Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Occupy Richmond failed

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.


Goad Gatsby said...

This article has numerous inaccuracies about the Occupy Richmond movement. The group appointed 3 people to speak at city council during the meeting on October 24. Those people were never given the chance to speak and the mayor left this chance for public comment to eat at a restaurant where a fellow occupier was working that night. One of the persons you listed as having a "mental illness" who spoke on behalf of the group to the people was approved by the general assembly is named Bill Nelson. He is a former veteran who remains a member of Occupy Richmond but has left his role as police liaison because the police lied to him. He does not suffer from mental illness and reported only what had been agreed upon from the general assemblies. The group also applied for a permit to use Kanawha Plaza but was denied on the grounds that it would violate city ordnance by camping overnight. Marty Jewell offered a temporarily solution that would change the code. The raid did not result in lack of communication with the city officials but a lack of listening from the city officials. Mayor Jones visited the park on October 27 and said that he would send his representative but instead sent over 100 officers in riot gear. Occupy Richmond has not degenerated since then. On November 9, over 350 people came to Monroe Park to begin a new occupation but were instead meet with more police but this time state police joined in with RPD. The protesters instead moved away from the police and marched down Broad Street moving to Festival Park and later sleeping at the Canal Walk. Now the group has been offered a legal occupation location next to the Mayor's home. I wish the writer would make these corrections to his story. These facts presented do not collaborative with the conclusions drawn by the writer.

I do not speak on behalf of Occupy Richmond but I speak as someone who has been with it during the raids, marches, rain, cold, arrests, and long meetings to discuss logistics.

The Richmonder said...

The commenter offers some interesting information, but he does not contradict my essential thesis: Occupy Richmond started out as a protest against corporate power, but it is now about the "right to camp" and pursuing a personal vendetta against the mayor.

I am not referring to Bill Nelson at all: Bill is a good and decent man who I respect. Bill did the best he could under trying circumstances.

The person who pretended to speak on behalf of Occupy Richmond on October 24th was a woman. The person who issued "orders" to the police and generally did all he could to offend them and pick a fight was a man with a little white dog. I suspect you know the two people I am talking about--I could name them, but I prefer not to. They were ultimately asked to leave the encampment, but not before they had pretended to speak for it on more than one occasion.

If you wish to camp on private property and harass the mayor from next door, then that is your business, but that's quite a comedown from protesting corporate power and overreach.

Somewhere along the way, OR became fixated on camping instead of protesting and nothing you write changes that perception,

sanfram said...

We are still engaging in direct action and outreach efforts to the community, so to say that we're only about camping is completely false. Maybe that's all you hear about when you watch Channel 6 news, but there's a lot more going on than what the media wants to cover.

And "camping" is a horribly misleading term for you to describe what we're fighting for. The issue at hand is about retaining the right to free speech and peaceable assembly, and it is equally about not displacing our homeless population.

We have not "failed" because we are not done. We have made mistakes, but we will continue to educate ourselves and learn from our mistakes. I welcome criticisms such as this one, but your defeatist rhetoric is poisonous.

The Richmonder said...

Sanfram, I sincerely hope you succeed in turning things around at OR, but you are right to think that I am not optimistic about your chances.

It's just my opinion and you can take it or dismiss it as you like, but OR has become entirely too focused on what happens between 8:00 PM and 7:00 AM and no longer seems to be all that interested in what happens from 7:00 AM to 8:00 PM.

Kanawha Plaza is open again and there is nothing to keep OR from protesting there from sun up to sun down. By 8:00 PM everyone worth "protesting at" goes home. There's no need to camp in Kanawha Plaza--its just an affectation, an imitation of the tactics of OWS.

OR needs to come up with tactics that are legal and work in Richmond, Virginia. But I don't see any effort aimed at doing that, all I see are attempts to escalate the dispute with the mayor, and as much as you may dislike him, the mayor is not the 1%.

sanfram said...

Your point is taken as a valuable observation. Many people within the movement continue to express similar criticisms, but what I'm saying is that there is a difference between criticism and defeatism.

This is not an attempt to escalate tension with the Mayor. We are simply considering our most viable option at this point, and it just so happens that this place is next to the mayor's house. We have been searching for private property anywhere in the city, and this is the ONLY official offer we have received thus far. True, perhaps the offer was made because of its location (in part), but we had nothing to do with the offer being made. Additionally, we have given the mayor three days to resume effective communications with us before we occupy his neighbor's yard. We ARE trying to work within the system, but how can you work to change a system, within that system, if that system is broken? We must dissent where dissent is necessary.

RVA Peer Support said...

I am a member of a mental health community support network, mental health advocate, and someone who works daily towards destigmatizing "mental illness." I have also been and continue to be involved in Occupy Richmond. Our group has brought peer support to the occupation when it was present in Kanawa Plaza. We offer our weekly peer support groups up to be open to the participants of Occupy, as well as the Richmond community at large. While reading your article I could not help but notice how you have almost demonized those two folks that you purport are or appear to be "mentally ill."

From the very beginning I had concerns about how people were handling their frustrations with one of the folks you speak of. I was very hesitant to come out to the occupation at first because I watched the first GA meeting video and was really bothered by how people were not letting him talk, were talking over him, and were basically disregarding everything he was saying. There have also been many direct character attacks against him.

I asked for someone to please explain to me in non-judgmental language and objectively why he was being ostracized from this group, as I had not been involved since the beginning to know what exactly had occurred. The feedback I received is that he is difficult to work with; that there are a lot of hard feelings from the past involved in current opinions, behavior, and how people are treating him; and he stepped outside of the group's process and took it upon himself to speak for the group without the group's input.

There is concern that he may have a psychiatric diagnosis because of his feeling like everyone is "out to get him" and therefore becoming very defensive because of it. I understand that people have concerns with this person, and may have concerns with others because of their behavior being "abnormal" or their thoughts and feelings seemingly "odd," "erratic," "irrational," or "crazy." I am also concerned; I am concerned on other things as well, not only his behavior. Regardless if these folks have their mental health concerns specifically diagnosed or not, I feel that this man's reactions in certain situations, such as mentioned that people are conspiring against him, are of real concern for him. Even though these concerns may be irrational (even in his own eyes) they may definitely be causing him real emotional pain and anguish.

I think as a movement and as a group coming together in solidarity we must acknowledge these feelings he has while also ensuring him (if it is true) that people are indeed not conspiring against him. I do not feel it is necessary to make him feel ostracized, demonized, or anything of the sort. We wish for solidarity and to thwart discrimination, and this includes people with mental health concerns. Many people have difficulties interacting with others tactfully even without altered emotional or mental states.

I sense that people are putting him in the "he's crazy" box and hoping he'll just go away. My interpretation is that people are hesitant to talk to him about their concerns because he tends to get defensive. Just because he is difficult to deal with does not make how people are treating him okay. This doesn't say his behavior is okay, either.

Everyone's voices should be heard and given equal time and consideration if we are to all work towards change. Yes, it is difficult, but we must try. I do not know much, personally, about this man, but it really breaks my heart to see anyone being stigmatized for their emotional concerns. I hate to throw around -isms, but this feels like psychological ableism.

I welcome your response and input on this topic.

The Richmonder said...

I am not "demonizing" anyone, nor are these people my opponents.

The people I referred to are only a very tiny handful of the participants at OR and I called them mentally ill because, in my humble opinion, they are suffering from mental illness.

Specifically, I suspect that the two individuals I referred to suffer from paranoid delusions and paranoid personality disorders.

If you are what you claim to be then you recognize that these are real disorders, with real consequences. OR had/has some genuinely good spokespeople, people like Bill Nelson. But while people like Bill waited for the GA to come to some consensus, there were folks with very real psychological problems who--without authorization or permission--went out and spoke on behalf of OR before OR ever had a chance to figure out what its policies ought to be.

Rather than try to stigmatize me as "ableist", you might want to try and investigate what actually happened. There's a reason why certain legal actions cannot be taken by people who are not of "sound mind." I submit to you--and you should definitely take the steps necessary to investigate and confirm what I am saying for I do not say it lightly--that some of OR's earliest interactions with the Richmond Police Department and Richmond City Council were carried out by people who were not of sound mind, by people who in fact suffered from paranoid personality disorders.

Do not take my word for it--investigate, question, analyze, and do your own homework. Then consider the damage that might have been done to the OR movement if (and I stress "if") individuals with paranoid personality disorders were allowed to act as spokespersons for OR without OR's permission or authorization.

RVA Peer Support said...

Thank you for the comment and response.

In regards to "some of OR's earliest interactions with the Richmond Police Department and Richmond City Council were carried out by people who were not of sound mind, by people who in fact suffered from paranoid personality disorders," I have done my research and I do know that the same person we are both talking about here did act against the will of the GA and general consensus and spoke to City officials and the police department. I do not agree with this behavior, and regardless of what the state of a person's mind is, if they act outside of the process to which they have agreed to, evidenced by their involvement in the movement itself, then yes, your points are exactly correct.

I am unsure if you are fully grasping my point, here. I can say it more directly: what does it matter, in the context of this issue, if someone has a "mental illness" or psychiatric diagnosis? Doing something viewed as "wrong" by a group is "wrong" regardless, one need not put a disclaimer on it and label someone as mentally ill.

I can offer several resources into radical mental health (i.e. destigmatizing mental health concerns while also remembering that we are all thinking, feeling human beings, regardless of what does on in our minds).

The Richmonder said...

Well, as it happens, under the law, people who are mentally ill are generally not held responsible for their actions.

RVA Peer Support said...

As someone who states that they support the Occupy Movement you are an avid follower of and are in full agreement with all laws of this land? (Not saying this to belittle you, I am genuinely curious...)

The Richmonder said...

I am a licensed attorney (California) and as such I have sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.

I assume you have a point in asking such a question.

RVA Peer Support said...

I need only name other groups that have been oppressed in the past by laws to make my point: african-americans (slavery, voting, personhood) and women (voting). Nowhere in the Constitution of the United States does it allow the discrimination of people for their differences on a legal level, only under the auspice of "freedom of speech." Unless you wanted to debate that laws are the government's acting it's freedom of speech, I see your point as moot. I do welcome your input as to why you feel this is relevant. Just because I don't agree with you does not mean that I don't see you as a fellow human being with legitimate opinions and concerns. However, I feel it is wrong to oppress others, and to stigmatize them via their emotional state is oppressive.

RVA Peer Support said...

I need only mention two other groups that have had their rights suppressed via the law in the past to state my point: African Americans (slavery, humanhood, voting) and women (voting).

Given your argument, you could also argue that slavery, segregation, and not considering African Americans as full people were completely fine because the suppression was supported by law.

Nowhere in the United States Constitution does it state that people are to be directly oppressed because of their inherent characteristics, whether the characteristic be race, sex, gender, sexuality, religion, or emotional/mental status.

The Richmonder said...

No one is oppressing anyone. It is a question of competence. If someone is mentally ill, they may not be competent to make certain decisions, especially on behalf of a group, as was the case here.

Take the case of the Virginia Tech shooter. To bar someone from buying a weapon because they are Black would be discriminatory. To bar someone from buying a weapon because they are seriously mentally ill and pose an immediate threat to themselves and society isn't discrimination, it's just plain common sense.

If that distinction doesn't make sense to you, then I have nothing else to say to you on the subject.

Voice of Reason said...

Excuses, excuses, excuses, that’s all you’ll ever hear form occupy Richmond and various OWS offshoots around the country that have also been broken up by police. For a movement that’s supposed to be fluid and innovative in its protests, I find it oddly ironic that all the offshoots simply copied what was done in New York. New York and maybe San Francisco are the only two cities where the public camping model really has a shot at working. Other cities across the country are far less tolerant of such nonsense. This blog post is exactly on point. Having been to some of occupy Richmond’s goings on as well I agree with the author 110%, I called the disruptors “Marxists” the blog post calls them “mentally ill,” I do not honestly know which is correct , however I viewed it more as a political conviction issue than a mental balance issue. Either way, occupy Richmond allowed itself to be dragged down by its weakest links. It refused to decide in a coherent way to work with the city. They say they were “lied to” by police and the city. Nonsense. The authorities were getting so many mixed messages from different “leaders” in the group, it is entirely conceivable they were trying to work with some members but then got blasted by others and decided to forgo working with any of the occupiers. The occupiers had no communication strategy to deal with the city and police. They allowed the whack jobs to be the public voice of the group, and it led to a combative situation. A group should never lead with its most aggressive voices. Being assertive is one thing, but when you start with condemnation, you will never get the results you’re seeking. The bad apples blocked the rational voices from creating a way to work within the law and have a productive dialogue with the city and law enforcement. It didn’t have to be this way. Richmonders will now remember the occupation not for its protest of the “1%” but solely for its pissing contest with the city over anti encampment laws. All because a few of the occupiers were more interested in airing their misguided personal grievances than creating a legal and coherent group protest.

F.T. Rea said...


Your points are worth considering and it may well be useful for some of the activists to consider them. However, I think saying that Occupy Richmond has "failed" is a headlong rush to judgment.

Hey, the Occupy/The 99% movement is only eight weeks old. It is evolving. Its participants are learning how identify common goals and how to pursue them. They are learning how to organize.

Saying to the "occupiers" in Richmond, or anywhere else, that they have failed would have been like telling the antiwar marchers, in 1967 or '68, that they had failed to end the Vietnam War.

It took time to change hearts and minds; it took years of building a movement to influence elections. Still, no serious person today would say the peace movement that was a reaction to the Vietnam War "failed."

Beej519 said...


As a former occupier, I want to thank you for this valuable insight that you have provided. It's amazing that two months after this blog was written that the issues you observed are still resonating within ORVA today. Although I didn't appreciate the critique months ago, I know understand its value.


Eddie said...

My Lord, it's so funny how this article has sort of become a prophecy for OR. Funny thing is this, the writing was in the sand a long time ago, and everyone now see's a huge issue. Sort of too late to do anything about it. Everything that was surmised in this article, has rang entirely too true. OR is over, take it from someone who stayed on the first night, camped when i could, treated minor injuries when i was able and addressed my concerns with fellow occupiers, only to be told to basically shut up. OR started out serving my interests and quickly became the college hipsters go to event. It became more about other issues, which I don't necessarily subscribe to. I had my reasons and they were no longer being served. Not to mention the general message of the group was hijacked by a mentally deficient/ill person with delusions of grandeur.... (im sorry, did i not destigmatize mental illness enough, pardon me if im tired of being politically correct.) In all honesty, I really don't give a fuck if he's in anguish over his paranoid delusions, I don't give a fuck if he feels attacked. He attacked the movement many times with purposeful intent, did anyone attempt to stop him? Yes, they did! Did anyone listen to those people who signaled the early warnings? No, of course not. It wouldn't fit the idea of inclusiveness and destigmatizing mental illness. Inclusiveness is a GREAT idealism, except it doesn't work in all instances. This instance in particular. In allowing this individual to address the officials in any way he pleased, he signed OR's death certificate. He finally said he is leaving the group, but makes it seem like it's everyone elses fault, because you know, they didn't play fair. (read, they didn't let him do whatever he wanted for as long as he wanted) He has stated hes going to start a counter group. Prepare the Tin Foil Warhorse!! He has gone on and on about how hes been discriminated against, and how everyone is out to get him, maybe if he ASKED for a group concensus before appointing himself a leader, maybe if he ASKED if there was anything he could do to help further the cause and maybe if he DIDN'T do things only to serve his own ego he would not have felt this way. He has no one to blame for his feelings, but himself.