Bank and Land Occupations — It’s Not Over Yet, by a Long Shot
by Jan Lundberg
Occupy Santa Cruz has had in three days three major setbacks. Perhaps they were fruitless attempts to set back the movement. The last one in the series, that the police moved to pull off on Dec. 7, is the eviction and dismantling of the tent city of Occupiers (and previously homeless folk) downtown at San Lorenzo Park by the river. [Update: the tent city was partly abandoned by dark on the 7th, and the police came in after 7 AM the next day, arresting five people.] The police and their backers might think they are on a roll. This report shows this thinking would be flawed.
Whether the movement is viable or not, or a threat to the dominant order and the 1% or not, the poor have to be somewhere. So it’s heartless for a homeless encampment — home — to be razed. It’s as if it were a center of violent crime preying upon the surrounding community. The police state and the 1% want people divided and to fear the poor, and to shy from community cohesion (unless it’s only to affirm the elite’s aims).
Alliances can change shape day to day. One day the Occupiers seem to represent “only” perhaps 33% of the public. At other times, given the humanity on display in proud form, Occupy is actually a 100%-population movement in disguise. Within any given Occupy group, disagreements happen constantly.
Despite strife (mostly from the police) and admitted uncertainties, the Occupy movement is the still best thing going in this country, and even perhaps globally. That’s from what I can see, even though I have questioned the movement’s grasp of sustainability. I’ve been monitoring Occupy and participating a bit in some locations, so that helps me to pass along some of the basis for the seemingly mysterious passion and success the movement has enjoyed.
For some participants, Occupy means there’s a place one can go when there’s nothing else. Sometimes a person needs fellow citizens’ help for a meal, discussion, and positive action. Prior to Occupy, for the very low income there was only a choice of submitting to a mostly inadequate institution or living on the streets — unless one was clever enough to have a work-trade residence on a small organic farm, perhaps.
As for the institution option, it can be a shelter or other charity, but institutions are non-participatory in internal and external politics, except for a few groups such as Food Not Bombs. (Tellingly, the latter is not an institution, but a decentralized mini-movement.) The other choice, the proverbial sleeping under a bridge, is all too common, whether one is dysfunctional due to mental illness or just plain desperate. After all, to go off freely to enjoy a state or national park on an “unemployed vacation” one almost always needs a car as well as fees for camping, money for food, etc. — these are the lucky downtrodden, comparatively.
So Occupy is proving to be the best alternative, in many locations, to the brutal cash economy that has left so many casualties out in the cold. The Great Recession also freed some for a hipster’s vacation – a middle-aged activist I knew from Oregon has joined the Santa Cruz tent city and participated in the General Assemblies on the court house steps, but now will apparently have to go find another Occupy community. She had decided to “live on the road” this winter with her car, but local homeless people and other local Occupiers don’t have that option.
The “25%” — to estimate the very poor who have few resources — have had a tough time losing jobs and/or homes, but the worst of it all is the U.S. culture’s tendency to be separate individually and thus leave one vulnerable in many ways. Fortunately, there is togetherness in Occupy camps and meetings, even among those who don’t feel disposed to tolerate the presence of “difficult” individuals.
Once attained society-wide, the power of community can see a whole nation get through extreme crisis, as in Cuba’s loss of USSR oil. U.S. Occupiers are not at a loss: a grassroots, do-it-yourself activist tradition is to get the daily components of togetherness functioning: feeding themselves efficiently, providing first aid, mediation/security, media, waste disposal, recycling, etc.
Simply the effort at communication and sharing that is being made hourly and in hundreds of locations at this very moment keeps Occupiers together, and will come in handy for future community relationships certain to succeed the current, dying consumer economy.
When people occupy consciously a meaningful site cooperatively, this starts turning the key to better things. A vision is worked out, or a beginning made that is improved daily. The same goes for specific programs or demands. Positive ideas fly as discussion continues, while occasional crazy comments are deftly set aside. The way the leaderless consensus process happens, among people thrown together by a common feeling, can only be understood by witnessing it. Self-organizing and communication work to move a group ahead to accomplish great things, if the democratic, anarchistic, tendency is not deflated by apathy or violently trounced.
In the latter case, a brutal backlash by the threatened dominant order can generate a more determined reaction by the people. Victory can come, and the tyrant defeated (e.g., Tunisia, Egypt). However, this is no guarantee that the new order will avoid the anti-ecological mistakes of its predecessor.
New Occupations with imagination and confrontation
Nevertheless, the bank occupation in Santa Cruz, California gave me a positive vibe when I visited. The action was an outgrowth of the more mainstream Occupy Santa Cruz. A former bank building, still owned by Wells Fargo Bank, housed the Comerica Bank. So dozens of protesters took the building over and held it defiantly for several days, ending Sunday. The first time the police tried to eject the protesters, 200 people stood at the door to prevent it.
I happened to be in the neighborhood last Friday night, coming at a time when a big meeting was going on inside. As I put my hand on the door nob to enter, all the lights went out — the police had cut the power. Most people quietly left. In a matter of hours the protesters vacated after repeated police warnings of a raid. In the intervening days, the mayor-elect had been getting much pressure from impatient quarters wanting to see any sympathy and tolerance for all Occupy manifestations end forthwith.
All that remains now is an encampment, or tent city, in the riverside park around the corner from the Court House, where Occupy Santa Cruz had a presence, until today, since October. The tent city has been targeted for dismantling by the police. A restraining order against eviction is in the works.
This shortsighted city decision only invites a regrouping of more determined homeless people and other kinds of Occupiers, whenever a socioeconomic ripple may be felt by the public. The kinds of Occupation are numerous, but there are favorites that meet many needs.
Some of us have promoted for Occupation the northwest edge of town where much open land lies next to a long-existing homeless garden. Maybe the owner would benefit from food gardens, ecological mitigations, and positive press as a “friend to the 99%.” Occupying the land will happen, perhaps soon and in many places — hopefully very peacefully — but the strategy of the General Assembly on Dec. 6 was to see what happens with eviction attempts at the tent city.
The crackdowns on three Santa Cruz groups, although not decisive in the class war, reflect an overall weakness in the movement: not enough people to keep the police and their masters in check. So the representative “99%” folks are for the moment swept aside — expected by the Powers That Be to go suffer their deprivations and outrage in silence. This is no long-term solution for anyone. The recently hardened position of the System shows it has no creative approach, or desire, for bringing about unity of the population. Defense of the status quo and their wealth is the power structure’s only thought. One Nation under God?
At a time of increasing instability and great need for truly sustainable practices involving the whole community, it would be nice if the authorities and the more comfortable consumers were open to some fundamental changes. Unfortunately, they find Occupy to be a nuisance or threat, despite the honest impulse for achieving more equality and mutual security. When petroleum shortage and climate chaos hit, we’ll still all be in the same boat but even more so.
Meanwhile, Occupy evolves rapidly. A vacant lot in Santa Cruz was recently occupied and turned into a food garden. Bulldozers came and destroyed it, naturally!
Home occupations — and I don’t mean “working from home” job-jobs — are on the increase. In response,
Bank of America memo sent out to “field agents”: “i) Your safety is our primary concern, so do not engage w/the protesters; ii) While in neighborhoods, please take notice of vacant BAC Field Services managed homes & ensure they are secured; iii) Remind all parties of the bank’s media policy & report any media incidents.” Blogger “Tyler Durden” noted: Aside from superficial implications, what is more important is that the big banks are showing precisely what the weakest links in the system are, & what makes them the most nervous: Not protesters living in tents in a major metropolitan city: But protesters disrupting the lifeblood of the broken banking system — the home selling/repossession pathway. Expect many more such protests now that Bank of America has tipped its hand. (See OccupyOurHomes.org)
The trend of occupying homes in foreclosure or owned by banks is perhaps the cutting edge of “the movement.” Wait, what is the movement, and what are the implications of a singular movement?
Although what was called in the 1960s “the Movement” did indeed separate and fragment, today’s environmental movement, for example, is too weak to go it alone and not band together with the Occupy movement. So, since Occupy is vibrant and has gotten people’s attention more than any movement in recent decades, it’s important for everyone in the 99% to get behind Occupy. If there are mistaken notions in the movement, we can work on each one (e.g., that economic growth is good and that the banksters ruined it) — sometimes seeming to be a thankless task.
Yet, the people are finally trying to get together by being together. They’re succeeding, and that’s a real accomplishment. This aspect of the movement — being together and working something out, including our common future — is critical in our dominant culture so lacking in community.
An occupation is a level beyond a protest. So even though the Occupiers don’t act like a football team going about a play, or a platoon going on a march, or hierarchically-commanded flunkies, they don’t need to meet a test of accomplishing something. For they have accomplished it, and succeed as long as they don’t quit. Whenever a magic number of protesters has gathered in a designated Occupy spot, in whatever city, that is when the movement got its biggest local boost and helped make history.
Ideology and keeping Occupy peaceful
There is a serious ideological wrinkle in the whole Occupy drama. Although the Occupy movement is watched by everyone who is paying attention to national and global events, it might not be clear that differences are smoldering beneath the surface. A most militant wing of anti-System sentiment, reflecting today a very small minority, can be bolstered when the peaceful majority is shunted aside. The System justifies shunting the majority’s representatives — the Occupiers — by hoping out loud for more economic growth, even though trickle-down doesn’t work, and no more growth is possible via the now depleted resources of cheap energy.
Thwarting the peace-loving majority can go on a long time, but not forever. The end is near: the oil-powered, growth economy is playing out, whether or not the banksters had fleeced us and even if they now gave it back (see Erasing/Seizing Wealth of “The 1%” Cannot Create Viable Middle Class or Solve Sustainability Crisis). So it would be wise if society faced it openly instead of fought for the pie and the crumbs. Unfortunately, violent “solutions” can come into play by a few impatient, infantile, testosterone-heavy protesters itching for a fight — even though almost all of them feel sincere about helping our precious Earth and her plight.
When such protesters get their way in the streets for a skirmish or two, it often serves to alienate great numbers of potential peaceful protesters, and gives the militarized police the excuse to crack down violently against “terrorism.” Sometimes agents de provocateur appear at protests in order to force the issue and sully the name of a peaceful, rational movement. But the real provokers are those who try to mislead or conceal from the public the fact that shortages of resources are already here, and that preparation is being avoided for short-term advantage and keeping the populace calm.
Before a social solution might be worked out for our dysfunctional System, there may be significant starvation and related chaos, from both climate disaster and petrocollapse. I hasten to suggest that there is no need to shut down one’s thinking or feelings due to the fact that our collective situation will get worse before it gets better. It will worsen as long as consuming Mother Earth persists on this hellacious scale. But just what are our prospects? One answer:
The proof of the pudding: Until each person begins to change his or her behavior, and in general returns to the proverbial Garden, the Occupy movement is just a grouping of fervent, wronged, concerned citizens. Fortunately, the Occupy opportunity includes learning “new” things from one another. The libraries are good for the necessary cultural change too, if they can be kept (out in the) open. “Occupying the land” is key. Growing and gathering food collectively and not for profit may be the biggest key to the culture change that more and more of us see necessary and overdue for the modern branch of homo sapiens sapiens.
Santa Cruz’s brief new garden-park downtown
I visited the erstwhile park on Tuesday, after a mid-afternoon dip in the ocean, and took these after-bulldozing photographs. On reflection on what happened there, I believe something powerful occurred: the neighborhood activists who created it were doing something for themselves that would last. Sure, they knew they were risking rebuke and destruction of their beautiful work. But they are no doubt resolved to take back the initiative and never give up on creating something lasting for themselves and their community.
Jan Lundberg is the founder of Culture Change, and was an oil industry analyst at Lundberg Survey before joining the grassroots environmental movement in 1988. This article originally appeared on Culture Change.