Occupy’s Tentacles 

The nomadic political movement returns after a hiatus — and finds a purpose in Virginia women's rights.

click to enlarge Women’s rights protestors gather on the steps of the State Capitol on March 3, aided in part by former members of Occupy Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Women’s rights protestors gather on the steps of the State Capitol on March 3, aided in part by former members of Occupy Richmond.

Whatever happened to Occupy Richmond — the loose conglomeration of punkish, mostly college-age activists that for 15 days camped illegally inside Kanawha Plaza? It's a good question with a short answer: It evolved into something else.

By now you've seen the news accounts and opinion columns addressing the controversial new state law that mandates women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds. You may have seen the images from the women's rights protest March 3, which devolved into a contest of wills between demonstrators and body-armor-clad state police.

That's where Occupy went. After months of roving protests, Occupy Richmond eventually packed up camp and moved off the front yard of Richmond Free Press Publisher Ray Boone's house in late December. The movement seemed to peter out. And without a clear agenda, some critics say, Occupy was having little political impact.

More than two months later, Occupy Richmond largely is dormant, but the network of social-change advocates formed through it remains active. It was through that network that one-time members of the movement pulled together the demonstrations at Capitol Square, which have consumed the discourse of the last two weeks.

Occupy Richmond "brought people together who wanted to engage, but … didn't know how to," says Will Carino, one of the organizers behind the Capitol Square protests and a former spokesman for Occupy Richmond. "We educated each other and now we're going out and applying that education to the things that we're passionate about. It taught us how to organize these things in a way that will translate into people actually showing up."

Indeed, each of its recent daytime protests drew as many as 1,000 people to Capitol Square. The former Occupy members are now skilled at navigating public protests and demonstrations, communicating with police and attracting media attention.

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the somewhat watered-down version of the ultrasound bill into law March 8. The following day, more than 200 men, women and children crowded onto the sidewalk bordering Capitol Square. That's not including gawkers and throngs of news media out in force.

While dusk gave way to night, and the lights inside the Governor's Mansion flickered to life, the protestors lighted candles in silent protest of what one participant called "another blow to women's and reproductive rights."

Officially the group didn't have a name or particular leaders. Like Occupy Richmond, participants have little use for hierarchy, much less titles. And like Occupy, the group was born at a potluck dinner.

In early February a group of local activists shared a meal at an Occupy-affiliated group house in South Richmond. Diners discussed the women's health-related legislation making its way through the General Assembly, and how to stop it.

"In the beginning there were 10 of us," says Carino of a group that included several former participants in Occupy Richmond. "We just started brainstorming the effective ways to fight this and how to get the public involved."

Taking inspiration from another protest — from students at the University of California, Davis — they settled on the idea of a silent vigil. So on Feb. 20, after a Facebook page announcing the protest skyrocketed to nearly 2,000 "likes," protestors lined the walkways of Capitol Square, standing in silence.

Claire Tuite, another one-time participant in Occupy Richmond, says the idea was to shame lawmakers with silence. "It's pretty hard to walk through a thousand silent people and just ignore them," she says.

Still, both chambers of the General Assembly approved the ultrasound bill. And with the ball squarely in McDonnell's court, and national publicity focused on Virginia, the group planned another protest.

Some 30 people were arrested on March 3, an overcast Saturday, after defying police requests to disperse. The original permit for the protest relegated the group to the Bell Tower on Capitol grounds. But following a march down Broad Street, some members of the crowd made way for the Capitol steps, sidestepping police.

Asked why, Molly Vick, who was at the back of the crowd, says that the steps are a natural place to hold a symbolic protest. "Honestly, some people may have just been following the person in front of them," she says. "But at that moment, I think it was the place where people needed to go to make their stand against these bills."

For Carino, the crowd moving to the steps was natural given the tone of the protest. "We'd already had a silent protest," he says. "This was for people who wanted to make their voices heard. One thing we learned from Occupy is that you have to create a diversity of types of events so that people will have multiple ways to engage."

In that same vein, Carino and Tuite both foresee participants in Occupy Richmond continuing to connect with each other on multiple fronts.

Sean Joe, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, says these methods are indicative of a larger trend in how young people are engaging politically.

"As these groups react to legislation they feel is not appropriate, they are going to use the infrastructure they've established to address those issues," he says. "What you're seeing now is them building around multiple issues that concern them."

What does that look like here? It means "making the activist community in Richmond larger and more diverse," Tuite says.

Still, the General Assembly has only put off considering other controversial bills until next year. So can Occupy or its affiliates affect policy?

"We're going to have to be bigger," Tuite says. "Some of that legislation hasn't gone away. And we're going to have to be bigger to fight it." S

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