Public nuisance or radical experiment in direct democracy?
The mood at Occupy Santa Cruz (OSC) General Assembly meetings was angry and defiant early last month, especially after protesters heard eyewitness accounts of the violence in Oakland and Berkeley. But the atmosphere became noticeably calmer and less defensive after the City of Santa Cruz’s injunction to shut down OSC was appealed to federal court on Nov. 15. The decision by U.S. District Judge Howard R. Lloyd whether or not to hear the case, and the arguments relating to federal jurisdiction, principally the First Amendment, is scheduled for Jan. 3, 2012 in San Jose.
The appeal delayed a State Superior Court hearing scheduled for Nov. 16 in the Santa Cruz County Court House, which seem to cool down the militant rhetoric of preparing for an eminent, forcible eviction of the Occupiers of San Lorenzo Park. The appeal to federal court of what Santa Cruz City Attorney John Barisone described as a “routine public nuisance suit” has also gained the web-based attention of Occupy movements across the country. It is a big question, after all: Does the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly include OSC?
“We don’t think the removal of this case to federal court has any legal merit,” Barisone says. “The constitutional right to create a public nuisance on public property [outlined in the Notice of Removal filed by Occupy Santa Cruz] does not form any basis to move to federal court.”
Meanwhile, Occupiers like Dennis D., a committed participant since Day One (or Oct. 6), say the court case gives them some breathing room. “Constant fear of forcible eviction over the last couple of weeks prevented us from getting better organized and getting our message out,” Dennis explains while carrying trash bags to a truck on Water Street for a dump run. “As long as we keep trying to keep this place clean, and keep trying to keep it together in terms of attitude, I don’t think they’ll try to clear us out before the court case is decided.“
Dennis, 40, and his wife, Erica, both of whom declined to divulge their full names, have one of many hard-luck stories to be heard at OSC. Dennis lost his job and the couple literally lost their rented home in Big Lake, Mo. to Missouri River flooding last June.
The flooding of Big Lake, Mo., according to Dennis, was intentionally worsened by blowing out levies to protect Kansas City, about 80 miles to the south. Exhausted with trying to get adequate disaster relief money from FEMA, the pair took off west for a fresh start. After their car broke down and they started running out of money, by way of friends of friends, they became active organizers and participants in the leaderless, scrupulously democratic, consensus-based protest movement that is resistant to most forms of organization—a.k.a, OSC.
Accusations of filth, fights, drug use and overall health and safety issues at OSC are detailed in the lawsuit, which, according to many Occupiers, have been grossly exaggerated in the mainstream media. In the first three weeks of November, foot patrols by county sheriffs resulted in several arrests for disorderly conduct and other charges, as well as at least 10 citations for illegal camping. Santa Cruz police have jurisdiction over the San Lorenzo Park bench area, and county sheriffs over courthouse property, where OSC established its flagship headquarters, the so-called “Inter-Planetary OcuDome.” The illegal camping citations were issued primarily by county sheriffs clearing the area directly in front of the courthouse of tents and other obstructions.
“What’s not covered in the mainstream press is how hard we’re working to make this work,” says Noah Shepherdson, another “since Day One” organizer of OSC and frequent speaker at rallies. “We’re working hard to keep this occupation clean, getting people the things they need, and providing security. We’ve got working groups for everything, including medical and sanitation, and we’ve gotten two more Porta-Potties delivered. All this is self-governing through donations, and it’s not easy.”
From the perspective of the Santa Cruz County Sheriff, as well as several speakers at OSC’s General Assembly meetings, there are, in fact, serious problems with chronically homeless, drug addicted and drunk individuals disrupting the camp and not participating in any of OSC’s constant meetings. Early on, proposals to forbid hard drugs and alcohol in the camp were discussed at great length at General Assembly meetings, but were ultimately blocked on the fundamental principals of inclusiveness and the right of all voices to heard, no matter how slurred. The problems were referred to on-going OSC Working Groups for more voluntary, “in-reach” self-policing efforts.
Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane met with OSC’s City Liaison Working Group several times through mid-November in an effort to find common ground and solutions to the problems detailed in the lawsuit. Lane was careful speaking to Occupiers, making clear his own “patience” with OSC is firm, but that he doesn’t speak for the entire city council, and that there are city officials less patient than he.
“I don’t want to sound threatening, but if things don’t change here,” Lane said to a group of Occupiers at a meeting on Nov. 15 in San Lorenzo Park, “you can’t expect the posture of the city to change. If you’re not able to police yourselves, the city police and county sheriffs will. But I appreciate that you are trying to improve some of the conditions we’re worried about. I’ll take this back to the city.”
Mainly through the Internet, most Occupiers are acutely aware of the criticism leveled against them: that they have no focus, no clear objectives, and are regarded by many as a glorified homeless squat.
“I’m getting real tired of the list of demands–slash-manifesto of ‘what we stand for’ discussion,” says Lefty Schlesinger, 55, an unemployed high-tech worker and media activist and consistent, non-sleeping participant of OSC. “I think our focus is clear enough: ‘Fight the Corporatacy!’ What about that isn’t clear?”
After a brief pause, Schlesinger looks inspired. “You know what it’s like?” he asks. “It’s like we’re a bunch a shipwreck survivors, bobbing along on life preservers and chunks of wood, and this big luxury yacht full of 1 percenters comes by, and they yell down, ‘Now tell us, just what exactly is it you want?’”
Sitting on the top step of the courthouse, watching activity around the OcuDome, Shepherdson, who also works as an in-home healthcare worker, relaxes between meetings. “I try to be compassionate to the people who drive by and yell ‘Get a job!’ I try to think, well, when you lose yours, you’re welcome to join us,” he says. “And the same goes for the homeless. We’re protesting the economic conditions that make working families homeless. We’re working on maybe trying to get a moratorium on foreclosures in Santa Cruz County. A lot of this work is for the unemployed and those losing their homes, and they should support us before they become homeless.”
The burning question before hundreds of Occupy general assemblies across the country is where the movement goes from here. At OSC, as well as in Oakland, there’s talk of finding alternative sites to occupy. There’s talk of possibly occupying bank-owned foreclosed properties. (On Monday, Nov. 28, OSC sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors requesting a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.) There was talk of a nationwide boycott of Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving designated as national shopping day. There’s talk of perhaps inviting some “semi-official,” nonprofit healthcare and social workers to come to the camp, and maybe getting some A.A. and N.A. meetings going, to help with the drug and alcohol problems.
“Persistence is the demeanor in which things get accomplished,” says Dennis. “We don’t know exactly how to fix how everything that’s gone so wrong in America, but what I cannot accept is that it is impossible to try. We [have] got to do something, and, at least for now, this is what I’m doing.”
The OSC General Assembly meets every weekday evening at 6 p.m., and at 2 p.m. on weekends; occupysantacruz.org.