CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When protesters began arriving in Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention this week, they were filled with hope. For months, they predicted that thousands would travel to North Carolina's largest city to express their anger at economic policies that they say hurt the poor. They believed that the government was still looking the other way while big banks continued to foreclose on struggling homeowners. They wanted to vent about the human toll of war.
But the massive protests never materialized. The centerpiece was supposed to be the March on Wall Street South. But that demonstration — two days before the start of the convention — drew 800 people. Organizers had earlier predicted as many as 15,000 would come.
Still, as protesters trickled into a city park to pitch tents during convention week, they marched. Sometimes the protests were spontaneous — in the middle of the night. Other times they were planned as protesters blocked intersections in the city's downtown in defiance of a city ordinance requiring a parade permit.
As they get ready to leave Charlotte after the convention ends Thursday, some protesters said they were somewhat disappointed with the small turnout, overwhelming police presence and limited access on streets. But none said they regretted making the trip.
Mark Apollo and Katrina Corbell met last year over scoops of donated Ben & Jerry's ice cream during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. For the last week, the couple has shared a small orange tent in a Charlotte park and participated in marches near the site of the Democratic National Convention.
Apollo, a 50-year-old U.S. Army veteran originally from New Jersey, joined the Occupy protests in October after years of volunteering with environmental groups.
Corbell, a 34-year-old master's student in counseling psychology, left her home in California the following month and went to New York to join the movement after seeing a Web video in which she says a police officer pepper sprayed a female demonstrator in the face without provocation.
Before coming to Charlotte, they were in Tampa to protest at the Republican National Convention. They see little difference between the two major parties, which they say represent the interests of big banks and corporations. A fundamental goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to end the flood of special interest money flowing to political campaigns and conventions.
Apollo said he watched "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" streaming on his smart phone this week to remind himself why he continues to protest. In the 1939 classic, Jimmy Stewart is an honest man appointed to a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate only to find himself confronted by the corruption of politicians he once admired.
"I believe in the original democratic principles of the United States," Apollo said. "I just believe the corporate system has been screwed up by a lot of corrupt individuals."
After leaving Charlotte, they plan to make their way to the areas south of New Orleans inundated during Hurricane Isaac to help rebuild before returning to Manhattan for the anniversary of the Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park on November 17.
The dim glow of a streetlight bounced off the chrome handlebars of Perry King's bicycle. Shirtless and wearing a pair of shorts and sneakers, he wrestled with the handbrake, tugging and pulling, until he finally got it to work. He sighed. It was a long day — a long week, he said.
The 57-year-old King is among the protesters who have been camping in a city park a few blocks from the Time Warner Cable Arena, the site of the Democratic National Convention. But it might as well be miles away.
Although King has marched in several protests, he has never gotten closer than a few blocks to the arena, where President Barack Obama will make his acceptance speech Thursday night.
With every protest, the demonstrators have been followed closely by police. Officers on mountain bicycles, horses, motorcycles and foot have tried to block the protesters' path to prevent them from veering off designated parade routes.
Angry, King said the city's action violated the First Amendment free speech rights.
"If you shut down protesters, soon they won't allow demonstrations. If we're not out here, they'll take our rights away," said King, a social worker in Washington, D.C., with two grown children.
King was drawn to Charlotte to rail against the U.S. military. He says the U.S. should stop using drones to hunt and kill suspected terrorists, saying too many innocent people are caught in the crossfire. And he's afraid the government will begin using them domestically. "I don't know how long it will be before we use them to assassinate drug dealerson street corners. The United States is spreading terror," he said.
During a protest march Tuesday, he carried a battery-powered amplifier in the basket on the back of his bicycle. At different spots along the route, speakers would turn it on, grab a microphone. Many talked about why they were protesting. Others shouted at the police.
Through it all, King listened. With his lime green safety helmet strapped on his head, he encouraged the crowd to speak up.
"This is Democracy at work," he said
A member of the Conservative Party and ardent supporter of U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, Bret Morse marched with Occupy Wall Street protesters outside the Democratic convention in Charlotte. Around his neck was his guest pass from attending last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa and a large placard calling for an end to overseas drone strikes targeting American citizens who authorities said had joined al-Qaida.
"Other than economics, I agree with a lot of things the occupiers believe in," said Morse, a 30-year-old from Marion, N.Y. "We're both opposed to corporatism, the corporations running the government. We would just go about ending it in different ways. I believe in small government."
A strict Constitutionalist, Morse said he also agrees with the Occupy movement in opposing the National Defense Authorization Act approved by Congress and signed by President Obama in December 2011. In addition to providing $662 billion in funding for national security programs, the law contains a provision that allows for the indefinite detention without trial of American citizens arrested on terrorism charges on U.S. soil.
Morse wasn't sure where he might go after Charlotte, though he said he might travel with others to help with hurricane relief in Louisiana.
Brenton Lengel is a playwright, poet and actor. He calls New York home, but for the last week he has been camping with other activists in a city park.
For the 23-year-old with a moustache, goatee and long hair, the Democratic National Convention was an opportunity to organize and protest.
"The Democratic and Republican parties are not representing the people," he said.
The country needs change — a more liberal agenda to address social and economic injustice. Too many people are being hurt — and their voices aren't being heard, he said. It's clear he's passionate about the issues.
That's why he says he's a member of a new incarnation of the New Youth International, better known as the Yippies. The group in the 1960s was famous for staging counter-culture protests. Ironically, members of the group, which had its heyday in the 1960s, were accused of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic national Convention in Chicago.
The 2012 convention in Charlotte is a far cry from that chaotic affair. Lengel said they were expecting a big turnout in Charlotte. That didn't happen. But it also didn't dampen Lengel's enthusiasm.
When police blocked a road during a protest march, he grabbed a microphone and implored them to reconsider.
He said he didn't know who gave the order, but whoever did it "was a moron." Lengel said the protesters didn't want to stay in one place in the heat and rain.
"We're not going to hurt anyone," he said. They just wanted to march in peace.
Lengel has graduated from the University of Kentucky with a theater degree. He also has written several plays. He says his last short play — Snow White Zombie: Apocalypse — was performed in a local New York theater. The play is about Snow White who awakens to Price Charming's kiss 28 days after a zombie outbreak.
When he leaves Charlotte, he will head back to the New York area for more political organizing and writing.
"I know I have good material," he said.
John Murdoch marched at the DNC to promote a vision of social justice that puts the needs of the many ahead of the few. But the 37-year-old performer from New York City said his political views don't fit into any particular dogmatic box.
"l have some streaks of socialism, I guess," he said. "I am not a communist. I am not a capitalist. I am somebody who believes I have the right to change my government and speak freely. Whatever works. If a comet were going to smash into the earth, then I'm a communist — just get as many people fed and take care of business."
A Colgate University graduate with degrees in history and peace studies, Murdoch chafes when such labels are misapplied for political gain or to scare people.
"If we're arguing over whether Barack Obama is a socialist, we are arguing about absurdity," he said. "Obama has Goldman Sachs all over his cabinet. Socialists don't have Goldman Sachs run the economy. Socialists don't go to $75,000-a-head dinners.
"If someone else defines the terms you're arguing under, you've lost already. If you want to talk socialism, the military is socialist. The police are socialist. Social Security is socialist. Some of the most beloved institutions in America are socialist.
After he leaves Charlotte, Murdoch plans to head home to New York. He is looking forward to being in Zuccotti Park for the Occupy anniversary.