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Checking in with Occupy Raleigh

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Temperature check. What if Occupy Raleigh were to apply every day for daily permits to gather on the State Capitol grounds? Is that a good idea? Palms are raised, fingers wiggling: The General Assembly, about 40 people gathered at the Capitol on Monday evening, signal that they like it in concept. Occupy Raleigh's legal committee can draft a proposal for a subsequent General Assembly to consider.

Temperature check. How is Occupy Raleigh, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, doing a week and a half in? Margaret Schucker's palms are up. On Monday, Schucker, a North Raleigh woman who volunteered her age (57) and the fact that her husband is keeping house while she protests, said she'd been at the Capitol six days out of nine since the occupation began.

"Somebody said it takes two at home for every one of us," she joked. "I don't know if it will change the world, and I don't think it will happen quickly. But I think it will open some eyes, you know? And at least they'll know we're here, instead of all the attention going to the wealthy corporations. I'm only speaking for myself, but the main message is to take back our government. Everything else flows from that."

Take it back from the 1% of Americans whose wealth controls our corporations and the government and who don't seem to care that the rest of the country is in crisis.

Occupy Raleigh arrived at the Capitol grounds on Saturday, Oct. 15, when a crowd—variously estimated from the high hundreds to 1,000—rallied under a permit issued by the N.C. Department of Administration. The permit was for only four hours, and late in the day, 20 people were arrested for refusing to leave. Not only did that action not end the occupation, it seemed to fuel it. After the police left, a group returned and stayed overnight. And stayed, and stayed.

Last week, state officials refused Occupy Raleigh's latest request for a nine-day permit to use the Capitol grounds. Still, the occupation has continued undeterred on the sidewalk on the south side. There, Raleigh police threw up barricades to keep the demonstrators off the grass. The barricades were swiftly decorated with signs, some of which partition the sidewalk area ("Kitchen," "Medical") to indicate where supplies are located; other signs make a point ("Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out"). The place is a linear campground of folding chairs, sleeping bags, blankets and food—everything but tents, which are prohibited.

So for now, a truce prevails. The Capitol police force, decimated by budget cuts, is nowhere to be seen. Raleigh police, taking the position that the sidewalks by the Capitol are state property over which they have no direct jurisdiction, are keeping watch to protect the occupiers, not hassle them. Since last weekend, Raleigh cops have relayed word from the Capitol police that it's OK if the daily General Assembly session spills onto the grass—as long as none of the 20 people who were arrested go up there.

Day to day, the numbers vary, but Occupy Raleigh shows no signs of going away. It shows every sign that, if the national Occupy movement continues, it will too. Some recent General Assemblies—conducted according to principles of open discussion and consensus—have drawn as many as 100 people. At other times, especially overnight, the occupation dwindles to a handful, including some homeless men and women who have joined the ranks.

One night last week, Jes Cronmiller had to send for reinforcements. She was the only person with a home who remained at the Capitol. Messages were quickly sent on Facebook (where 5,154 people, at last count, "like" Occupy Raleigh) and Twitter (@OccupyRaleigh has 1,411 followers). Others arrived.

Temperature check on Cronmiller? "I'm here. I'm always here," she said Monday. Well, not always. She home-schools her daughter, who is almost 7, while her husband, Derek, works during the day in Cary. But nights, Cronmiller is at the Capitol, and frequently Derek and their daughter, too. "She's made a lot of little friends here," Cronmiller said, "and it's cool to meet like-minded families."

"I really, really believe in this, and I don't want it to peter out," she said. "The strongest thing for me is that inequality and poverty in this country is abysmal.

"One in six Americans lives in abject poverty, while we have people who have more than they could ever spend in three lifetimes. And I'm not saying you're not entitled to the fruits of your labor. But if you earn your living on the backs of other people at no cost to yourself, and then you live in your castle while the peasants below have no food, that's unacceptable."

Cronmiller's neighborhood is a middle-class place off Capital Boulevard with many struggling families. A common problem is lack of health insurance. Her family has none, she said, because her husband works full-time for a corporation that hires contractors—not employees with benefits—to do its tech work. "The insurance options available" to her "are untenable."

The occupation force is a varied lot. Some, like Schucker, have protested before. She was a member of Code Pink, a women's-initiated grassroots peace and justice movement. Angaza Laughinghouse, veteran organizer of Black Workers for Justice in Raleigh, brought a contingent of about a dozen supporters Monday night.

Others, though, like Kelly Maes, a 27-year-old who lives in Garner, are new to this kind of politics. Maes said she understands ethics, not political parties or personalities. She heard about the Occupy Raleigh rally moments after hearing for the first time about Occupy Wall Street. "I jumped out of bed and I've been in it since," she said.

Maes, a native of Belgium, said her family couldn't afford to send her to college, and she's worked steadily since high school until she was laid off five months ago. She has no savings. She has no health insurance. She does have a question: Why is it that Belgium, like most European countries, can afford to make health care and a college education available to all citizens "free or cheap," but the United States can't?

Her father lost his job a couple of years ago after working hard his whole life, Maes said. She can't prove it, but she thinks that happened because her younger sister's brain aneurysm cost so much that her dad's company couldn't afford to keep her on its health insurance.

"My papers say I'm Belgian, but I'm an American at heart," Maes said. "I'm not for socialism. But when the staples of society"—she listed them as food, clothing, housing and basic civil services—"start to crumble, and meanwhile the top gets top-heavy, call it whatever you want to call it. That's just plain wrong."

As Maes was talking, Harris Skinner, an 89-year-old World War II veteran wearing a white "Reagan" cap and a sweater with a U.S. Open golf tournament insignia, arrived from Pinehurst. His sign read: "WWII Vets for Integrity."

He was joined by his grandson, Sean Garvey, a geneticist with a recent Ph.D fresh off a stint working on an organic farm in Vermont. Garvey had a sign to which his granddad also subscribed. It read: "May You Have Enough."

"It's a prayer that's often been prayed for me," Garvey said, beaming with optimism while his granddad smiled. "And I'd like to send it to that top 1%. May you have enough, and not much more. And if you do, find a way to give it back or pay it forward."

Garvey's work focuses on issues of world health and food supplies, a complicated subject that requires the best efforts of local growers and big agribusiness corporations. That's where the Occupy Wall Street movement comes in, he said. Corporations are getting away with "a beautiful head fake," acting against the public interest, but faking the public into thinking it's the government's fault.

So he was pleased to help Occupy Raleigh by standing for integrity at the Capitol, a place of great symbolic importance in North Carolina, he said. "But I'm glad Occupy Wall Street is where it is. It shows they didn't go for the head fake."

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