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From Perch Across From Capitol, A Patient Protest Occupies Trenton

Statehouse regular is seen and pressing on to be heard.

Credit: Amanda Brown

It's a chilly Tuesday afternoon, and Charlie Hardy of the Occupy Trenton protest group is sitting where he spends most every afternoon: directly across from the entrance to the New Jersey Statehouse.

Seated behind a table at the edge of the State Street sidewalk, the 64-year-old Hardy is happy to engage with anyone who passes by.

A fellow Occupy Trenton organizer sits beside Hardy, a man with a full brown and gray beard who goes by the name Mouse. Handwritten signs hang from the front of the table the two men share, including one that reads, "We Need Better Gov't."

Occupy Trenton -- the Central Jersey cousin of more prominent Occupy protests in places like New York City and Oakland -- has been planted across from the Capitol since early October, 167 days and counting as of yesterday. Through much of the winter, Hardy and Mouse, 41, were most often its public face -- two guys, a table, some signs, and a lot of stamina.

On this day, a well-dressed group passes by, presumably legislators fresh from Gov. Chris Christie's budget address last month in the Assembly chambers across the street. A man in a navy suit greets Hardy.

"We're working on the better government thing, trust us we are," the man says.

"Thank you," Hardy says amicably.

Hardy and his fellow Occupy Trenton organizers have no plans to stop their public presence. They began gathering on October 6 at New Jersey's World War II Memorial, across from the Capitol. Hardy joined the group two days later.

They pitched tents and camped at the space for about a week until state police told them no "permanent structures" were allowed. But Hardy says the group has not been dissuaded, not even as the Christie administration proposes new limits on groups and activities on the World War II Memorial site.

"Our plan is to continue our activities here in our protest," Hardy says. "We don't have money. We have our bodies and our presence and our voices."

Hardy generally mans the Occupy Trenton table from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. He's joined most days by Mouse, who's been living with Hardy in his Lawrence home since arriving from Occupy Houston a few weeks ago. When they're not talking with curious passersby, the men chat online with other Occupy protesters around the country. They also run their own Occupy Trenton livestream channel. 

With his neatly trimmed grey hair and easy smile, Hardy doesn't fit the Occupy movement's stereotype of a young, angry protester. He's a baby boomer with three grown children. Until recently, he worked full time as an IT manager at a small trucking company. Late in 2011, he retired earlier than planned to focus on Occupy Trenton full time. This decision wasn't without financial and personal sacrifice, but Hardy doesn't seem to regret it.

A big part of what initially sparked Hardy's interest in the Occupy protests, he says, was seeing photos of Occupy Wall Street and "realizing that's where the kids are." He'd grown tired of seeing mostly retirees at the liberal groups he's participated in recent years.

"Everybody has gray hair," he recalls. "That's fine, but this is different."

Hardy certainly has his share of liberal protests to compare the Occupy protests to. As a young man, Hardy was part of the antiwar and civil rights movement of the 1960s and '70s. A few years back, he sponsored a vigil against the Iraq War with his wife, who died over a year ago after prolonged health problems. He's also been involved with MoveOn.

While Hardy and Occupy's younger protesters may be decades apart in age, ideologically, they're not so different. The issues that have motivated Hardy to come out on behalf of Occupy Trenton are squarely in line with the national themes of the Occupy movement. When asked, Hardy easily rattles off his most pressing concerns: economic inequality and injustice, the rise of corporate "personhood," threats to civil liberties, and environmental issues he believes stem from corporate greed. He's happy to talk policy, too, from Citizens United to the Patriot Act.

Besides Hardy, there are other less visible Occupy Trenton organizers at work on projects like fundraising, running the Occupy Trenton website, and planning upcoming direct actions. Yesterday, the warmer weather helped attract a few more to the group’s table.

Hardy estimates about a dozen people turn out for Occupy Trenton's weekly General Assembly meetings on Saturday afternoons, which are also held at the World War II Memorial.

As part of its plan to continue organizing, the Occupy Trenton group signed a one-year lease for an indoor space at 110 West State Street -- a building about 400 feet from the protest site. The plan is to store their Occupy materials (from blankets to posters) and hold meetings there in the case of inclement weather.

"We call it our indoor support," Hardy says.

Meanwhile, the public, outdoor faction of Occupy Trenton has been deeply satisfying for Hardy. Though Occupy Trenton plans to move toward pursuing more direct actions, Hardy has found working the table to be endlessly interesting. He's had the occasional epithet shouted in his direction, but says people are mostly receptive and curious about Occupy Trenton. The conversations, he says, have been invigorating.

"We have the chance to communicate with a lot of people," he says. "And the powerful avoid us, but they can see us."

Hardy may be an idealist who wants to see the world move in a more positive direction, but he's not particularly naïve. He's old enough, he says, that he doesn't expect things to happen quickly.

"I don't think that Occupy Trenton is single-handedly going to out and change the world," he says. His motivation is bolstered by the online communications he has with other Occupy protesters around the country.

More than five months into the Occupy protests, and with no clear road map of where things will go from here, Hardy is content with small victories. He'd be happy if a year from now Occupy Trenton were part of a consortium of other activist and Occupy groups -- one that can collectively flex more muscle than any one single group.

"It's probably fair to say that I'm patient," Hardy says.

Gianna Palmer is a freelance writer and social media consultant for NJ Spotlight.

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