by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
PHOTOS, top to bottom:
March from Balboa Park to the Civic Center
Activists at the Civic Center
The “independent” who called for Occupy and the Tea Party to unite
Two shots of the 4 p.m. march
The police attempted to shut down Occupy San Diego and drive its anti-corporate activists out of the Civic Center Plaza downtown October 13 and 14. They threatened them with ever-changing deadlines — first midnight on the 13th, then 7 that night, then 6 a.m. on the 14th. They confiscated all their tents but one, which they allowed to stay as a symbol. They arrested two activists and assaulted others with pepper spray. But on Saturday, October 15 the occupiers came roaring back for a long day including a long-planned rally against austerity at Sixth and Grape in Balboa Park and a march to the Civic Center. Some of the occupiers defied police by starting at the Civic Center, marching to Sixth and Grape for the rally, and then marching back! After the march, protesters staged another rally, this one under Occupy’s own auspices and considerably more free-form than the one in the park, and after a short break they went off on their regular 4 p.m. march through downtown, followed by an open debate at 5 on the purposes and future of their action.
Occupy San Diego is an offshoot of the worldwide Occupy movement, which started five weeks earlier in the streets of New York as Occupy Wall Street. The New York activists were in turn inspired by the marches and rallies held by fed-up activists in Arab countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria, which in the first two countries actually brought down long-established dictatorships. The Occupy movement has been criticized for not having a formal leadership structure or a pre-set list of demands, but its members clearly regard that as a strength, not a weakness. Certainly there was a dramatic contrast between the two rallies. The one in Balboa Park was a more traditional Leftist event, with speakers clearly identified and carefully selected to represent the groups in the coalition that had put it together. The Occupy event was much more elastic, with many speakers identifying themselves either by first names only or not at all, taking advantage of an open mike, talking about their personal experiences at the occupation site and telling their own stories to explain why they were there.
Not that there wasn’t a good deal of overlap between the events. The speakers in Balboa Park tended to be more specific about particular issues, while the Occupy speakers tended to speak more generally about what they feel corporations and their handmaidens in elective office have done to the U.S. and the world. But there was a great deal of passion at both rallies. Miguel, who MC’d the Balboa Park event, began it with a complaint about the state’s increases in community college tuition and how they’re cutting off an entire generation from higher education. “A simple fee increase of $10 [per unit] means a 30 percent reduction in the number of students that can afford to go to college,” he said. “There is money for war because it’s more profitable to bomb someone that looks like me than to give a youth a future.”
Ashley, a young student at UCSD, said similar things at the Civic Center about how the cutbacks in state education funding have affected her personally, not only by making her education more expensive but also harder to get into the classes she needs. “We’re sitting in 500-person classrooms and not learning anything,” she said. “We are finding out who our class oppressors are. Our response must include both action and serious reflection. We have to take what we’ve learned in the classrooms and do something with it.”
A woman named Kathy spoke in Balboa Park on behalf of the California Nurses’ Association and Nurses United. “Everyone knows our health-care system is not fair,” she said. “Millions of people in this country are denied health care. The system is corrupt and insurance companies have got rid of people who are really sick, just to save themselves money. We believe in fairness in health care and not only taxing the rich, but changing the entire system. Former governor Schwarzenegger called us a ‘special-interest group.’ Our interest is you and the welfare of the entire community.”
Michael Anderson, Queer activist with the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and one of the “Equality Nine” facing prosecution for a sit-in at the San Diego County Clerk’s office in August 2010, gave a roaring speech lambasting the Obama administration because all it’s done for Queer rights is repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy forbidding Queers from serving openly in the U.S. military. As far as Anderson is concerned, Queers shouldn’t want to serve in the U.S. military because all they’ll be doing is fighting, killing and dying to promote U.S. imperialism and the ability of U.S. corporations to rip off the resources of other countries.
“While our government spends a disproportionate amount of money on the war machine, Uncle Sam comes decorated with a rainbow pin and a finger pointed at you and says, ‘I want you,’” Anderson said. “He ignored us and demanded our silence in the 1980’s when the AIDS crisis first hit. He made us criminals in our own bedrooms until recently, and is still refusing us health care, surgery for Transgender people and protection against discrimination in employment. Homophobia in the law is rampant in this country. The government refuses to give benefits to the same-sex partners of [Queer] people in the military. We don’t even get the knock on the door to tell us our partner has died in combat. But we are being invited to join the military to keep imperialism going, make profits for the arms dealers and grab the resources of other countries. Uncle Sam may want me, but I say, ‘No, thank you.’”
Another S.A.M.E. and Equality Nine member, Chuck Stemke, led off Occupy San Diego’s own rally at the Civic Center. “We’ve been occupying this space for one week,” he said, “and yesterday we faced attacks from the police. Six months ago I was on my computer watching the demonstrations from Egypt, and the number of people occupying Tahrir Square. They had to face attacks from police and thugs. They stayed there, and every weekend they were joined by thousands of people, It’s a cult of resistance, it’s spread around the world and now it’s come to San Diego.”
Stemke called on Occupy San Diego members and supporters to “find the workers who are under attack” — including teachers and postal workers, both of whom face the threat of massive layoffs — and bring them into the movement. “We have terminal discontent in this country,” he said. “This movement will not die. If the Egyptians could overthrow a dictator who’d been entrenched for 30 years, we can overthrow a system that’s been screwing us for decades.”
Lorena Gonzalez, CEO and secretary-treasurer of the San Diego/Imperial Counties Central Labor Council, spoke at the Civic Center and asked the crowd for acknowledgment that the labor movement was supporting Occupy but wasn’t trying to dominate it. “I am proud to be a first-generation American, a Christian, a mother, a union leader and a member of the 99 percent,” she said — referring to Occupy’s rallying cry that they aren’t part of the richest 1 percent of America’s population who owns 50 percent of the nation’s wealth.
“Nothing we have done in the last 120 years has been as profound and got as much attention for workers’ rights” as the Occupy movement, said Gonzalez. “So when people say our problems are because trash collectors make too much money, or teachers make too much money and their class sizes are too small, or immigrants are here in this country, we say no. We’re going to target the real people who destroyed our economy.” Gonzalez ended her speech by promising the Occupy members that “as long as you accept us, we will be part of you.”
“I’m just 23, I’m not part of a corporation, and I’ve never had a political job, but San Diego, the U.S.A. and the world are my home and I’ve enjoyed every one of my 23 years,” said an unidentified young man. “This is my sixth day here. This is all we own. We’ve had a lot of things taken away. They took our tents. We don’t need tents. We don’t need shelter. We don’t need sleeping bags. You can take the pillow out from under my head and you can take the shirt off my back, this is still my home.”
“I’m not a political person,” said another unidentified young man at the Civic Center who came to the rally with an orange shirt, a guitar and an impressive head of long hair. “I just got sucked into this. Ever since I turned 18, my family threw me out of the nest and called me ‘lazy’ because I don’t have a job. I couldn’t get a job because my hair is long. Now I’m taking steps to pursue my goals, but I’m tired of Uncle Sam saying, ‘You can’t be top dog, you’re poor.’ I want my own home one day. I want to feed the people in the U.S., but how can I do that if I can’t even feed myself? I love you all and I’m glad the people are taking a stand and are sick of the corruption.”
Justin Akers Chacón, a San Diego City College teacher and union member, questioned the labor movement’s commitment to the goals of Occupy. “In our union we voted unanimously to endorse this campaign,” he said, “but then we started talking about joining Democratic campaigns and working within the Beltway. In this movement we’re taking control of our own destiny, and in every single space we are going to have to define what democracy means. We’re going to have to rebuild the tradition of bottom-up organizing, where every person is heard.”
Occupy San Diego’s willingness to listen to every voice was tested by a man who came up wearing a Ron Paul for President T-shirt and said he’d been attending Tea Party rallies for four months and called for “a happy medium” in which Occupy and the Tea Party could work together. “The point is to unify,” he said through a hail of boos from the crowd. “The Tea Party is angry at the 1 percent, just like you are, and if you don’t realize that, you will lose. I’m an independent. Learn about the message from the middle. If we stay divided, we will not win.”
By sheer chance, the next speaker after the self-proclaimed “independent” who urged Occupy to work with the Tea Party was Martin Eder, veteran Left activist and founder and director of Activist San Diego. “I don’t know what to say after that,” Eder began, “but I’m here representing the Left. We understand that the corporations have taken over education and culture, and if the Tea Party people can see through the brainwashing, we should welcome them. If they can stand with the unions, against the wars and for the rights of LGBT [Queer] people, we should welcome them.” (Ironically, Ron Paul is the only Republican Presidential candidate who has called for an end to the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.)
“I have been active a lifetime, since I saw the horrors in Viet Nam,” Eder said. “I saw the horrors. Millions were killed and genocide was committed in our name. It still is, and when we say ‘death and destruction,’ it’s not just American lives. You can hear the cries of the Iraqi and Afghan people.” Eder also noted that “this is the first time since the 1960’s and 1970’s that I’ve heard the word ‘revolution.’ We need a new Declaration of Independence against the plutocracy, against the corporations that have us enslaved. We need a new Constitution that recognizes the rights of the people and puts the corporations at the bottom of the pole, not the top. There is an empire based in New York and Washington, D.C., and it needs to be brought down.”
The rally at the Civic Center was disrupted by two people. One was a woman who came with a fifth of vodka in her purse and a bandage around one arm. The other was a man who proclaimed that he was running for President and asked people to visit his Facebook page. Ironically, though he was denied access to the (otherwise) open mike, the issue he wanted to address was one that the anti-corporate Left considered central a decade ago but which none of the speakers brought up: the recent overwhelming approval by the U.S. Senate of pro-corporate, U.S. job-killing “free trade agreements” with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.
After the rally the occupiers rested briefly and then regrouped for their daily 4 p.m. march through downtown. Though the businesses in the financial district were closed, the activists had fun yelling abusive, sometimes obscene slogans against Bank of America and Wells Fargo as they passed their headquarters. They made sure a few people stayed behind to secure the one symbolic tent left at the Civic Center from any attempt by the police to remove it. Then they returned for another scheduled event, a 5 p.m. open discussion to work out the movement’s priorities and goals.