Mellower Occupy Movement Grows in the Suburbs
Gerri Field stood with hundreds of protesters in front of Tiffany's in Walnut Creek this week, railing against economic injustice at the top of her lungs and drawing approving honks from passing cars with her sign, "Heal America, Tax Wall Street."
For two sunny midday hours, the crowd did its best to "occupy" the busiest intersection in town, Mount Diablo Boulevard and North Main Street, singing "This Land Is Your Land" and denouncing corporate greed and the ultrarich 1 percent.
Then it was time for lunch. Time to put the signs away.
No thrown bottles at police. No tear gas or cops in sight. And certainly no tents.
"Camping? My idea of camping is a room in the Hyatt," said Field, a 50-year-old schoolteacher. "That's not what my protest is about."
In the suburbs, the Occupy movement has a whole different flavor.
And there is, unbeknownst to many, a lot of occupying being done beyond big city borders. At least 30 Occupy movements exist from Santa Cruz north through Alameda and Concord to Vacaville, Napa and Santa Rosa.
The message is the same as in the big cities. But most of those movements, with a few notable exceptions such as Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa, don't involve tents, and even there the method is mellower - more upscale, less rageful, cleaner.
Unlike the Occupy camps in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, homeless people and clashes with police have not dominated the imagery.
"A tent city in a place like this would alienate too many people," psychologist Jane Vinson, 77, said at the Thursday demonstration in Walnut Creek, which drew about 300 people and was purposefully situated near a Bank of America branch.
"Our culture does include Neiman Marcus as well as the Apple store, and a tent city would just attract angry people who would muddy our message."
In other words, anarchists who like to toss rocks and the chronically homeless are welcome only if they want to pitch in without mess or conflict.
That stands in contrast to what has happened in the bigger cities.
Before it was cleared by police last week, the Occupy Oakland camp in front of City Hall had become dominated by street people, anarchists and rough travelers. And most advocated hostile resistance to any move by authorities.
Twice over the past month, anarchists sparked near-riot situations after throwing bottles and rocks at Oakland police, whose tear-gassing response has been criticized by some as excessive.
UC Berkeley's Occupy movement, dominated by students, is more intellectual. But its nonviolent adherents were attacked this month by baton-wielding police when they joined arms to prevent police from removing a tent city. A second encampment was cleared calmly last week, but several protesters have pledged to re-establish it in defiance of university dictates.
There is little such thumbing of the nose in the suburbs.
Within the system
In places such as San Ramon, Novato and Fairfield, organizers have staged regular noisy, visible demonstrations that feature the same cries of wealth inequity and governmental indifference to the middle class. But when these protesters hoist their banners, there are few with multiple face piercings or blond dreadlocks over Rainbow Nation-style tatters.
Eddie Bauer khakis are about as edgy as these folks get, with the exception of the occasional costume.
"It's a different fit here in the burbs," said Ellis Goldberg, a marketer who spent part of Thursday at a major Dublin intersection with 50 other Occupiers. He wore a pig costume with big-bank names emblazoned on it. "In San Francisco, it's easy to find places to set up a camp and to protest, but out here, we are more spread out.
"We have to find shopping places and traffic centers to get our message out, and it helps to have some humor to get attention."
Like many of his colleagues, he said he has great sympathy for homeless people, whom he sees as even harder-hit victims of economic turmoil. But the suburbs don't have homeless residents in city-style numbers, and most agree that if a tent camp were to spring up, it would attract the few that are there. The fear is that, as in the cities, a long-term homeless camp in the heart of any bedroom community would draw official ire and fuzz up the central point of what the movement is trying to communicate.
To some extent, that has happened in Santa Rosa.
Like most Occupy camps, the North Bay city's started in mid-October. Initially, it consisted of hundreds of working- or middle-class protesters in tents outside City Hall.
Soon, however, the longtime homeless people who'd primarily been bedding down along Santa Rosa Creek saw an opportunity. They were welcomed at first, but two months later, the goodwill is kaput.
About 100 Occupy campers have been sleeping on the west side of City Hall, and 100 or so homeless people have been sleeping on the east side. They usually talk only when donated food shows up.
"We don't even know those guys," said Dan Murray, 55, an unemployed construction worker who slept in the streets before moving to City Hall. "They don't give a damn about us.
"We call our side 'East L.A.,' and their side 'Hollywood.' I like a little of what they're saying, but I really just want a place to sleep."
Santa Rosa's Occupiers say they feel badly for the homeless, but they have to keep on message. And there is no stomach to wrangle nastily with anyone.
They chat with police, even when officers were handing out eviction notices last week. The city worked amiably with protesters until this month when they started to require two-week camping permits. Most Occupiers declined, saying they didn't want to be controlled by governmental red tape.
But even now, the two sides still talk. "We want to work with the city when we can, not against it, because the real culprits are the banks," said Natalie Corwin, 22. By Saturday, the tents had dwindled to a handful, and more were being pulled down voluntarily - except on the east side, where homeless people drew about 40 tent permits and intended to stay.
"For me, it's never been about camping," said 31-year-old landscaper Lev Woolf, who took his tent down but still stays much of each night at the camp. "That's just a tactic. I'm more about the message. If we don't keep it in the public eye with tents, we'll do it another way.
"You don't have to fight to get your point across."