General Assembly in Kanawha Plaza
Four weeks ago tonight the Occupy Richmond movement decided to occupy Kanawha Plaza in downtown Richmond. It seems much longer. Thirteen days ago, the occupation came to a sudden end when the Richmond Police Department raided the Occupy Richmond encampment and unceremoniously bulldozed their tents and other supplies before loading them into dump trucks and carting them away. Tonight Kanawha Plaza stands empty except for one or two homeless people who have returned to the park.
Meeting Under the Trees
After the raid I was curious as to what the "occupiers" would do, whether they would try to return or what their next step would be. Indeed, I had been following the occupation movement since early in October, attending their meetings and listening, though not participating. I was curious--as a fellow political organizer-- about their tactics and message. As I watched them try to organize and decide where they would occupy I found myself sympathetic to their desire to protest the corporate takeover of government, but skeptical about their methods of organization.
Their meetings were a bit like watching grass grow. Hours would pass as they talked the most minor point to death. It took them more than a week to decide to camp in Kanawha Plaza, in spite of the fact that Kanawha was the most obvious place in Richmond to attempt such a demonstration. This inability to make key decisions within a reasonable amount of time was one of the factors that would ultimately doom the group's occupation of Kanawha Plaza.
The Occupy Richmond Camp
The other factor was the presence within the group of certain individuals who exhibited signs of mental illness, including paranoia and various cognitive disorders. Although these people were only a tiny fraction of those involved with Occupy Richmond, they would exercise a disproportionate influence on its fate. Early in the occupation of Kanawha Plaza there were two really striking things going on: 1) an almost total lack of police interest in the encampment; and 2) a constant whisper campaign encouraging the belief that the police were going to sweep down on Kanawha Plaza at any moment and violently suppress the demonstration.
But for more than two weeks the police did not come. Early on the morning of October 31, 2011, the Richmond Police finally broke up the encampment in decisive fashion after two weeks of hesitation. What drove Mayor Dwight Jones' decision to finally order the clearance of the park?
A Sign of the Times
Ultimately Occupy Richmond failed because it was unable to act as quickly as its most paranoid and delusional hangers-on were able to act. What Occupy Richmond needed was to obtain permission to continue to camp in Kanawha Plaza, in spite of a city ordinance that forbade camping in Richmond City parks. Occupy Richmond had a decent chance of obtaining such permission if it had only phrased its request properly and put it to Richmond City Council in a respectful way. But Occupy Richmond seemed unable to reach a decision to act, unable to appoint a spokesperson until it was too late.
Before Occupy Richmond could act, others acted for them. One delusional individual took it upon himself to contact the Richmond Police, including senior police officers, and began to issue "orders" to the police, declaring himself their superior by virtue of his citizenship and generally holding himself out to the police as the group's spokesperson. On Monday, October 24, 2011, Richmond City Council met and one of the issues they discussed was what the city should do about the Occupy Richmond encampment. I watched that meeting on local access television and I was surprised to see a second person who appeared to be mentally ill denouncing city council on behalf of Occupy Richmond. No other genuine representative of Occupy Richmond attended the meeting, so City Council drew its conclusions about the group largely based on the words and actions of a single individual who was not authorized to speak on their behalf.
The Empty Park
While Occupy Richmond dithered, these individuals spoke on its behalf and alienated the Richmond Police Department and City Council. The results were predictable. Councilman Marty Jewell offered a poorly conceived and written resolution purporting to allow the encampment to continue, but the resolution was laden with a lot of unnecessary rhetoric that would have endorsed Occupy Richmond, rather than merely permitting it. If they had been approached properly, City Council might have allowed Occupy Richmond to continue, but they were nowhere near being willing to endorse it, as Marty Jewell's resolution would have required them to do. Jewell's resolution failed and was withdrawn by its author.
The Empty Fountain
Another week would pass before the Richmond Police carried out a carefully planned and coordinated raid on Occupy Richmond at 1:00 am on October 31, 2011, but the protesters' failure to communicate effectively with local government--coupled with their failure to prevent others from speaking for them--effectively doomed the Kanawha Plaza encampment.
Detritus from Occupy Richmond
Since the raid, Occupy Richmond has degenerated into a disorganized remnant. When the Occupy Richmond movement began it seemed to be dedicated to the larger goal of protesting corporate influence on government, particularly the federal government. Instead, it has become bogged down in a squabble with local government over the "right" to camp in city parks.
Occupy Richmond had a chance to gain permission to camp in the city's parks, but they blew it and they need to accept that fact. Richmond isn't New York City: the laws are different here. Kanawha Plaza is not Zuccotti Park. New York City has about eight million people--Metro Richmond, including the counties immediately bordering it, has about one million. New York City is the city that never sleeps; Richmond goes to sleep about 10:00 pm on school nights. That's just reality.
Instead of slavishly trying to imitate Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Richmond needs to get creative and find a way of protesting that matches the laws and culture of Richmond, Virginia. Occupy Wall Street has an encampment. If Occupy Richmond wants to continue it needs to accept that it will have to be more mobile. New Yorkers can take the subway to Occupy Wall Street; Occupy Richmond needs to recognize that it may need to commute, not camp.
Can Occupy Richmond reinvent itself and effectively promote the message of the 99%? That remains to be seen, but if they want to move forward they need to let go of the "right" to camp and refocus their message on opposing the corporate takeover of government.