A Day in the Life of Occupy SF

The OccupySF encampment at Justin Herman Plaza is a virtual mini-city. Photo by John C. Osborn

The OccupySF encampment at Justin Herman Plaza is a virtual mini-city. Photo by John C. Osborn

Resurrection, Take 3

Monday, October 17, 2011

It’s the one-month anniversary of the populist occupations in both New York and San Francisco, and the folks at Occupy SF are starting all over again. For the third time.

But you wouldn’t know this from walking around Justin Herman Plaza. It’s 10 a.m., and despite having been torn down 10 hours earlier by the SFPD, the camp — two tables under a large tarp serving as a kitchen and another large tarp protecting supplies — has been resurrected with the efficiency of a beehive.

On Sunday the occupiers moved the main camp from the sidewalk outside the Federal Reserve building, a block away, to this site, to have more room to grow, though they still maintain a small presence at the original site.

About a hundred people are here, volunteering for media, kitchen and cleaning duties. Others are lounging on the grass. There are homeless youth, middle-class youth, unemployed people, old-school activists.

Colin, a man in his early 20s who has an audio studio in Concord, describes the camp as a “society within a society,” an experimental response to “what we see that is sick about society.”

He equates the campers to the outcasts in “Surrogates,” a 2009 movie about a society that lives perfection through robots, never physically never interacting with anyone. The outcasts here refuse to give up to any artificial intelligence.

“Let’s celebrate our family member’s 21st birthday!” a woman yells from the kitchen area, eliciting cheers and applause.

The camp, stretching along half a city block at the end of Market Street near the Embarcadero, is an impressive experiment in decentralized logistics. The main staging area is on the east side of the plaza, a city of two large tarps flapping in the slight breeze. Tables are filled with supplies, food and water. Piles of sleeping bags, blankets and pillows fill a nearby corner.

A steady stream of donated food flows into the camp’s coffers, which is then turned around at the canopied kitchen area and given out for free. Volunteer medics sort piles of medical supplies. A media team interacts with the Internet via a hot spot created by an iPhone, and the computers are powered by car batteries continually recharged by a person pedaling a bicycle-powered generator. There is even a process for decision-making.

Sometime around 2 p.m., trucks from the Department of Public Works arrive to deliver recycling and trash cans, a sign for the campers that maybe, just maybe, they will be able to hold the space for the long term.

Consensus

It’s a little after 3 p.m. The camp has two pressing tasks to address at the daily General Assembly: the planned march that’s supposed to begin in two hours, and the strong likelihood that SFPD will be back again tonight to dismantle the camp.

A General Assembly, or GA, as everyone in camp refers to the confabs, embodies to a degree the values that the occupiers want to see in society at large: a place where every voice matters, where community trumps the individual, and where disagreement is settled with discussion, not intimidation.

The first hiccup in the 60-person GA occurs as a journalist working for KPFA is setting up a microphone in the middle of the circle.

“Did we come to a consensus about whether we want to be recorded?” asks a man sitting on the ground wearing a tank top and jeans.

“It’s just for documentation, is all,” the young journalist replies.

“We have a right to our privacy.”

With that the journalist folds, packing up his equipment and leaving.

The mood is tense. People are flustered about last night’s raid, and eager to figure out what to do about it.

“Say how you feel in one word,” says one of the facilitators, a middle-aged man wearing glasses, tight jeans and a black T-shirt, his grayish-black hair pulled back in a ponytail.

Anxious. Hopeful. Concerned. Impressed. Let’s get this shit started. Victorious. These words, among others, are spoken.

It becomes clear that the group is split: Some want to proceed with the planned march, others want to hold a rally here to defend the camp from another possible SFPD raid.

As the conversation goes on, someone says, “Oakland is coming here!” There is an explosion of joy at the prospect that the two Occupy movements will unite to march down Market Street.

Then come the debates over what to do.

The pro-march contingent argues that Occupy Oakland expects one, and that to back out would show inconsistency. Plus, a march would unite everyone.

Those in favor of a camp rally say the camp needs protection.

People are often mystified by the consensus process. But in a nutshell, one person with deep reservations can block a decision when a vote is called.

In this case, there are blocks, and an alternative proposal needs to be made.

Do both, they decide.

“This is not just a plaza, this is not just a public space,” begins a man with a red bandanna wrapped around his neck, speaking in favor of a rally. “This is our community! Without this we are back to square one.”

The group eventually decides to hold a rally at the camp, then march down Market Street to the Federal Reserve site, in order to react quickly if police decide to raid the camp again. But before the group reaches that consensus, arguments flare over how slow the meeting is going, how people are not being heard, and what to do if the cops invade later.

By the time the next issue is presented — whether to inform police about their intention to march — it’s close to 5 p.m.

The Calm

After a brief rally at the plaza, hundreds march down Market Street, a flood of people, color and signage that consumes one lane. The demographics are diverse: parents and children, young and old, middle-class and homeless, white people and people of color.

Police play cat-and-mouse briefly as the march deviates down a one-way street toward oncoming traffic, then down Mission Street and back up to the encampment at the Federal Reserve building.

When the march weaves back to the plaza, the crowd is energized. It’s not Saturday’s march of thousands that linked with occupiers all over the world, but it’s still a good march.

Back at the plaza, a young street kid, shoeless and looking tired, holds a 10-foot-tall yellow sign that reads “We are the 99 percent.” His arms shake.

He turns to me. “We’re going to overthrow the system,” he says, smiling and wide-eyed. “I’ve been working for this my whole life.”

A group of people listen to stories from those who are willing to share.

A young woman who just moved to the city from New York says that she used to work as a waitress on Wall Street. She overheard them talking about Occupy New York at lunches, and they’re scared.

A young man with a black beard and ponytail shares his frustrations with how expensive college is, and the difficulties of getting financial aid when you’re in that murky middle-class area of income.

People line up for dinner — baked chicken, mashed potatoes and veggies. The occupiers are spread out on the plaza, on the grassy areas, underneath the tarps. They are chatting, philosophizing, dreaming.

A group of street kids sit cross-legged in a circle playing Magic the Gathering, a card game, and egg one another on about the nuances within the game.

One of the kids, a 19-year-old from New Mexico, found himself on the streets after dropping out of school when he lost the means to sustain himself. His lifestyle at the moment is too unstable to seek out a GED, but he plans to go live with his uncle and work his way into college.

Nearby, an older protester with short dark hair has a bandanna wrapped around his mouth. His eyes wide and intense, his face sunken and dark with the marks of fatigue and battle, he points to another protester’s water bottle on the ground as they sit on the cement ledge.

“You should have one filled with urine,” he says.

“Why?” the other one asks, mystified.

Because, he replies, it’s the best way to get the chemicals found in tear gas out of your eyes; water spreads them around. He learned that during the 2009 G-20 protests in Pittsburgh. He is a career protester and self-described anarchist who has been on the streets for a while.

Three people sit on the cement and listen attentively to Lynne Gravel Mosier, a hedge-fund manager dressed in a crisp, dark-colored business suit who came to chat with the protesters. She’s an advocate for the National Institute for Democracy, a nonprofit focused on bringing direct democracy to America, and she supports the movement completely.

“Right now, we give all our power away on election day,” she explains. “Then we have to beg for change through protest.”

Mosier further elaborates on the idea behind digital democracy — specifically, the ability to cast votes online, and how that could allow for a shift toward issue-based reporting and voting, rather than focusing on politicians.

“We’re in our civic adolescence right here,” she says. “We’re moving toward civic maturity.”

With the Lights Out

“The cops are coming!”

It’s past 10 p.m., when the park officially closes, and somebody thinks they see SFPD mobilizing a block away.

Since the march ended, cops have lined the street along the park’s perimeter, and now it appears they may be making a move.

The camp explodes with activity. People look for places to safely stash their belongings. Bandannas are wrapped around faces and when none can be found, torn cloth is used.

“Have you seen the bailout sheet?” a punk guy asks me, his chin-long hair slightly covering one side of his face.

I shake my head.

He says he’s not sticking around for the showdown, but he wants to play it safe and sign the bailout sheet, a list of names for people to look for if arrests are made. “By being here, I’m in harm’s way. You got to think ahead.”

Are they afraid?

A tall guy, James, who has been there since the beginning, laughs. “Are you kidding me? I got arrested last night.”

Thirty minutes later, the alert comes down a notch to yellow — there will be no raid. Even though people remain cautious, there is music — lots of it — and it goes on throughout the night: drum circles, polka and gypsy music. About 80 occupiers choose to remain for the evening.

It’s cold, but the city won’t allow fires or tents. Public Works comes by on random days to power-spray the plaza. Tonight they come by around 4:30 a.m., but spray the plaza between the camp and the Ferry Building.

By the time early morning arrives, only a handful of people are still awake, most cuddled in sleeping bags. A few act as sentries, keeping an eye out for any indication of an attack.

But mostly those awake try to stay warm as they talk politics and plan for the future. Some play cards or simply enjoy the serenity of a calm, clear, starry night.

The sprinklers come on once, and an emergency medical team arrives after a homeless man has serious medical problems, but otherwise the night is calm.

In the end it’s clear there are no plans for what’s next. That’s not the point, the campers say: It’s a matter of living now. The camp is their great dissent, their policy paper, their ballot, their message of another way for society and community to come together and coexist.

Tomorrow is another day.

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One Comment

  1. nzmrmn

    Such good reporting, thank you. Jesus, it’s like eating a loaf of fresh bread right out the oven after eating the cold canned Chef Boyardee ravoli that passes for mainstream journalism these days.

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