Occupy Wall Street found its way from the Empire State to the Empire State of the South on October 7 when several hundred people, alerted by a Facebook event page, converged on Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. Inspired by Occupy Wall Street, they held a General Assembly meeting where they rechristened the park Troy Davis Park (in honor of the Savannah man who was recently executed amid great uncertainty about his guilt) and decided to camp out indefinitely. They set up tents, committees, and even a headquarters in a building a few blocks away. In the words of my friend Holden, who was at Woodruff Park the first night and spent some time there later on, Occupy Atlanta was "a summer camp with nothing for people to do."
To write a story about the movement for my high school's newspaper, The Southerner, I went to Troy Davis Park several times and interviewed many protesters, a few local business owners, the unofficial Occupy Atlanta leader Tim Franzen, and a representative from Mayor Kasim Reed's office. I have come to the conclusion that I must respectfully disagree with Holden. Occupy Atlanta was actually a summer camp with plenty for people to do.
Occupy Atlanta offered a litany of activities. Protesters could attend committee meetings, go on daily protest marches, make signs at the Art Tent, receive first aid from the Medic table, help themselves to a peanut butter sandwich at the food station, sing protest songs, sit in circles and have discussions, make new friends, and fall asleep at night under the stars. You couldn't actually see the stars because of the light pollution from the sprawling, subdivided hydra that is metropolitan Atlanta, but they were up there somewhere.
Most occupants were adults (students from Georgia State, whose campus abuts Troy Davis Park, were especially well-represented), but there were a few children in the park to make the summer camp vibe even stronger. One fifth grader spent about two weeks living with her mom in a tent. She went to school during the day but spent most nights in the park.
"She totally understands what we're doing here. She's a really bright kid and she knows what's going on," said the mom.
"I don't really know what's going on," said the daughter.
Her complaints about the challenges of living in extremely close proximity to other people, performing basic tasks like showering and using the restroom, and adjusting to a new and temporary home brought me straight back to my days at YMCA Camp Greenville, where I spent six summers as a kid. The community that developed at Troy Davis Park was, like the community that develops inside a summer camp, close-knit and insular. Because of the donations they received, protesters rarely had to patronize local businesses for food or supplies. For the most part, passers-by took in the ragtag assembly of colorful tents with mild interest and then went about their business.
Inside Troy Davis Park, it was easy to forget that the rest of the world existed, even as the protesters expressed anger at problems that are national and even global in nature. Participating in Occupy Atlanta seemed to provide relief for many protesters from the economic hardships that have become commonplace in America today. Student loans, foreclosure, debt, unemployment, and a broken political system all seemed to matter less inside the park because personal problems were shared and transformed into challenges that the whole community pledged to take on. Summer camp provides a brief respite from the struggle of growing up; Occupy Atlanta allowed protesters to forget their troubles by making a little noise.
By the last days of the occupancy, heavy police presence and metal barricades around the park created a siege mentality that strengthened the bonds between the protesters who decided to stay and face arrest. At 12 a.m. on October 26, Mayor Kasim Reed ordered the police to arrest the remaining protesters and clear out the tents. Within a few hours the only sign of the three week-long protest was patches of brown grass where tents had been.
Atlanta has a proud history as a center of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised here, and his daughter Yolanda even attended Grady. The organizers of Occupy Atlanta were certainly aware of this heritage. Tim Franzen, the unofficial leader of Occupy Atlanta, told me that he saw himself as fighting against Dr. King's triplets of evil: militarism, poverty, and racism. Yet Occupy Atlanta lacked the urgency that I imagine permeated 1960s sit-ins and marches, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the lack of clearly expressed demands, or the fact that many occupants seemed to be not wholly committed to their cause. Many people I interviewed said they were unwilling to be arrested. "I'm not getting arrested. I'm going to law school," one Georgia State junior said. "I'm a part of this, but I have to be conscious of my decisions."
While Occupy Atlanta's political goals were vague and perhaps unworkable in a highly partisan, gridlocked system, they were not radical or militant. Nor were the protesters themselves radical or militant. Like many Americans, they were in pain. They sought to create a world of their own to escape problems they did not create but that won't go away. Occupy Atlanta was basically summer camp without aquatic activities (but with, this being downtown Atlanta, a fair number of homeless people). The world to which the protesters must now return is a place of pessimism, fear, anger, and doubt. It bears no similarities to any cherished American childhood tradition, and especially not to the joyful homecoming after a summer away.