This is the fourth in a series of stories and short films on under-publicized Occupy sites. The first is here, the second is here, and the third is here. Stay tuned in the coming days for more from our road trip through the South.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Vic Suter is looking for Ghost. She sloshes through the slick grass and soggy leaves matting the grounds of the Old City Hall. She and the rest of Occupy Charlotte have called the property home since early October. She knows every sign, every tent in this place. But it's Ghost's tent that she wants. A cold rain begins to fall steadily on a camp that's all but deserted. Vic, 22, doesn't care.
Vic motors past tents sagging under layers of tarp and other jerry-rigged, middle-of-the-night weatherproofing. Dragging a cardboard sign with a bitten corner, she ignores all those tents before finally stopping at a giant beige orb, outfitted with a mesh enclosure that gives off a screened-in porch effect. There's room for three chairs and what look like wind chimes. Ghost has his shit together.
"Hey Ghost?" she shouts, a few feet from his tent.
Vic leans into the orb's entrance. Her face, curtained by her brown hoodie, is pale and expectant. Even at 11 a.m. in early November, she looks game.
"Hey Ghost! You in there?"
The orb shows no signs of life. "You got to Godzilla people's tents -- shake them, nag them to get up and go on a march," she explains later.
Vic lets out one long "Ghooouuuust!" in a nagging sing-song. She thinks this is funny. She stoner-laughs to herself.
The rain sounds like it's hitting the trees a little harder.
Vic fiddles with the orb's flaps.
The tent is locked.
"No, he's not here."
Vic finally has to give up. She trudges past the orb in her untied black army boots -- shitkickers her stepfather wore when he turned 18 in Vietnam. She says she's worn them every day since high school. Instead of lockers and jocks, she has to stomp past an empty bucket, empty plastic chairs and more empty tents. Ghost is a memory. She's looking for James and Bobby, and somebody named Peanut.
Vic hits on the last of the tents located at the outer edge of the camp. They're quiet, too.
"Where is everybody?" she asks.
A month earlier, the Occupy activists in Charlotte had drawn more than 500 to their first march uptown, a noisy success that included a stop at Bank of America's North Tryon Street headquarters, where the throngs chanted up its 60 stories. The building -- the tallest in the state and a dominant spear in the city's skyline -- had been a force for civic pride. But since the Great Recession, the bank has become one of the country's great villains. The Wall Street of the South now had its own potent occupation.
The early general assemblies could number in the hundreds. The meeting participants were drawn by growing income disparities, rising college tuition costs, the region's environmental decay. They were among the metro area's double-digit unemployment rate. They realized they were everybody.
Vic had joined on the first night and had been charged with welcoming newcomers and teaching them the movement's hand signals. Soon she began organizing three marches each day to one spot. This was her work week. Charlotte's downtown had grown rich with examples of injustice wrapped in glass and outfitted with bad public art. Vic filled up to-do lists with ideas for future marches.
For years, she had searched for her place. She tattooed "Restless" in black cursive script on her shoulder. But at Occupy, she thought she might have found her calling, and her very own tribe in the buckle of the bible belt. She fell hard. "When you're throwing yourself into something," she explained to us, "you don't have a lunch break. You don't have time off. You don't get a vacation from a long-term protest."
The movement proved it could inspire people like Vic to produce Pastebin manifestos, YouTube gotchas, and a working kitchen. But a month or so in, Occupy began facing an important dilemma that they have yet to resolve. How does a non-hierarchical movement avoid arguing itself into oblivion? How does it sustain the true believers? As the days got colder, and inertia seeped in, the general assemblies got smaller and so did the press stories. Even before the big city camps were razed, a lot of activists had already burned out. But Vic never did. The problem for Vic was that the chants never got old.
Vic wants Ghost and Peanut for a march that will begin in a half hour and lead her -- and as many willing activists as she can cajole -- from their camp, through downtown Charlotte to Duke Energy's headquarters. Vic chose the energy mega-company for its planned rate hike; its environmental record and its hold on power in the region and beyond -- planners for the Democratic National Convention, to be held in Charlotte, rely on a $10 million line of credit from the company.
She is still exuberant about this march -- even if it means chanting in the rain to stone-faced security guards in Charlotte's bank-building canyon. Not everyone in Occupy Charlotte is as charged up. Last night, Vic says she begged three fellow activists to get her up on time for the morning march. Her cell was dying and she couldn't depend on its alarm. "None of them wake up," she explains of her neighboring activists. "Thanks guys." She ended up oversleeping.
Vic trudges back toward the camp's center, first stopping at the information desk's uncovered table and filing cabinet. A fellow activist shows her his sign -- it's the state outline with a fight-the-power fist punching up through its midsection. Vic approves. "That's awesome. Right on. Hell yeah."
A small group of guys are standing by a cluster of tents near the kitchen and storage spot where the activists keep their signs. Earlier that morning, the kitchen's tent started collecting water and nearly caved in. It had to be held up by a broom.
The guys watch her. As one of the only female campers, she stands out -- a girlie gutter punk with piercings (tribal) and tattoos (personal), a sea-green streak manic-panicked through a mess of matted, light-brown curls piled high above her round face. You don't want to mess with that. You want to follow that.
The guys are waiting for her orders. One is wearing a dress.
"You guys want to mic check?" she hollers down toward them. They want to mic check.
"IF YOU'RE GOING TO MARCH, WE'RE LEAVING NOW!"
Suddenly, stragglers appear and grab signs. They display them for Vic to sign off on.
Vic asks for a cigarette. A guy rolls one for her.
Vic asks for a light. She leans into the flame and exhales a fat cloud. She eats a banana that someone drops on the ground. She laces up her stepfather's boots. She tells everyone that marching in untied boots is lazy. Fifteen Occupy Charlotte activists -- all men -- are ready to join her.
And then Vic asks the question she's been wanting to ask all morning: "Why are we still here?"
* * * * *
Occupy Wall Street's most effective recruitment tools were not testimonials from the unemployed or income-inequality charts. The movement grew exponentially with each video that captured police actions against demonstrators. The mass arrest on the Brooklyn Bridge, the maiming of Iraq War Vet Scott Olsen in Oakland, the UC Davis cop pepper-spraying seated students -- each jolted the movement's sense of outrage, and gave the mainstream media fresh footage to endlessly loop. The resulting demonstrations were some of the bigger, more effective marches.
None had more impact on Occupy than the videos capturing NYPD Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna's close-range pepper-spraying of a group of women penned behind orange police netting. One YouTube video of the incident racked up more than 800,000 views. Another attracted more than 1.5 million.
Vic had seen the clips: the white-shirt official firing the stinging spray, the women cooped in, shrieking in horror before crumbling to the pavement. "It was just a catalyst," Vic says. "It got me going. For the following week after that, I was just sitting there like obsessive at the computer just trying to find out more and more and more."
How long is this going to last? Are they serious? Vic wanted to know.
Vic began calling around to the few activists she knew in Charlotte, hoping for any signs that a local occupation might be starting. The odds were against her. The city had no reputation as a rowdy place of political dissent. The big banks held sway over the local economy, the southern conservative mindset over the political discourse. Just days before the occupation started, Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, defended Bank of America against criticism for wanting to charge customers a $5 monthly fee for using its services: "People who live in this community know how generous our financial institutions have been."
Vic's last activism had been a silent protest, helping with a letter writing campaign against Monsanto, an agri-business giant. She couldn't remember the last time she marched or attended a rally. As soon as she heard that Occupy Charlotte would start, she put in her two-weeks notice at the earthy grocery store where she did food prep for $9 an hour.
The first day that Occupy Charlotte began its encampment -- Oct. 8 -- was Vic's last at the grocery. After her final shift, Vic said goodbye to the group house she'd rented for about $252 per month. Her roommate gave her a ride downtown. She forgot to pack a sleeping bag or pillow.
But she did remember to stuff in her backpack a couple journals and books (Emma Goldman, George Orwell, Noam Chomsky, Nietzsche), a re-useable water bottle, extra clothes and a couple blankets. She also packed nonperishable food like granola bars and sunflower seeds, along with a few pieces of fruit. She did not plan on leaving.
That first night, Vic joined maybe a dozen strangers. They formed a circle and introduced themselves: the high school dropout, the injured iron worker, the local musician, the college student. They talked about what the movement would mean to them. Vic said she was glad to see people in Charlotte finally not "turning a blind eye to things." She says she didn't go to sleep for two days. "It was awesome," she says.
"It came at a good point in her life," says Vic's stepfather, Danny Hill, 59. "She needed something to latch onto that would get her focused again ... It was just get up and go to work. She didn't really have much time for herself. This has been her passion all along but she just didn't know how to go about doing it."
A month before she joined Occupy Charlotte, Vic wasn't sure where she belonged. She wrote in her journal: "The world is changing quickly or maybe I'm not adapting fast enough. Maybe it's not changing fast enough for me -- or perhaps I'm not changing fast enough for me."
In Charlotte, Vic had a difficult time finding her way. Her beloved older brother Nick moved out before she hit middle school. Her parents put her in a small, private, Christian high school. She graduated an expert on what it felt to be shunned by your own peers. "Being the only out gay person in your school, being someone who graduated from a Christian school who never believed any of it, I was alone," she says. She'd had to sit through Bible study every day for two years.
Vic moved a little more than 90 minutes away, across the South Carolina border, and enrolled in Columbia College. But she quickly found that the all-women's school wasn't for her either. "All my peers were busy reading Vogue," she says. "They were in school to meet their husband and their bridesmaids. I was starving to learn more."
Vic dropped out after her freshman year.
For three months, Vic bounced around the Southeast: Athens, Atlanta, Savannah. "I'd hang around somewhere for a week, get bored and then leave," she says. She'd walk or hitch or jump trains. In Tallahassee she joined up with a friend's band. In Tampa, she squatted in a warehouse covered in black mold. Her itinerary ended with a return trip to her parents' house.
After a short stint at a community college, Vic enrolled at Winthrop University. But all that came to a chaotic end in October 2009 when she contracted swine flu. That December, she lost her grandfather. She felt overwhelmed and depressed. She decided to withdraw.
Vic tried to re-enroll but says Winthrop wouldn't accept all of her old credits. It became too much of a financial burden. "I was heartbroken that I couldn't go back," she says. Instead, she took the grocery job. "It was hard to live one block from my school and walk through campus on my way to work. It was a daily reminder."
Her mother Karen Hill says they couldn't pay for Vic's college; they had persistent health problems, and barely enough money to eat on their fixed incomes.
Danny Hill has shoulder and lung issues, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder from his tours in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. It is hard for him to walk without having to catch his breath.
Karen Hill handled baggage for US Airways, loading and unloading up to 20,000 pounds of luggage per shift, she estimates. After 23 years on the job, she had to have carpel tunnel surgery. She says her doctors soon rushed her back to work; she ended up with nerve damage in both hands. She never was able to get worker's comp, she says. Her hands swelled up so bad, Vic had to dial for her and cradle the receiver.
Vic had racked up her own share of medical debts. She had grown up with lungs weakened by a stubborn asthma that left her immune system vulnerable to attack. Hospital stays were common annoyances. In her journals, she taped a hospital bracelet from this past June. In the corner of the page, she wrote in black: "DIE YOUNG AND SAVE YOURSELF."
As the start of the occupation grew closer, she wrote in her journal: "Clean slate in front of me, bumpy road both behind and before -- I'm bursting ... I must become as strong as stone."
During the first week Vic lived at Occupy Charlotte, she says someone stole her clothes, her jacket and her ID. She eventually got a tent and a lock. She says she was afraid to leave the camp. She'd only leave for an hour or two a day.
"I was always scared -- What's going to happen while I'm gone? What am I going to come back to?" she recalls thinking. "I was just scared that somebody was going to do something stupid and get us shut down and I was going to come back and tents were going to be destroyed."
Despite the setbacks, Vic confessed to her mom just how meaningful it all was. "She told me that this is the most important thing she's ever done in her life," Karen Hill says of her finally grown up daughter. "I had to let her go."
It was hard to fathom that this was the same daughter who had come out to her by handing her a note. Hill made sure to drop off an entire wardrobe of clothes.
Hill couldn't march, but she could open her home to her daughter's new friends. As the seasons changed, she supplied the activists with vitamin c and cold meds. When they needed a break, she invited them over to the house for a hot meal and the use of their washer, dryer and shower. They hardly disturbed the household. "Usually, they would sit on the floor with their computers -- and it was Occupy, Occupy, Occupy," Hill says.
But their victories went beyond blog posts and tweets. A group of Latino tenants were facing eviction when the camp decided to take up their cause. The landlord soon backed down. "That's a concrete thing that they can point to and say 'Look, this is what we did,'" says Mark Kemp, editor in chief of Creative Loafing, the Charlotte weekly.
Luis Rodriguez, a former organizer with Occupy Charlotte, describes Vic as pivotal to whatever success the camp had.
"She's a big motivator," Rodriguez explains. "She's very charismatic and she has a way of rallying support to her ... You look at her and you see the hair and the piercings and then you get to talking to her and she's really, really passionate. She does not suffer idleness and she wants everyone else to be constantly moving."
The marches were addictive. Vic says she yelled so much that no one heard her real voice for long stretches. For the first three weeks, her voice was constantly hoarse. But it wasn't powerful enough to silence the camp's in-fighting that sometimes got physical. On a few occasions, people got caught bringing drugs into the camp.
One leader left in a well-publicized dispute over the direction of the camp. Restraining orders were exchanged, the scope of which banned one of the main organizers from the camp and from participating "directly or indirectly" in general assemblies. There was a fight over who controls the camp's website. The ousted activist turned one site into an anti-Occupy Charlotte missive. The remaining occupiers had to start a new site.
General assemblies became a grind even for Vic. After a particularly intense session, Vic walked away in tears. She thought about quitting. She'd been occupying for about a month. She was tired of seeing too many activists sitting around. She'd sometimes had to barter with them to march: I'll give you a cigarette if you get out of your tent. She and others even had to march on their own camp to motivate the laziest camp squatters. They'd tromp through the haphazard rows of tents shouting, "Out of the tents and into the streets!"
More than once, Vic complained about the camp going slack. Not everyone appreciated her bluntness. Some tent dwellers had taken to calling Vic a "stuck-up bitch." If an activist quit the camp, others blamed her. She didn't miss the quitters. There was always the next march to organize. She didn't care if she could only get a half dozen to march with her. They were an escape from the camp's drama and bad vibes.
The morning of the march on Duke Energy, one man sits in the rain in front of a chess board, expressionless. Later, an activist shouts down a young girl. She doesn't look old enough to drive. She'd been at the camp before. She had runaway from home and ended up there. She left in a police car that time. The activist isn't happy that she came back. He bellows at her loud enough for the whole camp to hear. He calls her a "fucking bitch."
The girl asks to borrow one of our cellphones. She needs to get a ride home.
That night, the camp is partly illuminated by the city's police headquarters across Trade. The Occupiers are only a short walk from the heart of downtown Charlotte's decade-and-a-half building boom, but the tents feel a world away from the gleaming hotels and loud bars. One activist describes it as "a bubble."
It's kind of quiet inside the bubble. There are no drummers, or old heads moderating debates over the "Pedagogy Of The Oppressed." Instead of a friendship circle, there are small cliques hanging by the information desk and around the kitchen smoking cigarettes. They all look young and tired, shivering in jean jackets and hoodies. At the previous night's general assembly, several activists debated whether another should be allowed to wear a ball cap emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Police."
Zuccotti Park inspired more than a hundred camps just like this one. The tents and general assembly hand gestures may be the same. But camps like Occupy Charlotte's have had to make their way very much in the dark, without the correctives that constant media attention can bring, without the steady flow of donations and celebrity cameos. Russell Simmons and Michael Moore have not stopped by. Here, it's up to Vic and her ability to get Peanut to wake up and march.
The night before Vic had sat at the information desk until 4:30 a.m. in the hopes of pitching the movement to any stranger that happened to stumble down to this darkened block of Trade. Tonight, she just wants sleep.
Vic slinks away from her group and walks carefully past the tree line running along Trade and into the pathless dark, looking for her one-person tent. She unwraps her tent tarp and fiddles with the combination on her padlock. "The weather is ruining this lock," she complains. Her voice is a rasp. It's about 10 p.m. when she finally takes her boots off.
After little sleep, she wakes up at 7:30 a.m. feeling sick. The first march to a military recruiting center to highlight the plight of veterans will have to be put on hold. Vic wants more sleep.
At 10:30 a.m., Vic's speech is groggy, her eyes bloodshot. "You're catching me like just waking up," she says, laughing. "Sorry." She decided to join a friend's tent for the conversation and the platonic body warmth. "When it gets cold, you make friends with your neighbors," she says. "Body heat is a necessity."
Vic spies the camp from the tent's entrance. Not a soul in sight. "I wish more people were up and moving about," she says. She insists she will be ready for the next march: "Put my boots on and go."
Vic had one advantage over all the other Occupy activists: her older brother Nick. From an early age, he introduced her to Orwell and Zinn and radical punk bands like Crass and the Dead Kennedys. He'd stand in the doorway to her bedroom and roll his eyes at her record collection. "What is this except for a waste of record space?" he'd sneer.
He was eight years older. He left home when she was 10. Even when he moved out to the Midwest, he made sure to heckle her long distance -- pushing her toward more alternative culture.
"I've always looked up to him," Vic explains. "He never led me astray ... He was always there to give me that hint."
Nick had been a part of the anti-globalization protests a decade earlier. He marched against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. While the movement's message, tactics and global analysis animated the Occupiers, Nick's generation faced an ambivalent public and brutal police. Pepper spray was the least of their worries. The press corps only seemed to accept the kettling tactics as a justified use of force. After one infamous mass arrest, The Washington Post headlined its editorial "Hail to the Chief--and His Cops." The preemptive roundup would ultimately cost taxpayers millions in civil-suit settlements.
No activist got famous on Twitter or ended up as a talking head on MSNBC. Nick remembers the tear gassing and pepper spraying, the times when the police beat him with their nightsticks and stomped on him with their heavy boots. None of it ended up on YouTube. But he could share his war stories with Vic. "I guess I wanted to try to pass on values, a willingness to stand up for what you believe in," he says. "I didn't really want to pass on a lot of the stuff I was doing. Nightsticks hurt. And tear gas isn't fun. I wouldn't want her to experience that part of things."
Vic had sought counsel from her brother before her planned arrest. Nick recalls telling her to not piss off the cops. Make them work for her arrest but not too much. "Make them pick you up," he told her. "Ride that fine line between being cooperative and resisting."
Five days after we met her, Vic and three others formed a human blockade in front of the entrance to Bank of America's headquarters. They stretched out a banner that said "Bank of Coal." The Charlotte cops didn't really know what to do at first. The blockade lasted maybe five minutes. "But it felt like an hour," Vic says.
Vic and seven other activists were arrested for blocking the entrance and climbing the flag pole for another banner drop. Vic made sure, her mother says, to take off her piercings, so she'd look more respectable.
But Nick had to call to critique her mugshot. "I was kind of let down she wasn't smiling," he says. "I thought she would have smiled for it. When I talked to her, I gave her a hard time about it." He said he was surprised how easy her arrest went down, that the cops didn't get rough.
He had to admit, though, that he was impressed with her commitment -- especially her decision to quit her job for Occupy. "I was actually pretty proud of that," he says. "I wish I had been at a place where I could do the same and join her. It's an admirable thing. You find something that means that much to you and you're willing to give up what you have to be a part of it ... It's kind of her taking it to where I wanted to be."
The Bush Administration and its two wars would consume the energy of the U.S.-based anti-globalization movement. As Nick got older, he says the activists organizing the most aggressive actions appeared to migrate overseas. "It kind of hit a point where nothing was happening," he recalls. "All the meetings started taking place in Europe. You got punk kid from Charlotte -- you can't go over to Italy or those places."
Especially not a punk kid with growing financial debts. Nick, 30, says he needed to find steady employment, which eventually led him to railroad work as a track laborer in Wisconsin. He currently is a train conductor based in Duluth, Minn. -- far from his old activist friends. He's getting married in June. The closest he gets to protesting is participating in union meetings, and calling and texting his sister.
When Vic first started, Nick called with some advice. He still remembers the conversation, that he cautioned her not to let Occupy become all consuming. "I didn't really know what all to say at the time," he explains. "Just tried to tell her to be careful and don't make it like work, like a job. I'd seen a lot of people ... taking it to a point where it becomes too much work, too stressful."
When the activists deserted the camp during the Thanksgiving holiday, Vic insisted on remaining behind, her mother recalls. "Somebody had to be there," Vic explains. "I didn't trust leaving. I was scared. If I left and everyone else did, anything could happen." What would the media say if they found a ghost town? she wondered.
On Nov. 26 she wrote in her journal: "As of today I have been protesting for 50 days straight. Not one day I haven't marched." She had watched the camp grow from six tents to more than 40.
In mid-December, Vic learned that a friend -- not affiliated with Occupy -- had died from a heroin overdose. She says she couldn't handle the funeral. When word spread about a ride to Occupy DC, she took it. She left behind both her tent and an ambitious schedule of marches. She brought with her a backpack full of clothes and $3.
Vic says she needed to step away from Charlotte's small, intense group. She wanted to witness up close how a big city's Occupy force handles things. She made sure to take a few Occupy Charlotte friends with her.
Vic says she spent her first night with Freedom Plaza's Occupy faction. There was no friendly circle, no introductions, and no all-night bonding session. "It was cold shoulders everywhere I went," she says. "It was an 'I'm too busy' type thing. That was disappointing."
The next day, Vic and a friend moved their shared tent to Occupy DC at McPherson Square, just off K Street. She found a spot under a giant tarp that made up the neighborhood named after Malcolm X. She'd jump into people's faces: "Hey, I'm Vic."
Vic's voice eventually grew hoarse in D.C., too. She participated in marches against
the National Defense Authorization Act -- the recently signed law that allows for indefinite detention of American citizens. She screamed in front of the White House. She'd loved watching others do the same. "You could see it and it was beautiful," she gushes, when we catch up with her in D.C.
But there are fights at the camp nearly every night, she says. There are fights over missing money. There are fights over a missing laptop. There are drunken fights. Even worse than the fights -- some days, there aren't any marches at all, just rumors of marches. Sometimes, when they march, Vic says the organizers seem to get lost.
We go to a used bookstore a short drive from the camp. She says she could spend hours there. She could fall asleep in a corner of the literature section. We walk around a bit, looking for a place to eat. Vic seems oblivious to the stores and restaurants. None of it matters. She isn't protesting them. Vic admits that it had maybe been 24 hours since her last real meal.
She is still an outsider at the camp, just an Occupy tourist. She only mentions one Occupy DC activist -- a painter she had met on her first day. Her deeper connection is still with Occupy Charlotte. "I was really down about Charlotte and the state of things," she says. "Coming here helped me get a little respect back for my hometown's occupation."
Ten days into her stay, Vic develops a cough. "You lay down at night to go to sleep," she explains, "and it's just like a chorus of coughing." We are sitting in a sandwich shop, the closest warm place to the camp that afternoon. Outside, it looks like it might rain. She admits: "I've been terrified ... If I hear people coughing, I might put my bandanna up."
Vic gives her cough a funny name. She calls it her "Occu-Cough."
She thinks there's another anti-NDAA march. Maybe it's at 6 p.m. Maybe it's at 8. She doesn't know but she does want to join it. By 6:30, she texts: "No ones marching yet!," then, "Im trying to see if anyones wanting to march at 8 against the ndaa." Whatever plans there are wash away with the night's heavy rains.
We find her in her tent in the back of Fort Malcolm. A battery-powered lantern illuminates the small space filled with old clothes, half-empty sugar cereal boxes, and tangles of adapter wires. Vic would rather be marching. "Everybody's pussing out, man," she complains, curling up in a fuzzy blanket next to a new friend named Kiki.
Even without the march, Vic has a lot on her mind -- including her other Occupy Charlotte transplants. "My to-do list keeps growing," she says. "I have to write three press releases. I have to call my lawyer tomorrow. I have to get Tate to call the lawyer tomorrow because he's not doing it on his own, same with Jesse. Fucking babysit. I have to find out what's going on tomorrow as far as marches. I've got two meetings tomorrow. It just doesn't stop."
* * * * *
Shortly before Christmas, Vic returns to Occupy Charlotte to address her court case and add a New Year's Eve march to her to-do list. The planning hits a snag when police catch a couple activists burning American flags late one night and charge them with careless use of fire.
One of the culprits claims that the flag burning was done as an attempt to motivate the camp. Instead, they receive a lot of bad publicity, and two well-attended but drama-filled general assemblies that fail to resolve the matter. A small faction of activists who don't reside at the park walk into Occupy Charlotte and read a declaration that they are no longer working with the campers.
Vic finds that the activists have done very little in her absence. They respond with laughter when she asks whether they had kept up the marches. "Is there a purpose in me doing this?" she worries. "I don't know."
Vic was not on the scene at the time of the flag burning, but at her parents' house. "We are the pissed off white kids. We need to be so much more," she complains after hearing the news. "It's now tarnished everything." She then utters the previously-unthinkable: "I'm going later today to get my tent."
But Vic decides to keep her holiday march on schedule. She and about two dozen other activists read off her New Year's resolutions in front of Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Duke Energy. They all begin the same way: "We the people of 600 E. Trade St. as a part of Occupy Charlotte, stand in protest of the injustices brought upon the city of Charlotte."
It is her last march through her hometown. Even before her return, she had planned her exit strategy, what she calls out her "Occu-Hop" -- a nine-month tour of still-standing Occupy camps, with visits to friends and family along the way. The first stop would be a return trip to Occupy DC, then she'd travel to Chicago and maybe stop in on her biological father, and then to Duluth to see Nick.
Eventually, she'd make her way to Oakland before returning east to Charlotte, in time for the Democratic National Convention in September.
Before she leaves for D.C., her stepfather Danny Hill presents her with his Marine duffel bag, which he'd had since 1970. It fits with the boots and the Vietnam-era gas mask he'd given her. When she isn't looking, he stuffs a $100 into her belongings. "It is different with her in D.C.," Hill says. "You get a little more worried. You watch things going on there. You can tell it's on a whole different level ... We'd rather her stay here. But at the same time, we understand that's what she was wanting to do."
On Jan. 4, Vic and her ride leave Charlotte. As they head out through the city, Vic stops at the Occupy site one last time. She still needs to get her old tent. She makes her rounds, too, saying her goodbyes. Some are sad, some are angry that she is leaving. They all tell her to "be safe." Vic knows the camp may be gone by the time she returns. By the end of the month, it will be -- police clear the site after the city passes an ordinance banning camping on public property.
It is 1:40 p.m. when Vic finally gets going. "I'll certainly be worried about the occupation as well as my family within and outside of it," she texts, "but I'm ready for the road ..."