Call it a pricey camping trip funded by local taxpayers: The city of Raleigh spent more than $40,000 through Tuesday to police anti-Wall Street demonstrators bivouacked in downtown.
Mirroring a larger protest in New York City’s Financial District, members of Occupy Raleigh established camp on the sidewalk near the Capitol grounds in mid-October and haven’t budged since. Similar “camp-ins” have cropped up in cities across North Carolina and the nation.
Officially launched Sept. 17, Occupy Wall Street is built on opposition to corporate bailouts, greed, and income inequality. Participants have embraced a number of unofficial aims as well, among them forgiveness of all debt, devoting $1 trillion to “ecological restoration” of the country, and erasing national borders so that anyone can immigrate to the United States.
In Raleigh, city government spent $26,300 for additional police protection during a kickoff rally the weekend of Oct. 15, according to estimates from the Raleigh Police Department. Since then, the additional tab for policing protesters lined up on the sidewalk near the Capitol grounds has been $1,500 per day.
The public costs aren’t confined to the Tar Heel State. Occupy Seattle already has cost the city an estimated $105,000. In Boston, that figure was expected to be more than $2 million by the end of October. New York City puts the cost of overtime for police at $1.9 million.
A growing movement
The Canadian-based nonprofit Adbusters Media Foundation organized the first march on Wall Street in September, but the movement is officially leaderless. It has gained the praise of liberals.
“The Occupy movement is, no doubt, a moveable and multifaceted feast,” said Gene Nichol, a law professor and director of the University of North Carolina’s Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity. “At its heart, though, it brings intense focus on the largest failing of the American democracy — that the deck is stacked in favor of, and is ultimately purchased by, those of great wealth.”
Conservatives have portrayed the protests as anti-capitalistic and driven by far left-wing forces outside the American mainstream. “The Occupy movement claims to represent the ‘99 percent’ that is allegedly exploited by the ‘1 percent,’ yet these confused protesters rail against free-market capitalism, which is a system based on 1 percent (business owners) serving the needs of 99 percent (consumers) in order to be successful,” said Brian Balfour, director of policy and operations at the Civitas Institute.
President Obama and U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have backed the aims of the movement. With a few exceptions, North Carolina political leaders largely have been mum.
Secretary of State Elaine Marshall spoke to the Occupy Raleigh gathering Oct. 19 and is using her appearance to raise money from followers of the movement. U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-13th, said at Occupy Raleigh’s opening weekend that the movement is “mad at the right people.”
Contacted by email, Mark Johnson, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue, declined to comment on the protests specifically, but he said that Perdue “understands and shares the frustration that many North Carolinians have with the slow pace of economic recovery.”
So far, no unified list of demands has emerged. The protest is loosely copied off the Arab Spring, a series of protests and marches by young Muslims in the Middle East. The campaigns have led to the overthrow of governments in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia.
The largest share of media attention has focused on the ongoing occupation of Manhattan’s Financial District, where several hundred protesters are camped out. Reports of illegal drug use and public sex and defecation have emerged.
A survey conducted by former Clinton pollster Douglas Schoen found that 98 percent of the protesters “would support civil disobedience to achieve their goals” and 31 percent “would support violence to advance their agenda.” Three-fourths support raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans.
Closer to home, the Occupy Raleigh website advocates remedying “economic injustice” by reversing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which upheld free-speech protections for corporations; limiting campaign donations to special-interest groups; ending spending on wars in the Middle East; and prosecuting corporate leaders.
Denied a permit by the city to remain on Capitol grounds through the end of the month, Occupy Raleigh protesters have remained on the sidewalk near the Capitol for several weeks. At a kickoff rally Oct. 15, police arrested 20 protesters for refusing to leave public property after their permit expired.
Other enclaves of the movement list more radical goals. The website for Occupy Charlotte, for example, calls for “workers to not only strike, but seize their workplaces collectively, and to organize them democratically.”
Protesters have been camped out in the Queen City’s uptown for weeks. They’ve asked for permission from the city to set up portable toilets on public land, but so far the police department has denied their request. Reports indicate that protesters have been using restrooms at nearby businesses and even the police station.
Political observers have drawn parallels between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party, a largely conservative and libertarian crusade that began in 2009 and that was a significant driving force in Republican victories in the 2010 midterm elections.
Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, said that both movements launched with a “grass-roots orientation,” and each have a strong strain of populism. Tea partiers largely aligned with Republicans in 2010, he added, and it remains to be seen whether occupiers will do so with Democrats in 2012.
“What the Occupy movement is going to have to do is find a voice to better organize itself and then begin the process of influencing party politics, most likely in the Democratic Party,” Bitzer said. “It’s likely that the Occupy movement will move along a similar path as the Tea Party, gaining wealthy donors to support their efforts and increase their profile and image.”
David N. Bass is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.