Occupy Richmond Shows the Extent of the OWS Movement

Now into its second week, Occupy Richmond has become an articulate and well-organized addition to the national OWS movement. There are similarities with New York’s Occupy Wall Street, but Occupy Richmond is significant in that it has taken root in Virginia, a base of Tea Party politics and conservatism. Further, Richmond’s tolerance, curiosity, and support by the public and business community demonstrate that this movement is here to stay. 

But its success is by no means secured. While occupations in OaklandDenver and other U.S. cities are violently closed and clamped down by police, Richmond is still waiting. Its present survival depends on its ability to enter into dialogue with the police and city officials, and to forward its calls for just reform to a broken system. In the meantime, they must hope ordinary Virginians – and Americans – will continue to sympathize with its progressive and bipartisan anti-corporatism. 

I spent two days with Occupy Richmond. Protesters are a mixed bunch – students, homeless, socially conscious – and full of warm, articulate and intelligent people of all ages. Almost everyone has been incredibly welcoming from the start. There is a good atmosphere at their camp in Kanawha Plaza, in central Richmond. As soon as I arrived on Tuesday, I was welcomed by William Carino, 24, a student at John Tyler Community College, Virginia. 

After two weeks of legal wrangling with police and city officials, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones came down to Kanawha Plaza. He said he “understood” the occupation, but there were issues and controversies ahead. His statement might have been bald, a bit of a formality, but at least yesterday’s visit suggests the occupation is being taken seriously – either as a political statement, or a threat. 

Meanwhile the plaza is in legal stasis. Like in New York’s Zuccotti Park, the occupiers are breaking the law for pitching tents and staying overnight in a public park without a permit, but the police are not enforcing the park’s rules. Some believe the police sympathize with Occupy Richmond, others say Jones’ own mixed signals toward the movement has left the police department uncertain. Nevertheless, police helicopters pass over now and again, and the police liaise with occupiers twice a day. 

Unlike New York’s camp at Zuccotti Park, a privately-held park, the police do not have a caveat to close Richmond for down for trespassing or damaging property. William tells me there may be an opportunity for a permit through the city’s Parks and Recreation offices. If not, the city will meet in just over a week to decide Occupy Richmond’s fate. 

There are similarities with New York. Richmond began in solidarity with #OccupyWallStreet, campaigning for social and economic justice while interacting with the public and press around them to get word around. 

Based on similar organizational lines as OWS, Richmond has no leadership. For those inexperienced, or skeptical, of non-hierarchal organization, this is a strange concept. This was acutely apparent when Jones invited the occupation’s “leaders” to meet with him. “He wants leaders from the leaderless movement?” laughed Phil Wilayto, editor of local leftist newspaper, The Virginia Defender

But as a grass-roots populist movement without – as yet – an electoral wing, the progress of OWS ultimately depends on its power to persuade and engage with the global public. At the last count, things look good. 

recent YouGov/Economist poll showed 43% of Americans approve of OWS and its goals (compared to 30% who don’t) – a majority that continues up the income scale, including those earning over $100,000. The general public is also well-informed about the movement – 31% say they have heard a “great deal” about it. The American people do not seem to be struggling to grasp OWS. Its supporters are not from any particular educational or income background. 

This is the real strength of OWS. “We are already more popular than the Tea Party ever was,” William says. “If this movement continues to grow as it is, it’s gonna scare the b’jesus out of all of the politicians – because we’re not coming from the left, we’re not coming from the right. 

“We don’t define ourselves on partisan social issues like them,” he says. “We just want to take our country back for us.” 

In a country wracked by the socio-economic injustices of an invisible class system, where the household income for the top 1% of the population has trebled over the last 30 years, this is a goal most Americans can identify with.

Photo Credit: Tom Rollins