanta increasingly organizes its actions to engage local communities and other progressive groups. For instance, a group of Occupiers started a bike-sharing cooperative at the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter that lets people use bikes in exchange for service to the Occupation or the homeless shelter. Other actions, such as the “Really Really Free Markets,” critical mass bike rides, flash mobs and events co-organized with local organizations like WonderRoot, an artist group, bring not only visibility but donations to the movement. Bakhtiari of the Outreach Committee notes that they’re also trying to work with NPOs and NGOs to address social issues. “Their presence has been here for years,” she said. And they “have resources we don’t have.”
These outreach efforts are needed. Considering the city’s population of more than 400,000, Occupy Atlanta’s participation numbers are quite low, especially after the eviction. According to Occupiers’ estimates, the numbers have dropped from about 400 or 500 in the beginning of the movement to 100 to 150 at a given action. The number of people who stay overnight at Peachtree-Pine fluctuates between eighty and a little over 100. Mass protests of thousands marching down the streets, like in New York, are simply not seen in Atlanta—this is an enviable dream for many Occupiers in this Southern city. The low participation numbers could be because of the way the city spreads out, coupled with a poor public transportation system that makes it difficult for a large number of people to convene. It also could be that the localized occupations, such as Occupy the Hood in Atlanta’s West end, Occupy Gwinnett in the northern suburbs or Occupy DeKalb on the east side, have drawn some people from downtown to these neighborhoods. However, in order for Occupy Atlanta to more effectively mobilize the “99 percent,” they will need to win more hearts and minds—and bodies—of Atlantans.
Outside the “Really Really Free Market,” I talked to two such people who happened to be there. Trey Copeland, a young man working for a non-profit, identified himself as a member of the middle class and said that he learned about Occupy Wall Street on CNN. Pointing to the homeless people in the park who “[did] not have a choice but living outside day in and day out,” he said, “they [the occupiers] just camp out for a few months and go back to their kind of regular lives.”
Bruce Mitchell, a middle-aged African-American man who worked for a nonprofit that tackles homelessness and drug abuse in the city, expressed his skepticism about OWS being a “middle-class Caucasian” movement without diversity. He admitted that it “serves good purposes,” but also said that it needed organization and “an end game.” “I don’t think their movement is there yet,” he said.
Yale Zhang, a 28-year-old who attended Georgia Tech and is now a smal-business owner, shares these concerns. Zhang came to the States from China with his parents when he was 6. In 1989, shortly before he left China, his father took Zhang on his bicycle handlebars to the students’ protest in Nanjing city. “I was too young to understand what they were talking about,” says Zhang, “but I do remember one conversation.… I asked one of the students, ‘Why are you here?’ and he said, ‘We want the government to change.’ ” Although his business hasn’t been affected that much in the economic downturn, Zhang is not happy about corporations controlling the government and wants it to change. He learned about Occupy Wall Street from the media and has fully supported the Occupy Movement. But when he went down to an Occupy Atlanta General Assembly, he was put off when John Lewis was turned away from giving a speech. “I felt it was an offense to [the idea of] the Occupy Movement, which was no one was to be silenced.”
But the movement is still young and growing, and so are those who are a part of it. “I came to the Occupy Movement, and in two days I joined a committee and within two [more] days, I was up in front of people speaking my mind. That’s what people need to do,” Franky, a fashionably dressed man told me. “We’re in a growing process right now. You wouldn’t criticize an infant that can’t walk at a month and half,” he said.
I agree, and so would Reverend Jesse Jackson, who joined the Atlanta Occupiers’ takeover of Sun Trust Bank’s headquarters in November. “It took us from 1955 to 1964 to get the Public Accommodation Bill,” he recently told me, referring to Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Injunctive Relief against Discrimination in Places of Public Accommodation. Before the boycott of the buses grew into a major civil rights idea, he said, “most people…we were not offended by going to the back of the bus, didn’t like it, but it wasn’t a big deal, and it really was a big deal, ‘cause it wasn’t just a dime, it was dignity. Then once people caught on, it just spread like a wild fire.”
And the Occupiers are ready to persevere through what it takes to move forward. “This revolution is a once-in-a-life-time thing,” said Bakhtiari. “[It’s] probably gonna be fifteen years in the making, and it won’t be glorious, but it’ll be well worth it.”