CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- On Sunday afternoon, the Coalition to March on Wall Street South demonstrated amid Charlotte's mega-banks, chants bouncing off the towering steel and glass. The coalition's messages of income inequality, big-bank ruthlessness and money ruling politics may have been old, but for the city, the raucous sight was not.
The historic march stretched at least two city blocks and attracted large crowds along the route. Organizers said it at least equaled the mass protest during Bank of America's shareholders meeting this past spring. Ben Carroll, one of the organizers, estimated that protesters may have numbered between 2,000 and 3,000. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe suggested to The Huffington Post that it was more like 800 protesters. Either way, the visuals were impressive.
Some in the crowd complained they couldn't join the demonstration. There was one reported arrest.
"I'm still amazed that this is going on right now," said organizer Michael Zytkow at the end of the day. He added that the four-hour march met all the coalition's expectations. "Everybody is here as if this was a family reunion of sorts. In many ways it is. We're all going through similar experiences. We're all fighting the same battle. So this is a great moment to be around peers, colleagues, friends, family. We're all here united, taking a stand, you know, showing the political convention that for the people is really on the streets ... It's just a fantastic moment."
The moment is a rather new one for Charlotte, which is not known for a deep activist culture. But the Great Recession has helped foster the protesting spirit. Bank of America is headquartered here, as is a big Wells Fargo branch -- both members of the recession's axis of financial evil. Now, this week's Democratic National Convention has made Charlotte a destination.
By early Saturday morning, Occupy Wall Street activists had set up camp in the city's Marshall Park. Within 12 hours, the encampment sprawled with 20 tents, portable toilets and even a pizza delivery.
Zytkow was worrying about parking for the march: Where were all those people going to leave their cars?
Once the march finally began moving at 1 p.m. Sunday, however, the layer cake of protesters was ready. First the unemployed, then the student movement folks, then the immigrant rights advocates and so on. It had to be just so. At one point, when things weren't coming together quickly enough, a woman yelled into a microphone like some over-anxious Julia Child who thought she had mistaken salt for flour: "Young people, we're lining up your contingent!"
Down the long city blocks, onlookers snapped pictures from the balconies of bland new condo buildings. On sidewalks, residents and the just-flown-in, wearing Democratic convention lanyards, stood on tiptoes and peaked between rows of immovable police officers in dark blue. Many locals said they had never seen anything like it before, in the city known for its entrenched financial district, it's "Wall Street of the South" rep.
"I think it's a parade," said one girl in hushed tones, her mouth agape.
"This is awesome," said Ashley Dittrich, 18, looking on from the other side of the street. She had a big smile on her face and a phone in her hand to record it all. "It's amazing to see so many against the banks." She added that she works in the Hearst Tower at a coffee shop, serving drinks to bankers all day. Suddenly, now, that seemed like the worst thing in the world.
Dittrich said her father had been laid off from Bank of America after he checked himself into rehab. "We took out a lawsuit," she said.
Now her mother is the only one with a job. No one, she said, has health insurance. It's a familiar horror story of the Great Recession. "Our house has almost been foreclosed," she added. "We can barely keep it together."
Charlotte is a bank town, and loyalties die hard -- even for those with lawsuits. Dittrich admitted she still does her banking with Bank of America. Still, today, she could appreciate the bravery in others. "It's just amazing," she said. "There's all the police officers, and they're not intimidated."
The labor rights groups mingled with the Code Pinkers. The Occupiers blended in with the undocumented. The African-American community band, who complained about the lack of grant money, drummed along with the burned-out hippies, who complained about the war(s), in the sweltering heat.
They came in wheelchairs, carpools and bus caravans. They supported ex-convicts trying to find work in Mississippi and immigrants trying to keep work in Georgia. "Mic checks!" started up while others in the crowd danced to funky cumbias. A man in a wheelchair screamed, "Illuminati, sick of you!"
Every progressive denomination flew a banner. Some wore cardboard butterflies on their back. Others dialed in frequencies they hadn't heard since the '60s.
Before the march began, Lila Little, 56, sat in the shade in Frazier Park where organizers had planned a pre-march rally. She puffed on a Marlboro and told her story. It was one that couldn't fit on a piece of cardboard or be painted on a bed sheet. You didn't want to bang a drum to it either.
She had been a post-op surgical nurse in North Carolina. The job didn't provide health insurance. So when she became sick in 2009, she took extended leave. She ended up getting fired and saddled with $30,000 in medical debt. The company went on to deny her unemployment claim. It argued that she had been fired for cause. Her savings disappeared. She borrowed from family and friends, but she still ended up losing her home.
Friends who owned a small laundromat gave her job making $100 a week and allowed her to sleep on an air mattress in a back room. For a year, she bathed in the laundromat's sink. "I'm in the process now of moving in with my daughter," Little said. "That's a step up."
Sheri Wright, 54, sat in the rally's metal bleachers with her own list of causes. She lost her home and is fighting Bank of America to keep her land. She has two sons in the military. One is set to deploy to Afghanistan in October. She pulled out a homemade t-shirt on which she had drawn up a list of concerns in bright bubble paint. "Really I don't have enough shirt to write all my issues on it," she joked.
Wright said one son knew two soldiers who had committed suicide. This morning, she talked to a mother online whose son also committed suicide last month. "She found him," Wright explained. "What do I say to her?" All Wright can do is be here, she said, and march.
As the procession passed the CNN Grill and C-Span's perch in the late afternoon, Abel Tekle, 26, watched from the sidelines in his neon-green parking attendant uniform. He had immigrated to the U.S. from Ethiopia seven years ago. He stood, sometimes smiling, as he filmed the protest with his HTC phone.
"When I say, 'Immigrant!', you say, 'Power!'" an activist began a call and response from inside the march.
"I like it," Tekle said. "They have freedom of speech."
An activist walked down the length of the march and shoved a flier in Tekle's hand -- a brochure to purchase the "Constitution for The New Socialist Republic In North America." All you had to do was send an $8 money order to a P.O. box in Chicago.
Tekle said he had never seen such a demonstration in his life. "It feels good," he explained. "If I believe in something, I would like to do this kind of thing."
The march made stops at Bank of America's headquarters, Duke Energy's headquarters and finally Bank of America Stadium, where President Barack Obama will be speaking on Thursday night. Eva De Vos, 23, had caught up with the march an hour earlier and had followed it on her purple bike. She couldn't pedal away.
"It made me really sad watching it," De Vos explained. "Sad that this is necessary."
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