Occupy Durham


Standing at the corner of East Chapel Hill and Foster streets, Alissa Ellis tugged the sleeves of her red sweatshirt until they reached her knuckles. Biting bursts of wind threw her black hair in every direction as she displayed a sign to passing drivers: “Feed the people, not the Pentagon.”

A metallic-colored sedan passed the CCB Plaza in downtown Durham, where a dozen young people started camping last week to support national protests on Wall Street. The driver tapped the car’s horn.

“Honks from the Mercedes,” the 23-year-old Ellis muttered. “I love it.”

Of course, Ellis concedes, those who drive expensive cars could also make up the “99%.” They are families who have lost their homes, workers who are underemployed and other who are living under the threat of losing their homes or jobs. Many are like Ellis, who thought a college degree was the key to getting a good job. She graduated this year with an undergraduate degree in political science, but has yet to find paying work.

“I had this idealistic idea that when I graduated, I would get a job at a nonprofit and get great experience,” she said. It’s disheartening to apply for dozens of jobsshe says she’s up to 40with no response. It eats at your ego, she said. If it weren’t for a supportive boyfriend and parents, she wouldn’t be able to clothe, feed and care for her 22-month-old.

“I realize that I have a privilege with family support. But there are so many people who don’t, who can’t stand out here,” she said, shivering as brisk winds converged on the open plaza, channeled through the corridors created by tall buildings.

Protesters in Durham settled on the CCB Plaza as a gathering place on the first weekend in October. According to organizers, rallies that week and during subsequent ones each beckoned more than 200 participants to the brick-paved spot, named for the bank that used to operate next door.

The protesters began camping overnight on the plaza on Oct. 16. The next day, city officials told them they couldn’t erect tents or other structures, per a rule that prohibits camping on all but one public property, a campground at Lake Michie. So participants have been huddling in sleeping bags with little cover. During a recent rainstorm that persisted all day and night, a small-business owner on Market Street let protesters duck into his building to stay dry.

So many aspects of the location make it significant, said Ben Crawford, one of the initial organizers for Occupy Durham. The plaza abuts Parrish Street, known at the start of the 20th century as “Black Wall Street,” a corridor where small, black-owned businesses sustained themselves, despite being surrounded by white-owned commerce. Then there’s Major, the hulking bronze bull, which at the very least resembles another iconic, hoofed beast on Wall Street.

The best part about the plaza, Crawford said, is that pedestrians regularly pass through. They ask questions and share their own stories. This past weekend, three homeless people who were already sleeping downtown joined the camp and shared notes about their economic hardships. Numerous other passersby participated in an art project in which they wrote short stories on posters and held them up for portraits. Volunteers printed the photos and clipped them onto clotheslines strung across the plaza.

The stories share many commonalities: the heft of student loan debt, retirement money that disappeared in the sagging stock market, the weight of health care costs and the uncertainty of unemployment and joblessness while raising children.

Like their counterparts on Wall Street and across the U.S., these occupants aren’t making specific demands. Demands, many in the Durham protest said, are restricting.

“Once you list demands, you’re excluding people,” Ellis said. “A lot of people here want bigger, more fundamental changes than just passing some legislation,” she said. “For the moment, people are just trying to expand that conversation.”