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 Zuccotti Park, this relatively small group of anarchists, liberals, communists and social justice activists swelled beyond everyone’s expectations with their influence spreading worldwide. Citizens in 95 cities and 82 countries formed 21st century Hoovervilles in the world’s most prosperous cities. Slogans like “We are the 99%” became emblematic of a change in the nation’s consciousness. The Arab spring turned into a Western fall and hopes abounded that maybe something would change. By December, all but a few camps remained. Battered and bruised, the Occupiers faced not only a frosty winter, but a chilled public. It all just seemed to fizzle away.


While the media kept the cameras rolling in big cities like Chicago, London, and Washington DC, small town America took to the streets as well. The Occupy movement spread all over the Mountain State, with demonstrators building shanty towns in Charleston, Morgantown, Martinsburg, and Huntington.


Huntington, West Virginia is the second largest city in West Virginia, with a population of 49,000. Formerly a bastion of industry and prosperity, the city has experienced economic and population decline since the 1960s. Although attempts have been made to revamp downtown, much of the city is pothole-ridden, desperately poor, and consists of ghettos, low-rent student housing, and abandoned buildings. In the middle of this is Marshall University.


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. Taylor looks like he’d rather be watching a Chicago Cub’s game than marching in a protest, but Taylor is no apathetic American. He’s been involved in multiple campaigns, from protesting coal companies to boycotting unfair employers. He tells me the Occupation was the brainchild of a handful of local progressives who wanted to get in on the fun. Many had met on a march to protect the historic Blair Mountain site from being stripmined.


For a city situated in the Bible belt, with a Republican mayor, according to Taylor, the Occupation drew more support from the average citizen than the University six blocks away.


“I think it goes back to Huntington being a very working class city,” Taylor explains. “While people may not identify themselves as leftist or radical, they agree with a lot of the ideas. Your average citizen in Huntington is more progressive than your typical student. Marshall has always been a good ole boy campus.”


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. Taylor, dressed in a suit and tie, mingled with the Republicans, brandishing a sign that read “Repeal Child Labor Laws.” After a half hour of chanting, sign waving, and unrecognized irony, the GOP Youth left, shouting, “We’ll be back,” to which an Occupier replied “We’ll be here.” After the Republicans retreated, a good bulk of the camp went  to catch Laubach’s event.


It was shortly thereafter that the movement began to wane. As Taylor put it: “The weather started changing and at that point the whole tone and scene started changing. At a certain point, people said, ‘We got the message out, but where do we go from here?’”


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 Cabell County sheriff, ensured there wouldn’t be a battle for the street.


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.”


Taylor believes they weren’t hassled because the Occupiers called for full retirement benefits for all city workers, a highly charged issue due to the city’s budget deficit. “I don’t think they really cared; it’s not like city cops in Huntington make a whole lot of money,” he chuckles.


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 Taylor relates: “A lot of things they cited were things the health department and the fire department had approved. I really think it was kind of a ruse and the city tried to wait us out thinking people would leave. They saw they weren’t. So they came up with this.”


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. Taylor owned up to the last charge. “You know, people would yell ‘get a job’ at us. But the reason the camp had nobody there at times was because everyone was at work.”


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, Boston, and Oakland.


In Huntington, the Occupation did more. Jewel City Solidarity existed before the Occupation, but received a boost in support and popularity. Along the same vein as Occupy Our Homes, Jewel City Solidarity is a network of activists who put pressure on landlords and employers who may wrong a tenant or employee. Working on a case by case basis, JCSOL helps Huntington residents who were screwed out of deposits, wages, wrongfully fired, or whatever the case. Students For Appalachian Socialism also grew out of the post Occupation activist scene. Since the winter of 2012, SAS has devoted itself to educating Marshall’s students about socialism, capitalism, and other issues. 


Henry Culvyhouse is a journalism student at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. He enjoys writing about progressive issues, especially economics and politics.