Lessons from Occupy

Occupy began in September 2011 for many of the same reasons as the Arab Spring. In both cases, government was not responding to the needs of the people. The...

Occupy began in September 2011 for many of the same reasons as the Arab Spring. In both cases, government was not responding to the needs of the people. The U.S. government bailed out banks, but not home owners. They had money for war, while veterans’ benefits were slashed.  Student fees skyrocketed, while corporations received tax cuts for sending jobs overseas. Many were suffering.  Occupy framed this perfectly with the brilliantly inclusive slogan, “We are the 99%”.

So while people suffered, the rich and powerful yawned and looked on.  We took to the parks and the streets.  Occupy Wall Street began with people setting up encampments in Zuccotti Park in New York.  This park was quickly rechristened Liberty Park.

Now think about this for a moment.  We had dozens of people camping out in the park while corporate media watched us like vultures, waiting for us to fail.  We had to organize.  We had to come to agreement on issues such as food, garbage, dogs, late night drumming, and the safety of Occupiers.  We had to decide what we were going to do.  Occupiers would gather in a large circle and hold public meetings, called General Assemblies, to decide our course of action.  Decisions were collectively made and passed by consensus in this deliberately leaderless movement.  We shared everything.  There were familiar faces there and a lot of new ones too. Faces of people who’d suddenly found themselves homeless, veterans whose benefits had been cut, students bankrupted by debt. Yeah, we were all there with nowhere else to go.

Initially Occupy was ignored. Then in October, Occupiers, dressed as zombies, descended on Wall Street. Now the corporate media began taking notice.  Occupiers started coming and occupations were rising up in public spaces in Chicago and Oakland and beyond in places like Taos, Tucson, Laramie, Fargo and throughout Sonoma County.  It was a movement that resonated with many, and it was catching on.

As Occupations spread, a conference of mayors was held and shortly thereafter, police began violently cracking down on occupations. People were beaten and gassed.  Veteran Scott Olson was shot in the head by a tear gas canister. Encampments were destroyed and Occupy appeared to be over.  It was merely the end of Phase I.

What were some of the lessons here? Prior to Occupy, Congress was all worried about the national debt. By taking the streets and the parks and disrupting business as usual, we changed the conversation to issues of class, a subject rarely if ever discussed in the land of the free.  We showed the power of the 99% and it frightened the corporate death state. This was revolution and would reverberate in large-scale resistance from Black Lives Matter to Standing Rock.  We learned that we can gather en masse, celebrating our diversity, and organize peacefully without leaders.  Occupy helped people see that we are not alone and we are mighty!

By 2012, Occupy, Phase I, was over. Most of the encampments had been destroyed and the corporate media had gone home.  We didn’t.  Many of us had nowhere else to go.  So we organized. Enter Occupy Phase II.

Taking lessons from Phase I, lessons of egalitarianism and peaceful coexistence, Occupy moved from the parks to embrace issues of class, such as student debt with Occupy our Debt.  Occupy our Homes studied home owners’ foreclosure documents to see if the banks seizing people’s homes really did own them. Nestles’ heisting of public water in Sacramento was exposed and stopped by Occupy Sacramento while Occupy the Farm shut down an open air, GMO experimental farm operated by UC Berkeley. Occupy was focusing on local targets for direct action campaigns and enjoying positive results.

In December 2012, Occupy Sonoma County reemerged with a focus on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).   Like any other campaign, this required outreach and educating the public.  For five years Occupy Sonoma County organized Marches Against Monsanto in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. This was our local contribution to a coordinated, international campaign to ban GMOs by focusing on the corporation most responsible for them, Monsanto.  Monsanto uses genetically modified organisms to make Round Up. The active ingredient in Round Up is glyphosate, a proven carcinogen.  In the process of creating these local marches, we learned the value of working locally on national campaigns.  This year we are showing the film Sunu at the Arlene Francis Center on 6th and Wilson in Santa Rosa on May 18th from 7 – 9. Sunu is a documentary about Mexican farmers trying to defend their corn crop, in the birthplace of maize, from the corporate dominance of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn-like substance. The movie is free and we’ll have a free seed exchange as well as a pay-what-you can plant sale.

To further our outreach and education campaign, Occupy began conducting teach-ins on GMOs. Other teach-ins soon followed. There have been teach-ins on getting past capitalism, body oppression, music and revolution, gender awareness, know your rights, Palestine, climate change and more. In the process of doing this, Occupy Sonoma County has become a media and publicity machine.  We joined the campaign to pass Measure M and ban the growing of GMOs in Sonoma County and I’m pleased to announce that, due to these massive efforts, Sonoma County now joins a geographic block of GMO free counties that runs up the coast from Santa Cruz into southern Oregon.   In lieu of the passage of measure M, our GMO campaign has morphed into the Earth Action Campaign, focusing on climate change, climate justice, toxic chemicals and GMOs.  We have a shoppers’ guide on our web site that lists the heroes and zeroes of GMO foods.

Lesson from Phase II so far, include localizing resistance to global problems and using education and direct action to achieve results. We strengthened our commitment to non-oppressive politics and leaderlessness. See, when you’re leaderless everyone becomes leaderful and you become a group of leaders. We are an open group, welcoming to all who are committed to nonviolent change and egalitarian relationships.

We meet every Monday at the Peace & Justice Center at 467 Sebastopol Ave. in Santa Rosa, usually at 7, sometimes at 6. The first Monday is media and publicity; the second, the one that starts at 6, is our general meeting, the third Monday is for our Earth Action Campaign and the fourth is for catching up or our bimonthly teach-ins.  To contact us at 877-6650 or go to OccupySonomaCounty.org or our Facebook or twitter pages.

Occupy has been ignored, ridiculed and violently repressed.  We are still here and we are ready to win. Why don’t you join us and feel empowerment surge through your veins as we work together to reclaim democracy.


Rebel Fagin is a writer who has been politically active in Sonoma County since the 1970’s. He writes regularly for the Sonoma County Peace Press and the Global Critical Media Literacy Project (gcml.org). He has a book documenting nearly forty years of street activism in Sonoma County called Tales from the Perpetual Oppositional Culture – a Journey into Resistance. He lives in Santa Rosa, California and is active with many activists’ organizations.
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