You can see the video I shot at this event below:
The crowd was a good size, and filled a decent 3/4 of the auditorium. I was expecting there to be a fair turnout for the tea party crowd or conservative city-dwellers, and also a big turnout for OWS, and for those two sides to be bickering over the mic. I wasn't expecting for sure to see so many of the crowd clearly in the progressive camp; all of the people who chose to ask "questions" (there really weren't many questions, rather statements made towards the panel or the crowd) seemed firmly on the OWS side, except for maybe one or two.
That part wasn't the problem; it was a nice surprise. However, as soon as people started opening their mouths, I couldn't stop shaking my head. There were just so many people with a good message, that got shredded and ruined in their delivery. To me, an extremely progressive person, some of these people came across as entitled, vacuous pseudo-liberals parroting things they'd read. And the tone of some of people in the audience towards the panel---you would have thought Bill James was sitting up there. Granted, there were some people who were well-spoken and articulate. But there just seemed to be a lot of animosity that was extremely one-sided.
The audience's main beef was this: back in January, the Charlotte city council adopted a new city ordinance to cope with the protest activities during the DNC (this is what made it illegal for the OWS group to be camped where they were and effectively pushed that demonstration out of the uptown, though they still seem to be going pretty strong). The new rules list a number of ordinary items that could potentially be considered weapons, including markers, coolers, and bike helmets. The ordinance gives an officer the ability to arrest a person carrying one of these items if the officer believes the haver's intent was to use that item as a weapon. A key word in this discussion was "discretion", meaning it is up to a police officer to determine what someone's intent is. Many people felt this gives law enforcement too much power, and could result in officers throwing citizens into jail for minor or nonexistent trangressions just to get the person off the street and silence their legal, protected freedom to protest. On the one hand, I understand where these concerns were coming from; on the other, a guy just walked into a theater a couple weeks ago and shot up a crowd of people. The president will even be here at the convention, and there are a lot of people who'd love to see him dead. Security is a real concern. There are people who would be more than happy to cause harm at this event.
Many in the crowd were also suspicious of the suspicious items list because they say it essentially criminalizes homelessness, which I think is a valid concern. Most homeless people are just like any other citizen, and in need of support from their community. But even homeless who may actually pose a threat shouldn't be arrested; they should likely be receiving mental health care. One Occupier said perhaps the police would arrest all the uptown homeless using this ordinance in order to "clean up" the streets in time for the DNC. I suppose we'll see on that one; if it really does happen, there should surely be mug shots and first-person accounts, as the local Occupy movement works pretty closely with the homeless. That would be a shameful way for the city to "address" the problems facing our homeless population.
One thing that struck me in particular was what seemed to be a huge misunderstanding between the panel and the audience regarding something called Free Speech Zones. Unless I am misunderstanding the plan which is entirely plausible. At the DNC in September, the Secret Service is going to set up a yet-undisclosed perimeter around the venue where the event will be held. No protest activities will be allowed inside that perimeter. However, any protestor will be allowed to demonstrate on any city sidewalk outisde of that perimenter, provided they don't go in the street or impede traffic.
Taking their cues from the last DNC, the city has opted to erect Free Speech Zones where they are providing a small stage/podium and amplified sound. To me this all sounded pretty reasonable. But apparently people are super upset about it, and dubbed the zones Free Speech Cages instead (which is what the people in the audience called them, sneeringly, all night when they addressed the panel). They felt that the security measures were a direct attempt to force protest groups to set up so far from the convention venue so that their activism will not be heard or seen. There was a definite assumption from many people that they could only protest inside these Free Speech Zones, which is not the case: the FSVs are merely an area where the city is providing some materials to foster protest.
It would been helpful to have a rep from the DNC on the panel, or to simply have more information from Secret Service officials about how far back the official perimeter will push protest activities. I have no doubt at all that the city officials are worried about security; however most people in the crowd expressed that anyone protesting would not be interested in violence, that they were being unfairly targeted, and that effectively silencing their speech by being pushed into the distance was the sole purpose of any security measures.
At one point, Ken Davies, the Charlotte Occupy movement's lawyer, tried to explain to the audience that the government was not the enemy; the government is us. He reiterated that the police, and the city, are not the enemy. While I do think there have been some very disturbing cases of police misconduct and abuse of power, I'd like to still think that on the whole, most police officers do what they do out of a sense of duty and service to their communities. I don't think most police officers report to duty at a protest with the main purpose of arresting protestors just for protesting and getting them out of the public eye.
Sitting in that auditorium, I got the sinking feeling that some of the people sitting around me were probably part of the reason that conservatives hate liberals so much. If you're a right-winger and all your friends and co-workers have similar views to you, but there's that one lady at your office that listens to NPR, and all she does is shriek about how things here are worse than North Korea, and throw out something snarky she read on Daily Kos, she's not likely to inject you with knowledge you didn't have before or sway you to the other side. I had never considered before attending this event that there might be ill-informed or poorly communicating liberals as well. It is not a fun thing to contemplate.
Maybe people were just angry, or maybe it's me; maybe I'm out of touch in this new aggressive way of trying to address very real and serious issues. I certainly get passionate, snarky, and surely even offensive from time to time---nobody's perfect, and if you care about certain issues, you'll get worked up when you discuss them. It takes some practice to not get angry when discussing important things that greatly impact your well-being and daily life. On this here blog, I do have a generally sarcastic tone; it's because I assume the only people who bother to read this are people who agree with me, and that seriously affects the tone of how I write. If I were actually trying to convince someone else that my way of thinking on something is correct, I generally try to tone down the sarcasm not because it's not fun to get in a good zinger, but because I've noticed over time that it doesn't work to "convert" anybody. I do try to make an ongoing effort to be courteous and respectful when I'm engaging in difficult ethical and political conversations with other people in the real world. You can have the most truth-filled message in the world, but if you're snotty and aggressive about it, that will turn a lot of people off to your message. If the intent of the message really is to enlighten and change minds, we should care about trying to get as many people as possible to hear and absorb that message.