Occupy Wall Street Hits Close to Home


Megan Freeman, Editor-in-Chief

Only a couple blocks up from the Ferry Building where oblivious shoppers enjoy the waterfront markets, a crowd of protesters brandish cardboard signs and chant in front of the Federal Reserve Bank. The group is a faction of the Occupy Wall Street protests that has taken the nation by storm over the past two months and spread to other major U.S. cities and overseas. But San Francisco, as always, yields a unique contribution to the movement.

The cross section of people involved with Occupy San Francisco ranges from impassioned college students to Vietnam-era protesters wanting to get in on the action. The protesters’ opinions are as diverse as their ages.

“You all probably have heard from the guys at Wall Street, but the main reason people are here is that they’re just fed up,” said one middle-aged man. “The way that the money is distributed in this country is disgusting. The rich people can do anything they want, and we’re not even left with enough money for basic human needs.”

“The world is changing,” said another man. “There is a big struggle going on, the struggle of the powers. The richest one percent, they’ve had the power for thousands of years. They are preying on us, the 99 percent. But now it’s changing, and they don’t like it. It’s like a story in Africa. The zebras eat the grass. The lions eat the zebras. But if we just get five zebras to learn to kick the lions, then guess what: the lions change their diet.”

On weekdays, when employed protesters trade their banners for briefcases, only the core group remains. At first glance, it’s easy to write the protesters off as disgruntled homeless people gathering on the street to shout their opinions at passers by. While that may be true in some cases, the assumption barely scratches the surface of the true meaning of the demonstration. The protesters are often normal businesspeople who want to add their voice to the mix.

“I’m a competent individual,” said one man. “I actually own two businesses. But it seems that as a broke person on the road I can’t do practically anything. But these guys can mess up anyone at any time and they’re protected just because they’re a corporation? It’s not right.”
The unemployed men and women, mostly young and white but with a wide variation, spend nights on the sidewalk in sleeping bags and days planning marches and events, maintaining their website, and trying to avoid altercations with the police.

“We are an entirely non-violent movement,” said another young woman who was appointed head of police communications. “We are entirely within our rights as citizens to be protesting on the street, but the police don’t seem to understand that. Just the other day they took all of our stuff, all of it. They took our sleeping bags, our food, our tarps, everything.”

“They took our kitten food,” interrupted one man. “Kitten food! They had absolutely no right to take everything. We weren’t causing any problems.”

Though police returned the confiscated goods several days later, tensions remain high between the San Francisco Police Department and the protesters. On any given day, five or six officers guard the bank behind metal fences marked “police line, do not cross.” During marches there can be upwards of 80 officers accompanying the protesters to make sure things don’t get out of hand.

Armed only with cardboard signs and their impassioned voices, the Occupy San Francisco protesters line Market Street.

Police have arrested several people over the course of the demonstration.

“My friend Purple got arrested for ‘assaulting a police officer,’ but he was just waving a stick of sage around,” said one woman. “The police have been unnecessarily harsh with us, and it’s not okay. They need to know our rights as protesters.”

Despite several such incidents, the protests in San Francisco have run rather smoothly compared to other major cities. This is due in part to the way the group organizes itself.

The block in front of the bank is covered in cardboard signs indicating different stations where protesters can sleep, eat, make new signs, join a friendly open circle, and even charge their phones, cameras, and computers with a stationary bike-powered generator. Every day, the crowd meets for a general assembly to discuss recent developments and decide on actions to take later in the week.

Since they are not allowed to use electronic devices to amplify their voices, the protesters have adopted the human microphone system in which the person speaking says a few words at a time, and the surrounding people repeat after them until the entire message has rippled outward to the edge of the crowd.

“People don’t seem to realize that we are actually pretty well organized and that our message is organized as well,” said a young man. “We’re all really just fighting for basic human rights, and with the speed that Occupy Wall Street is growing, we’re bound to make some difference. People are beginning to pay attention.”

With protests cropping up in new cities across the country almost every day, the movement shows no sign of slowing down. Most people agree that the Occupation is only the beginning of something much bigger.

The protests have moved into more cities in the Bay Area, including Berkeley, Oakland, and even Walnut Creek.

The Oakland protesters are gaining strength and numbers at an exponential rate, partially due to a controversial conflict with the police on Oct. 25. Police broke up the tent camp in front of City Hall when protesters began to throw rocks, glass bottles, and other projectiles at the officers, who retaliated with tear gas, bean bag guns, and concussion grenades. Over 100 people were arrested over the course of the skirmish, but the majority were released later the same day.

The clash sparked public outrage and anger toward Oakland Mayor Jean Quan for authorizing upwards of 400 police to disperse the crowd. Quan now faces demands to resign or change her policies toward the Occupation.

Suspicions of police brutality arose when several protesters were injured by non-lethal weapons, including two-tour Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen. Olsen is now in critical condition with a fractured skull at Highland General Hospital. His condition further infuriated the Occupy Oakland group, who called for a citywide strike on Wednesday, Nov. 2.

“We propose a citywide general strike and we propose we invite all students to walk out of school,” reads the proposal on the Occupy Oakland website. “Instead of workers going to work and students going to school, the people will converge on downtown Oakland to shut down the city. All banks and corporations should close down for the day or we will march on them.”

However large the Oakland protests grow, many people worry about the direction they are moving in.

“We want to have solidarity with Occupy Oakland, but we’re afraid that if they turn violent, which is highly possible, all of our protests will lose credibility and the public will turn on us,” said the head of police communications for the San Francisco group. “We don’t want violence, and we can’t risk it.”

The Oakland protests may be controversial, but they have been drawing much attention to the movement as a whole. Even famous documentarian Michael Moore dropped by to show support for the crowd.

“The whole world is watching Oakland,” reads the website. “Let’s show them what is possible.”

Closer to home and much less provocative, Occupy Walnut Creek has set up a loose protest outside of the Walnut Creek BART station on Wednesday afternoons at 4:00 p.m. The numbers are growing every week, but the participants usually leave after several hours.

Each of the Occupations in separate cities bring the protesters closer to getting their message across, despite their different methods.

“This is the 99 percent. This is the zebras learning to kick. Bring it.”