Oct. 12 2011 12:19 PM

Fledgling movement makes its presence felt Downtown as it cries out against economic injustice

A young woman addresses the Occupy San Diego crowd late Saturday afternoon at the Civic Center.
Photo by David Rolland

Occupy San Diego's tent city was buzzing with activity at the Civic Center last weekend. People talked politics, made signs, strummed acoustic guitars and stretched out in yoga positions. Conversations and jam sessions went on until the early hours of the morning, and occasionally the scent of marijuana hung in the air. Impromptu marches took off into the streets of Downtown, with crowds chanting slogans like "We are the 99 percent!" and "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!"

But when the amorphous, leaderless group convened on the steps of the plaza for its first two General Assembly meetings, the action ground to a halt. At a three-hour meeting Saturday night, the hundreds-strong circle thinned out as people grew increasingly frustrated with the meeting's intricate bureaucratic process. On Sunday, they got mired in a long, contentious and ultimately fruitless discussion about whether they should continue to make decisions by consensus, a process that requires general agreement from the group.

Almost two hours into the meeting, Toby Benjamin, a web designer who quit his job and moved out of his apartment to join the occupation full-time, grabbed a megaphone.

"This is wasting all of our time," he said, drawing applause. "We need to start doing and stop sitting here and discussing the same things."

Nearly a week into its occupation of the Civic Center Concourse, Occupy San Diego—the local affiliate of Occupy Wall Street, an activist group that's camped out in a park in New York City's financial district—has yet to develop a coherent goal. Indeed, a CityBeat reporter spent the weekend camping with the occupiers and found that many of them have differing visions for what needs to come next.

But for many of the occupiers, there's no hurry to come up with a list of demands. What's important, they say, is that the occupation offers a space for people to air their grievances about America's social and economic inequalities in a public way—right outside City Hall. With a plan to stay indefinitely, they're laying the groundwork for a bigger movement.

"The discourse this country has needed for so many years seems to be finally happening, and it's happening spontaneously, with young and old and people of all shapes and colors and political stripes and situations," said Damian Tryon, a movement supporter who works as a representative for AFSCME Local 127, the union that represents the city's blue-collar workers. Overall in the U.S., "I think our politics has been so fractionalized, every group and camp has been preaching to the choir and the choir's been shrinking and shrinking for every group," Tryon said. "That's the opposite of progress. If this group stopped growing and isn't able to pick it up and get more support and outreach, then it would need to rethink what it's doing here. But I don't see that."

Still, it's clear that Occupy San Diego won't grow easily. To make it really last, it seems, occupiers will need enormous stores of patience.

Occupy San Diego is still in its infancy. It hasn't drawn the mainstream support of Occupy Wall Street, which is backed by labor unions and has received visits from celebrated academics like philosopher cornel West and economist Joseph Stiglitz. But it's gained some union support, with an endorsement from the AFL-CIO, and it hasn't shown any sign of leaving. (On Monday, the occupiers held a candlelight vigil for a man who died when he plunged from the eighth floor of the plaza's parking garage.

On Friday afternoon, Occupy San Diego led a march of 1,500 people, according to a police estimate, through Downtown and back to Children's Park, where hundreds of people stayed to camp for the night. (Protestors put the march's turnout as high as 3,000.) The next day, they marched to the permanent occupation site at the Civic Center. With upwards of 80 tents pitched and several hundred people stopping by, the tent city drew a wildly diverse crowd during the weekend. There were jobless college graduates and enthusiastic military service members, studious Marxists and flag-waving anarcho-syndicalists, hardcore gutter-punks and delighted homeless people. Many people volunteered to keep the camp running smoothly, emptying garbage cans, offering technical expertise and serving food at a station stocked with donated items, with plenty of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to go around.

Click here to view more photos of Occupy San Diego.
Photos by David Rolland

Among the occupiers were people who were struggling to get by, and some had already hit rock bottom. Jen Allen, 38, an unemployed single mother from Lakeside, had just lost her home to foreclosure, she said. She's making a documentary about her experience. Mary Hampton, recently homeless, said she's trying to get by on a reduced Social Security check—recently cut from $926 to $892—while Medi-Cal just moved her to a new plan that doesn't cover her seizure medication.

A man from Veterans for Peace gave her a brand-new tent, and she planned to camp out until her next check came in.

But there were also middle-class people who wanted better opportunities. Katie Dupuis, 27, owns a small house in Logan Heights with her husband and makes a stable living as a waitress. But they work opposite schedules, so they barely see each other, and they don't have the time or money to go to school or raise a child.

"I want to have a baby, like, really badly, and I can't justify doing that if I can't take time off to raise it," she said.

Along with these newly minted agitators were seasoned activists pushing more specific agendas.

Near the entrance to City Hall, members of Americans for Safe Access were speaking out against California U.S. attorneys who recently launched an effort to shut down the state's medical marijuana dispensaries. In defiance of the crackdown, which they noted would lead to thousands of lost jobs, they proudly displayed a marijuana plant outside their encampment.

Meanwhile, Tea Party supporter Justin Thomas Trombley was out with his family, waving a colorfully decorated sign that read "End the Fed" and extending an olive branch to Occupy Wall Street supporters.

"The most crucial thing that can happen is for us to realize that the Tea Party movement and this movement are the same," Trombley said. "We both want economic and personal justice."

And then there was the international Socialist Organization (ISO), whose members made sure their presence was known. They pitched a big tent, set up a book table and quickly started organizing, leading marches, hosting discussions and giving passionate speeches during the occupation's daily open-mic sessions.

Some of the ISO members were affable and erudite, but others took a more radical approach, describing the movement as "class warfare" and demonizing the police—who've been cooperating with the protestors—as protectors of the upper class. The fiery rhetoric didn't sit well with some occupiers. On Saturday, after ISO member Nikolai Smith delivered an anti-capitalist speech urging the crowd to "get political" and "get militant," a man with a baby strapped to his chest confronted Smith at ISO's book table.

"I'm not afraid for my kids because I'll keep them safe, but when you say shit like that up there, you're scaring away all of our friends that have little kids," the man snapped. "They don't want to come here and get tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed."

"We're challenging the police," Smith shot back. "We're occupying a public space. This is illegal!" 

When someone stepped up to intervene, the father pointed at Smith. "Don't let this guy be the voice for this at all," he said. Then he lunged at the table, baby hanging from his chest, to angrily jostle the books before turning around and storming off.

Some occupiers worried that Occupy San Diego might be co-opted by better-organized, more ideologically motivated groups. But thanks to consensus, the leaderless group is pretty much guaranteed to remain leaderless.

Consensus is a core part of Occupy Wall Street's philosophy. With a government beholden to corporate interests and lobbyist groups, consensus offers a return to direct democracy. The idea is to build a truly democratic society from the ground up, one consensus vote at a time.

The problem is that consensus is a touchy subject. While supporters love it for giving everyone a say, critics argue that it brings about "tyranny of the minority," since one person can hold up an entire group's decision-making process.

The debate came to a head at Sunday's General Assembly meeting. ISO comrade Cecile Veillard argued that consensus will slow the group down and make it harder to build, but full-time occupier Abel Thomas pointed out that the entire camp so far had been built using consensus. Soon, the group started proposing modified forms of consensus. Amir Shoja, a graduate student at SDSU, introduced a motion for a simple majority vote for "insubstantial" issues and a consensus vote for "substantial" ones, but then he withdrew it when people asked whether they'd need to vote on which issues were insubstantial and which substantial. Later, Veillard introduced a motion to change the group's process to a 90-percent majority vote, but instead of sticking around for a discussion when people voted against it, she walked away to join a separate meeting in front of the ISO tent.

Almost two hours into the meeting, one of the organizers stood up to announce an update from Occupy Houston: "They just passed a proposal and action for a de-investment campaign. What are we doing with our GA? Let's get back on track, guys."

The meeting eventually fell apart, but there was a slight glimmer of hope. Throughout, people mostly followed bureaucratic procedure. They used hand signals to voice their opinions, waving their hands in big arcs to express agreement and putting their arms in "X"s to disagree. They raised their hands to be added to the "stack"—the list of people slated to speak—and made a triangle shape to make factual and procedural clarifications. For a group that could barely follow procedure the night before, that alone seemed like a step forward.

Early in the meeting, one of the occupiers offered a mantra for the movement: "Patience is beautiful."

Email peterh@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.


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