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An occupation of Chapel Hill

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Since the morning of Saturday, Oct. 15, a group of citizens from Chapel Hill, Carrboro and other towns have encamped at the Peace and Justice Plaza in front of the post office on East Franklin Street. They are Occupy Chapel Hill, the local offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In addition to a pamphlet table, a library and food tent, the majority of the space is consumed by a colorful cluster of 10 tents, in which about 25 people have slept each night for the cause.

The cause varies depending on whom you ask. Some are worried about an unresponsive government and an unfair distribution of wealth; others are concerned about government conspiracies and the decline of traditional family values. Among the anarchists, socialists, Christians, humanists, retired citizens and parents, straight and gay, here are a few of the Occupiers of Chapel Hill:

Johanan Gaddy sits in a folding chair wearing camouflage-print pants, boots and a beret. Except for the time he attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., to earn a degree in fine arts, this 34-year-old, self-employed potter has lived in Chapel Hill since he was 10. He's been at Peace and Justice Plaza nearly every day since Saturday, exchanging conversation with curious pedestrians and Occupy regulars.

Gaddy said he is intensely suspicious of wealthy interests influencing American politics. He is protesting two specific issues: the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which, when passed by Congress in 1933, prohibited commercial banks from engaging in the investment business; and last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That ruling allowed corporations to contribute unlimited funds to political candidates, and afforded the corporations unbridled influence. The legislation and the court ruling, Gaddy said, led to the wealthy wielding unfair leverage. "Things have been digressing rather than progressing to a place where you have a small group of people who are oppressing the majority of the people."

Gaddy points to Occupy Chapel Hill's General Assembly meetings for "a model of what we want democracy to look like." Held daily at 6 p.m., the gathering welcomes Occupy regulars and random bystanders to discuss the operations of the protest. Gaddy emphasizes that all decisions are made by compromise and consensus, not simply majority voting: "The way a true democracy works is that everyone has a voice."

Though he has faith in democracy, he said, "I do not have faith in politicians." Ultimately, Gaddy said, the existing powers will have to change or be exchanged as the Occupy movement spreads awareness: "People on a large-scale are waking up to the reality of what's been going on for a long time."

Ainsley Briggs arrives half an hour before General Assembly with her two kids in tow. Ages 7 and 14, they unload their backpacks to do schoolwork. Briggs sits nearby, sorting medical supplies—hand sanitizer, bandages and over-the-counter medications, among other necessities—into a red plastic box.

Briggs, who lives in Mebane, is attending in the name of a fairer distribution of wealth, universal health care and a more populist public media "not controlled by money or someone with a partial agenda."

She remembers being confused watching the coverage of the Gulf War. "I felt like there were probably factors that they weren't reporting about the motivations for going to war," Briggs said.

"It began the process of me wanting to be more aware of what was really going on," she said. She picked up A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, which presents an alternate historical narrative from the common citizen's point of view, rather than that of the elite.

A single mom who works as a licensed massage therapist, Briggs said, "a lot of people work hard to make a better life for themselves," and it's difficult to find the time to become aware of larger issues facing the nation. A truly free press is essential for citizens to take informed action, she said. "That's my understanding of what democracy is," Briggs added. "Having a voice and being heard is a fundamental need, and it's not being addressed."

Briggs, who has been at Occupy every day, often brings her children, partially out of necessity, but also because she believes it's important for them to think about society. "Every kid knows when things are not fair," she said. "I think they also serve as a reminder that we're not only working for us and this generation but for the future as well. It's their world, after all, that we're hoping to affect."

Ten minutes before General Assembly begins, two people sit huddled against the cold on the post office steps. Nick White, 20, studied music at UNC-Asheville and is a Chapel Hill native. Hannah, who asked us not to use her last name, is a 17-year-old senior at East Chapel Hill High School.

"I guess this is our generation's movement," said White, whose brother and friends also have been involved in the Occupy protests.

White and Hannah agreed that wealth inequality is major problem, especially in regards to education. Nick dropped out of college because he lost his music scholarship and could no longer afford school. He moved back in with his parents in Chapel Hill. He makes money playing piano at jazz shows, private parties and hotel lobbies, in addition to working as a waiter. "It's not right," he said. "I've seen a lot of my friends have student loans that they can't pay and have two jobs to pay it off and get by."

As she prepares to attend college, Hannah said she is "concerned personally" about her future. "Like about student loans, and how I can afford to go to college and what I'm going to do after that with jobs. I want there to be a kind of equality where education is something I can have and everyone can have."

"Mic check!" someone yells. Everyone present, including Hannah and White yell back, "Mic check!" The General Assembly will begin in just a few minutes. The interview ends, and they turn their attention to the meeting. "Hello everyone!" "Hello everyone!" the crowd answers in a unified reply. And General Assembly begins.

Lee is an intern at the Indy.

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