Occupy West Virginia
On September 17, 2011, 150 demonstrators answered Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn’s call to have a slumber party at Wall Street. Erecting an encampment at
While the media kept the cameras rolling in big cities like
Almost in defiance of this pessimistic atmosphere, local activists established an Occupation encampment on October 7, 2011. Answering a Facebook invite call to arms, about 100 protestors stood outside downtown’s gargantuan Chase Bank. Waving signs and putting up tents, the demonstrators—composed of college students, homeless people, union members, and everyday people—called for less money in politics, more financial and environmental regulation, and free education and healthcare. The Occupiers constructed a functional kitchen and living quarters out of tarp, twine, and other donated materials. At its height, the Occupation served as a soup kitchen, hangout, musical venue, and educational center.
People of all political stripes exchanged ideas, wrestling with fundamental questions. Should capitalism be reformed or demolished? Is it possible to run a modern society with no fossil fuel? Is the Occupation a new May 1968? People also taught lessons on feminist theory, socialist ideology, knitting, and gun safety (there were no guns on site). People’s level of involvement depended on how much they wanted to contribute. Some people attended a General Assembly or two, others held signs, some taught classes, others handled the media. There was a space for a democratic and participatory civil society in the midst of an over-commercialized, politically docile small town.
An alternative society, built on decency and respect as opposed to profit and sociopathy, developed on the streets. Seven months later, squatting on a porch on a boiling June afternoon, local activist Dan Taylor tells me about how they pulled off their Occupy.
For a city situated in the Bible belt, with a Republican mayor, according to
“I think it goes back to
The biggest ally on campus was sociology professor Marty Laubach. Donning a scruffy beard and a tweed jacket, Laubach always wanted to organize some kind of left wing campus activist group to serve as an alternative to the young Democrats and Republicans. He became a huge initial supporter, visiting the camp when he had a break in his academic duties. On October 20, Laubach held a panel for the Occupiers, delivering a presentation on the economic, political and social importance of the move ment.
The day of Laubach’s talk, a contingent of campus Republicans counter-protested across the street from the encampment. Reporters and camera crews flocked to the scene, since it was about 13 days into the protest and stories were getting stale.
It was shortly thereafter that the movement began to wane. As
Unlike demonstrations in other towns, the Huntington Occupation didn’t experience an aggressive, adversarial police force. The police were reasonably friendly to the Occupiers, periodically checking up on them to make sure they didn’t violate city ordinances or to investigate a disturbance. Mayor Kim Wolfe, a 24-year veteran of the police department and a former
Bearing the temperament of many West Virginian law enforcement types, Wolfe soberly recalls, “The chief and I talked about it. I’m certainly supportive of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the right to assemble. We just told them what the parameters are and what you could do or not do.”
Its downfall, like many political, social, or religious movements, was infighting. The activists’ resources were drained by the homeless population who were attracted by the free food, shelter, and cigarettes. That’s not to say the homeless were detrimental to the Occupation—quite a few proved to be assets. However, many of the problems that plagued the homeless began taking a toll on the morale of the demonstration and incidents with the homeless grew more common.
By now, winter had also arrived. To keep warm, the Occupiers snuggled under layers of blankets, surrounded by propane heaters and small fires. Since the propane and the fire violated city ordinances, Mayor Wolfe issued a 24-hour eviction notice on November 30, 2011. Out of any incident in this saga, the eviction notice received the most rancor and scorn from many attached to Occupy. As
Mayor Wolfe maintains that the eviction was never political. “I don’t have an agenda to move them one way or the other. There just came to a point where there were issues they needed to deal with.”
The issues Mayor Wolfe cited, included: accessibility from the street by handicapped people, open flames, sanitation, and temporary abandonment of the camp.
The Occupation was evicted December 1, 2011. Minor attempts were made to rekindle the movement at another location, but these efforts cooled down, just like the demonstrations in NYC, DC,
Henry Culvyhouse is a journalism student at