As award-winning freelance journalist Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman stands in front of the Occupy camp on Charlotte’s old city hall’s lawn, it’s hard to tell who the “occupier” is.
She’s standing with a young man wearing blue jeans and a hooded sweatshirt depicting Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster. His clothes are spotless, but a look at his mud-caked shoes makes it clear he’s not new to this scene.
Rhiannon, often called Rhi, is wearing sweatpants, a fleece sweater vest and a pulled back ponytail. She is staring out at the muddy lawn with the boy, who doesn’t look to be out of his teens. The city council vote deciding the fate of the occupiers is happening in a couple of hours and she is wondering where all the protesters are.
She asks the boy if he is willing to go to jail for the movement and he quickly nods his head in response. Five minutes later she asks what he will do if police storm the camp after the vote. “I will probably go back to my brother’s,” admits the kid.
It’s conflicting answers like these that define the things Rhiannon puts up with on a daily basis. She seems drawn to stories that branch off in many different angles, even within a single source, such as this confused protester.
The Occupy camp, which Rhi has been covering since its development in October of 2011, is a shadowy place, even for someone as familiar with it as her. While some look to her for information on their own movement, others are quick to pull away for lack of trust.
That trust issue can go both ways. “It’s frustrating,” she says as she makes her way from the camp across the street to city hall. “It’s hard because I know at least one or two people there are moles for whoever wants one in there, but who that could be I have no idea.”
Rhiannon is up close with these sources because of the way she does her job. It’s the type of attitude that won her the 2011 Gold Gamma Award for a story she wrote about the Catawba Riverkeeper, David Merriman.
Although she claims not to care about journalistic awards, she takes pride in one judge’s comments. The Gold Gamma judge told her, “You could have made it preachy. You took us into these peoples’ lives.”
This is what Rhi calls covering a story from the inside out. “What it’s about is amplifying the peoples’ voices,” she said. She recalls reading a story about Occupy Wall Street when it first began in which the journalist quoted anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.
This reporting seemed lazy to Rhi. “What the hell does she have to do with anything? Give people equal weight,” said Bowman.
To “amplify people’s voices” is why she now stands here with a confused and standoffish young man not sure if he will be spending the night in a cell or a wet tent.
Rhi, heading to the city council meeting in sleep-ready clothes, has a similar lack of knowledge when it comes to where she will lay her head tonight. In her car, parked a block or so down the road, she has packed enough sandwiches to stay on site for two to three days. She has blankets and even a fold out desk in the back seat in case she needs to get some work done.
“You need to be prepared,” she says, wondering whether Charlotte will turn into scenes similar to those happening in Oakland, New York and other Occupy sites. “[The police] sort of wait until everyone stops paying attention, then they move in.”
This is not the place Rhi would like to be spending a chilly Monday night. She has other things she would like to be working on. Her top priority professionally is to push the book ideas that she has been working on to publishers in New York and across the country. She feels that she is needed here, however.
This feeling is ingrained in her personality, according to Kim Lawson, an editor at Creative Loafing, where most of Rhiannon’s Occupy work was published. Kim also calls Rhiannon a good friend. “She’s just a great storyteller that cares about community issues,” said Lawson. “She’s very aware, but she’s smart about being aware.”
She loves hiking but hasn’t been able to lately because of her busy work schedule. “I have been doing a lot of urban hiking,” she says, referring to her coverage of the Occupy Charlotte movement.
A car accident two years ago fractured her spine and made it nearly impossible to do one of her favorite activities: tent camping. She toughed it out, however, through a night of camping with a group of protestors early on in the Occupy movement.
“I definitely paid the price,” she said. “I was in serious pain for a couple of days.”
That was just another way of telling the story from the inside out. “I just felt like someone needed to be out there without a bright light and a camera. [The Occupiers] weren’t media savvy at that point.”
It’s almost as if she hears a calling when a story breaks; a calling that tells her nobody else will tell this story if she doesn’t. “She’s so thorough and some stories have so many different sides to tell,” said Desiree Kane, a friend of Rhiannon’s. “That sort of thing will suck in any good journalist.”
Rhi remembers the day she heard about the Occupy Charlotte camp forming on Twitter. “I was really looking forward to having a Saturday to myself, but I knew that I had to go. I just feel this strange obligation to my community to tell them what’s happening,” in a tone that makes it hard to tell if sarcasm is prevalent or she really finds her own feeling of obligation strange.
Rhiannon’s husband, Dan, has seen the way stories like this can envelope her. “She needs to know, ‘How did we get to this point?’ Once she starts down that path, it consumes her,” he said. “It’s her passion.”
At the meeting, the city council passes a measure that will have the occupiers legally ousted from their camp on the following Monday. As certain controlled chaos breaks out inside of city hall, with most of the occupiers in attendance now chanting slogans, Rhi zones in, seemingly in her natural habitat.
Rhiannon is a full head shorter than most of the people in the lobby, but her presence is known by everyone. She slips comfortably between multiple conversations; interviewing police about the way the eviction will be carried out, phoning a lawyer who had threatened to sue if the measure was passed, carrying on nonchalant conversations with occupiers to find out their next move. Everyone in the building, it seems, knows her and is comfortable talking to her.
One occupier, Robby, is telling her that he is comfortable with the decision and he already has bigger plans than camping. When she asks him for more details he smiles and says, “You gotta wait for our next move.”
Rhi rolls her eyes as the man walks away. Her response may be based on the seemingly obvious fact that he has no clue what his own next move will be. More probably, she is coming to the realization that there is no end in sight for a reporter so far inside the story. It’s the awareness that Lawson mentioned, a brick wall that is nearly impossible to slip anything past.
“Rhi is who she is all the time, so when you meet her you get a pretty good sense of who she is,” said Kane. “If you ask Rhi a question she is going to give you a straight up answer whether she’s known you for ten years or ten minutes.”
Three weeks later, Rhiannon is at her home going through files. She’s “stepping back” to write a more broad story on the entire Occupy Charlotte movement for Charlotte Magazine. The deadline for the camp has come and gone and seven people have been arrested.
Rhiannon spent the day of the raids at the camp as a reporter. She spent that night as a patient in the emergency room.
She had been working for 30 hours straight with only a 30 minute nap in between. “It was just pure exhaustion,” she says of that hospital trip. The doctor left a note in her paperwork pleading for her to “not do anything for a week.” She took his advice.
Now, as she gets ready to tackle the big picture of Charlotte’s Occupy movement, she thinks her recent hospital visit has put things into perspective. “I’m realizing that life is short and you have to do what makes you happy,” says the woman who dropped her job selling annuities to pursue a writing career in 2006.
“You need to be able to pay your bills and stuff but don’t get into anything for the money,” she says. “God knows nobody gets into journalism for the money.”