By Michael Biesecker and Mitch Weiss Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The kickoff protest ahead of the Democratic National Convention had the benefit of sunny skies, pent-up demand from demonstrators who were rained out in Florida and the perfect setting to decry the practices of big business.
But while Sunday’s March on Wall Street South was spirited, it drew only a fraction of the turnout organizers were expecting and was as free of mayhem as protests a week earlier outside the Republican National Convention in Tampa. The march had been planned as the centerpiece of the week’s protests.
Charlotte Police estimated that 800 people joined the march, but there was only one arrest. Taking their cue from police in Tampa, many officers were seen smiling and chatting with demonstrators. Two attempts to be disruptive outside of major corporate offices were largely ignored by officers. Charlotte hosts several Fortune 500 companies including the headquarters of America’s largest electricity provider and second-largest bank.
The march’s general purpose was to decry corporate influence in politics, but it drew people demonstrating for a variety of causes. including the Occupy movement. Marchers carried signs and banners, banged drums and chanted in a louder and livelier display than Tampa protests that were lashed by the outer bands of Hurricane Isaac.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe said things went smoothly and there were few problems. At least one person was arrested for intoxication, but Monroe couldn’t provide further details. Monroe also said police chased a man holding rocks off an overpass along the march route, but didn’t apprehend him.
Overall, antagonism was all but absent between law enforcement and demonstrators, as evidenced by an exchange in front of Duke Energy’s headquarters. Vermin Supreme, a Occupy organizer who had been shouting protest slogans through a large bull horn strapped over his shoulder, walked up to Charlotte Police Capt. Estella D. Patterson, who also had a bullhorn.
“How many watts is that?” asked the protester, who said he had legally changed his name to Supreme years earlier.
“I dunno,” replied the police captain, smiling. “It’s not as loud as yours.”
Just in from the Tampa protests, Supreme was wearing a rubber boot on his head but no shirt. He and the police captain chatted for a few minutes, before parting with a friendly fist bump.
On two occasions, protesters attempted to be disruptive by sitting and locking arms outside of corporate headquarters, but police took no action. About two-dozen sat for about 10 minutes in front of Bank of America’s skyscraper before moving on. They had the phone numbers of lawyers written on their arms.
A similar-sized group sat down in front of the headquarters for Duke Energy but eventually got up and left.
The route of the march also took demonstrators by a major office hub for Wells Fargo. It and Bank of America were beneficiaries of massive taxpayer-backed loans during the 2008 bailout of the financial sector. Both banks have also been criticized for roles in the home foreclosure crisis.
Hundreds of officers were on hand to monitor the demonstrators. Some walked along with the parade, carrying gas masks, wooden batons and plastic hand ties. Others stood at intervals of a few feet apart along the route. A police helicopter hovered so low that people on the ground could feel the wind off its rotors.
Demonstrators had anti-war signs as well as those promoting unionized labor and the plight of undocumented immigrants. One read: “Bankrupting America” with a font and logo that mimicked Bank of America. Another said: “OBAMA MURDERS CHILDREN WITH DRONES.”
Participants ranged from young girls in cheerleading outfits and parents pushing strollers to Occupy Wall Street demonstrators in black shirts and red bandannas.
As they walked, some were chanting in unison: “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.”
While the turnout for Charlotte’s march was well below expectations, protester David Williams said it still looked a lot better than the protests he attended in Tampa, where he thought the weather kept people away.
“Charlotte is a more powerful city than Tampa,” said Williams, referring to the city’s banking clout. “I’m glad we have more people here.”
The march finished under sunny skies, but in an ironic twist rains from the remnants of Isaac rolled in about an hour later. Rain was also forecast for Monday, when a union march and street party are scheduled.
Occupy Charlotte organizer Ayende Alcala said he considered Sunday’s turnout a success. He marched even though his pregnant wife was at home experiencing early signs of labor. Alcala wanted to be with her, but was spurred to protest out of concern for what he termed the “bleak future” he saw.
“The system is eating its own citizens,” said Alcala, 31. “There’s always been poor people, but it’s gotten to the point where most people find it hard to survive. It’s that crucial point where we have to stand up now.”
Mark Bailey, 58, carried an anti-war sign in honor of his son, who has done two tours in Iraq and is currently in Afghanistan. Bailey came to Charlotte from Cleveland with about a dozen friends.
Bailey voted for Obama in 2008, but said he won’t make the mistake this year. He said he is disgusted the president turned out more like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
“He’s willing to make war anywhere, just like they were,” Bailey said.
Associated Press writers Gary Robertson and Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.