The cops in one southern city were busy this past week cleaning a group of Occupiers from the front steps of City Hall in the middle of the night.
The city of Athens, Georgia--home to 30,000 University of Georgia students--has long enjoyed a reputation as a unique southern setting. In November of 2010, GQ Magazine called Athens one of the 'coolest small cities in America."
Self-described as a "hotbed for music," Athens has launched groups like the B-52s, R.E.M. and such notables as guitar wizard Leo Kottke, and jazz singer Madeleine Peyroux. "If heaven is full of artists and hipsters, it will probably be something like Athens," gushed Southern Living magazine in a September, 2011 listing of "The South's Best College Towns."
But there was nothing cool or hip about what happened in the early morning darkness in front of Athens City Hall this past week---as controversy over the city's proposed third Wal-Mart turned ugly.
In the pre-dawn hours of March 7th, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department evicted a small group called "Occupy Athens" from City Hall. The group had been tenting for several days in front of City Hall in protest of the secretive handling of a Wal-Mart proposal by city officials.
According to a press release posted on the Athens police website:
some persons had set up six tents that blocked sidewalks on the City Hall campus adjacent to City Hall and the Spirit of Athens statue, placed unattended signs on landscaping, and defaced the statue base. Organizers of the protest had publicly indicated that the unauthorized encampment would remain for an indefinite period. Police officers notified persons present at the encampment that they were required to remove the tents and other items related to the encampment and gave them ample time to move before facing arrest. Officers' directives were adhered to without incident.
But the Occupiers who were removed from City Hall, presented a much starker picture of what happened:
At 3:30 am on March 7, 2012 at least 17 Athens-Clarke County police officers, including the chief of police, arrived suddenly and without warning, to threaten us with violence and arrest if we did not vacate 'City Athena.' Occupy Athens established the City Athena encampment on the grounds of city hall on the afternoon of Saturday, March 3. We have lived there peacefully and without incident; that is, until the police created around us an intimidating circus of force in the wee hours of the morning, away from media and prying public eyes. This cowardly suppression of our First Amendment rights illustrates how little the State, and in this instance the Athens-Clarke County government, thinks of the public's voice or will.
Four days prior to the City Hall eviction, the Athens Banner Herald reported that Occupy Athens planned to stake out City Hall "until the Athens-Clarke Commission agrees to hold four public hearings on the proposed downtown Wal-Mart."
Occupy Athens charged that city officials and a Wal-Mart developer met privately last September to dramatically alter the use of a major riverfront property in downtown Athens. Mayor Nancy Denson asked the Economic Development Foundation to go into executive session, according to the local newspaper, "ostensibly to discuss hiring a project manager for the river district, also known as Blue Heron." But instead of discussing the Blue Heron---a proposal for a $25 million office/research park---the Commission in private voted to kill the Blue Heron park, and replace it with a 100,000 square foot big box store. The Mayor since has acknowledged that the private meeting was illegal under state law.
Occupy Athens said it wanted the city to hold four town hall meetings about the Wal-Mart plan, and asked the Mayor to apologize for holding closed door meetings. Mayor Denson refused to apologize, and a spokesman for the developer made it clear no public meetings would be held. "It's hard to have a dialogue with groups that won't take us at our word and insist on dressing up as zombies, accuse us of brainwashing, recording protest songs, and knowingly spreading falsehoods about the project all while claiming they just want to talk," the developer said.
"All we want is a transparent, open conversation," a spokesperson for Occupy Athens told the newspaper. A reasonable request, even for zombies.
Before the City Hall eviction, another group, People For A Better Athens, had been working for months to focus attention on the negative repercussions of a third Wal-Mart in Athens."The construction of a big box store in downtown Athens will devastate the existing local business community," the group wrote, "and threatens to turn a vibrant downtown area into a ghost town of shuttered stores and empty buildings."
People For A Better Athens presented the city council with more than 17,000 signatures from Athens residents opposed to the Wal-Mart location. "We want to see our elected officials execute an Athens-based vision for downtown development that will better benefit the local citizens and enhance the long term viability of Athens," the group said.
Underneath the cool veneer of this community, which calls itself "the Classic City," is a classic battle for the Spirit of Athens. The local newspaper has been printing anonymous comments on its website about the Wal-Mart confrontation. "I am going to live in a tent and not bathe till you do what I say!" one blogger wrote. "I wonder how many occupiers own property and/or have permanent residence here in Athens?" another asked. "They claim to be peaceful law abiding citizens, yet they come to Athens and deface our property. Good bye and go home, we can fight our own battles thank you very much!" Both Occupy Athens and People For A Better Athens have been described as "hate groups" by their critics.
The Occupy Movement nationally has given local residents more confidence in their ability to take on the 1% corporations like Wal-Mart. The ruckus in Athens, Georgia challenges the notion that in the deep south everyone goes along to get along. "We have made city officials nervous," Occupy Athens explains, "that the people of this town are no longer willing to swallow their half-truths and hurried explanations for illegal meetings and backroom dealings with Wal-Mart cronies."
Every Occupy group in America has a Wal-Mart nearby. The battlelines are being drawn---right down the middle of your hometown.
Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. He has helped citizen-activists fight big box sprawl for nearly 20 years. His new book, Occupy Walmart, will be published in May of this year
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