Athens, GA. Police, Mayor Evict Occupiers From Anti-Wal-Mart Encampment
On November 21, 2011, Sprawl-Buster's received a short, succinct email about a battle brewing over a big box store in Athens, Georgia. "A Wal-Mart anchor store was proposed last week 1 block from downtown Athens," the email said. "There are dozens of small businesses there, most of which will not survive a 100,000 sq ft. wal-mart a block away."
A second email came in later that day: "I live in Athens, Georgia, where there are 2 Wal-Marts now. They are proposing building a third anchor store 1 BLOCK from downtown Athens, which would destroy ALL of the local businesses there. These little stores are what make Athens a great town. Our Mayor is all for it; she was quoted on Saturday as saying, "Some might call Wal-Mart’s foreign suppliers sweatshops, but they’re putting food on the table for Third World workers - Mayor Nancy Denson " Our community is on it's own for the time being."
Before Christmas arrived, a full-blown group had been formed: People For A Better Athens, and petitions and local events were happening to raise awareness of the Wal-Mart threat to Athens. The group launched a People For A Better Athens website, where they explained the project and their mission: "Downtown Athens, Georgia is renowned for its rich cultural history, creative artistic community, local businesses and world famous music scene. Athens has earned its nickname the 'Classic City.' Today, a massive downtown development proposal threatens to alter Athens irrevocably. Athens’ citizens have discovered in an 11th hour revelation that Selig Enterprises plans to build a 100,000 sq. foot Wal-Mart in downtown Athens. The construction of a big box store in downtown Athens will devastate the existing local business community and threatens to turn a vibrant downtown area into a ghost town of shuttered stores and empty buildings. We encourage the citizens of Athens to 'Raise Your Voice' so your elected officials know that we can do better than plop a 100,000 sq. ft. Walmart in downtown Athens. We want to see our elected officials execute an Athens-based vision for downtown development that will better benefit the local citizens and enhance the long term viability of Athens.
Sprawl-Busters posted a story about the Athens battle on January 15, 2012. People for a Better Athens had presented the city council with more than 17,000 signatures from Athens residents petitioning against a proposed downtown Wal-Mart. Athens attorney Russell Edwards has been a point person for the opposition. Edwards has been urging local officials to consider the economic downside of constructing a third Wal-Mart in this city. “We can see places that will be affected most, places like Faulkner’s hardware, that would be right up the street from Wal-Mart, would immediately go out of business.”
Athens Mayor Nancy Denson has stated publicly that her hands are tied. “That’s what’s sad to me is that the people that are coming there are asking us to stop something that there’s not a legal mechanism by which to stop it," Mayor said. “And I wouldn’t like to stop it if we could. The private investors have a right to enjoy the value of their property when they get ready to sell it. I think it’s wrong to block them to reduce the value of their property by holding it up.”
The anti-Wal-Mart battle attracted the interest of an Occupy Athens group, which since March 3rd had been peacefully encamped in front of City Hall. The group sent the following statement to Sprawl-Busters today:
"At 3:30am on March 7, 2012 at least 17 Athenas-Clarke County police officers, including the chief of police, arrived suddenly and without warning, to threaten us with violence and arrest if we did not vacate 'City Athena.' Occupy Athens established the City Athena encampment on the grounds of city hall on the afternoon of Saturday, March 3. We have lived there peacefully and without incident; that is until the police created around us an intimidating circus of force in the wee hours of the morning, away from media and prying public eyes.
This cowardly suppression of our First Amendment rights illustrates how little the State, and in this instance the Athens-Clarke County government, thinks of the public’s voice or will. We were loud, assertive, and inconvenient for the city. Last we looked, none of those traits are crimes. Despite Mayor Denson’s on-record endorsement of our encampment, and the implied support of ACCPD’s own Lt. Nick Soriano, we were evicted without any firm justification or warning.
'Y’all have a public forum out there in front of city hall for as long as you want to have it,' Mayor Denson said on camera to Athens Occupiers on Monday, March 5. 'I will protect your rights as diligently as I protect theirs.'
We were told we were blocking access to a public building – this is a lie. We were told we were blocking a public walkway – this is a lie. We were accused of doing damage to city property with no explanation of what was done, when or where – this is a lie.
When we attempted to meet their demands to avoid the violence they obviously intended to visit upon us should we not have complied, we were again told that moving to the sidewalk would be illegal. This is a lie.
Occupy Athens camped on a sidewalk less than half the width of that outside city hall for over one month. The ACCPD fully acknowledged our rights within applicable laws and the Constitution. Yet today, in circumstances more favorable to us, we were told that attempting to exercise our constitutional rights would result in police-on-protester violence.
All of this came within hours of our participation in the monthly county commissioner’s meeting at which we again demanded the city hold four town hall meetings and the mayor apologize for her part in fostering an illegal meeting with the EDF on September 27, 2011.
This eviction is a direct response to the pressure we exert on the ACC government. We have made city officials nervous that the people of this town are no longer willing to swallow their half-truths and hurried explanations for illegal meetings and backroom dealings with Wal-Mart cronies.
As previously announced, Occupy Athens will livestream a press conference on the steps of city hall (Washington St. side) at 1:00 pm, today, March 7. All other events on our published schedule are postponed until further notice with the exception of General Assemblies, which will be held every night at 8:00 pm outside city hall. All persons, including city officials and press, are welcome to attend all General Assemblies.
Power to the people! Occupy Athens."
What you can do: Anyone who wishes to support the efforts of Occupy Athens in their efforts to force city government to hold open, public hearings on the Wal-Mart plan, should email the group at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers are also urged to email Athens Mayor Nancy Denson at email@example.com with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Denson,
Before you rush to drop a third Wal-Mart on your community, honor the request of Occupy Athens, and hold a series of public hearings on the project. Give your own residents the same rights that you are apparently willing to give a corporation, which cannot vote---yet has more influence on city government than your own constituents.
Welcome Occupy Athens back to City Athena--the cradle of democracy in your city.