Protest groups clamoring for attention at next month’s Democratic National Convention plan an ambitious week of events that will help transform Charlotte’s compact uptown into an unpredictable mix of demonstrators, delegates and curiosity seekers.
Organizers expect a Sunday, Sept. 2 kickoff march to draw thousands in what would be the city’s largest protest in memory. City demonstration permits and interviews with activists suggest the DNC will be more heavily attended by protesters than the Republican National Convention in Tampa the week before.
Protestors see Charlotte, home of the nation’s largest electrical utility and to some of its biggest banks, as a perfect backdrop for topics such as foreclosures, environmental concerns and a host of other social issues.
“The sitting president is here,” said Matt Hickson, of the Coalition to March on Wall Street South, sponsor of the kickoff protest. “People who have been foreclosed on by Bank of America will be here. Students who have student loan debt from Wells Fargo...people whose communities are being mined by Duke Energy, who have seen their rates go up double digits, will be here.”
Coalition organizer Ben Carroll said he expects a few thousand people to march, but added that he can’t give a definite estimate for the turnout. Carroll said groups across the country have chartered buses to bring protestors.
“Until the day of, I don’t think we’re really going to know,” Carroll said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police attorney Mark Newbold said last week he expects anywhere from 5,000 on up at the march. A CMPD spokesperson said Friday the crowd could range anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000.
Five thousand marchers would be about 10 times as many as CMPD estimates turned out for Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting earlier this year – the city’s largest recent protest.
After Sunday’s march through the center of uptown, protests will continue throughout the week of the DNC, which officially starts that Tuesday.
The city of Charlotte has designated a separate parade route for demonstrators from Tuesday through Thursday. It starts at the edge of uptown and demonstrators have criticized the route and a “speaker’s platform” as too remote from the convention at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The number of expected demonstrators listed on those permit applications varies widely, from one to 5,000. But it’s hard to gauge the accuracy of such numbers. Some DNC demonstrators have said they only signed up for the official parade route and speaker’s platform to show the system is a joke, and the event with the largest expected turnout is listed as “The Importance of Radical Cheerleading in a Dull, Boring World.”
Police said they also expect protesters to veer from assigned parade routes during marches. They might shut down other streets to accommodate the marchers as long as they remain peaceful, rather than challenge them and risk violence.
During large protests against NATO earlier this year in Chicago, police allowed marchers to deviate from assigned routes and set off through the city, blocking streets around the spontaneous routes. Violence sometimes accompanied otherwise peaceful demonstrations.
Police also worry about “black bloc,” or anarchist protesters who appear at large protests and don bandanas and gas masks, often antagonizing officers. Peaceful protesters also worry that such clashes dominate news coverage and distract from their message.
Marching permits granted to organizers in Tampa show that groups there expect up to 5,000 people for various protests throughout the week of the Republican National Convention, according to the Tampa Bay Times.
The DNC culminates on Thursday, Sept. 6, when Obama is expected to accept his nomination to run for a second term at Bank of America Stadium. There will be public tickets available for the event, which will also be heavily attended by DNC delegates and volunteers. Organizers haven’t announced any events at the stadium.
But official parade routes and the speaker’s platform aren’t the only areas where protesters can legally gather – any public space outside the DNC security perimeter is legal. And although permits are required for marches, they’re not necessary for assemblies.
“Current City and County ordinances allow any individual or group to demonstrate on City sidewalks or County parks at any time, anywhere, without a permit, as long as they aren’t closed for security, transportation or logistical reasons,” the city writes on its “Free Speech” page dedicated to the DNC.
Range of issues
The Coalition to March on Wall Street South includes almost 80 groups who plan to participate in large-scale demonstrations before and during the convention, focused on social and economic issues.
Among the members are the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, which hopes to put a spotlight on labor issues, especially those specific to North Carolina.
The convention officially starts Tuesday but gears up on Labor Day with CarolinaFest 2012, a free event uptown that organizers hope will draw thousands. The family friendly event will include music and food vendors.
That same day, labor groups will gather at the Southern Workers Assembly at Wedgewood Baptist Church. That’s off Tyvola Road, near Marion Diehl Park, several miles from the uptown festivities.
“Our goal is to use the national attention and the spotlight around the DNC to highlight some of the pretty serious issues facing farm workers and North Carolinian workers,” said Justin Flores, the director of programs for the farm labor group.
Chapters from UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Asheville and N.C. State’s Students for Democratic Society will also converge as part of the coalition. Students from other areas will also be bused from eastern North Carolina, Greensboro and Asheville, Hickson said.
“Our university system is way short on funding because of costs caused by big corporations and banks,” Hickson said. “Students are having to work twice as hard to get through school.”
Members of Raleigh FIST (Fight Imperialism Stand Together) will also be protesting with the coalition.
“We see it as a great chance to protest both political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, who we see as serving the interests of the big banks…in a city that is home to all these big banks,” said Andy Koch, a FIST member.
The organization Veterans for Peace, which has about 5,000 members nationally, will also participate in the coalition’s kickoff march.
“We do feel like we want to express our voice as veterans in opposition to the wars that this country is involved in as well as the military budget that both parties support,” said group president Leah Bolger.
Another wing of protesters is Occupy the Military Industrial Complex, organized by some of the Occupy Wall Street movement. John Penley, one of the original Zuccotti Park protesters in New York City, said the large march will likely turn into an Occupy-style event.
“Two hours after the Coalition ends its march at Frazier Park, we’re going to try and occupy Frazier Park,” said Penley. “There’s going to be a lot of seasoned, long-time activists.”
More than 400 people have RSVPed on Facebook to attend the event. Police haven’t said if they’ll allow overnight camping on public property. That could be a flashpoint of conflict at Frazier Park – a popular spot for joggers, families and uptown residents who let their dogs run free at the public dog park.
The Occupy group will focus on ending high levels of military spending and freeing Bradley Manning, a soldier being held on charges that he leaked classified material to Wikileaks. Penley, like many of the demonstrators, will also be in Tampa, Fla., demonstrating at the RNC the week before the DNC in Charlotte. Many are planning to drive up from Tampa together.
Many of the activists don’t support Obama or Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
“I think there’s a symbiotic relationship between the big banks, military weapons production, the government, President Obama, Mitt Romney,” Penley said.
Some protesters who’ve signed up for the speaker’s platform aren’t affiliated with larger movements. Harry Taylor is a longtime Mecklenburg activist and Democrat who has run unsuccessfully against Congresswoman Sue Myrick. He received a half hour at the city’s speaker platform on Thursday, Sept. 6, the final day of the convention.
He’s not sure yet what exactly he’ll focus his 6:30 p.m. speech on. A staunch environmentalist, Taylor said it could include environmental themes.
“When I was filing for a spot on there, I didn’t know what I was going to be talking about,” he said. “I am a musician. I’ll probably have a banjo with me.”
Staff writer Cleve R. Wootson Jr. contributed.