by Jason Y. Lee
The band of people that descended upon and dismantled Occupy Chapel Hill was friendly, and also a bit sentimental. About a dozen Occupiers showed up Tuesday afternoon to remove the tents, tarps and random detritus that had sat with them in Peace and Justice Plaza since Oct. 15.
The voluntary disencampment isn't an abandonment of Occupy Chapel Hill. At the press conference that followed, Katya Roytburd, who helped organize the event, proclaimed, "I would like to welcome everyone here to Occupy Chapel Hill-Carrboro's celebration of Occupy 2.0, the next phase of our existence."
The decision was made last December at one of the group's general assembly meetings amid concerns over the camp's long-term sustainability. At its peak, the camp filled the small square except for a thin strip of walkway. Up to 35 people slept there overnight; at least one person was there during the day. Food and medical supplies had to be provided. Sanitation and cleanup were ongoing concerns.
Stephanie Daugherty has slept the majority of the past three months in an OCH tent and was often responsible for arranging night watches. OCH occasionally had confrontations with drunk and belligerent college students, the homeward-bound patrons of nearby bars and homeless people.
"It's taken a lot of time and energy," Daugherty says, sounding drained. The tents and overnighters have dwindled to five and around a half-dozen, respectively. "The proximity to the street and the proximity to the bars, the concrete, how exposed the space really is [means] the site is really a great site to make a political statement. It's really not a great site to camp in."
By breaking down the encampment, the next phase of OCH frees up much energy and personnel for other goals. Future plans include other and more frequent events, outreach seminars and teach-ins. For instance, OCH is participating in Occupy the Courts in Raleigh on Jan. 20, and promoting a Jan. 21 foreclosure prevention seminar hosted by the N.C. Central University School of Law in Durham.
And even the tents won't be completely gone. Temporary encampments will sprout up around Chapel Hill and Carrboro as occasion and causes demand—the Roving Occupy. "It actually expands our ability to connect and make alliances with more people in our community, because not everyone comes to this corner of Franklin Street," says Maria Rowan, who is part of the Roving Occupy working group. She hopes that only having occasional campouts will renew enthusiasm and turnout for OCH events.
Others in OCH fretted about the value of a permanent physical presence. Daugherty says, "The encampment's been a visual disruption as you go down Franklin Street and gives you an idea that something's not right here." Arturo Escobar, a professor of anthropology and self-described sympathizer of OCH who makes occasional small donations, said it's "very important to keep the issues in the public imagination. They might take the camp down today, but this needs to continue in different ways."
OCH is mindful of preserving its momentum. The group's website and blog will continue to be updated, and the listservs will be carefully tended. Peace and Justice Plaza will continue to host the regular general assembly meetings, open to all. And there are talks of getting a permanent indoor space or setting up information tables on the Plaza.
Ultimately the disencampment is a calculation that OCH hopes will pay off. "We're voluntarily taking this down, which is a huge change from other Occupy camps," says Lila Little, whose large, brown tent loomed before the post office door. "But everybody's different, and I think this will suit us fairly well."