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How Occupy Wall Street is evolving in the Bay Area

Photo by Peg Hunter

Last Friday, 18 Occupy Cal protesters were detained in the early morning after setting up another on-campus encampment. On Monday, around 700 demonstrators convened at San Quentin to Occupy the prison. Tomorrow evening, San Francisco’s Occupy Bernal is hosting a forum to discuss the more than 80 Families facing eviction or foreclosure on Bernal Hill.

The movement is still going strong, but it’s also having some growing pains. Zappo Montag, a longtime Occupy Oakland activist, has been feeling them.

ZAPPO MONTAG: “There have been people who have felt like look, we have gotten so much support when they tear gas us that maybe the way to go is to initiate these conflicts and it’s going to bring more people in. But the fact is that doesn’t work very often. Over time people either get turned off from things they see on the media or they get scared.”

Lately, the movement has been accused of being fragmented and lacking a clear message. Reporter Joaquin Palomino has been following the story. KALW’s Holly Kernan sat down with him and asked what he thought about the criticism.

PALOMINO: I think, especially in Oakland, there’ve been some pretty noticeable divisions. A lot of the more “peaceful” protesters feel that their form of protest, that their message is regularly overshadowed by the more confrontational elements – which, in my opinion, is one of the reasons why there has been a dwindling participation in the movement in Oakland. But, that second question, it doesn’t have a clear objective. I kind of disagree with that. The movement has gotten a lot more focused and it has hooked up with a lot of activist organizations and NGOs and it’s really organizing around some specific causes now.

KERNAN: Like foreclosures, in Bernal.

PALOMINO: Yeah like foreclosure, prison conditions in California…

KERNAN: And you think that that makes it a more focused message rather then a more dispersed message?

PALOMINO: I think that where, in the beginning, it was more of a place to think about ideas, and brainstorm ways of how we can make society better, how people can make society better rather, and now I feel like people are actually taking those actions and they’re taking those steps on a variety of fronts, on whatever causes inspire them.

KERNAN: What is going to be happening next in the Occupy Movement as we hit spring here.

PALOMINO: Nationally, there are a few very, very big protests that are being planned. If you remember back in December, a lot of people talked about how this might be the time to move on to the next stage, to do something besides setting up camps and just “occupying” places. So in the spring there is a big May Day protest planned, a big general strike. And it’s going to be international. Oakland, participating here in the Bay Area, San Francisco. And that should be a pretty huge event. And in Chicago in May there is a G8 and NATO Summit. They are planning a big, month-long occupation of Chicago, which is supposed to bring people in from around the world.

KERNAN: And what’s happening here locally?

PALOMINO: Essentially, all of the Bay Area camps have been taken down. There’s still general assemblies being held regularly, but there is not focal point anymore.

KENRAN: You mean like a civic center plaza…

PALOMINO: Yeah, there’s no Justin Herman Plaza, there’s no Frank Ogawa plaza. They’re there for general assemblies, but there are no camps. But what has happened is the General Assemblies, first off, have sort spread. So now there’s general assemblies sometimes in Fruitvale. Sometimes they are in the mission. And it’s also broken into a lot of these smaller groups, which I was talking about. In Oakland, there’s Occupy The Hood, which is doing a lot about school closures – there’s five schools slated for closure in Oakland next year. And so they’re working on addressing that issue, trying to support public education in that city. Occupy San Quentin is organizing to improve prison conditions. And there was just a pretty big protest, as you mentioned, just earlier this week. Then there’s also Occupy Bernal Hill, which is an interesting community group focusing on foreclosures there. They’ve actually stopped a few of these foreclosures auctions.

KERNAN: Let’s hear a clip form the panel discussion “Which Way Forward,” where a number of Occupy activists discussed the future of the movement.  This is Occupy Washington DC activist Margaret Flowers, talking about the new kind of organizing that has grown out the Occupy Movement.

MARGARET FLOWERS: Now, we have a job to do. Now that that energy has been released, how do we funnel that into positive and constructive change. It’s time to move out into the communities, the foreclosures, the lack of jobs and find solutions to those. We need to start meeting our human needs now.

KERNAN: That was Occupy activist Margaret Flowers. Let’s also hear from Zappo Montag, where he’s talking about what he calls a vanguards mentality.

MONTAG: And by Vanguards I talk about behaviors that kind of decide for the community, or the people, what the movement entails as opposed to letting the community have a larger input. It feels like some people feel they know the way and they need to lead the way and other people will join.

KERNAN: That was Zappo Montag, a long time Occupy Oakland activist and critic of some of its current decisions. 

PALOMINO: I spoke with Zappo and I want to make clear that he is still a big supporter of the movement. He is still heavily involved in the Occupy movement in Oakland, but he feels like it’s sort of become, at its core, a self-selected group because, as I mentioned, a lot of the more peaceful protesters have been discouraged.

KERNAN: Alienated.

PALOMINO: Yeah, he actually used that word as well. Alienated.

KERNAN: And I know a lot of people in Oakland are resentful of the services that are going from the police to the Occupy movement and taking away from a city that is so financially strapped already.

PALOMINO: It’s true, especially when you have all of these showdowns with the police regularly in a city that is struggling, that is crime ridden. A lot people don’t think that is a good image to have with the Occupy camp.

KERNAN: So let’s hear again from Zappo Montag about what he wants to see in the future.

MONTAG: We’ve finally gone through enough mistakes, tactically and strategically, that people are finally questioning what is the strategy. Have we had one? We are people that want major changes. We want to help make that happen, but we are not going to impose that on people. We need to find a way that we can engage everybody and find out what everybody wants that change to be.

KERNAN: Again that’s Occupy Oakland activist Zappo Montag. So what impact has Occupy already had?

PALOMINO: One of the biggest impacts that the Occupy movement has had is just starting this conversation and this debate about economic inequality in the U.S. It’s been a long time since there’s been a big, broad movement that’s centered on the distribution of wealth in this country. It’s also had some really big effects on policy. An interesting thing that happened in November was Florida representative Ted Deutch introduced the OCCUPIED bill, which is a pretty loaded acronym for Outlawing Corporate Cash Undermining the Public Interest in our Election and Democracy.

KERNAN: So is that sort of a response to Citizens United?

PALOMINO: It was meant to end corporate personhood and take huge sums of money out of elections.

KERNAN: And did it pass?

PALOMINO: It didn’t get very far, but it was introduced, which in my opinion was a pretty big deal – especially with that acronym, OCCUPIED, which was a clear homage to the Occupy movement itself.

KERNAN: And you’re saying that you’ve seen the Occupy Movement really change the conversation in this country?

PALOMINO: Yeah. Another example of that is, in November, when the federal government was talking about cutting social services, talking about cutting Medicare, Medicaid and social security, in response to the debt-ceiling crisis. And because, some say, Occupy had put this message of economic inequality at the center of political discussion, the social discussion, this bill couldn’t get very far. Because, as part of the bill, as the Republicans presented it, it would also cut taxes for the richest 1 percent. So a lot of politicians in this political environment didn’t think it was feasible to cut these services while also cutting taxes.

KERNAN: Let’s listen to Margaret Flowers, another Occupy Activist, speaking about the movement’s impact on national policy regarding foreclosures.

FLOWERS: There’s been a tremendous effort to Occupy the homes, to prevent foreclosures and evictions. President Obama was doing everything he could to pressure the attorney generals of the states to let the banks off the hook in this foreclosure crisis, to give them immunity from prosecution. That was the direction that he was headed, but because of the Occupy Movement – although the provisions that went through are woefully short of what’s needed to turn around these foreclosure crisis – he did not give immunity to the banks and is, in fact, is giving some money to the states so people could sue the states who have treated them fraudulently. PALOMINO: So this was pretty exciting for me to hear, because – first I should make it clear that I support the movement, I want to see it succeed – and so following it and being a part of it, sometimes, I feel like it’s its own bubble and not branching out of itself, that it’s all self-contained. But actually, hearing how it’s effecting policy and speaking to people I would have no idea, I would have never guessed that they would have supported the causes of Occupy, or supported the movement itself, saying that they are in support of its goals. And so to me, it’s all just really inspiring to hear.