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Why Occupy Dallas is different

October 31, 2011, 6:49 PM UTC

Occupy Dallas

As the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to cities around the country, a couple of things have become clear: No two Occupy movements are the same, and some of them have almost nothing to do with Wall Street.

While each event is styled after the original in Zuccotti Park and each rallies around the same call for a more equitable capitalism, the original Occupy Wall Street effort is more of an inspiration than a headquarters. Local political and cultural scenes, local issues and – most significantly – the response of local authorities have shaped Occupy Dallas, Occupy Oakland and the protests in other cities as much as their solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.

Occupy Dallas is not only tolerated by the city, it’s hosted by City Hall. While there were arrests during a protest last week, Dallas police have also helped campers on the city property retrieve stolen sleeping bags, and the protesters have marched in solidarity with the police. Dallas, one of the last major cities in the nation to desegregate its schools, seems determined to show its tolerant side.

Other cities have taken a harder line. Last Tuesday night, Oakland city police dispersed crowds of occupiers by firing tear gas, critically injuring Iraq veteran Scott Olsen, who was hit by a canister.

There are murmurs of a centralized, national organization of some kind, but the closest thing to a policymaking body at each camp currently is the internal “General Assembly.”

“The groups stand together, but nobody stands over the groups,” says Michael Prestonise, a freelance Web designer and volunteer chess teacher who acts as a spokesman for Occupy Dallas and is one of the more active members. Young and optimistic, Prestonise appears driven by the hope of creating something new rather than the desire to tear down something old.

The 100 or so people who are camping on the grounds of the cantilevered Dallas City Hall are a cross-section of North Texas society – racially, politically, age- and career-wise. Some are homeless and many are unemployed, but there are also professionals from the information-technology sector.

Twice a day, the Dallas group meets for General Assembly. As in 5th century B.C. Athens, and as in most of the roughly 400 protests using the Occupy name worldwide, the General Assembly is the key instrument of a “direct democracy” in which every resident has a right to bring issues to the attention of the community. In Dallas, these issues can be as minor as a missing cell phone or as major as manifestos of demands.

Occupy Wall Street: Where’s our share?

Almost everything is debated. And no wonder: the Dallas campers I interviewed were all over the political spectrum. On the left there was Kooper Caraway, an intense young Bazarov figure, who called for the unionization of Dallas city workers; on the Libertarian right, there was Jack, a Jeffersonian anarchist who would only give his first name and objected to “big government” ideas. And then there was Atticus Neff, who described himself as a “big audit-the-Fed kind of guy,” referring to a signature issue of Texas Republican Congressman Ron Paul (Paul would probably fare well in a straw poll at Occupy Dallas).

Their reasons for attending were also diverse: Goran Maric, a veteran of the Yugoslav conflict, mourned the abandonment of the U.S. Constitution, and compared the tyranny of personal debt to his experience at war. One woman said she came because the movement seemed to address all her grievances, and that she stayed because she enjoyed it. Another man railed against “bureaucracy,” in the form of speeding tickets that had impeded his career as a driver.

The only common thread was the disenfranchisement of the “99%,” what the protesters describe as the hijacking of U.S. democracy by corporate and moneyed interests. No one I met in Dallas mentioned Wall Street banks.

At least, nobody mentioned a Wall Street bank until 23 of the protesters were arrested outside one. Those protesters, including Caraway, blocked the entrance to a downtown Dallas Chase (JPM) bank last Monday, linking arms and refusing to move until police began carrying them – like “logs,” according to one Twitter account – into vans. They were all charged with Criminal Trespass, a Class B misdemeanor. The City of Dallas said a police officer sustained a minor injury to his leg during the incident.

This was the Dallas group’s first recognized act of civil disobedience, a tactic that many other Occupy protests have employed. The Dallas protest is unique in that the campers, helped by lawyer Jonathan Winocour who worked pro bono, negotiated an extended permit with the city authorities. Under the terms of the permit, which the city shared with Fortune, the campers will stay on the grounds of City Hall until at least Dec. 14. The city even collects the protesters’ trash, though it resisted demands for on-site Porta-potties.

“Dallas is a great example of how a city could respond to its citizens,” says Prestonise.

In Oakland, Chicago, Boston, and in Fort Worth, about 40 miles down the road from Dallas, the authorities have responded by making mass arrests, and in some cases tore down their tents. In Dallas, city authorities went through the courts in an effort to remove campers from their original location in a downtown green area called Pioneer Park. Before the two sides faced off in court, the city floated the idea of moving the protest away from the park and the showpiece convention center. After a reportedly intense debate at the General Assembly, the occupiers voted 47 to 21 to accept the city’s proposal.

Will the disparate regional groups coalesce around a common agenda? The “leaderless” aspect of the movement would likely have to change. After all, even Athens elected a representative council to make decisions. The first step will likely be the emergence of local leadership and a local agenda, at least on a de facto basis. Prestonise said he has talked with members of Occupy Boston about establishing a “national press corps” to coordinate the message of the Occupy movement.

What all the occupiers seem to agree on – that money must be taken out of politics – may sound naive and unattainable. But they can point to their own experiment as a model. Here are communities of very different people who have found a way to make democratic decisions without involving money.