Jackson County commissioners butted heads with local activists at a meeting this week, refusing to lend their philosophical support to a movement over whether corporate power should be reined in.
A local offshoot of the Occupy movement called on commissioners to pass a resolution of support for their cause — namely to reduce corporate influence and power and instead make government beholden to the common man. But, commissioners voted 3-2 along party lines not to sign on.
The group has been taking their message on the road, visiting town and county boards, as part of the nationwide Move to Amend movement. Their goal, along with other chapters across the nation, is to spark a groundswell of support that could ultimately prompt Congress to pass a constitutional amendment limiting corporate spending in the electoral process. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations could spend unlimited amounts in campaigns, prompting fear that politicians will become even more indebted to corporate money.
Locally, town boards in Franklin, Highlands and Bryson City approved Move to Amend’s resolution. The group has asked to come before the boards in Dillsboro, Sylva and in Macon and Swain counties and hopes to do so soon.
While Move to Amend has seen unanimous support from leaders of other boards they appeared before, they weren’t so lucky in Jackson County this week, the home county for many of the activists.
Commissioner Joe Cowan made a motion that Jackson County approve the amendment submitted by the group. Rising to his feet, Cowan rendered a somewhat impassioned speech against the original Supreme Court decision.
“It basically said money can have a voice,” Cowan said. “And that corporations are people. And I don’t agree with either of those propositions … somebody is buying influence and we don’t know who that is.”
Cowan, a Democrat, said that he did not believe this was a Democrat versus Republican issue, though that’s exactly how the debate promptly framed itself. The resolution failed by a 3-2 vote.
Commissioner Doug Cody said that he wouldn’t vote for a resolution that singled out corporations unless it also included such groups as political action committees, labor unions, lobbyists — and even the Canary Coalition for that matter, the group headed by Avram Friedman, a member of Move to Amend.
“I will not be a party to something or of legislation that calls for the discrimination of any people or group,” Cody said, adding that he found such an idea “despicable.”
“If someone will come back with a resolution that asks for barring all lobbyist and PACs, I’ll sign it,” he said.
Commissioner Charles Elders said that he agreed with Cody. Chairman Jack Debnam simply described himself as “tired of being browbeat” by the Move to Amend folks over the issue. The group has been vocal in their quest to get face time with the commissioners, raising a ruckus when the county initially would not put them on.
Friedman thanked commissioners for placing the issue on the agenda though he described himself as disappointed by the resulting vote.
“This is truly a nonpartisan issue,” Friedman said, adding that the resolution would cover other groups such as the ones described by Cody. Friedman also made the point that as a 501(c)3 nonprofit the Canary Coalition can’t make political donations anyway.
Another Move to Amend group member, Lucy Christopher, also described herself as disappointed and said that she hoped discussion over the issue would continue.
“I hope that we can sit down around a table and talk,” said Christopher, who lives in Jackson County.
That, frankly, seems unlikely to happen, however.
Western North Carolina occupiers “took possession” last week of the Federal Building in Bryson City where federal court is held to protest a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations are people.
“I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one,” one protester’s sign proclaimed. About 50 people turned out for the Friday event, which took place in the parking lot outside the Federal Building at the corner of Veterans Boulevard and Main Street.
Swain County residents seemed generally supportive of protesters’ stance: many honked as they passed by, or called out in encouragement.
“I know a little about the case, and this seemed like a good way to educate myself,” said Jesse Fowler, a Western Carolina University student studying political science, who joined protesters in Bryson City. “This seemed like a really good time to learn more.”
MovetoAmend.org organized the nationwide protest. Most at the Federal Building in Bryson City were members of OccupyWNC, a homegrown group that meets in Sylva once a week to discuss political issues and strategy.
They gathered this day against the decision in Citizens United V. Federal Election Commission. The court case resulted in a ruling that the government had no right to limit or regulate the independent political contributions of corporations.
“I am here because I do not want to see corporations buying our presidents in the future,” said June Smith, a Jackson County resident.
Critics such as Smith believe the ruling encourages corruption.
“The court has basically usurped the constitution,” added June Smith’s husband, Newt.
A loosely affiliated group of 30 some people have been quietly meeting, more or less each week, in Jackson County on the heels of an Occupy Sylva event held last October.
This confederacy of the self-dubbed “99 percent” has morphed into Occupy Western North Carolina. While Asheville has its own Occupy group, OccupyWNC has become a catch-all for the counties west of Buncombe, bringing in residents from Waynesville, Franklin and farther west who expressed a desire to get involved following the Occupy Sylva rally.
“This is a much broader coalition than just Sylva,” member Allen Lomax, a Sylva resident and Waynesville-based real estate agent who also helps local, small investors connect with local, small businesses or entrepreneurs. “It has become much bigger than that.”
Don’t expect the tents or protests in WNC that you’ve seen elsewhere, or a visible police presence to ensure things stay calm. But, you also shouldn’t let the quiet nature of OccupyWNC’s gatherings fool you. These folks are dead serious about change. And they seem prepared to help make some noise, soon, to get just that. They are seeking results through “all possible nonviolent means of action.”
Gary Stamper, a Whittier resident who moved from Seattle to WNC three-and-a-half years ago, said he believes it’s time for change. And, that the nation is ripe for change.
“My outrage about what is going on is that we are losing all of our freedoms and rights. I can’t sit idly by and let it go,” Stamper said.
Stamper believes that bridges can be built to other groups, including the Tea Party and Republicans, and that the majority of Americans can work together for needed change.
“We have far more in common than not,” he said, adding that anything meaningful that happens will “start with individuals.”
“Really, we are just 100 percent,” Stamper said. “We are all in this together.”
While the OccupySylva rally last fall was organized under the auspices of the county’s Democratic party, the Democratic mantle of that event seems to have lifted, though there are certainly Democrats actively involved.
OccupyWNC is a self-described “diverse and nonpartisan coalition that acts to promote economic and social justice for the 99 plus 1 percent,” according to information provided by Lomax that has been officially approved by this very unofficial group.
OccupyWNC is open to all and seeks consensus through shared leadership, as it’s done on a national level in the Occupy events.
Lucy Christopher of Cashiers said that she became involved because of her reaction to the changes in the Middle East, and a sense of something new in the world.
“That restless unwillingness to continue with the status quo is now alive in my own country and in the neighboring part of my state,” Christopher said in an email interview. “I believe that our national security is threatened from within by its enormous economic disparity. I want a more just world for all of us, including my children and grandchildren.”
Lomax said that current financial and political situations shaping the nation are “simply not right.” Lomax cited some of the group’s dissatisfactions, including corporate ownership over most media outlets, which members believe means the message is controlled, and corporate ownership of the telecommunications industry, which is leading to increasing attempts to place restrictions on the Internet.
Though not an active conspiracy, the “1 percent,” Lomax said, is a loosely bound group of people who share common interests and, individually, great wealth.
“There’s 400 or so families involved — not that many,” he said. “And they certainly know each other, and go in the same circles. They are openly working to control legislation and are not hiding the fact that they are buying elections.”
Lomax said the Occupy movement has a much more powerful weapon than the money controlled by the 1 percent.
“We have the people,” Lomax said.
A nationwide rally will have its place in Western North Carolina on the streets of Bryson City at the federal building on Main Street from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m Friday, Jan. 20. Occupy groups across the nation want a constitutional amendment to end “corporate personhood and legalize Democracy.”
The OccupyWNC General Assembly meets most Tuesdays from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Jackson County Justice Center in Room 220.
“Occupy Sylva” on Saturday looked and sounded a lot like a Democratic-party function, but with a twist. The message wasn’t necessarily about voting Democratic, though speakers, particularly political office holders, certainly worked that wish into speeches when their moments came to grab the microphone.
The bigger message, and what seemed to have motivated the more than 60 people gathered on Main Street Sylva more than party politics, was about stopping corporate greed, creating jobs and not limiting wealth to a privileged few in a nation with such vast resources at its command.
This was Sylva’s contribution to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement. The leaderless movement started one month ago in New York City, with protests spreading nationwide and beyond. Occupy Sylva, Occupy Asheville, Occupy Seattle … even Occupy Helsinki, Occupy Rome, Occupy Berlin and Occupy London.
Sylva’s occupiers waved mostly homemade signs at passing traffic, receiving either toots of horns in support or blank looks from motorists as they swung their cars by the water fountain that fronts Main Street where the protesters gathered.
The signs read, “Corporations are not people,” “Get money out of politics,” “No more predatory capitalism,” “Jobs not cuts.”
No tent city emerged in Sylva as in other Occupy events — after about an hour, everyone wandered off, many to area restaurants to grab a bite to eat before heading to their homes. No clashes with police occurred, either. In fact, if there were any Sylva officers keeping an eye on this group, they were deep, deep undercover — there wasn’t a blue uniform in sight.
While small-town civility ruled this particular Occupy event, the people who gathered were clearly serious in their intentions: They were one voice in demanding that change, real change, must take place.
“We are not a poor country. Our money is just in the wrong place,” said Marsha Crites, who attended the event.
Kurt Lewis, a member of the Young Democrats at Smoky Mountain High School, was somewhat disappointed that few people in his age group showed up. He held a sign that read, “Wall Street is America’s largest casino.”
“They need to care now instead of caring later, before it is too late,” the 17 year old said of his fellow teens.
This being Jackson County, where a preponderance of WNC’s literati call home, poems were of course read, too. Ben Bridgers, retired from attorney work this year, said he’s turned to writing as a means to funnel his growing frustrations with what’s taking place nationally.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” Bridgers told the crowd, before reading aloud a few poems that spoke to why he believes this country is in trouble.
The Occupy Sylva event looked quite a bit like the left’s version of the Tea Party movement, though the speeches and political aims couldn’t be more different.
Political junkie Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University professor who teaches political science, noticed and enjoyed that irony, too. He turned out to observe the nation’s latest grassroots movement at work in small town WNC.
“It’s very interesting,” Cooper said. “Both (groups) are saying they are fed up, but they have such radically different solutions.”