Will Parrish: The Evolution Of Occupy Santa Rosa


From WILL PARRISH
Laytonville

“We are reclaiming those same spaces of public practice that have been commodified, privatized and locked into the hands of faceless bureaucracy, real estate portfolios, and police ‘protection’. Hold on to these spaces, nurture them, and let the boundaries of your occupations grow. After all, who built these parks, these plazas, these buildings? Whose labor made them real and livable? Why should it seem so natural that they should be withheld from us, policed and disciplined? Reclaiming these spaces and managing them justly and collectively is proof enough of our legitimacy.”  — Egyptian Tahrir Square protesters, statement of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street movement, October 2011

A small but promising model for a better world has sprung to life on the previously sterile and generic expanse of lawns at 1st St. and Santa Rosa Ave., location of Santa Rosa City Hall, where participants in the growing Occupy Santa Rosa demonstration have assembled in a protest camp for more than two weeks. It is part of the larger Occupy Wall St. movement, which consists of hundreds of encampments in cities from San Francisco to New York to London. The tactic of occupying physical space to press for demands from those in power was popularized on a global basis by the Egyptian Tahrir Square demonstrators and other protesters throughout western Asia and northern Africa this past spring.

Occupations of public space in New York City’s financial district first began in August, as a means of challenging the corporate greed and democratic unaccountability that characterize the dominant political and financial institutions in the US and also throughout most of the world. While this country’s political punditry has persistently criticized the movement on grounds that it lacks clear goals, much less a coherent policy platform, it’s a laughable criticism given that the so-called political “representatives” also lack any sort of coherent policy platform for addressing their stated goal of stimulating an economic recovery — a contradiction that has somehow gone unremarked in conventional media outlets.

Until only a few days prior to this writing, the Santa Rosa camp often somewhat resembled a mid-19th century American frontier mining camp. Groups of 50-150 people would convene during the day for discussions and workshops, while at night smaller groups of invariably younger people have camped out overnight, huddled in their sleeping bags and under pieces of cardboard, braving both frigid weather and regular harassment by police, as well as by the robust local population of highly neurotic street people.

This past Saturday, October 29th, following a march and rally of about 600 people through downtown Santa Rosa, the camp developed into a full-fledged tent village, with more than 30 tents pitched and at least 60 people staying the night (including yours truly). The Santa Rosa Police Department initially vowed to forcibly evict the demonstrators if they put up tents. The cops stood down, however, after an order from Santa Rosa City Manager Kathy Millison, who no doubt feared the impending confrontation would spark a backlash by protest supporters.

At the encampment, a spacious medical tent occupies a central location. A licensed MD who served a combined four tours of duty as a medic in Iraq and Afghanistan is perhaps the most consistent presence there. He remarks that he took an oath to protect the people of the United States from threats both foreign and domestic, and that presently one of those domestic threats is the Santa Rosa Police Department. Santa Rosa Food Not Bombs occupies a prominent corner of the encampment, where they have served three vegan-friendly free meals and distributed anarchist-oriented literature consistently since the start of the demonstration. A security team has patrolled the camp each night, non-violently warding off disturbances by the neurotics as well as warning the campers whenever police come around to issue citations.

As with other Occupy demonstrations throughout the country, the encampment acts both as a protest and a polis, to borrow the term from ancient Greece, serving as a radically democratic space where people engage in extensive discussions on the political issues that directly impact their lives. Individuals who were total strangers to one another merely a few days earlier stay up late talking about the strategy of the movement, the struggles and challenges in their lives, and their visions for a more ideal world.

Bucking one notion held among some self-righteous Mendolibs who take it as given that the pavement dwellers of Santa Rosa are inherently less politically enlightened than they are, the Occupy Santa Rosa demos have been among the most impressive to emerge across the United States. The festivities at Santa Rosa City Hall kicked off on October 15th, part of a worldwide day of action designed to build the strength of the Occupy movement throughout the world. More than 4,000 people took part in the Santa Rosa march and rally, making it the sixth largest on that day according to the New York Times, also making it the largest demonstration in the country relative to the size of the local population.

A striking aspect of the Santa Rosa encampment, as with reportedly so many across the country, is that nearly all of the core organizers and participants are 35 or younger. Most have very little previous political organizing or direct action experience — on which more below. Among the people I interviewed for this story, the most experienced with political organizing is 21-year-old Santa Rosa Jr. College student Adina Ahmed, whose first organizing took place at Petaluma High School in 2006, where she helped organize demonstrations against military recruiters on campus.

Ahmed says it wasn’t until the October 15th march when she saw both the size of the crowd and the types of people it attracted, that she realized Occupy Santa Rosa’s profound importance.

“I found myself running into people I hadn’t seen in years,” she says of her experience at the march. “When I knew them before, they kind of understood I was a lefty, or we would talk here and there about political things, or we went to school together or worked together. But I’d never seen them involved in the activist community. And here all these folks were really passionate about that day, that moment, and the whole idea of Occupy Wall Street. It made me realize ‘Wow, something’s going on here’.”

Occupy Santa Rosa has drawn much strength from the Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland encampments, which are somewhat larger and have been established for a bit longer. Initially, many participants in the Santa Rosa demonstration were hesitant to pitch tents, given the threats they had received from city officials. After a contingent visited the Occupy San Francisco tent encampment, which has been almost completely free from police harassment, they felt emboldened to adopt the same tactic back home.

Meanwhile, on October 25th, the Occupy Oakland protest was violently evicted by police with tear gas and so-called flash-bang devices, which they claimed was necessary in response to. More than 100 protesters were arrested. The police violence generated international news when 24-year-old Iraq War veteran and Occupy Oakland participant Scott Olsen suffered a fractured skull, apparently when an Oakland Police officer fired a tear-gas canister at him from point-blank range. Around 1,500 Occupy Oakland protesters reassembled in front of Oakland City Hall the next day, retook the space, and put out a call for protesters around the country to escalate their own tactics in response. Many of the Santa Rosa demonstrators were inspired by the call.

Initially, many people who planned to camp were tense, particularly as rumors were circulating that Santa Rosa Police Department had been shuttled in from Santa Rosa to Oakland, and that they were among those who used the flash-bangs and tear gas grenades. As one Occupy Santa Rosa protester told me, “Our friend [name of Occupy Santa Rosa participant withheld by author], who’s a former marine sharpshooter, says he trained a lot of these Santa Rosa police officers and they’re kind of hard-asses and bad-asses, and they won’t think twice about crushing hippy skulls. They’re okay with that. They’ll sleep at night.” Much to the relief of most people who planned to pitch tents, City Manager Kathy Millison made the announcement that police would leave the protest alone during an afternoon rally on the 29th.

Not all Occupy Santa Rosa demonstrators share the view that the police are the enemy. One participant, Karyl Averill, 34, described the Santa Rosa Police as “sweet and supportive” in an interview with the North Bay Bohemian.

Remarkably, the initial call for Occupy Santa Rosa demonstration came not from an existing organization or even from an experienced individual organizer, but from a 20-year-old unemployed computer technician named Brendan Homan who only moved to Santa Rosa this past July, having spent most of his life in Bakersfield and other parts of Southern California. Homan set up Facebook and Twitter pages, setting up meetings to prepare for the October 15th demonstration.

For most of the demonstrators, the opportunity to act out a vision and build community is at least as important as the Occupy movement’s political objectives vis-a-vis curtailing corporate greed and challenging political corruption. They speak of their experience thus far in rhapsodic terms, citing it as the greatest experience of their life so far in many cases.

As Jesse Brown, 28, a recent graduate of Sonoma State University, put it, “I talk to lots of people who basically say, ‘Everything else sucks. I’m going to quit my job. I’m going to stop going to school. This is the best thing I have, the best thing I do in my life’.” He added, “I get from many people that this is the moment when the alienation that exists in western society is finally swept away.”

Indeed, one of the strengths of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s approach to community-building is that it provides an avenue for overcoming one of the most important factors in the decline of the American left across the last half-century: the loneliness and isolation endemic to this phase of advanced industrial society. Approximately 35 years ago, when a group of sociologists surveyed a large sample of American people on how many friends they confide in, most people said three. When that same question was asked to the same number of Americans in 2006, most people said none. Surveys indicate that roughly 20 percent of Americans, or 60 million, feel lonely at any given time.

Brown is a case in point. “A year ago, I had no friends. I was so insular in myself that it was a running battle with my neurotic defenses, and I venture to say they were winning. I’ve learned more in the last week and a half than I have in my entire life, met more people than I have in my entire life, and most of all it feels like I’m helping people, because we’re dealing with problems out here that most people would prefer to ignore.”

Brown is specifically referring to the prevalence of drunks, drug addicts, and other disruptive individuals who have besieged the camp, especially at night. Earlier in the week, he and three other members of the ad hoc security team managed to repel at least 15 drunken individuals who had come down to City Hall specifically to harass the campers.

Arrow Flora, 35, for whom Occupy Santa Rosa is her first involvement in a resistance movement, echoed many of Brown’s sentiments. “All of us here are meeting for the first time, and we’re instantly becoming family,” she says.

She describes herself as previously being a “closet activist.” “My voice when I first started to participate was shaky and now it’s not,” she says. “So I feel like this is what I was born to do.”

Flora is especially proud of how she has so far managed to balance the demands of her protest activities and her domestic life, which includes a 14-year marriage and three children. “I say to my kids, ‘You guys will look back and say, My mom saved the world, and she could still cook dinner. The fish didn’t die. Do you think the Declaration of Independence, when they were writing that, was easy on those families?”

In spite of the seemingly spontaneous character of the demonstrations, as well as its success at attracting people with little or no political experience, existing networks have been critical both to organizing and sustaining them wherever they have taken hold, including in Santa Rosa. Prominent among those who have participated include current and former Sonoma State University students, who have been organize against fee increases and other austerity measures on their campus throughout this academic year. Counter-cultural and anarchist groups such as Food Not Bombs and the Free Mind Media Collective have also played a critical role in sustaining the occupation.

For its part, the Oakland occupation grows to a large extent out of networks and relationships formed during protests against Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer Johannes Mehserle’s wanton murder at the Fruitvale station of Oscar Grant, a 23-year-old black male who was lying prone on his stomach at the time, as well as other radical countercultural and political initiatives, both large and small, that have occurred in the East Bay over the past several years. The Oakland occupiers have renamed Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall as “Oscar Grant Plaza.”

Another prominent influence has been the wave of student occupations at California universities in 2009-10, as part of protests against fee increases. These protests were the first significant fight-back against neo-liberal austerity measures in the age of Obama. “Occupy Everything” became one of the most popular rally cries of the demonstrators. Students occupied and renamed buildings up and down the state.

Chris Britton, a graduate of UC Santa Cruz now living with his parents in Santa Rosa, was a participant in some of these demonstration, in particular a day of state-wide walk-outs on March 4, 2010.

“The students are often the pioneers in these movements,” Britton says. “They’re exposed to all these theories and ideas, and they often do take the lead and take big big steps. So it’s no surprise that some of what we did then is coming up again in this whole movement.”

Other antecedents to the Occupy movement, aside from the obvious influence of the so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings earlier this year, as well as the recent protests against neo-liberal austerity across Europe, include the anti-nuclear movement of the ’70s and ’80s and the global justice movement of the ’90s and early-’00s — commonly associated in the US with the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization in November 1999. Both of these movement shared an emphasis on so-called “prefigurative politics”: the idea of living out a future based on mutual aid and direct democracy in people’s approach to political organizing in the present. Among the hallmarks of this approach is consensus decision-making.

In spite of the various political traditions and social movements the Occupy phenomenon draws upon, during the night the tents were erected outside Santa Rosa City Hall, I was struck by the utter lack of veteran political organizers on hand. Ideally, a contingent of elder people would mix in comfortably with the younger participants, contributing something in the way of institutional memory of past movements, both their successes and failures.

Yet, only a small handful of individuals older than 40 were present, and at least a few of those I recognized as prominent local conspiracists, for whom all discussions of politics ultimately boil down to the small, secret cabals they claim are running the world, woe be to anyone who dares to challenge these god-like arbiters of the One World Government and their all-pervasive police state apparatuses (which isn’t to say that police state apparatuses aren’t powerful or pervasive).

One of the next big steps for the occupation movement in northern California is a general strike that Occupy Oakland has called for November 1st, the day this issue goes to press. Ironically, the last significant general strike by US workers also took place in Oakland, in 1946. At the time, the city was commonly known as the “Detroit of the West,” given that both it and satellite cities such San Leandro were home to the largest constellation of car assembly plants in the country: At the time, East Oakland was 95% white. Today, it is closer to 95% people of color, who are unemployed in grotesquely disproportionate numbers, typically being the last hired and first fired, and who thus do not have the capacity to go on strike. Yet, while the general strike will certainly not be a repeat of 1946, it may attract relatively large numbers of new participants and act as a show of strength for the “occupy” movement.

The occupation movement displays a number of weaknesses. The lack of experience of so many of its participants is one. Another is the underlying fragility of any movement based on so many conflicting political ideas. Right now, anarchists are mixing with communists, who are mixing with liberals and centrist reformers. Once the honeymoon phase is over, fundamental disagreements will come to the fore. The movement will be challenged to deal with the inevitable egomaniacs and political cultists who thrive on conflict and turmoil within grassroots social movements.

Yet, it would be categorically unfair to blame the movement participants for the wide range of social dysfunctions that modern society produces. And, so far, the occupation movement is doing all of the important things right, including its unwillingness to be co-opted by the Democratic Party. In a sense, moreover, it is doing exactly what social movements in the US need to do right now, before they can advance to making more concrete political demands: rebuilding the institutions, the networks, and the patterns of life that form the basis of political commitment on the part of those engaged in resistance. The number of people whose lives are being utterly transformed by this movement — most of them young, so many dabbling in politics for the first time — is exciting and inspiring.

When I asked Adina Ahmed for her message to people in Mendocino County, including participants in the fledgling Occupy Ukiah campaign, she responded: “I’ll quote that open letter from Cairo, ‘We are watching each other.’ You are not alone. Don’t be afraid to go farther.”

There’s something important stirring in many parts of this country, including one county to the south of us. We in Mendocino County would do well to take notice of Occupy Santa Rosa’s inspiring example.

Occupy Ukiah General Assembly meetings take place every Wednesday and Saturday at Alex Thomas Plaza. More information at www.occupyukiah.org.
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See also 3 Remarkable Occupations You Haven’t Heard Enough About
The Occupy protests bear a striking resemblance to one another in spirit, courage and resolve

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser November 2011)
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