Miseries now preoccupy city protesters

This story was originally published Nov. 29, 2011 in the Charleston Daily Mail. It won second place in the news feature category of the 2012 West Virginia Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest.

Morale is running low in the Occupy Charleston camp.

The protesters are cold and muddy. Recent rains turned their Shrewsbury Street campground – their third site in seven weeks – into a swampy mess.

They’re arguing. They’re having difficulty getting people motivated for daily marches. Members of the city’s homeless community have tried to join their ranks, looking for food and shelter.

People are sleeping in the group’s main tent, even though they’re not supposed to. Protester Trevor Payne said some people are getting in the communal food pantry, though it’s off-limits to everyone but kitchen staff.

Laptops, cell phones and even makeup have turned up missing. The group has not notified police about the thefts. Payne, 25, of Charleston, said the group prefers to handle its problems internally.

The group also is running short on supplies and has turned to social networking sites to ask for help.

Their posts read like an account of a doomed North Pole expedition.

“Running low on kerosene. We desperately need a supply of kerosene or a lot of people are gonna be very, very cold tonight,” a protester wrote on Twitter last Friday.

That same day, four protesters got sick and spent time in the hospital.

“Kerosene is needed in camp tonight. It’s going to be cold and it’s going to rain. Please, this is a very big priority,” they tweeted on Sunday.

There are about 25 protesters in the camp, group member Robert Winters said. That’s an increase, he said. Five new members recently joined the group.

Some Occupy Charleston participants have gone home, however. Payne said some got mad and left. Others exhausted their vacation days at work, Winters said, and seven people left camp to spend Thanksgiving at home.

Occupy Charleston is a branch group of Occupy Wall Street, which began in September in New York City. “Occupy” groups have now formed around the world, demanding changes to corporate practices and government corruption.

Protesters argue that 1 percent of the nation’s population controls the majority of its wealth. Groups have adopted the slogan “We are the 99 percent.”

Occupy Charleston started its protest in mid-October at Haddad Riverfront Park on Kanawha Boulevard.

They moved to Davis Park on Capitol Street about a week later, per city officials’ request. The city was concerned for protesters’ safety because of the fast-moving traffic on Kanawha Boulevard, Mayor Danny Jones told the Daily Mail at the time.

Protesters left that location after about a week, when the city cut off electricity to the park. They moved to a grassy lot owned by the West Virginia AFL-CIO, located near the union’s Shrewsbury Street headquarters.

The protest camp is using the union headquarters’ water and electricity.

The AFL-CIO also provided protesters with two portable toilets, though they could only use one of the toilets on Monday. A drug user vomited in the other one over the weekend.

“I know he was a heroin addict because he told me,” Payne said.

Winters said the Occupy camp is “doing fine,” although its most recent move might not have been a good idea.

“We’re less visible to the public and more visible to the homeless,” he said.

Protester Theresa Casto, 39, of Cross Lanes, agreed.

“I feel like moving here might have been a mistake,” she said. “We’re kind of out of sight, out of mind.”

Casto said the move was supposed to strengthen the group. She said it has had the opposite effect: Many Charleston residents have forgotten about the protesters because they are less visible in their new location.

Payne said the protesters would not have many of their current problems if they had stayed in Davis Park.

He said protesters voted last week to move back to Davis.

“The campers were going to go there, and this was going to remain here as a base,” Payne said.

The move, planned for Monday morning, did not happen. Payne said none of the occupiers would get out of bed. He said the group has developed another plan, but he would not talk about the details.

Casto said protesters who are willing to work have been “weighed down” by those who don’t. She said the impending cold weather might help to thin the ranks.

Maggie Fry, 31, of Wayne County, said many of the group’s problems are caused by the homeless people who have moved in with protesters.

“We want everybody to have a voice, and we’ve struggled a lot with how to include people who are part of the most disenfranchised part of our community,” she said. “It’s not a problem with the movement. It’s a problem that already existed in the community we’ve occupied.”

Despite the conditions, Occupy Charleston participants say they have no plans to stop.

Payne said the Occupy movement has been misrepresented in national media reports. He said many people think Occupy Wall Street and its associated protesters are advocating “some form of restitution for poor people.”

“We’re just here to create conversations,” he said.

“It’s not that they don’t agree with us. They just don’t know,” Casto said.

She said she plans to stay “as long as it takes.”

“I wholeheartedly believe in revolution. I want to make a difference. And I’m not a quitter,” she said.