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The challenges of Occupying South Carolina
A small Occupy movement in South Carolina is doing what it can to change the political and economic status quo.
Last Modified: 21 Jan 2012 23:53
Despite South Carolina's high unemployment, the state's Occupy movement has limited support [GALLO/GETTY]

Charleston, South Carolina - Occupying South Carolina isn't always easy in this deep-red state.

But as South Carolina's Republican presidential primary approaches, Occupy Wall Street - a grassroots movement protesting income inequality and corporate influence in US politics - is seemingly everywhere in the state: demonstrating at Republican debates in Myrtle Beach and Charleston, arguing with Mitt Romney at town hall events - and holding rallies at the state house in Columbia.

Occupy Wall Street began on September 17 2011, when demonstrators camped out in New York City's Zuccotti Park, near the city's financial hub.

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Local "Occupy" groups began springing up in South Carolina shortly thereafter. Josh Richmond of Occupy Charleston said that the city's group formed partly in reaction to seeing New York City police shoot pepper spray into the faces of non-violent protesters.

"That was the moment where it was like, we have to come together down here," Richmond told Al Jazeera at an Occupy demonstration outside a Republican presidential debate in Charleston. The 30-or-so people at the rally - many young and white, but not all - held signs reading "Occupy the Primary" and "Democrat, Republican - what's the difference?"

South Carolina pre-occupied

With about ten per cent of South Carolinians unemployed, economic woes might make South Carolina seem like a receptive setting for the Occupy movement - which reserves some of its harshest rhetoric for banks and corporations they deem largely responsible for income inequality.

But compared with other states, there aren't many Occupiers in South Carolina: in Charleston, the state's second-largest city, there are some 20 to 40 active participants, says Anjana Joshi, a research analyst at a Charleston law firm.

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South Carolina tends to be a conservative state: its governor and all but one congressman are affiliated with the right-wing Tea Party movement. Deb Morrow of Occupy Spartanburg says dislike of President Obama is so strong in parts of the state that it's "difficult to get people to engage" with issues such as unemployment and income inequality.

Although about 75 Occupiers held a demonstration at the capitol last Saturday in Columbia - near a statue of segregationist senator Strom Thurmond - about ten times as many people had gathered on the other side of the state house earlier that day as part of an anti-abortion rally.

Laura Olson, a political science professor at Clemson University, doesn't think the Occupiers' small numbers are necessarily problematic for the movement. "The political context here makes it tough for any kind of progressive movement to get much traction. But that can be an advantage in a way too," she explained. "Even though you're not going to attract huge numbers of people, you might get folks who are more deeply committed than you otherwise might" in a more liberal state.

The many faces of Occupy

The stereotypical Occupier is often portrayed as a young, unemployed, college student. That may be one demographic - but far from the only one.

South Carolina, with its many military bases and academies, has a lot of veterans - and a disproportionate number of Occupiers seem to be veterans. Of the 11 people arrested when Occupy Charleston set up a short-lived encampment in the city's Marion Square, five were veterans, including Ramon Caraballo of Charleston.

Caraballo, who served in Iraq for 15 months during the surge, links his participation in Occupy with his military service. He says he became involved with Occupy after seeing police in Oakland fire beanbag guns and tear gas canisters at demonstrators close-range - which he says the US Army isn't allowed to do to Iraqi protesters. "We ourselves are dead wrong for what we impose in other countries - and we can't even follow those rules here," says Caraballo.

And in the seaside city of Myrtle Beach - which has a large number of senior citizens - many people active in the Occupy group there are retirees, says Brian Noyes Pulling, himself a retired social worker.

Although Occupiers in South Carolina say the reception they've gotten hasn't been overwhelmingly negative, it hasn't been altogether welcoming, either. Cliff Berardo, a driver from Columbia who's involved with Occupy, says people in the state often see participants as "dirty, filthy hippies" who "want a free ride". For example, Ronald Moulder, who's active with the Tea Party, described Occupy participants demonstrating at a Tea Party convention in Myrtle Beach as looking "like they just got out from under the bridge".

Olson believes that many South Carolinians "see the movement as sort of distant from here, as something that is going on in big cities in the North ... It feels too '60s-ish, I think, for a lot of folks".

Increasing activism

"There are whole communities of people that our local government just doesn't care about."

- Anjana Joshi of Occupy Charleston

Some Occupy groups in the state are trying to overcome the perception that they are, in the words of Occupy Spartanburg's Deb Morrow, "just standing out there and doing nothing". Every Sunday, for instance, Occupy Charleston holds a free potluck dinner in the city's low-income East Side neighbourhood. "We try to get into our actual communities and help people and fill the void that the government has left," says Joshi. "There are whole communities of people that our local government just doesn't care about."

A handful of Occupiers are becoming active in electoral politics as well. Although Occupy groups do not endorse political candidates, at least two Occupy participants are running for congress in South Carolina, both against Tea Party incumbents elected in 2010. Deb Morrow is running in the Democratic primary in the state's 4th District for the chance to take on Trey Gowdy. And Jeanne van den Hurk of Greenville will challenge 3rd District congressman Jeff Duncan if she becomes the Democratic nominee.

Both say one of the main reasons they're running is the role money plays in politics. "There's becoming an awareness that corporations are holding us hostage," van den Hurk told me at an Occupy event in Columbia.

Occupy participants largely reject comparisons with the conservative Tea Party movement - and vice versa. "They want government," said Charleston Tea Party chairman Mike Murphree. "I don't want nothing to do with government."

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the US Left and Right

But although their politics are quite different, there are nevertheless some similarities. "Both movements are coming from the same place," argues Olson, "and that is anger, dissatisfaction, alienation, lack of trust in government."

Both movements say they've changed the national political dialogue: Tea Partiers claim that more Republican politicians are talking about federal spending and taxes; Occupiers point out that income inequality and corporate misdeeds are becoming part of the public discourse - even in the Republican primary.

There's no way to prove causality, but some Occupiers here note that Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry's attacks on Mitt Romney for his tenure at private equity firm Bain Capital sound very similar to what Occupy Wall Street has been saying all along (Perry went so far as to call Romney a "vulture capitalist" - not a charge often made by Republicans today). Archconservative pundit Rush Limbaugh took notice, averring that Gingrich is "singing from the same hymnal" as the Occupy movement.

Candidates' talking points come and go. Perhaps a longer-lasting political effect of the state's Occupy movement is the forging of a network of left-leaning activists "who didn't know each other a year ago", in the words of South Carolina Green Party co-chair Scott West. "We all know one another now."

Follow Sam Bollier on Twitter: @SamBollier

Source:
Al Jazeera
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