Even as the Occupy Wall Street movement was spreading from city to city this fall, I was nevertheless surprised when it arrived in the small, often-conservative Southern city where I live: Greenville, NC. I attended one of Occupy Greenville’s first meetings in October, along with twenty other passionate, angry, Greenville residents, who ran the gamut from in-debt college students to out-of-work parents to middle-aged couples threatened with foreclosure. Although united in purpose, the group disagreed over when to begin organizing protests. Some felt that Occupy Greenville should be in the public eye as soon as possible while others argued that protesting with such a small group would feed into the perception that OWS is a fringe movement with marginalized ideas.
Despite the worries of naysayers (myself included), TV news coverage of the group’s first protest on October 31st gave the small turnout a decidedly positive spin. The anchor describes the Occupy Greenville movement as “gaining momentum” and East Carolina University professor, Bob Edwards, changes the conversation; we should not be surprised that the movement exists in a small city like Greenville. Rather, Edwards argues, the fact that Greenville has an Occupy movement is proof that it is no longer a “small, sleepy, country place.”
Since that first protest, Occupy Greenville has continued to schedule meetings and public events, often with small numbers. While low turnout might signal failure at the national level -- OWS is effective because it makes the “99%” visible and audible -- as local expression, Occupy Greenville is serving its purpose: providing a venue for the community to vent its frustrations, volunteering at the local homeless shelter, gathering donations in support of larger Occupy movements in the state, and creating connections between like-minded workers and activists, including the Sanitation workers, the local Coffee Party, and the Pitt County Coalition Against Racism. Occupy Greenville will likely never have the numbers to support a true occupation, but perhaps the role of local Occupy movements is to generate empathy and conversation, and to make visible the bonds that unite the many manifestations of the “99%” in this formerly sleepy little city.