With chants of “We are the 99 percent” heard throughout the Downtown Valdosta area, about 150 citizens took to the streets Friday afternoon to voice their concerns about the region.
Much like the recent events that have taken place across the country, Occupy Valdosta took to the streets to protest the widening gap between the ultra-rich and working class.
“I think the demonstration was a success,” said Erin Hurley, event organizer. “It’s time for people to unite as a whole and get our First Amendment rights back. I think the majority of on-lookers were supporting us. There were a few bystanders telling us to get a job, but they probably didn’t understand that they’re part of the 99 percent.”
The event began in Drexel Park and people from across South Georgia were ready to march.
Laura Norris drove from Fitzgerald to participate in the demonstration since there was nothing in her small hometown.
“We’re seeing how the middle-class wages are going down but the 1 percent at the top are making record profits,” said Norris. “I think the disparity in income is very detrimental to our society. I just can’t afford a lobbyist.”
To prevent accidents or possible arrests, Hurley laid down some rules for protesters at the beginning. She asked folks to stay off private property and to keep negative comments clean.
“This is a peaceful rally, a peaceful march,” said Hurley. “We’re all about peace and solidarity, so if you have something negative to say, keep it to yourself.”
Some of the topics that most concerned participating citizens included school consolidation, clean-energy alternatives, private-prison investments and Bank of America policies.
Members carried handmade signs with slogans such as, “Schools not bombs,” “Politicians for Sale,” “VSU Students in debt until 2050,” “Democracy for Sale” and “We are the 99 percent.”
They kept the long march going despite the heat and asphalt. Their chants kept the rhythm while their members of all ages kept moving to their next destination. Valdosta Police Department officers were present the entire time, with squad cars at expected locations and others to keep traffic moving and protesters safe.
Valdosta Police Officer Vern Williams said the protesters, “were really peaceful. No one was arguing or fighting.” He said he was proud that Americans were allowed to express their concerns without harassment.
Bank of America was their first stop, which was represented by a private security guard. No one from the bank came out to speak with the group. Hurley asked who in the crowd had an account with the bank. Most people raised their hands. Hurley then asked who was going to cancel their account as a result of recent price hikes for debit-card usage. The crowd went wild in agreement.
After the first stop, the people kept moving, chanting “We are the 99!” along the way.
Martin Luther King Memorial Park was their second stop, which allowed people to rest and reflect on the successes of the civil rights movement.
“No school consolidation,” exclaimed former Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Sam Allen. “This is another means that the government is using to take over and make it a one-stop shop and make your taxes go up. This is just one way that the people who are making minimum wage will lose their homes.
“Don’t be fooled. If you’re registered to vote in Valdosta, vote ‘no’ on Nov. 8th for school unification,” finished Allen.
“I’m 79 years old and, when I was your age, we were out demonstrating for civil rights and we made it,” explained Dr. Mario Bartoletti. “Now we’re demonstrating for a different kind of rights and we’ll probably make this too. But when you’re my age, 30 or 50 years from now, there will be young people out demonstrating for another issue at that time. Be there. If you’re in your 50s or 60s, be there.
“Basically, I think that there’s so much antagonism between the parties trying to gain influence that they’ve forgotten America,” said Bartoletti. “In the meantime, the nation is dying. Basically, the top people in the Republican party don’t want things to get better on Obama’s watch because that guarantees his re-election and Obama doesn’t seem to catch that message.”
After a bit of rest and handing out bottled water, the crowd headed towards the Valdosta Daily Times and were met by Assistant Managing Editor Dean Poling.
The crowd shouted “Fox news lies!” over and over, until one person started another thread — “All news lies!” to the amusement of most.
“We try to cover everything,” said Poling. “Anytime you have something going on give us a call — the answer can’t always be yes, but we’ll try to be there. Call and let us know. Sometimes there are things we don’t know about.”
George Rhynes asked why The Times had yet to follow up on the “Quitman Ten” and other cases. Poling said they had been looking into the issues, but had not uncovered any further news, since it had become a slow-moving federal case.
“We appreciate you coming out today,” Rhynes told Poling. “You didn’t have to come out today. The local jails are leading the state in jail deaths and we need action on that.”
One protester asked if the Rants and Raves portion of the paper could be expanded and if all Letters to the Editor could be published. Poling explained they have certain limits but that they try to run as many as possible, but also must be cautious of printing a letter or rant that might contain libel.
On the way to the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, Alvinette Patterson talked for a bit why she was marching.
“We really don’t have it bad (in America), but everyone around the world is affected by the corporations of our nation,” said Patterson. “We bring in cheap goods and we want to put our factories in their countries and on their land, but the corporations don’t want to pay taxes on what they’re doing.”
At the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce, Myrna Ballard, president of the chamber, was out waiting for the group, along with her staff. In the face of protesters’ yells of “No consolidation!” or “No biomass!” she maintained a cool demeanor and greeted folks, thanked them for their presence and offered them water or use of the chamber’s restrooms. She also made sure to greet each puppy in the crowd.
Ballard agreed to meet with George Rhynes, the black business leaders and poor white workers of Valdosta to look for ways to help them earn more work contracts.
“We have 1,528 members — white and black businesses,” said Ballard. “Eighty-six percent of those are small or very small business and we serve all of them.”