Occupy Charlotte: Us Versus I
For Michael Zytkow, Occupy Charlotte is the latest installment of a family tradition of activism. And whether the movement wilts or blossoms as the Democratic National Convention nears, people like him will prove to be its legacy.
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Thanks in part to his family’s long history with citizen uprisings, Zytkow believes Occupy is just the latest name for, as he says, “a theme as old as humanity itself ... a common fight that people will have to fight from generation to generation in some form.”
His lawyer, George Daly, a well-known civil rights attorney, agrees, having introduced himself to an Occupy Charlotte general assembly the night before Thanksgiving by saying, “I joined the movement in 1967. It was a movement that pre-dated you, but it’s the same movement.”
Luis Rodriguez III, once considered a rising leader within Occupy Charlotte, also agrees, though he thinks Occupy has breathed a new, creative breath into the movement: “The opposition always wants to taint the next evolutionary step as too far,” he says, the “opposition” being those in power. “Every time we figure out a new way to protest, they figure out a new way to squash us. Every time we put forward a leader, they kill them. So we have to put forward a leaderless movement—or a leader-filled movement.”
Perhaps that’s why when it’s suggested that he’s an Occupy leader, Zytkow deflects, waving his hand as if to erase the word, quick to say that he can only speak for himself, not the group.
One thing everyone in the group can agree on is that company is coming. The Democratic National Convention will draw tens of thousands of protesters to Charlotte in September, which has been an energizing factor for Occupy Charlotte. At a February press conference, dressed in a doctor’s jacket with a stethoscope around his neck, Zytgow warned of “DNC Fever”—the want to polish Charlotte’s image and bow to political pressure in the scurry to prepare for the big event.
Zytgow says he seeks an honest dialogue with city leaders, but they rarely return his calls or emails, though the tone of the conversations has softened of late. A few weeks after his arrest, Zytkow spoke at another City Council meeting, and Mayor Anthony Foxx joked with him about giving him enough time to speak. That’s the same meeting where the council voted to eliminate one of two monthly public forums and limit the number of speakers to fifteen, though an unlimited number of speakers will still be allowed to speak on specific agenda items.
Occupiers demonstrate uptown near the intersection of Trade and Tryon during a Human Rights Awareness march on December 10
Still, he’s aware of the scrutiny involved with branding himself as a protester. In the February issue of Police Magazine, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bragged about the new toys it’s procuring with its allotted $50 million in federal security funds: “TASERs, capsicum-based weaponry, long-range acoustic devices, water cannons, armored fighting vehicles, police dogs, and mounted police on horses.” Zytkow says police cars seem to show up everywhere he goes these days—during a recent non-Occupy walking tour, six police cars showed up with blue lights flashing as the group walked down a sidewalk.
“Yes, we monitor demonstrators and protesters,” says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe, “but it is not our intent—ever—to profile individuals.” He says he’s aware of Zytkow. “I respect him and what he stands for,” he says, adding, “I would consider Michael the same as any other individual who seeks to exercise his First Amendment rights; as long as we both respect each other’s rights, we’re good. We’ll lead their parades and we’ll clear the streets for them, so long as they abide by the rules.”
The police department researched and drafted the ordinances that led to the tent eviction in late January, though the occupiers are still permitted to be on the lawn and public sidewalks around the clock. Occupy Charlotte challenged the city and the police department in court. They lost. As of early March, the group was trying to decide if they would appeal the verdict, asserting that North Carolina’s constitution provides for additional safeguards for free speech and assembly beyond those of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. “Occupy will be here,” Zytkow says, “one way or another.”