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Occupiers burned out but didn’t fade away

By: Phillip Bantz//December 7, 2012

Occupiers burned out but didn’t fade away

By: Phillip Bantz//December 7, 2012

Occupy movements throughout the Carolinas and across the country were at a fever pitch last fall. Tent cities and street-corner protests were commonplace, and so too were mass arrests, which drew a large number of lawyers into the fray.

A few local attorneys got swept up in the movement. They could be found camping among occupiers or holding signs and chanting during protests. Some were fresh out of law school while others could recall protesting the Vietnam War.

Now, more than a year later, it may seem as if the Occupy movement was a flash in the pan, a fleeting phenomenon dismantled and packed away as easily as all those tent cities.

But don’t be so fast to dismiss the occupiers, says Charleston lawyer and activist William “Jack” Hamilton III, who camped with protesters at the height of the movement. He says they’re still out there fighting for the 99 percent, they’re just not as visible these days.

For instance, Hamilton went to a Black Friday protest at an area Walmart and recognized about a third of the demonstrators as having ties to the Occupy movement. Occupiers also volunteered as voter protection workers during the election. Hamilton said he was thrown out of a polling location for trying to help two young black voters whom he felt were being mistreated by election workers.

In Richland County, some members of Occupy Columbia joined a group of grassroots activists in the successful push for a sales tax referendum to restore the local transit system and provide bus services for the poor.

“I think the thing that people need to understand is that while the big showy Occupy camps have faded, the overall amount of activity has increased and is operating under the radar,” Hamilton said. “The tents are gone, but the left has woken up in America.”

Eric Fink, an associate professor at Elon University School of Law in Greensboro, used to visit his local occupiers when they were camping downtown. He also trained observers to help watch over the protesters in case they had run-ins with police.

“I think Occupy with a capital O has sort of fizzled in a lot of places, but many people are now focusing on concrete issues. Locally, the focus has been on issues related to foreclosures,” Fink said. “It’s evolved and changing. For people who expected that it might emerge as some kind of ongoing organization under the Occupy name, that doesn’t seem to have happened.”

Fink said he hasn’t interacted with occupiers in quite a while, but he hasn’t walked away from the movement either. He wants to follow up his education efforts during the protests with the creation of a “people’s law school,” which he envisions as a series of informal forums that could be held at a community center and focused not only on legal topics but also on an array of social issues.

Of course, others have drifted away from the occupiers. Chapel Hill attorney Peter H. Gilbert, a community inclusion fellow at the University of North Carolina’s Center for Civil Rights, led “know-your-rights” training sessions during the movement. He said recently that he’d had no involvement with protesters since last October.

And Stacie J. Borrello, a freelance writer who helped organize Occupy Raleigh, said in an email that she’d turned her attention to the election and had “been out of the loop with the local Occupy group for the last several months.”

Occupy a legal training ground

About a week after he was sworn in to the South Carolina bar, Christopher S. Inglese was doing jailhouse interviews with Occupy Charleston members who had been arrested for trespassing while trying to camp overnight at Marion Square park downtown.

Inglese, a 39-year-old graduate of the Charleston School of Law who had joined Occupy shortly before he was licensed to practice law, worked with the local ACLU and Hamilton to organize a group of lawyers to provide free representation to the 10 jailed occupiers.

Inglese ended up defending two of the protesters – they were his first clients – and acting as a liaison between the other occupiers and their attorneys. “I didn’t know what I was doing!” he said, laughing. “It’s a good thing there was a team around me.”

City prosecutors deferred eight of the cases, agreeing to dismiss the charges if the defendants stayed out of trouble for six months, and later dropped the actions against the other two occupiers who opted for jury trials.

Since the Marion Square arrests, Inglese has resigned as an associate city planner for Charleston and started his own law practice. He continues to work with the occupiers, who have been holding monthly community potlucks to feed the homeless and lobbying the legislature for more equitable distribution of lottery tuition assistance, among other things.

“It certainly doesn’t have the same appearance from a year ago,” he said, “but I think the movement is very much alive.”


 Follow Phillip Bantz on Twitter @SCLWBantz or email [email protected]


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