Off the courthouse lawn, Occupy Chattanooga lives on

Off the courthouse lawn, Occupy Chattanooga lives on

January 2nd, 2013 by Kate Harrison Belz in Local Regional News

Bare spots on the front lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Avenue have grown back after an Occupy Chattanooga camp was removed from the site.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

Two Occupy protesters who did not want to be photographed grab some belongings before leaving the campsite along the sidewalk outside the Hamilton County Courthouse in December 2011.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

One year ago, a dozen tents were clustered on the front lawn of the Hamilton County Courthouse.

For six months, members of the Occupy Chattanooga movement dug in their heels, stuck out bitterly cold nights and derision from local officials as they protested corporate influence on politics and economic inequality. They would stay until they saw change, they said.

Today, the courthouse's resodded lawn and carefully edged flower beds show no trace that the group was ever there.

"I haven't had any interaction with them. ... I still don't know what they were trying to prove," said Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, who with other commissioners passed a ban against overnight camping in response to the extended protest.

"I haven't heard anything about the current movement of Occupy Chattanooga. I don't know what they're up to," said Henry.

But while Occupy Chattanooga may have lost its visibility after the county forced the protest camp off the lawn last March, it has not left the city.

In many ways, members say, they are more active than they ever were while camping out.

"We entered a new phase of our organization," said Baris Gursakal, a college student who has been active with Occupy Chattanooga since its first assembly last fall. "[The county] should have respected our First Amendment rights to gather on the lawn. But when you don't have a camp to take care of, you can direct your energy to a lot of other things. After the camp we started taking a lot more direct actions."

The group's ideals have not changed, say Gursakal and other Occupiers. They have just began to channel their energies into more specific boots-on-the-ground initiatives.

The group has taken on efforts to help local families avoid home foreclosures, has pitched in to help the Westside Neighborhood Association with its ordinance initiative for fair housing and has been involved in several local and regional protests.

It also is trying to start a local chapter of a national Occupy offshoot called Strike Debt, which aims to buy debt from collectors and then cancel it in efforts to release people from the what members call the "servitude" forced on them by institutions, from large-scale loan agencies to payday lenders.

"The group rechanneled their efforts toward local activism," said Perrin Lance with Chattanooga Organized for Action. While COA was never affiliated with Occupy, several Occupiers have since become involved in the group's efforts.

Occupy Chattanooga still meets nearly every Sunday evening at Coolidge Park to plan its next actions and discuss politics.

In the meantime, the resolution county commissioners passed in early 2012 to prohibit overnight camping on county property remains in effect, though it hasn't had to be enforced since, said Henry.

While the group's members say they didn't see the impact they wanted from their protests last fall -- a larger uprising within the city, major campaign finance reform and more recourse against big banks -- they say the months camping out forged relationships that have outlived the camp protest.

"Before the camp I didn't think there was anyone in Chattanooga who thought the way I did, who wanted or knew anything about consensus or direct action or how to organize," said Gursakal. "It created this group that is still active. Our group is very tight-knit because we lived together and stuck out through the rain and hail and tornado alerts. We know we're dedicated."

Frank Eaton, who ran for state representative this year, met his wife during the Occupy movement, he said.

Debbie McKinney, who became known as "Granny Occupy" for wielding protest signs while riding her electric wheelchair, said the Occupy family has been there for her since she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While McKinney, 64, and her husband, Sam, haven't been able to make it to the group's meetings lately, folks from the group and from Chattanooga Organized for Action held a fundraiser for her several months ago.

The Occupy protests last year were not a waste of time, she said.

"I'm not discouraged. I think we made some kind of an impact," said McKinney. "A lot of people don't think it was a big one, but I see a little bit of an impact. We had a lot of people come up who were interested in what we had to say. I still think we have a long way to go, but we're still going."