Occupy comes to your town
Activists from around the U.S. report on local organizing inspired by Occupy Wall Street.
IT DIDN'T take long for the spirit of Occupy Wall Street to spread to the streets of cities across the country, with the statement "We are the 99 percent" repeated in demonstrations large and small. The protest movement that began in Manhattan's financial district has inspired people in bigger cities not unfamiliar to protests, like San Francisco and Seattle, to organize their own actions and encampments, but also smaller cities and towns.
The same mix of people from all walks of life--the unemployed, the underemployed, students facing mountains of debt, and union members enduring an assault on their living standards--are participating around the country and putting the blame for the economic crisis where it belongs: on the corporations and bankers who continue to profit as the rest of us face cuts.
In New York on October 5, several unions threw their support behind the Occupy Wall Street movement--and that experience has been repeated at the smaller Occupy protests in other cities.
Also like in New York City, but to varying degrees, the police have made their presence be felt. In several places this week, including San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago, police attempted to contain--and in some cases, quash--the peaceful gatherings.
In San Francisco on October 5, for instance, dozens of cops confronted Occupy SF members, saying they could no longer block the sidewalk with their tents. Police cleared the sidewalks in the middle of the night, but protesters vowed to stay--and increase their numbers.
In San Francisco, Occupy SF began on September 17--the same day as Occupy Wall Street in New York--with a rally in front of the Bank of America. Starting with a little more then a dozen people, the encampment in front of the Federal Reserve building downtown grew to about 30 people and continues to grow.
In conjunction with the occupation, Occupy SF has organized and participated in marches and rallies in collaboration with other coalitions. On September 29, the group joined Refund CA, a coalition of unions and community groups, in a march of 1,000 people on the financial firms responsible for the economic crisis--including Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase and Charles Schwab. The march also highlighted the foreclosure crisis in California. "Chase cannot have my home!" protester Brenda Reed told marchers.
On October 5, Occupy SF organized a march through the financial district. Hundreds of people marched and dozens more joined in as the protest continued onto Market Street. Many demonstrators said that they'd never seen so many spectators join a protest march, and this added to the energy.
"I'm here to support Occupy SF because this is the beginning of a global movement," said Evelyn, an immigrant rights activist. "This is becoming a movement that's too big to fail."
Later that night, officials posted a notice to take down the encampment, stating that it is a violation of the law. Five Department of Public Works (DPW) trucks, five police vans, numerous police cars and some 75 police in riot gear showed up at around 11 p.m. to execute the order. Around 150 people also showed up to demonstrate their support for the encampment. Cab drivers, cars and buses honked in support.
At 1 a.m., police and the DPW moved in to remove the occupiers' belongings. Four police officers arrested one protester--witnesses saw the protester forced to the ground and beaten with batons. Protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching!" and "Arrest the CEO, let us go!" as police moved in.
But activists remain determined to carry on the occupation. Ally, who attended Occupy SF for the first time that night, said, "I think it's about time people are coming together, and I'm here to give any support to Occupy SF to continue this unity." Danny, another first-time occupier, added, "We need to be pushing and fighting because there is power in numbers."
Other Bay Area occupations include Occupy Sacramento and Occupy Santa Cruz--Occupy Oakland, where about 100 people turned out for the first general assembly, kicks off next week.
In Seattle, the occupation began on October 1, with a general assembly and the beginning of a tent city in Westlake Plaza in the heart of downtown. Activists are regrouping after several protesters were arrested on the night of October 5 when police and Parks and Recreation employees moved in with orders to remove the tents.
In the days after Occupy Wall Street began, dozens of people turned out at the Federal Building to show their solidarity, but things really got going over the October 1 weekend, when 300 people of all ages and backgrounds turned out to chart a course for the movement in Seattle.
During the general assembly, the megaphone was passed around so that people could explain why they were there. Several people talked about their struggles with unemployment and foreclosure. As one participant said, "Someone is finally giving my voice a megaphone!" Many people heard about the general assembly only the day before on Facebook and had never been to a protest before.
People broke into smaller "affinity groups" in order to better get to know each other and talk about what they wanted to see come out of Occupy Seattle, including ideas for various work groups to organize actual activities. Work groups taking on everything from medical, sanitation, and peace and safety to media, demands, and strategy and tactics.
The city and SPD initially offered protesters the grounds of the Seattle Center, home to the Space Needle, but protesters felt this would isolate and contain the movement away from the downtown business area. The general assembly decided to begin an occupation of Westlake Plaza, with 45 people spending Saturday night there.
On Sunday, despite pouring rain, 150 people gathered for another general assembly, focusing on how to spread the word and build broader support for the occupation, provide regular updates about what's happening, and organize events that people who have jobs and family responsibilities can plug into.
After the weekend, the encampment grew steadily while general assemblies continued to meet daily. Protesters have also led impromptu marches through downtown, chanting, "We are the 99 percent" and "Banks got bailed out. We got sold out!" to cheers from onlookers.
Significantly, Occupy Seattle has received endorsements and messages of support from organized labor and community groups, including the Washington State Labor Council and the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council. Still, it has been difficult for larger numbers of working people to get involved with the movement, since the daily general assemblies start at 4 p.m., before most people are off work, and then tend to go on in some form for up to four or five hours. This represents a challenge that many of the Occupy struggles need to confront.
Signs that Seattle authorities are readying to try to evict protesters are clear. On October 4, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that the occupation would have to be cleared out by 10 p.m. when the park closes. Still, on Tuesday night, as several hundred people came out in solidarity.
"In 2008, Obama said that he would bring change if he was elected," said Jocelyn, a senior at Garfield High School who attended the weekend general assemblies. "Once he was elected, he said we needed to be patient and wait for change. Well, I'm tired of waiting for change. It's time for us to get organized and do it ourselves."
Los Angeles was among several cities whose occupations began last weekend on October 1, with hundreds of people camped out on the front lawn of City Hall. The United Teachers Los Angeles union offered its solidarity with protesters early on. Occupiers planned to join the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and the Service Employees International Union for a "Make the Banks Pay" protest in the financial district on October 6.
In Chicago, protesters have kept a constant presence for almost three weeks outside of the local branch of the Federal Reserve at Jackson and La Salle downtown. During the day, numbers of protesters vary from a couple of dozen to almost 100, but the daily marches and general assemblies have often involved several hundred people.
Activists at Occupy Chicago have attempted to link up their struggle with other movements in the city, sending a contingent to join a large rally of postal workers at the end of last month and co-hosting a rally to commemorate Troy Davis, who was recently executed in Georgia after widespread activism in his defense.
During this week, Chicago police attempted to close down the occupation, demanding protesters remove their belongings from the sidewalk in front of the Fed and denying them the right to sleep there. This has sparked a debate, with protesters discussing whether or not cops are part of "the 99 percent" and whose side they're really on.
In Austin, Texas, activists have been holding daily general assemblies since last September 29 in preparation for an occupation on October 6. More than 150 people have turned out each night, and the meetings have lasted deep into the night as they discuss the general message and procedures, and forming working groups for specific aspects of the occupation. The atmosphere is cooperative, and there is a focus on democracy and making sure that each person has a voice.
Inspired by the Transport Workers Union Local 100's endorsement of the march in New York City, Occupy Austin has reached out to labor organizations, drafting a letter to union members asking them to pass resolutions in support of Occupy Austin, encourage members to attend and make any contributions they can.
Education Austin and the Texas State Employees Union have endorsed the protest. As a statement issued by Education Austin stated:
Just as our 200,000-member sister local in New York City, the United Federation of Teachers, is supporting Occupy Wall Street, labor unions are joining local versions of the demonstration across the country to insist that WE ARE THE 99 percent. The financiers who caused the current deep recession are reaping record profits and bonuses while thousands of teachers and school employees have been laid off statewide due to the financiers' greed and the consequences it has caused.
In Washington, D.C., the Occupy DC movement began at McPherson Square in the heart of downtown on October 1, and since then has been holding general assemblies and actions two times per day, with 30 to 70 people attending.
A protester named Eric explained why he was there. "We are tired of corporate greed and want instead corporate accountability," he said. "It has become clear to a lot of people that it's necessary for us to demand corporations to give back to us what they have been hording for a long time now."
Bear, a homeless advocate and activist, asked the general assembly to reach out to the homeless community, saying, "We want a country we can live in, just like you."
In Baltimore, where the 2010 census revealed that one out of every four city residents lives below the federal poverty line, "We are the 99 percent" means something. More than 300 people gathered in the chill of the night on October 4 at the Inner Harbor for the first general assembly of the occupation. Some 125 people marched to protest plans for new youth jail.
"There's a common sense that something's really wrong," said Jessica Lewis. "This is a really diverse group of people who have never really worked together before to organize something this big."
In Asheville, N.C., activists estimate that some 250 people have so far participated in marches and councils since the movement began on October 1. Some 30 people have camped out overnight, and when police shut down their encampment on Wall Street--Wall Street in Asheville, that is--they moved it to Pritchard Park, about a block away.
In Sacramento, Calif., as many as 150 people, from many different backgrounds turned out for the first Occupy Sacramento meeting in a local park on October 1.
As participants discussed plans for a protest on October 6, a wide range of demands were on the table, with some attendees arguing against taking up issues like abortion, immigration or LGBT rights because it would "offend Tea Party supporters" and others who had more radical demands, such as an end to capital punishment, an end to U.S. wars, forgiveness of student loan debt and single-payer health care.
Community members were already showing their support for the occupation before it began. Local businesses were planning sending food and support to the occupiers. Organizers also issued solidarity statements made by National Nurses United and the Sacramento State Social Work Association and Bachelor of Social Work Association on their website.
Occupy Sacramento released their own statement about the meaning of the movement:
We are preparing to change the world. We are becoming another head on the beast of change. We will stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in over 200 cities around the world...This is global revolution. Civil rights, human rights, freedom, dreams, have all been trampled by those with the money and the power. We demand change. We demand equality! The time has come for us to govern ourselves! We are the 99 percent!"