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Occupy Y'all Street: OWS Movement Takes Shape In Gainesville

First Posted: 11/23/2011 1:09 pm Updated: 11/23/2011 3:44 pm

This is the first in a series of stories and short films on under-publicized Occupy sites. Stay tuned in the coming days for more from our road trip through the South.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ed Speanburgh is nearly inconsolable, sitting on a bench in the middle of Occupy Gainesville's encampment. It's his laptop. A fellow Occupier stepped on the power cord and broke the input.

Speanburgh runs Occupy Gainesville's livestream and needs his laptop to work. He is unemployed. He also needs his laptop to look for work.

Speanburgh, 42, does not want to talk to a pair of reporters who have parachuted into the quiet center of Occupy Gainesville from Washington, D.C., for the first leg of a nearly week-long road trip through occupy sites in the South -- what we've been calling "Occupy Y'All Street", an effort to capture the Dixie wing of the movement that has so far largely gone unnoticed as the media focus on high-profile police encounters on the east and west coasts.

Speanburgh says he has a truck -- but he hasn't made payments on it in six months. He has a townhouse, 20 miles away, past the University of Florida -- but he is days from losing it, and has no electricity or running water. So, he lives on donated Occupy Gainesville meals -- and his neighbor's tap water.

"I can't take a shower," Speanburgh explains. He's gone days without brushing his teeth. "I feel embarrassed."

One night, a drunk college kid came by the Occupy site downtown and heckled him. "He was just drunk as hell screaming at me -- 'Get a job fuck face. Get a job you fucking retard,'" he recalls. "I really wanted to kill him."

Speanburgh's "find-a-job-and-live-happily-ever-after" Plan A never materialized during his now-two-year struggle to find steady employment.

Plan B, sleeping on a friend's couch, fell through a few days ago. That friend's landlord announced he too was being foreclosed on. A second option also ended up in foreclosure.

Occupy Gainesville is Speanburgh's plan C.

The next morning, we find Speanburgh eating macaroni and cheese fortified with rice over a camp stove in his townhouse backyard.

Speanburgh is joined by his live-in girlfriend, Chris. She sits in a green plastic chair. Its back is broken off so it's just a seat and legs.

Under tall pine trees, the everything is quiet except for the sound of Speanburgh and his girlfriend scraping the last of the processed cheese noodles from their metal bowls. When they're done, Speanburgh lights up a Marlboro Red.

Speanburgh first saw the recession from the other side. He'd been pulled away from his home in Gainesville to work as a human resources manager for a construction company in the Gulf Coast.

It was 2009. There were still Hurricane Katrina-recovery jobs. Speanburgh says he oversaw one office in Biloxi, Miss., and then gained two more -- one in New Orleans and one in Mobile, Ala. He got a promotion. As the work started to dry up, the calls from workers to his office seemed only to increase.

"I literally had people from all over the country calling me for work," Speanburgh said. "I had unions calling me, begging me to put their workers to work ... I had people driving down from Colorado."

Construction guys would just show up at his office.

"Please man, I'll dig a ditch."

"I don't care if I'm cleaning up shit."

Speanburgh had to turn them all away. "We just had no work."

"I watched a lot of good district managers get cut before me," he says. "I watched a lot of sales people get cut before me. And I watched 500 electricians go out of work. And watched 1,300 welders go out of work. What do you do at that point when you can't make any money? I watched them lose their homes. I watched them lose their cars. I watched them lose their families, their wives, their marriages broke apart, their kids taken away -- everything. And I didn't know what to think. I knew something was wrong."

In August 2009, Speanburgh was laid off. He came back to a Gainesville neighborhood that had been hit by the recession. "I noticed that over 200 units in here were up for sale on the same day," he recalls. "It was like, 'Holy shit. This is hittin' close to home.'"

A job painting for the Veterans Affairs saved Speanburgh. But even that job ended. In the two years since, he has used up his unemployment benefits, and his $6,000 in savings. He sold his kayaks and his painting equipment.

Speanburgh and his girlfriend have started sleeping at Occupy Gainesville three nights a week.

The camp is located in a plaza renamed after Bo Diddley. There is a stage with Diddley's iconic image painted on the wall, and a grassy quad. Occupy Gainesville took over the space in mid-October. On the second day, law enforcement authorities tried to enforce a curfew on the plaza. When that didn't clear out the camp, they told the demonstrators they could only sleep on the pavement.

The activists have spent a fair amount of time strategizing on how they can one day occupy the grass. For now, they have set up two tarp pavilions, some tables and a library and food area on the grass. A painted bed sheet marks their spot along with a number of American flags, and the sleeping bags on concrete.

Ellas Anthony McDaniel, Diddley's son, showed up on the Occupation's second night. He said he was just curious about what these activists were doing on land named for his father. He ended up getting arrested.

Gainesville cops tried to enforce the curfew while McDaniel was there. An officer had to drag him off what's called the "speaker's stand," a slab in the park inscribed with the First Amendment.

McDaniel told HuffPost he didn't think the First Amendment had a curfew.

"I didn't come to the Bo Diddley Plaza to commit a crime," he says.

McDaniel is now an Occupy member and a regular at the general assemblies.

Occupy Gainesville may be small, but it's become a powerful magnet for disaffected people -- college kids, mothers, a criminal defense lawyer, long-time homeless, a sales clerk, a restaurant owner and an ad man who made a living doing voice-overs. Military vets make up some of the most consistent membership.

After the morning's macaroni, Speanburgh has returned to the plaza ready to begin his live stream. He fixed the laptop. He sets up his microphones and camera and plugs in.

Sometimes he's had to power the live feed from his truck. Several times, he's run his battery all the way down and needed a jumpstart to get home. Soon, he won't have to worry about commuting. Plan C.

"I feel for the first time my voice is actually being heard," Speanburgh says of Occupy Gainesville. "I never really felt like I could speak out and say these things. It took forever for people to say, 'Wait a minute, this is freakin' wrong.' And it really, it made me feel good about myself that people were waking up and seeing what was actually happening."

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