Weeks before I traveled home to Ohio for Thanksgiving, my mother showed me pictures of Occupy Columbus. They were quick, blurry shots of a small crowd, just over a dozen people.
“Not much like New York, huh?” she said, laughing.
Well, no. But Occupy Columbus was compelling for its very difference. These protesters weren’t getting national press coverage. They didn’t have mass support. Yet there they were: Camped in front of the Ohio Statehouse, 24 hours a day, since October. I wanted to know what justified that dedication.
So, on a cold, windy Black Friday, I visited the site. In my time there, the crowd never exceeded six people. But what I found wasn’t a lesser version of Occupy Wall Street. What I found was the Occupy movement – with all its inherent tensions, and all its gifts – in microcosm.
The Occupy Columbus site was minimal. There was a barricade; a few signs about corporate welfare; a single tent, stocked with food coolers and folding chairs; a lone protester, standing outside it. She didn’t want to speak much herself, but directed me inside, to “communications.”
“Communications” was Carson: A young white man with precise diction and painstakingly good manners, watching YouTube videos on his laptop.
The occupation, he told me proudly, had drawn “about seventy to eighty” protesters. The woman out front had estimated sixty; the Occupy Columbus Facebook page had over ten thousand fans. I saw two. I asked Carson whether the holiday was responsible.
He said it was weather that had been their real problem: “We’re looking for an indoor space.” Once there, he had plans for a video game tournament.
Just as Carson was telling me about the plans for outreach – “as my friend Desiree says, nobody wants to listen to a bunch of single white men stand around bitching” – four other occupiers returned from a protest at a local mall, and Kevin walked into the tent.
“With the War on Drugs, you see, which was the main focus [in the 1980s and 90s], which then became the War on Terror,” America’s real problems had gotten lost, Kevin told me. In those years, he’d been confronting skinheads who were assaulting homeless black men – to make them deal, he says, with “an employed black man with a home.”
Another initiative involved white “frat boys,” who had attacked a black woman for dating their friend. So he paid them a visit at home, he said, and–
“This occupation is not militant,” Carson cut in suddenly, “and it does not endorse violence.”
“I personally believe you should never take all your options off the table,” said Kevin.
“Jesus wasn’t violent,” noted a young white woman.
“Yes he was,” Kevin shouted back. For several minutes, everyone in the tent shouted over each other; I caught nothing but a reference to money lenders in the temple.
When the dust settled, Kevin told me he was happy to be non-violent within Occupy Columbus. He was part of a team now, he said, and that team had welcomed him despite their differences.
“She’s made me feel welcome,” he added, turning to the woman, “when she’s not whining.”
I thanked Kevin, and excused myself, to speak to her. This, I learned, was Desiree.
“There are some people here who’ve never been heard,” Desiree said, as we walked away from the tent. “And this is their opportunity to be heard… When I come here, I step out of Desiree, and I step into an activist role.”
Her models, she said, were “Martin Luther King, and Buddha, and Jesus, and Gandhi.” The point, Desiree said, was to let the oppressors’ violence speak for itself. If the world witnessed it, the world would resist. She herself had only begun protesting this year, “since the whole WikiLeaks thing.” Through that, she’d become aware of Occupy Wall Street, and started looking for a nearby site.
“There was a vibe,” she says, beaming, “that I had just not experienced in my life… It’s changed my life so much that I’m contemplating going homeless for it. I’m contemplating giving up my job, selling my things.”
Her point of view, I suggested, was very different from Kevin’s. So was her history.
“I don’t appreciate the violent rhetoric,” she said, frankly, “whether it’s personal or not personal. But I’m glad he’s here.”
Back at the tent, Kevin, Carson, and an older white man I hadn’t yet met were gathered around the laptop, watching a football game and debating theme songs for the occupation. Carson suggested “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and Pink Floyd’s “Money;” Kevin admitted these were obvious choices, but not necessarily good ones.
Carson sang a few bars of “For the Love of Money,” and asked who did that one; Kevin said The O’Jays, but Carson seemed unconvinced. The earlier tension had dissipated; this sounded more like a squabble between roommates. I realized suddenly that all of these people had been camping together, in very cramped quarters, for a very long time.
I waited for an opportunity to speak to the third man. His name, he told me, was Tom. He described himself as “an operative for a major political party,” although he didn’t care to specify which one: “I felt I had to step out of that process to apply pressure.”
If Desiree saw Occupy Columbus as a way of life, and Kevin saw it as the continuation of a fight, Tom saw it as a policy matter. It was a way to fight corporate personhood, and bad budgeting; a way, he said, to ensure that “money will no longer be the equivalent of free speech.” He was proud of the community that Occupy Columbus had developed, but he was really interested in the next step: Foreclosure interventions.
“People are scared and they don’t know what to do, so they check out,” Tom said. “We can channel their anger.”
If there were channels at Occupy Columbus, it seemed to me that there were at least four. Desiree’s utopianism; Kevin’s hard-won conviction; Carson’s relentless positivity; Tom’s practicality. But, in the moment, Occupy represented all of them. And this, it seemed, was its real strength.
This is how Occupy movements have worked across the globe: Telling the “99%,” whether they were college students or political operatives, that they are connected. That what matters is that they stand together, in the same place, until things change. But maybe the change has already started: The movement, lambasted for its messy focus and lack of clear goals, had managed to bring together four people I couldn’t have imagined sharing a room.
Nearly every one of them, when I asked how the protest had changed them, cited this fact. It wasn’t earth-shattering. But, in its own way, it’s the most radical movement of all.
Jude Ellison Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributing writer. They are the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow them on Twitter at @sadydoyle.