Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Will Charleston Continue to be Occupied?

By Kevin Phillips

Every Sunday a large group of people of all ages, races, and backgrounds gather at Mall Park, located directly beside the Trident Tech Palmer campus, and have a community “potluck dinner.” People bring prepared food and drinks, and then offer a free meal to the entire community or anyone that can make it to the park. Traditionally, events such as these are hosted by local churches or charities, but not this one. It is being organized and executed by Occupy Charleston. 

Occupy Charleston is a protest movement that is inspired by Occupy Wall St., a movement that began on Sept. 17, 2011 when 30O people began sleeping over night in Zuccotti Park, located in New York City’s financial district, commonly called Wall St. The movement has inspired similar demonstrations in over 700 cities in over 45 countries worldwide. 

I attended one of Occupy Charleston’s community potluck dinners and met one of its members, a fellow TTC student.  Ramon Coraballo, a 12 year resident of Charleston and an Iraq War veteran, has been involved in Occupy Charleston since its inception. We sat down together the next day in the Palmer campus library and Coraballo shed some light on the Occupy Charleston movement.

Occupy Charleston began on Saturday, Oct. 15 when a group of 200 people held a protest march in downtown Charleston. The march began at Mall Park, continued down King St., through Marion Square and ended at George Washington Park. Coraballo says the march was a great start to Occupy Charleston, but claims the police restrictions greatly “diminished the whole point.” The protesters were not allowed to carry any signs that were on sticks or posts and could not march in groups larger than 50 people.

Brittlebank Park, located directly in front of the City of Charleston Police, was the sight of the next Occupy movement. With the consent of the Charleston City Council, Occupy Charleston held a 99 hour encampment from Wednesday, Oct. 19 to Sunday, Oct. 23. Occupiers participated in events ranging from discussions on topics such as community organizing and civil disobedience to concerts put on by local musicians.

Occupy Charleston received worldwide notoriety on Nov. 10 when they interrupted an event being hosted aboard the USS Yorktown by presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Her speech on her foreign policy was halted when about 20 or so members of Occupy Charleston stood up and began chanting in unison-“You capitalize on dividing Americans…claiming that people that disagree with you…are unpatriotic socialists…and you promote discrimination.” The statement ended with “Have a good day.” Protesters left peacefully and no one was arrested.

Arrests were made, however, on Wednesday, Nov. 16 when 10 members of Occupy Charleston, Coraballo included, were charged with park trespassing. On the Sunday prior to the arrests, the members petitioned Mayor Joe Riley for a permit to have an encampment similar to the one at Brittlebank Park. But this time the location they desired was a much more publicly visible place- Marion Sq. at the corner of King St. and Calhoun St. Their petition was denied, and Riley told the protesters that no one was to spend the night in the park.

Coraballo and other members of Occupy Charleston believed that the First Amendment (“the right of the people peaceably to assemble”) would override any local law. Ignoring the Mayor’s warning, they slept in the park Sunday night and were told by police that as long as they were quiet they could stay. Monday night rolled around and the protesters prepared to sleep in the park as they had done the night before. At around 1 a.m. Tuesday morning, two City of Charleston paddy wagons along with 30 police officers entered the park. The police officers split into two groups on opposite sides of the protesters, and one officer read a statement which included the city code saying that the park closed at 11 p.m. Coraballo claims, “They read the statute and started taking people.” He says nobody was given the chance to leave peacefully and, one by one, 10 members of Occupy Charleston where handcuffed, put into a paddy wagon, and taken to jail.  Coraballo was put into solitary confinement and spent the next 24 hours there. He has been charged with trespassing and his court date is set for Jan 3.

When asked if getting arrested was worth it, Coraballo answered without hesitation, “Yes, it was worth it!” He claims that the political system in the United States has become so corrupted by money that the only voice citizens have are through the acts of civil disobedience. He believes politicians “have lost the concept of civic office.” His reason for becoming involved in Occupy Charleston is to see “political power given back to the people.”

As 2011 ended, Occupy Charleston had occupied public parks, disrupted a presidential candidate’s event, been mentioned in countless websites and newspapers all over the nation, and faced arrests. What will the effects of these actions be? Will Occupy Charleston be a lasting social movement? Or will it fade into the American pop-culture history books and be something that we all say, “I remember that?"  All of these questions will be answered this year.  Only time will tell if these challenges are met. 


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