Your Lost Coast Outpost was part of a Humboldt delegation that found itself in San Francisco Friday with nothing much to do until night time. Coincidentally, it turned out that Bay Area activists had chosen that day to put on a citywide, one-day Occupy protest that drew people from all over the region into the Financial District and elsewhere.
This was my own first direct experience with the Occupy movement outside of Humboldt County, and despite the rain and the less-than-envisioned turnout the whole thing was a very impressive sight. It was possible to quibble with particulars, but the action’s logistical sophistication and tight message — a theme with variations — were a joy to behold. These were competent people.
How much of this was due to a recent reshuffling of leadership? The San Francisco Examiner carried a couple of stories (one, two) in the lead-up to the event — redubbed as “Occupy Wall Street West” — which suggested that established labor and housing rights organizations had stepped up to take a larger role in organizing the day of protest. The previous San Francisco Occupy organization, “Occupy SF,” was also involved, but one Occupy SF person told the Examiner that he was less than thrilled about the new blood:
[Robb] Benson, who plans to attend today’s events, said he’s willing to give the new push a chance. But he feels Occupy Wall Street West has shown contempt about the first iteration of Occupy SF and its general assembly meetings, which involve unorthodox hand gestures and require all decision-making to be done by consensus.
“People who go to their meetings see them making fun of the general assembly,” Benson said. “There seems to be some condescension there.”
I had no first-hand experience, of course, but news reports suggest that the previous Occupy SF encampment at Justin Herman Plaza — like the Occupy Eureka — became bogged down in issues surrounding the right of people to camp in public places. This, of course, is a dead loser if anyone involved wants to build a social movement with any sort of chance.
(Yes, yes, I know: I wasn’t at Occupy SF. I’m relying on second-hand information. And Occupy Eureka and Occupy SF have talked about much more than the right to camp; it’s just that that’s the war that they actually fought and let themselves become defined by.)
Occupy Wall Street West was a much different affair. There was a command post set up at Justin Herman Plaza; bank actions and others designed to interrupt home foreclosures were coordinated from there. At each of these sites there were people with talent and experience handling the megaphone. See, for instance, this short video of the first Occupy action we came across, at a Wells Fargo branch near the Powell Street BART station:
While this was going on, protesters had shut down the branch from the inside. I’m not sure if it ended in arrest or whether people disbanded amicably and went off to the next site. Overall, there were very few arrests throughout the day — only 23 total, all of them involved in direct action for which arrest was inevitable and part of the point. Some people were certain that the SFPD had been told to take a hands-off approach to the protest.
The cops did make a strong show of force in the heart of the Financial District at noon, but I believe only one person was arrested there. This was the kickoff point for the big march that went throughout the center of the city and eventually found its way down to Justin Herman. I thought the march was about a thousand people strong, though the Chron put the number at “several hundred.” It meandered through the streets of the city, stopping at key points to deliver speeches. There was a bilingual mini-rally in favor of immigration reform outside the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) building, for example.
This main march had a touch of the circus to it — people in costume, on stilts, vuvuzelas blaring. There was a large Occupy Oakland contingency present, and they brought their converted AC Transit bus, which blasted out Rage Against The Machine half the time and straight-up party music the rest. Protest organizers in green vests led the march throughout the city, wending it this way and that and occasionally telling people to move to this side of the street or that in order to keep things legal.
Before, during and after, there were things going on all over town — in the Mission, Bernal Heights, in Chinatown, at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. A planned foreclosure auction was postponed, which organizers counted as a good win. A march down Van Ness that evening turned a bit weird when a group broke off and broke into the abandoned Cathedral Hill Hotel, leading to some cat-and-mouse with the police and a few arrests. And that was the end of that.
I can chart my feelings about the Occupy movement with a fair degree of precision. For the first week or two, I didn’t take the events at Zuccotti Park very seriously. Then it changed. I think the moment that impressed me most was when Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to kick everyone out on the grounds that the park needed to be cleaned. Instead, the protesters said they’d clean it up themselves. In a couple of hours, apparently, the thing was immaculate. Bloomberg called off the eviction. That move, I thought, was an immensely smart play by the Occupiers.
And as the Zuccotti movement grew and grew, I started to think — damn, maybe there’s something here. Maybe this can grow into something real, a new social movement that will rival the Tea Party’s power.
I saw the We Are the 99 Percent Tumblr. I remembered the frightening income inequality charts that Mother Jones magazine had published a few months earlier. I watched the much more raucous Occupy Oakland — a movement as tough as the town — come to the fore for a few weeks. You had the sense that history was being made.
And then, on the downside, you had Redwood Curtain Copwatch and other associated Verbenites dominate the Eureka Courthouse lawn, and that whole thing became the same tired act that it always becomes. Every person arrested is a victim of police brutality, despite how hard they worked to try to become arrested. People have a right to sleep absolutely anywhere on public property. They claimed to speaking for 99 percent of the population, but they staked their ground on stances that perhaps one percent of the population supports. They spent the goodwill that Occupy Wall Street had painstakingly acquired and spent it all on the political equivalent of cigarettes and booze. Flameout seemed inevitable.
Occupy Wall Street West was different. Here you had super-competent people doing things cleverly and with panache. They didn’t sit around whining and moping; they were out getting it done. For my own part, the whole thing was very heartening.